A few months ago our church in Washington, D.C., hosted a lecture series by Brad Braxton, an ordained Baptist minister and director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The lectures focused primarily on the long-term effects of slavery on American culture and religion.
Braxton spoke of the cosmic worship practice of allowing our ancestors to tell their stories. He recounted his visit to the Ghanaian coast where men, women and children, shackled in heavy chains from their feet to their wrists, were forced onto ships to be sold into slavery. As they looked at the African coastline for the last time, Braxton said, the air was thick and the ground hot from the spirit of the ancestors still dwelling in the earth of their homeland, waiting to tell their stories.
In order to do the work of racial justice well, he stressed, we must allow for the ancestors to tell their stories.
“Each day it grew harder to keep my composure.”
I thought of his words as a group of eight of us prepared for a trip to America’s southern border. The Rio Grande Valley – “El Valle” – is my ancestral ground. Generations of family lived in the area that was once Mexico, then America, then Mexico again, then America again. The air is thick with memories; the earth rich with stories of people who have walked that Texas dirt hoping for a better life. People who crossed during revolutions and wars. People who crossed to follow the seasons and harvested the fruits and vegetables we use for church potlucks and family meals.
Perhaps they shuffled in the dirt to turn around and take one last look at the Rio Grande before continuing the journey north.
I traveled there hoping to hear from the ancestors while fully aware that, like contemplative prayer, it takes practice. I wasn’t expecting loud voices of the abuelos coming from the sky. Maybe a whisper?
We arrived in Harlingen, Texas, at 11 p.m. on a warm, humid night. The only relief we had from the heat was the slight breeze that made the tall palm tree branches wave like a weary welcome committee. For those three days in “The Valley” it felt as if I were in the twilight zone. I saw familiar roads, palm trees and snow cone stands, but we were not there to catch up with my grandparents. We were not there to see my cousins or grab pan dulce at the panadería. We were there to witness the work nuns, public defenders and countless volunteers do daily in response to the hundreds of migrant people crossing the border.
“As a first generation Mexican-American woman, I struggle to know how I am supposed to help my people.”
Each day it grew harder to keep my composure. Every story we heard, every court sentencing we witnessed and every nun who rolled up her sleeves to fix another broken sink or door felt like a concrete block on my chest making it harder to breathe. I am certain anyone who has been to a respite center can say the same thing.
Each day the wind grew stronger. On our last full day, we received wind advisory texts warning us of possible road obstructions due to wind. The wind grew so strong that the van we rode up and down Highway 83 rocked side to side as we made our way to the different border towns. I never got a clear word from the abuelos.
Months later, that concrete block still feels heavy on my chest. Was it enough to see firsthand what is happening at the border? Was it enough to pray? Was it enough to donate what money I could?
I am reminded of the Road to Damascus story of our brother Saul/Paul. Despite my love/hate relationship with him, I can identify with the outspoken apostle. He had two names that sound the same. I have one name people can’t seem to remember to say correctly. He was a young leader in his community trying to prove he could do a job well. And I am, well, a millennial who looks like she’s 16 in a line of work saturated with folks who don’t exactly look like they just graduated from the youth group. He had Ananias who took care of him after his dramatic encounter with God. And I guess I have decent healthcare coverage.
Saul was a zealot with zero chill. He grew up a good boy of the law, knew it well and probably corrected rabbis when they accidentally misquoted it. He was that guy. Saul was also a Greek citizen. Much like my experience with a Mexican-American identity, maybe he constantly struggled to prove he was both Jewish and Greek while never fully fitting into either world.
“As a faith leader in a theologically and politically diverse denomination, I struggle to find the words to encourage action without offense.”
Then that day on the road God comes for him and asks him why he has so much hate for God? Why single out a group of people who have done nothing to harm Saul?
Where Saul and I differ is the power to arrest people for breaking the law, but I wonder if I have contributed to state sanctioned targeting of immigrants when my Christian love has only gone as far as thoughts and prayers, social media posts or an occasional opinion piece. I am worried that to truly do the honest work of processing what that border trip meant will mean falling into a dark pit of despair for a long while – and what a privileged thing it is to say that as an able bodied, fully employed person with medical insurance.
As a first generation Mexican-American woman, I struggle to know how I am supposed to help my people. As a faith leader in a theologically and politically diverse denomination, I struggle to find the words to encourage action without offense. As a follower of Jesus who believes in the power of prayer, I struggle with “thoughts and prayers” Band-Aid comments from Christians.
Since June of 2018, we have been informed about the child separation policy at the border, but that and other unconscionable policies and practices were in place long before then. With each new report of deaths in the camps or horrifying picture people can’t stop sharing on social media, I wonder when God will come for all of us who claim Christ and ask us to change our names and identity for the sake of God’s children. But for now, what I will take away from those five days in south Texas being pushed around by those strong winds is this: Unless we are willing to let go of systems and theologies that target the vulnerable, unless we are willing to recognize our own Saul-like tendencies, I don’t think the scales will fall from our eyes.
Are we ready to let holy winds knock us off our feet? There is an entire generation of Latinx children who will – si Dios quiere – grow up to be adults, and if they choose to be followers of Jesus, will we as people of faith be able to say to them – and to Jesus – that we cared and advocated for them during this troubling time in American history?
Siblings in Christ, I hope and pray we can answer faithfully, now and in the future, “Yes, Jesús!”