Category Archives: Global

Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother

“You are the answer to our prayers,” Madre Irene said in delighted surprise as we entered the quiet church yard. She had just finished breakfast with her fellow sister in the Order of Mary the Sorrowful Mother, when we came through the gates of Cristo Rey. The two nuns had been discussing the children in the tent city, within just a stone’s throw of their town. They had been struggling to think of what they could do. In this quiet town, on the Mexico side of the border, they could see and hear the children play in the mornings through the slats of the wall, with helicopters flying overhead to watch them. Yet, while they could hear them, and they could see them, still it seemed there was nothing they could do. 

“We had decided that all we could do was pray, and then I walked outside, and here you were!” she informed us. 

For months in Tucson, Free the Children had thought and planned and worked. We raised money, and bailed a father out of detention. We raised awareness, but we wanted to do more. Finally one of the mothers in the room, Carolina, simply insisted, “Why don’t we go there? Why don’t we see what we can do?” Now, here we stood, before the answer to our prayers, only to discover that we were the answer to theirs as well. 

When the tent city had opened at Tornillo in June, as housing for immigrant children separated from their parents, the tents had been set up a short distance from the border wall. They were put together on federal property, exempt from state laws regarding children, at the Tornillo/Guadelupe Port of Entry between – on the Mexico side – the State of Chihuahua, and – on  the United States side – the State of Texas. As the statements that the tent city would close constantly transformed into falsehoods, the cluster of tents itself transformed into a militarized town that dwarfed the population of Caseta, the Mexican town. As the tent city sprawled outward, closer and closer to the border wall, it also came closer and closer to the people on the other side of the wall, making it impossible for them to ignore. Their hearts became deeply grieved by the constant sight and sounds of children imprisoned between fences, guards and the border wall. 

By the time, we walked through the gates of Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Caseta, it had been four months since I had first spotted their spires. Sitting at the gate to the tent city throughout the month of June, I had spotted the distinctive twin steeples of the church and felt comforted by their presence. I hoped the illusion of watchful eyes, that the twin arches of the steeple created, would be comforting to the children as well. I dreamed about what it would be like to be able to send a more direct message, a message that they knew was for them. We had tried, from the US side, to do so with a balloon, and ended up with a vigilante sticking a gun in our faces. At the time, in June, the promises that the tent city would close seemed so certain, that it did not seem worthwhile to risk lives to pursue it any further.

Yet, the tent city did not go away, and neither did the desire amongst all those around it to let the kids know that they were supported and loved. Over the months, the tent city transformed from a temporary crisis intervention space for separated kids, to a long term incarceration facility for all manner of kids who had been classified as unaccompanied minors. As the classification of kids expanded, so did the numbers, from hundreds to thousands, until the sounds of their play vibrated the border wall and echoed over to the town of Caseta. 

The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, standing and watching the children from across the wall, could not have been more aptly named. Where were all the sorrowful mothers of these children scattered? How many were back home in the countries from which they had journeyed? How many of them were waiting somewhere in Topeka or Boston or Durham, unable to claim their children because it would ensure their own deportation? How many of them had been deported and were unable to communicate? 

Where were the many sorrowful mothers in whose place these Sisters now stood? 

Where were the many sorrowful mothers whose grief mirrored the original, Mary, who watched her wandering son arrested, criminalized and bound? 

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After greeting us in the courtyard of Cristo Rey, Mother Irene invited us all into her living room: Mari, Summer, Carolina, Becky, Juan, Marla and I. She sat us down and began by ascertaining which of us was baptized, and more significantly which of us was baptized en la Iglesia Catolica. She was not disappointed to discover a few Catholic saints among us. We talked about the kids, and what we could do to bring hope to them. We told her about the dreams of being able to let them know they were not alone, “No estan solos,” the message that was to have been hung from the original balloon. She ushered us over to the church when the service was to start, and we were able to join the mourners at the morning’s funeral. 

It was hard to leave when the time came to return to Arizona. Mother Irene took Carolina’s head in her hands gently and prayed a blessing over her, and then over all of us. The surreal and sacred time that we had shared with the Sisters was hard to release. Yet, they assured us – and we assured them – that it was only the beginning. We would return with a banner, with a message for the kids. They would hang it from their steeple so that if any kids might be able to see it, they would know that they were not alone – that God, the Church, and the people of Caseta were with them. 

Over the next couple weeks, we communicated with our new friends, this sacred friendship giving birth to a profound mission of hope. The Sisters decided on a message that would be a little more direct. Rather than “No estan solos” – you are not alone – they preferred, “Liberen a los niños” – Free the children. This was not the time for subtlety. People were suffering. Mothers were suffering. Children were suffering. The Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother had spent decades inhabiting lives of contemplation upon that sorrow, and service in response to that sorrow. Who better than they to know what to do and what to say, in response to sorrow and injustice? 

As soon as was humanly possible, we returned. Piling into a minivan, we embarked once again in this journey of friendship, across state lines and border walls to Cristo Rey. Arriving, a group of people from the town had joined the Sisters in gathering to greet us and to make it known that Caseta supported this mission of mercy that the Sisters were pursuing. Members of Cristo Rey stood in the shadow of its steeples to make sure that their would be no impediments to the task. They explained that they were fed up, that they were tired of watching the kids imprisoned, that it was the right thing to do and they were the right people to do it. They wanted to send a message of hope and unwavering support. 

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Unfurling the banner, the Sisters smiled in approval and fetched a smaller matching banner that they had printed as well. We would take it to Joshua, who was their watchful mirror, keep vigilant watch on the US side of the wall. 

Climbing the steeples on ladders, the men of the town hoisted the banner into place, suspended between the two towers that pointed skyward. The Sisters stood proudly looking up at the banner, watching as their prayer took the shape of action, and their compassion took the shape of courage. 

Driving away from Caseta was even harder the second time than it had been the first. We had broken bread together, and heard more of one another’s stories. The Sisters had sung happy birthday to me as we walked through the streets of the town where Madre Irene had lived since before I was born. There was a sort of peace in knowing that the kids in this tent city were cradled gently in loving watchfulness between Joshua on the US side, and Madre Irene on the Mexico side. And now, thanks to their banner, we could pray that they would know it too.

 

 

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Seven Sisters

Throughout time, the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, have roamed the heavens, offering to each people over whom they passed a gift. People have used their appearance in the sky to tell them when to plant and grow, and have used their location to help them navigate and find their way. They have been revered and treasured, even seen as relatives by those indigenous to Austrailia. They were named Subaru, meaning unite, by the Japanese. The Pawnee also, seeing them as symbols of unity, sought to learn from them how to be unified. 

On the night of June 22, however, when a van drove into the Tornillo internment camp carrying seven teenage girls, the Seven Sisters were nowhere to be seen. Here, where the Wall splits the earth open like a wound, seven girls became prisoners under the light of a different set of stars.

According to Senator Udall of New Mexico, by the time the sun rose on June 23, there were 250 teenage boys, and a newly arrived 7 teenage girls imprisoned in the cluster of tents at the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry on the US-Mexico Border. 

I want to be clear about my use of the term ‘Internment Camp.’ The government and media has preferred to label these ‘tent cities’; however, that deeply fails to capture what is happening. Regardless of denotation, the connotation within most of our culture of ‘tent city’ is something that individuals have had agency in creating. Outside of Arizona, we most often use this term in the United States when referring to communities created by our homeless neighbors. There is no agency, or choice on the part of the children being held in these cruel conditions, however. They are prisoners, sent outside to play soccer and look happy when politicians come; they are not children at a summer camp. Therefore, I avoid the use of the language of tent city, because I believe it is intentionally misleading and intended to calm the outrage that the general public ought to be feeling. 

I want you to feel the truth of what this is.

While the Pleiades had been guiding humankind’s navigation and migration for thousands of years, they were nowhere to be seen this night. In their absence, was also absent the unity, family and power that they had come to represent to peoples throughout all time and place. 

I can tell you much more about those stars, those Seven Sisters, than I can tell you about the young girls who entered this space that night. I know nothing, no names, no countries of origin. Yet, we know something of them nonetheless. We have been them, or taken care of them, or taught them, or loved them in all the ways that they reflect those closest to us. At least one of those girls is the same age my eldest niece will turn in October, the same month the Seven Sisters will return to our sky. 

These young women are our nieces, our daughters, our cousins, our sisters. They walk across a hard packed dirt with dust flying in the wind to get their meals. They sleep in a tent with only a layer of plastic between them and the beating sun. They drink water that comes from a huge plastic tub on the back of a truck that says, potable water, driven into the camp as the water sloshes back and forth under the beating sun. 

The Maori and Arapaho peoples have a different explanation for Pleiades. The Maori tell of Matariki and the Arapaho of Turtle Island tell of Alcyone. In both cases, Matariki and Alcyone burst apart, one star shattering into many (The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades: Stories From Around the World, by Munya Andrews, p. 25-26). 

One star shattering into seven pieces like the seven hearts of seven mothers whose seven daughters now bake in the West Texas sun. 

Like the 250 hearts of 250 mothers whose 250 sons now bake in the West Texas sun.

Like the 4,000 hearts of 4,000 mothers whose greatest treasures are expected to be held here before our cruel work is done.

Free the mothers. Free the fathers. Long for their children to be in their arms, not ours. Donate to bond funds to release them. Fight alongside them to get their children back. Play no part in the termination of family rights and forced adoptions that may come. Play no part in the criminalization of parents that takes place when we build a wall in our hearts and minds between their children and them. 

They say that November is the best time to see the Seven Sisters in all their glory. This November, may their return to our skies mark the changing of this cruel tide that has swept so many families away in its current. May we be guided back to smoother seas. May we be guided back to unity.

Amen.

At least there was a baby to clothe…

Searching through the racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, only one thought was running through my mind: thank God they are together. The thought of the alternative made my stomach contort itself into knots. Five days earlier, I had knelt on the ground on the Mexico side of the Deconcini Port of Entry, pushing a small red car back and forth between this baby’s brother and I, while she laughed and built up the courage to crawl closer. They were halfway through what would be 11 days of waiting outside in the summer heat, with temperatures well over 100 degrees, hoping that their name would be called one morning and they would have a chance to go through that doorway into the United States and begin their plea. Next to them, five sick children – siblings – slept with limbs entwined on the ground in the heat and dust.

I had driven down that morning with my friends Gretchen and Kat, wanting to see for ourselves where the people were who usually filled the cots in our refugios. Hundreds of people stretched out from the doorway into the United States, all the way back to the small tables of wares and men offering taxis that welcome newcomers to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. 

A man with a stethoscope slung over his shoulders, Panchito, walked the line, checking on the needs of those seeking asylum. Volunteers from Kino Border Initiative fed them, while Voices From the Border carried in water and clothes. Each day, only 5-12 people were being permitted through that doorway into the United States, the same one that I could walk through with such ease. 

When we did walk back through that doorway, only one of us with a passport but all of us with blonde hair, I spoke to the mother in the best Spanish I could manage. I tried to tell her that we would be waiting and praying on the other side; that we would have a place for them; that we wanted them; that they were welcome. I tried to hide the fear behind my eyes, knowing what our government had given itself the right to do. Knowing that some families do not make it to us; that some families are torn apart and sent to separate facilities, just as families throughout history’s cruelest moments have been sorted left and right. 

I did not know if I’d ever see her again. I prayed I would. The only families they send to our refugio are the ones where at least one parent has been permitted to stay with the children.

Five days later, when I unexpectedly saw her face, holding her baby and calling to me, I was overjoyed. With all the hundreds of families that we see each week, this week has felt different. For the first time, we were taking joy in something as small as no one having arbitrarily decided to tear this woman’s baby from her arms. This was a level of cruelty that I had not imagined we would have to face. This was a relief that I did not think I would ever have the necessity to feel.

I carried that relief with me as we dug through bins of clothes, searching for a clean shirt for her 18 month old, and came up with nothing. At least there was a baby here to clothe, I told myself.

Ten minutes later, standing alone in front of racks of baby clothes at Factory 2 U, I sorted through tshirts trying to find even a single one without Minnie Mouse or a white Disney Princess on it. At least there was a baby to put in that Minnie Mouse t-shirt, I told myself.

As an aunt of five with a sixth due any day, I am well versed in the skills of playing back-up and indulgent aunt. I am well versed in what it means to be family.  I am well versed in trying my best when I am not sure what to do… There are so many moments now when I am not sure what to do. 

Pulling down a fuzzy baby blanket from the wall, I thought of the two children who had spent the past month living under my roof, leaving drawings on my fridge, taking naps with my dog, watching telenovelas on my television, falling asleep in my arms. Once again, a spasm rocked my gut at the thought that they too could have been separated from both their parents instead of just their father. Just their father. As if a gaping hole in your heart that keeps you awake all night crying, and in bed all day sleeping could be captured by the word “Just.” Is this what we have come to? That we must give thanks that only one parent has been taken?

I am so tired of giving thanks for small mercies, with the knowledge ever pressing on my mind of the great cruelties that have been escaped, that hang ever threatening over our heads from my own government. I can do these little things. I can lessen the pain for those that cross my path. I can put warm socks on the cold feet of babies, and smiles on the faces of children too young to understand the truths that are causing their parents to despair. Yet, these are such small things, and this cruelty, this complacency, this occupation of our community is so vast. 

At least there is a baby to clothe, I tell myself. At least the baby wasn’t strapped into a car seat with dozens of other children in a converted prison bus, screaming as they are transported away from their parents. 

At least there was a baby to clothe.

Has it really come to this?

Somewhere, a Christian man or woman sits behind a computer, typing comments onto every post they can find. Not even understanding the laws themselves,* they are saying that these desperate families, these children, these mothers, should not have broken the law and deserve what they get. 

Whose law? 

While these parents and children stand accused by us of breaking the law of man, we stand guilty of breaking the law of God. We sort them left and right, mothers to one side, children to the other; yet, God has sorting to do as well.

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)

Somewhere, a five year old child is crying out for their mother. They are tired. They are traumatized. They live their lives in fear 24 hours a day. They do not understand what the people around them are saying. Perhaps they are being held in an institution like Southwest Key where the staff speaks Spanish or English, but not Portuguese or K’iche’ or Q’eqchi’ or Kaqchikel or whichever language their mother uses to soothe them. Perhaps they have a video translation device that talks to them and translates the staff’s orders. Let go of your siblings. Be quiet. Behave.  Every day that passes, every tear that falls, was the choice of our government, and was a part of a system financially dependent upon keeping its beds full of children who are kept from getting tucked in by their papa with a good night kiss.

Here we stand, where the rest of the nation makes our decisions for us, and a Federal force occupies our streets, and we are relieved simply to see a baby still in her mother’s arms. 

You can organize. You can talk to your neighbors. You can petition. You can donate. You can call. You can write. You can refuse to let our elected officials rest until these children are resting back in their parents arms.

Stop. Family. Separation. Now. 

*For more information on how the United States Government is breaking it’s own laws read about American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh and the screening process that we are bound to apply for credible fear and reasonable fear.

Grief on Both Sides of the Border this Mother’s Day

On May 10th, the Thursday before Mother’s Day, Mothers from throughout the United States plan to converge on the Capitol for #STAND, a Day of Action organized to demand legislation and reforms that would address the police brutality experienced by their loved ones.

As they gather at the center of the nation’s power, thousands of miles away, here in the borderlands, their cry will echo from the lips of a mother who shares their pain.

In Mexico, Thursday will be Mother’s Day itself, and the mother of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez will walk the final steps he took in life, just as she has done on the 10th of every month since he was murdered by Border Patrol in 2012.

A mere seven months after the murder of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin rocked the nation, the October 2012 murder of 16 year-old José Antonio Elena Rodriguez shook its furthest territories. Their deaths proved that even a Border is insufficient to protect Black and Brown teenagers from the racialized violence that stalks our streets.

With piercing irony, it became clear that the Border Wall erected to keep the sons and daughters of Mexican mothers out of the United States could not protect them from the police brutality they would encounter here. As 16 year-old José Antonio stood in the Mexican streets of Nogales, Sonora, where the road dipped 20 feet below the wall, Officer Lonnie Swartz put his gun through an opening in that wall and fired 16 bullets – one for every year of José Antonio’s brief life. After 3 bullets, José was facedown on the ground, as Swartz fired 13 more bullets at his motionless back.

It is impossible not to think of the 20 bullets fired at Stephon Clark’s back in California. The 8 bullets fired at the back of Walter Scott in South Carolina. The brutalized body of Joe Campos Torres, dumped into the Bayou in 1977 by Houston police.

They say they want to build this wall to protect us, but those on the other side are the ones needing protection from us. We left slats in the Wall not big enough for a body to squeeze through to our side, but – like any fortress – wide enough to let our bullets pass through to theirs.

Like Trayvon, José Antonio longed to be a pilot when he grew up. As Trayvon toured Opa-Locka Airport in Florida, dreaming of the day when he would pilot one of the planes, about 2,300 miles to his west in Sonora, Mexico, José Antonio was sharing the same dream. Achieving that dream, for José Antonio, involved plans to join the military and make his mother proud.

Those dreams were cut short as Border Patrol Officer Lonnie Swartz gunned José Antonio down in the quiet streets of his own hometown, aiming from where he stood safely above on the US side and raining down a hail of bullets on the child below.

In 2012, just as life was beginning, like Trayvon, José Antonio was rendered powerless to tell his own story, portrayed as a threat by his own killer, and dehumanized in court.

Nearly six years later, his mother had to cross through the Nogales Port of Entry, past the Border Patrol Officers, and into the country where they killed her son. She came hoping for justice, only to sit in a courtroom in Tucson, Arizona and hear her a jury of US citizens find her son’s killer not guilty of second degree murder.

As mothers who share her pain walk the streets of our nation’s Capitol this Thursday, José Antonio’s supporters will surround his mother at the Border in Mexico in the spot where he lay face-down as bullets ripped through his body from above. They will carry grief and outrage, but also the hope and prayer that United States Prosecutors will send a message about the value of their lives by choosing to begin a retrial in the case of his killer, Officer Lonnie Swartz.

When We Cannot Say Her Name

On the Sonora, Mexico side of the border wall running through Nogales, I bent over to pick up a white cross from the dust. “Girl, 18, Mexico,” it read. Two words and a number, all that was left of a life cut short by this desert whose dangers we make light of as “a dry heat.” A few yards away musicians played for the crowd assembled on both sides of the wall, a community of people intersected by the rusty metal slats that unnaturally divide our life here in the Sonoran desert. These bars that seek to diminish our humanity on both sides as men in Michigan and Iowa and Washington debate the contours of our lives. Who comes, who goes. Who stays, who leaves. You would not dare to ask a person which of their arms they would like to keep, but here we stand under the daily threat of our communal body being hacked, vital limb from vital limb. They threaten to take from us those people that we cannot live without, and expect that we will accept it heads bowed low.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and felt the weight of it wash over me. For the past two years of my life, I have fought to make the world #SayHerName #SandraBland from the moment that those words left her sisters lips at the pulpit of Hope AME in July of 2015. Thousands of hours, of miles, of images posted from the jail where she died. Relentless, consuming, determination that she would not be silenced. Hundreds of videos covering the progress of the case, and documenting the activity of the police. We said her name and it drew out with it others: Natasha McKenna. Renisha McBride. Yvette Smith. Rekia Boyd. Gynnya McMillen.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized that we could not draw out her name from that wood anymore than we could from the sand and dust that had cradled her. I could not scratch behind the paint to unearth it. I could not cut into the wood. I could not claw the truth out of the sand.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?*

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

As is the tradition of the School of the Americas Watch, the crosses were picked up and the names read one by one. 147 deaths in our Sonoran desert this year alone; 147 that were found at least. Driving through our border lands, it is easy to see how some could disappear without even two words and a number to mark their passing. Each name was read, as the crosses were lifted, and voices raised to answer “Presente.”

The School of the Americas was opened by the U.S. Military in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946 and trained Latin American soldiers in assassination, interrogation, and psychological tactics to control the politics of the region and quell uprisings of the people. It’s graduates include Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri, and Hugo Banzer Suarez. In 1980, soldiers trained at the School of the Americas were involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as he celebrated Mass. Four years later, in 1984, Panama was able to rid themselves of the School, but it re-opened in Fort Benning, Georgia the same year. In 2000, the school ‘closed’ only to reopen the next year and rebrand itself as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. As citizens of the United States engage in uproar over Russian meddling in our elections, we stand in a nation that has indulged in a rich tradition of interference in other nations’ governance.

I looked down at the cross in my hand with the realization of what I held. This tool of execution. This archaic electric chair. This noose. This pyre. This needle. This wall. This cross. The thousands of ways we have killed people by the power of the State. The thousands of ways we have continued to miss the whole point of it all. Adorning our walls and necks with an instrument of death, forgetting it’s implications for those that we kill, embedding it with jewels and filagree and flowers. Compromising the Gospel as it fits our needs, our prejudices, and our economic goals. Slathering the name of Jesus like butter over burnt toast, attempting to cover up the burning.

I looked down at the cross in my hand and realized how much of Christianity remains unconverted. We seek and speak and vote to banish Jesus from our company. As the arbiters of condemnation, we speak with Paul’s words, challenging people about whether they are ‘saved,’ without lining up our own lives agains the measure of Jesus words and example to discover where we stand.

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was an immigrant and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in detention and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or an immigrant or naked or sick or in detention, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

We have Christians walking around bold, condemning people to their left and right without taking an honest inventory of the unrelenting cruelty that pervades their life both in word and in deed, stripping them of any claim to the name of Jesus even as they use that name to rain down judgment on their neighbor.

Girl, 18, Mexico. Unidentified. Unknown.

Jesus was there when she said the same words that he spoke as he died: I thirst.

Where were we as she lay dying? Where were we as he lay dying?

Girl, 18, Mexico.

How do we find justice for her when we cannot even Say Her Name?

Still without a name, we can know that the same system of white supremacy that killed Sandra, by one means or another, took down Girl, 18, Mexico as well. This system that teaches us to fear one another. This system that criminalizes and dehumanizes people of color. This system that targets the most vulnerable for elimination by the power of Empire.

What can we give her in death that we did not give her in life? We can tear down the system that took both their lives. We can tear down the system that this cross in my hand represents, this symbol of state violence, this symbol of the powerful intimidating the people into fear. Leaving Jesus on the cross to intimidate those who would rise up against the Romans. Leaving Michael Brown in the streets of Ferguson. Leaving Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in the streets of Nogales. Leaving Sandra Brand unchecked in her cell. Leaving Girl, 18, Mexico to pass from recognition under the heat of the Sonoran sun.

We can educate ourselves to understand that we have caused the very flow of humanity that we seek to impede. We can spend 5 minutes researching our own nation’s abuses of others’ democracies for every 1 minute that we spend outraged over Russia’s abuse of ours.

We can start by tearing down that Wall. We can start by understanding that Jesus is not on our side of it. Like a spear, the wall has pierced his body, separating blood from water, limb from limb.

In this, our desert, he pleads through the rusty slats that pierced his side once more, “I thirst.”

His name? “Girl, 18, Mexico.” Say it.

…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me… 

 

*This week, as we honor Transgender Day of Remembrance, it is important to remember as we engage in the movement to Say Her Name it’s roots in the erasure of transgender women of color as media outlets and family members would misgender and misname transgender women of color in death, doing further violence to them and leading to the push to Say Her Name. 

 

A Little Longer To Serve – An Irish Blessing

Today, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I wanted to have a guest post from my Irish grandmother, Edna Marian Ferguson Bell Bonner. Although Edna passed away in the 1980’s, I have realized more and more as time goes on, that her soul prepared the path for the life I live now. In the 1920’s, while in high school, Edna went on a school trip to Washington, D.C. When she began to board a city bus with other students, the bus driver indicated one of her African American classmates and said, “She can’t get on. We don’t take blacks on this bus.” Edna stepped off the bus, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Then we will walk.” The two women remained devoted friends for the rest of their lives.

The Irish mother who brought Edna from Banbridge, near Belfast, taught her to treat all people with love and respect. The love that those women shared with their community was returned to me as a young child. Thus, I offer to you below, the story she wrote of the love between a mother and daughter.

My Father came to the United States in the late 1800’s. He returned to Northern Ireland to win his childhood sweetheart.

the Bells

Mother and Father, Sarah Radcliffe and William John Bell, were married on March 16, 1900, in Banbridge and came immediately to the United States. They lived on Daggett Street in Southwest Philadelphia for a short time and later lived on Springfield Road, Darby. Their first children were twins who were born prematurely. William McKinley Bell died shortly after birth and Sarah Wilhelmina lived a short time longer. They were buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery, Darby…

After the death of the twins, Edna Marian Ferguson (myself) was born there on May 25, 1906. In 1907, my Father expressed his desire to return to Northern Ireland…

They apparently remained in Ireland for about five years. Sarah Wilhelmina was born on April 22, 1911. Mina was injured at birth and Mother had surgery the following day. My parents had planned to return to the United States after Mina’s birth, but her need for special care made it necessary to leave her with Aunt Maggie and Uncle Edward who loved her dearly and gave her excellent care. My parents planned to bring Mina to the United States as soon as they were settled and Father’s United States Citizenship was final.

Only a short time after their return to the United States, my Father’s kidney problems developed to a very serious point (he had typhoid fever as a young man and that was named as the cause of the kidney condition). I recall the swelling of his legs and seeing him applying support bandages each morning. Mother knew time was running out. He was taken to Philadelphia, and he died there on January 4, 1919. Mother was devoted to him during the entire period of his illness. Her loving patience with never a cross word was beautiful to witness. Father was buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery in Darby, beside his brother, Ferguson. Mother joined him there in August, 1944…

A beautiful relationship of love and devotion existed between my parents in their short marriage, March 1900 to January 1919. Father was so proud of her. They both had a strong faith in God and were able to meet life together…

After my Father’s death, Mother went to the Delaware Country Court House in Media to inquire as to the possibility of obtaining her American Citizenship on my Father’s original application. He had received notice to be present for his final swearing in as an American Citizen, but he was too ill to appear. In answer to Mother’s request, Mr. Daltry at the Court House said he was sorry, but he had waited the full period of time before returning the papers to Washington and there was nothing he could do about it at that time. Mother then showed him a card which had been sent to Father. Mr Datry was delighted, that was all he needed to have the papers returned to Media. Sometime later Mother was one of the first women in Delaware County, if not the first, to receive her own American Citizenship. A proud day for her.

Plans were in her mind now to return to Ireland and bring Mina back here with her when a letter came from Uncle Edward that Mina had died from appendicitis. On our visit to Ireland in 1961, we placed flowers on her grave. Thus, I was the only one of the four children born to my parents left.

I recall the long winter evenings during my childhood when Mother, Father and I sat by the open fire reading or singing the old hymns they loved so much. “Nearer My God to Thee” seemed to be a favorite. I remember thinking that hymn made them recall their acquaintances who had been lost when the Titanic sank. The passengers had joined in singing that hymn as they clustered together on the deck of their sinking ship.

There were many occasions when I was aware of the respect in which my parents were held. You never knew when Mother would return home from her trip “down town.” Everyone stopped to talk with her. Two black people, Priscilla and William, “Aunt May Baker,” Mrs. Baker, and certainly Charley Wade had always been devoted to her.

Mother’s heart was full of love for everyone, so when her grandchildren arrived, it was love overflowing. I recall when she first saw Marian and she said, “ Now you are a mother and your life will never be the same again.”

How proud she was to take Marian and Hugh for a walk! I am grateful she lived to see Billy. Her last act was to hold him in her arms. That night she went into a coma. One of her few statements during her terminal illness was “Little darlings” as Marian and Hugh came to her bedside.

I recall passing her bedroom door at our South Avenue home and hearing her say as she prayed, “Give me a little longer to serve.” I truly believe that was the foundation of her life – service to others.

Dr. Benjamin of the Methodist Church of Media said at her funeral service, “to enter her presence was to receive a blessing.”

She never forgot a kindness extended to her by anyone. She became ill shortly after Bill’s birth. On an occasion as I did some little thing for her comfort, she said, “You’re wonderful, I don’t know how you do it.” That will always live in my memory.

Her benediction.

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Your People Will Be My People

“You must be tired,” the fifty-something woman in front of me said compassionately. “Not as tired as she is,” I replied, turning my eyes to the third woman in our circle. In her early twenties, and journeying with two children under the age of five, she was the picture of dignity – regardless of circumstances that would strain anyone’s composure. Just that morning, she and her children had been released from detention and informed that their family would not move forward intact – her young husband would be held and deported. He had promised, as they said goodbye, that he would find them; someday, somehow, he would find them.

Our journey had begun early that day with a chance meeting, although not an unintentional one. I was receiving a tour of the bus station a few blocks from St. John’s Downtown, as the manager and I dialogued about how we could collaborate to support people traveling through our country. The manager had pointed the young mother out to me as we walked by, telling me that she was someone who had been released from detention that day and these were the people he was interested in helping.

Feeling that our gaze had been drawn to her little family unit, the young woman began to panic, certain that she would be locked up again. That she would be mocked again. That she would be stripped of all she owned again. That she would be told again that her children carried diseases and that people needed to be protected from her little ones.

Big tears began to well up in eyes that beheld us with terror and despair. “Oh Lord,” I thought, “We have so much to learn. Help us.”

Gliding across the room, from where I do not know, came our fifty-something angel of mercy, bringing a mothering embrace and words to sooth. “I speak Spanish,” had been her first words, as her gaze of compassion swallowed the family up into her heart. “I will stay with her. I will stay here and sit with her,” she promised, binding herself into the family unit. With her gray-streaked auburn hair pulled back into a loose braid, and her strong Texas accent, she was the picture of compassionate strength. In that moment, she became Naomi to this Ruth, torn from her husband to journey alone into a foreign land. And as the first one had, this Naomi opened her heart to offer generous hospitality to the land where her family had lived since a time long before there even was a Texas.

Knowing it was best to leave them together, I walked outside with the manager. The gray-haired leader of the Greyhound staff was in need of some fresh air as he fought back tears of his own. “It’s the kids,” he explained, “They get to me. I don’t care about what anyone thinks about politics, we’ve got to do something for these kids!”

While the point he was making had to do with the network we were building to support children coming through the station, I knew that it was those two confused children who had said goodbye to their father that day, perhaps forever, that were getting to him.

“I know we can’t do anything for those kids today, you know, but for others,” he concluded regretfully.

“We can do something. We will do something. For these children. Today.” I said softly, as he turned with gratitude to reveal that was exactly what he had hoped I would say. His excitement was palatable as he began to taste the reality of exactly what he had been dreaming to do for months. A way to help all the children that were weighing on his heart daily.

I promised him I would be back, and within minutes I was in my car, on the phone and our beautiful, connectional church was at work. Pastor Mireya pulled together some clothes and a Santa Biblia, while another Mireya scouted out Salvadorian restaurants to get some comfort food. Morgan and Ashley jumped in the car to meet me for a little necessity shopping, while DJ and Abigail made contact with support services and churches in the city where the family was headed.

The result of all this activity from all these people was tears. Tears of relief and joy – and not from where I would have expected them to come. It was the little daughter, only a few years old, who wept. Overjoyed to see her mother’s anxiety diminish and to see a little pink backpack, packed with the food and supplies that every little girl needs for such a journey – familiar foods and favorite colors.

As the night wore on, I sat beside Naomi, who had taken Ruth under her wing, and we three women became kinfolk – or rather, we recognized that we were. We talked about religion – one of us Methodista, one Evangelica, one Catolica. We talked about food – Naomi comparing the papusas I had brought for Ruth to the quesadillas her Mexican relatives make. We talked about family – the fact that one of my favorite men, the father of my niece and nephew, had come into the country himself when he was just the age of the little daughter; and the reality that lay ahead for these little children’s own father as he fulfilled his promise to see them and be with them again.

Finally, the compassionate and gentle Naomi turned to me and said, “I want to tell you why I am here tonight. I just got out of prison this morning.” I had noticed the locator bracelet strapped to her ankle, but had not thought much of it. “I missed the bus I was supposed to be on, and I had to wait all day for the next chance to get home,” she continued, “And I was sitting here planning to pout and gripe all day long when you walked in and I became a part of this. Not everyone speaks Spanish and could help, even those of us whose families are from Mexico way back. Not everyone here could do what I am doing.” A realization was washing over her that she had a gift and that she was needed.

“Thank God for you! I can’t imagine what we would have done without you today,” I said to her. “You were our angel. You were her mother when she needed a mother. Thank God you were here!”

It was then that I noticed, for the first time, how little Naomi had. A little grocery bag with a bible and a book and some papers in it. I realized that was all she had; it was all she had carried out of prison with her. All day long she had been helping us to serve this young mother, and watching us bring her supplies and food – never once revealing that she had nothing herself. She served with all her compassion, all her generosity, all her heart. Having nothing, she gave everything. Like the widow with two mites, no amount was so small that she could not share.

My mind was reeling a bit at the gift that we were all being given of spending the day together. None of it had been planned. Both of them had missed earlier buses and should not have even been there when I walked into the station, on what I planned to be a brief ten minute tour.

We talked some more. About some very big and very important things. And about some very small and very mundane things. We talked about how the family had walked for ten days -through deserts, rivers, mountains – to escape gang violence in their hometown that threatened to conscript young men like Ruth’s husband. While we talked, the children wrestled and pestered us for quarters to play the arcade game.

A former convict, a searching pastor, and a courageous mother. Sitting for a little while together and remembering that what we have in common is a whole lot bigger and stronger than the differences that lie between us.

The time finally came for them to board and depart, and we said goodbye about a dozen times; with kisses on the cheeks and promises to pray for one another, and promises to act – not just for ourselves but for all the mothering figures journeying on this road.

When the last glimpse of them had disappeared from sight, I walked down the street to my car in the deep darkness of late night Houston; completely in another world; incapable of responding to the men who catcalled, or the ones who asked for a dollar. My heart twisting and wrenching inside of me. I slumped into the driver’s seat exhausted. The thought of Ruth, the mother and her children – who by this time I loved – driving in the opposite direction from their father; having to journey on without him. The thought of Naomi, the woman who had become their protector; all the pain she had suffered without becoming hardened; all the light that shone out of her generous and gentle heart. The strength. The courage. The pain. The beauty.

My jaw clenched, and my throat tightened as silent tears slid down my face in mourning and celebration and exhaustion. I felt nothing and I felt everything, all at the same time.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring; but I know that today love drove out fear, and within one little circle, we acted like family. That is a start.