The mid-afternoon sun beat down painfully on the crowd of people surrounding Gretchen, as Dottie and I arrived simultaneously to provide back-up. They were the first 30 of what would become 120 of God’s children from Guatemala and Honduras and Brazil, dumped on the streets by vans from ICE and Border Patrol with no instructions or support this Palm Sunday. Chaos was the goal as mothers and fathers used their bodies to shield their little ones from the burning sun. Yet, as on so many occasions before, Gretchen Lopez was somehow there to intercept and redirect people from despair to hope, from confusion to affirmation, from danger to security.
“Bienvenidos a Tucson,” I hollered as Dottie and Jim and I walked up to join her, and Esperanza bounded towards the children. This “release to the streets” game that the administration plays was one we knew all too well. Earlier this year, El Paso had been hammered for weeks by the “release to the streets” strategy, and here in Tucson, Gretchen had already navigated it before. For days we had been getting warnings that ICE & Border Patrol would be delivering people to the streets, rather than the shelters, in what we know is the ongoing attempt to create the illusion of crisis and surge here on the border.
As The Inn and Casa Alitas were full, Gretchen and Dottie were calling around trying to get an answer from any church who might be willing to take them. It was Palm Sunday afternoon, and answers would not be quick to come by. The huge white wall of the building we were next to was acting like a mirror, intensifying the heat of the sun, and we needed to get them out of it.
Remembering that it was the Episcopalians night at the Campus Christian Center up the street, I told Gretchen that Rev’d Benjamin Garren would surely not mind some extra attendees this Palm Sunday. Dottie’s husband Jim and I began to shuttle people up the street from the parking lot of Office Max to the Campus Christian Center.
“Should I start to cook?” Ben asked as we entered. The answer was an enthusiastic, “Yes.”
Just as soon as we had gotten everyone settled, we got a call that they had released more to the streets. 60 this time. To the same big, white, scorching wall. The exhaustion and despair in 60 sets of eyes hit me like a punch in the gut as Gretchen and I pulled up. What would we do?
One of the Greyhound employees came around the corner with a cart full of water and began handing it out.
Soon another van pulled up from Border Patrol to unload more people. We begged them to take them to the church instead. But they opened the doors of the van and added another 10 people to the crowd. A volunteer from No More Deaths happened to be coming around the corner, and began to get the word out that we needed support.
There was no way we could get these people out of the sun fast enough, so Office Max gave us permission to move them to the shady grove of trees on the opposite side of their building. Gretchen communicated with other shelters in town, while Dottie dove back into calling churches to find some willing to take a big crowd on short notice.
The Mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, had sent Tucson Police Department officers to deliver teddy bears and to let us know that the city would be donating buses to take the people to wherever we could find room for them. Seeing the officers, it seems the last van from Border Patrol thought it wiser to unload around the corner, and soon another 20 people started walking up to us to bring the total to 120.
Back at the Campus Christian Center, Rev’d Bailey Pickens was getting the Presbyterians involved in supporting the first 30 who would now be staying there for what would become the Episcopalians’ all night feast and vigil to begin Holy Week.
After what seemed like ages, Dottie got the approvals from 3 churches, and Gretchen was able to begin sorting people into groups to head out. Nancy would be riding up with one city bus to take a large group to one church, while another bus would take a large group to another. Jamie and Colby and Jim would be shuttling the rest to the last.
While we waited for all the logistics to be worked out, and transportation to arrive, the volunteers from No More Deaths arrived and began to unload water and hand out snacks.
Finally, the streets were empty. There was no crisis, because our community knows how to take care of each other. You don’t have to be from Tucson to be one of us. All we did was take care of us today. All we did was act like family.
Getting back to the crowded CCC, I plopped into a chair, grateful to share the meal that the Episcopalians had prepared in the many hours that we had left them with little warning or information and a dramatically increased community.
Knowing it would be an all-nighter for me, the Wesley Student President came by to check on me and put a cup of water in front of me, before putting her fluency in Spanish to use explaining things to our guests.
“Gretchen is badass,” Bailey’s wife Kelli said to me as we watched her continue to make phone call after phone call to make sure that people got in touch with their families and to their destinations. The admiration in her voice let me know that I finally had someone who understood the level of surgeon-like skill that this woman has for the very difficult work she does. Because she is laity in a religious world that celebrates clergy, it is so easy for us to miss that humble, tireless force that skillfully interrupts injustices on a daily basis without ever expecting to be thanked, acknowledged or celebrated. It’s so easy for you to see me, so important for us to see her.
Today, it took dozens of people to work together under her leadership to intercept injustice, heartless cruelty, and the illusion of crisis. It took pastors, and bus drivers, and police officers, and No More Deaths volunteers, and church members, and Greyhound employees, and students to fight with everything they had and work together for love to win out today. And it did.
Tomorrow is another day, and we’ll face it when it gets here, but tonight, here in the Campus Christian Center, at the Inn, and at United Methodist Churches and other shelters all around Tucson, LOVE is in the lead. Love is in the lead.