Category Archives: Justice

Governmental & Catholic Powers Partner to Force Will on Tucson Community

“So your plan is to do everything through one site, utilizing Catholic Community Services and your location at the jail, and not include any of the other faith communities that have been caring for immigrants because it is easiest for you?” County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry was asked at the Humanitarian Crisis Roundtable that met on Monday, July 15th.

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Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckleberry
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Bishop Weisenburger of the Tucson Diocese

 

“Yes,” was his simple answer, confirming that this was not merely a decision to move guests from the Monastery to the Juvenile Jail, but further a decision to seek to end other faith communities hosting guests. It was a decision that had been made by Bishop Weisenburger, and the undisclosed members of his committee, without consulting the greater network of hosting sites. In a letter to the County on July 3rd, Bishop Weisenberger had conveyed the idea that the faith community in Tucson was not able to handle the work of continuing to host guests and needed the government to step in and help.

Engaging in a collegial and collaborative manner by engaging the input of colleagues doing the same work, rather than given the appearance of speaking for the faith community as a whole, would have been a simple thing to do because the mechanisms had already been being put in place.

Several months before, the Southern Arizona Border Care Network met for the first time on December 6, 2018, to dream of creating a community of transparency, support, and collaboration. They dreamt of shifting the culture of humanitarian aid to center immigrant voices, knowing how often decisions were made in a way that did not include directly impacted people. Little did they know how soon those dreams of collaboration would be shattered as a display of institutional power would assert itself over the community and decree that the families they aided would be moved to cells within the Juvenile Jail complex.

As people filed into the small chapel off of the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church that first day, the number kept growing and growing and more and more chairs were pulled into the circle. In a few seats by the door were a cluster of Unitarian Universalists; over on the far side of the room were clergy who were immigrants from Mexico themselves, serving and offering hospitality in Nogales, Tucson, etc. In the room, there were people who knew each other well, and people who were just meeting for the first time.

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Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank assists with intake at The Inn in 2017.

 

Intentionality had been taken in the planning of the meeting, with an awareness of the faith community’s propensity to call upon white clergy to lead and speak. Therefore, a Latina woman who had grown up on the border in Nogales, who had her roots dug deep into the sand of the Sonoran desert, was chosen to lead the conversation. The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank was deeply familiar with the work of providing hospitality to asylum seeking families after having served as the Chair of the Board of The Inn Project since 2016, during which time over 10,000 courageous people had walked through its doors. 

The Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank led the meeting in a gentle, but intentional way, that drew in the voices of immigrant clergy and centered their stories. It felt like something different was happening. It felt like there was a glow in the air. It felt like a family curse had been broken, as the voices of pastors who were immigrants themselves found themselves heard in a new way. People leaned into the warmth of the moment and stood for long minutes chatting afterwards at the door. Women of color – accustomed to being ignored in these kinds of meetings – talked about the confidence and inspiration that Dottie’s leadership and centering of them had awakened. The truth that they mattered and that their voices mattered was unapologetically proclaimed in that space.

In the meetings that followed, stories would be shared, a narrative and invitation of hospitality would be written, and an atmosphere of trust and transparency would be built and assumed.

In March 2019, the group would approve a statement to be released to the community that would detail the militarization we experience in Southern Arizona, the ministry of hospitality on the border, and the need for support from others. Groups signing on as members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network would include: The Inn, Casa Alitas, Casa Mariposa, El Mesías United Methodist Church, First Christian Church, Justice for Our Neighbors, Keep Tucson Together, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, Menlo Park United Methodist Church, Mountain Vista Unitarian Universalist, Southern Arizona Sanctuary Coalition, Southside Presbyterian Church, St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist Justice Arizona Network, Borderlands Unitarian Universalist. 

One line from the narrative that they signed was, “An increased number of asylees are being detained in mostly for-profit prison-like facilities. They are not given legal options. They are herded through our legal system without due process. Children are put in detention with parents, as well as unaccompanied minors being detained in prison-like tent facilities. We are treating the immigrant among us as criminals, instead of asylees or refugees or neighbors.” 

The group would meet again on May 2nd to discuss how to support one another and reach out further into the community.

A couple days later on May 4th, however, the first cracks in the veneer of transparency would appear when a press conference would be held by the City to begin to frame the narrative in Tucson in a very different way. The new narrative centered the work of only one of the members of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network in a way that erased the work of the others and the community of trust that they were trying to build. 

This member, Casa Alitas, had expanded their capacity a few months earlier and were seeking community support in maintaining the numbers they were serving.

In the months that followed, the narrative would be continually strengthened that all other sites providing hospitality in Tucson were small, temporary satellite sites of Casa Alitas, solidifying power, in the perception of the government and the public, in the hands of one group. This appearance of dominance would give the Catholic Community Services that oversaw the work of Casa Alitas, and specifically the Catholic Bishop, sole negotiating power with the County over the fate of asylum seeking families. 

Conversations would happen behind the scenes, amongst the stakeholders that Bishop Weisenberger chose to include, about what would happen to the families. By speaking of a “committee of faith leaders” making the decision, it would give the impression that others doing the work were included in making the decision. Yet, despite the fact that Casa Alitas had signed on as a member of the Southern Arizona Border Care Network, key members of that community would not be invited to the table, nor would it be made clear and transparent who was. An agreement would be made privately between the County Government and the Catholic Bishop to relocate asylum seeking families to cells in the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex, then shared afterwards with the community. 

The news was shared with the public in a news article on July 8th, with the acknowledgement that it would create dissension and divisions in the community, “Kozachik concedes that putting the families inside the Pima County Juvenile Justice Complex doesn’t look good at first glance, but said it should not feel like asylum seekers are being kept in custody.”

Immediately there was an outcry from many Women of Color in Tucson, most notably prison policy expert, Tiera Rainey, who was well schooled on the effect that incarceration atmospheres have on individuals. In contrast to how Women of Color were treated at that first Southern Arizona Border Care Network meeting six months before, their voices were dismissed by those forcing the plan forward.

According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik said, ”Look they’re well-intentioned, but we’re not incarcerating Guatemalans,” he said. “I think people when they see the changes, they’ll be on board,” he said, adding that the county was picking up costs for the facility, including maintenance, food prep and laundry costs.”

And Catholic Community Services Director, Teresa Cavendish said, “Right now we’re having our hands tied, while work that we’ve been doing for five years is being second-guessed by people who don’t do this work.”

The community was told to just trust the government and the Catholic Church, without being given a reason to do so. We were thrust backwards into the atmosphere where the white men with power make the decisions, and the rest of the community “trusts” that they know best. The very definition of paternalism. We remembered those who have not experienced incarceration themselves may have a hard time recognizing it when they see it. 

In reality, the community had actually been given a very clear reason not to “just trust” as the Government and Catholic Community Services had partnered with the media in creating a narrative that was inaccurate and that intentionally and strategically erased the work of their partners in order to position the Catholic Bishop as the sole person to make the decision about what to do with asylum seekers, and to position Catholic Community Services as the sole controller of spaces for asylum seekers in Tucson.

The work of the Latina woman who had been laboring to organize the Southern Arizona Border Care Network was erased and strategically undermined.

The voices of Women of Color like Tiera Rainey were demeaned and dismissed, by decision makers, by the media, and by community members that insisted we should “just trust.”

The meeting to approve the plan was moved up from August to July 22 in order to accomplish the power play before the movement resisting it could gain traction, and before community members and faith leaders had a chance to talk.

According to the Tucson Sentinal, Councilman Kozachik threatened, “If this falls off the rails,” because of objections, “(opponents) own the street release option, if we don’t get this facility.”

Intimidation flourished. Institutional authority took precedence over expertise and experience. The community floundered under the sense of manipulative urgency that was being thrust upon them. The desire for power, control and funds were prioritized over the unity and well-being of the Tucson community.

Federal funds could be used to reinvigorate County facilities, with the Catholic Church sharing credit with the government. It was a win for decision makers, but a loss for those they had excluded from the table.

What will it cost our soul to insist that a jail cell is a dorm room? What did it cost those that called a tent city a summer camp just a year ago? 

Voice your concern. Sign the petition now: http://chng.it/7ChGrbsy

When Celibacy Conflicts With Faithfulness

Most young clergywomen are familiar with the predictable conversation that takes place when people encounter us for the first time in the wild. Scrunching up their face in puzzlement at my clergy collar, the woman cutting my hair, or the man ringing up my groceries will almost inevitably ask, “So can you get married?”

In earlier years my answer always came easily, “Of course I can get married! No, I’m not a nun.” In more recent times, however, I have found the answer does not come as readily. “Technically…” has become my cryptic reply.

Having come out as Queer clergy a few months ago, I have been wrestling with what that word “technically” means to me. It means that I can get married – technically – but not in a way that would be life-giving for me, since the only marriage that my denomination condones – technically – would be if I were to marry a man. In a few days in St. Louis, many people that know and love me will have the ability to vote on whether that technicality will change. What a strange circumstance, that there are people that I have lived with and worked with that will be able with the push of a button to decide something so important to me. Some of them plan to vote to set me free, and some of them plan to vote to end my career by requiring me to reject who I am to continue in it. Emotionally, and practically, it is a strange power for people I love to have over me, like holding the keys to a medieval chastity belt.

A heavy weight has sat on my chest every time I try to write about this. Since coming out, I have observed that some who know me would like to make this reality easier for themselves by choosing to think of me as “not like those other Queer people” or somehow better than my Queer family because I’m not in a relationship, and am therefore not “practicing.” It seems easier to tell themselves and others that I am the one choosing celibacy, than it is to talk to me about it and understand how I feel. 

While it is uncomfortable for me to talk about this as well, I do not want to be used as an easy out by anyone either. I need to speak my truth and my reality.

So, let us be accurate. I am celibate. This does not mean I have a call to celibacy. This does not mean I have the “gift of celibacy.” If someone tells you that, then it means they have not loved me enough to talk to me about it. This is simply my reality. I am celibate. Full stop. And I wish I wasn’t.

It bears noting that it has been a difficult year for women who grew up in the purity culture. Joshua Harris expressing his remorse over his book – that was treated as evangelical doctrine – does not lessen the trauma it caused. 

It has also been a difficult month for women with vows of celibacy. The Pope expressing his remorse that nuns have been being used as sex slaves by some priests and Bishops does not lessen the trauma caused by those who feel betrayed by their vows and their institution. 

It will be a difficult week for queer clergy ordained in the United Methodist Church. The expressions of sympathy from church leadership will not lesson the trauma that is about to be caused as the intimate aspects of our lives will be casual discussion for our global colleagues, as they are discussed right in front of us as though we are not in the room.

Here I sit. Occupying all three of these realities. This is no coincidence. 

How heavy the task of finding the words to say about my own life, when for others it is so easy to speak of us. It is so easy to assume things about Queer clergy. The word Queer somehow makes people think they have permission to assign all kinds of assumptions onto you that they would feel shame ridden to have cross their mind about their heterosexual colleagues. Somehow logic does not prevail, and they assign judgment to the object of their imagination rather than to their own imagination itself.  How comfortable sits the man with power and hubris, speaking with ease about things which he will never experience, know or understand. 

This vow of celibacy, shared by those nuns, their abusive priests, and I, was imposed upon us for the purpose of institutional preservation, then camouflaged successfully over the centuries and decades by a rationalization built upon a false equivalency between being called to the priesthood and being called to celibacy. 

Let us break this down. 

Somehow the church survived the first 1000 years of its history without this connection between celibacy and the priesthood. Yes, it certainly appeared here and there, and now and then, but never as a comprehensive and compulsory requirement. It was not until the First Lateran Council in 1123 A.D., in a selective and non-ecumenical gathering, that celibacy was decreed as a comprehensive commitment for priests, rather than the occasional and geographical ways it had sprouted up from time to time. The church, frustrated with fighting over inheritances with the children of priests, was eager to rid itself of the complications and costs that accompanied a priest who had wives and children. Thus, it was decreed in Canon 7:

We absolutely forbid priests, deacons or subdeacons to live with concubines and wives, and to cohabit with other women, except those whom the council of Nicaea permitted to dwell with them solely on account of necessity, namely a mother, sister, paternal or maternal aunt, or other such persons, about whom no suspicion could justly arise

The fact that protecting the finances of the church was the crisis of the moment was further emphasized in the next line, Canon 8 of the First Lateran Council, which stated that laypeople, regardless of “how religious they may be,” may not carry out church business because they may “arrogate to himself the disposition or donation.” In other words, the church feared laypeople getting their hands on those tithes and offerings, just as they feared the families of priests getting their hands on church resources in Canon 7. 

Therefore, we found ourselves a thousand years into the history of the church, compelling all people who were called to devote their lives to God, to also devote their lives to celibacy. We placed upon them the requirement to suppress something that was good, godly, and beautiful about themselves, in order to be permitted to answer their call to serve the church. 

This requirement of celibacy for the priesthood did not come from God, however, and was not rooted in scripture. It was a decision made by man. Requiring something so huge from people as the price for “letting them answer their call” did great damage to the relationship between God and those called to serve God. It created a false barrier in the communication between God and those God called. It required them to give up something that God had not called them to give up, but that the church needed them to give up for financial reasons.

This is abuse. Abuse of the trust that people place in the church. 

In time this became evident to some. The many traditions that arose as a result of the Reformation permitted their priests to marry. Vows and expectations shifted, and with time the priesthood in these other traditions even came to include women as well as men. 

The latest chapter of this came in 1983, when I was only three months old. At that time, my own tradition, the United Methodist Church was concerned for their institutional preservation, as the Roman Catholic Church had been at the First Lateran Council. 

As Bishop Jack Tuell would later give testimony:

“It’s February 1983, a little over 20 years ago.  I am meeting in an airport in Albuquerque with two other United Methodist bishops and an executive of the Division of Ordained  Ministry out of Nashville. We are doing preliminary work on legislation for the 1984 General Conference. Our subject matter was ordained ministry. We worked on many aspects of the subject. But a particular concern being raised was: “How do we screen out homosexual persons from becoming ordained ministers?”   

I proposed a seven-word addition to the list of things to which candidates for ministry must commit: “Fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.”…
Now why did we do that?  You would think that on as important a matter as that we might look to Wesley’s guidelines of discernment: that is, scripture, tradition, experience and reason.  But I’m here to tell you that we did not look at the scriptures; we never mentioned tradition; we did not refer to experience, and reason.  It was almost absent from our discussion. Instead of those four classic words guiding our conversation, we were unconsciously guided by two other words: institutional protection.”

In other words, men in my denomination made the choice, for the purposes of institutional protection, to avoid the whole “gay conversation” by taking advantage of the law of the land, and the fact that it was not legal for gay folks to get married. By inserting a phrase “celibacy in singleness” into the ordination vows, they could ensure that those who could not legally be married would have to remain lifelong celibates, in order for the church to avoid an authentic engagement with them and a loving conversation about their thoughts, experiences, identities, and realities. 

I was born and baptized into a church that did not include that in the vow. Yet, 28 years later, it would be a vow that I would take when I answered my call to ordination. At the time, I believed the vow to be a part of the history of the church, I did not know it had been inserted in my lifetime. At the time, I had not embraced my queerness, and I had no idea how that vow was strategically created to bind me. 

For the years that followed, there was something that I could not put my finger on that lay between God and I. It was not until recently that I would find out what it was: this vow that God did not require of me, that man forced upon me as the price that I had to pay for others to gain the ability to avoid the loving conversation.

God, on the other hand, has never avoided the loving conversations with me. I felt the same good-humored embrace of the Spirit when I accepted my Queerness as I had when I accepted my call, “Welcome, it took you long enough.”

We can debate the content of the vow, whether it is reasonable or not, but that is a straw man, a distraction. Why those words are there matters. As a person who strives to live with integrity, the “why” always matters to me. The intention behind putting those words in my mouth matters to me. Both in the case of the Lateran Council, and in the case of the General Conference of 1984, institutional preservation was what was at stake, and not spiritual integrity. That is a betrayal. 

There have always been people on all ends of the sexuality spectrum, both heterosexuals and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who have recognized that this vow was a result of church politics and not sound exegesis. There have always been Queer clergy who have followed God’s calling into the relationships that God intended for them.

I admire them, and I aspire to have their courage to follow God with boldness.

To make a person choose between two callings God has placed on their life – one to be ordained and the other to be in loving relationship – is spiritual abuse. It is meddling in an area where only the Spirit has a say. It is prioritization of the institution over the community of faith. 

I am Queer. I am celibate, but I will likely not always be. I have never feared anything so much as I fear being outside of the will of God. So, if God calls me into relationship, I will obey. That is the integrity and courage that I have seen from my colleagues like Mary and Susan, Kimberly and Sofia, Bailey and Kelli. That is the integrity and courage that I want to have. I don’t want to hide any longer behind my work, behind my collar, or behind my vows.

 

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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Tents, Kids, Money & God

After the weeks I spent sitting at the gate of the tent city for kids in Tornillo, Texas, I realized I was having a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. I texted friends asking them to give me the big picture. Accustomed to trench work, to being close to the ground, I often see the things no one else sees, while at the same time missing the things everyone else is seeing.  

One of the biggest things that was weighing on me was that while offering continual observations from the ground, and listening to firsthand accounts from inside, I had done little to look into the faith-based organization that was running the tent city, Baptist Child and Family Services. That is why I was so grateful when University of Arizona professor, Dr. Elizabeth Jaeger, offered to begin the research into BCFS. Using her research as a starting point, I have attempted to reflect upon what is a faithful response to what we are seeing.

My mind has been particularly ill at ease, because time and again we have been given a date that Baptist Children and Family Services planned to end their involvement in Tornillo and shut down the tent city they were running for the United States Government. Yet, whenever the date drew close, it was extended, and it felt that promises were broken. It began to feel familiar; delay tactics in Texas are one thing I know well. Yet, why did BCFS stay involved? They were supposed to be crisis responders, making a temporary response to a momentary crisis created by family separations. 

It is now four months later and the kids are still there. Permanent structures have been constructed in addition to the tents. The timeline is now dragging on through the end of 2018. 

The initial crisis that BCFS was responding to, the zero-tolerance policy and consequent large numbers of children separated from their parents, has been expanded. Rather than working to reunify the families and children and then shut down, the vision of the tent city has grown to include unaccompanied minors of other forms. The facility has constantly expanded rather than contracted, leading up to the event that returned it to the public eye: the mass movement of kids, during the darkness of night, from shelters around the country to Tornillo. Capacity has been expanded to house close to 4,000 kids from the original 200. Bodies will have to be conscripted to fill those spots. An industry is  being created.

As projected date of closure after projected date of closure has passed, one begins to wonder whether the situation that Baptist Child and Family Services find themselves in is similar to the quandary that Maria Hinojosa exposed in her two part interview with Juan Sanchez, the CEO of Southwest Key. In their conversation, Hinojosa draws out the economic and financial considerations that Juan Sanchez feels he must consider when lining up what may be best for the kids against the financial survival of an institution he has built.

Sometimes we start out with the best of intentions… but then there are salaries to be paid. 

Finances

The CEO of Baptist Children and Family Services, Kevin Dunnin, for example, received a salary of $450,000 in 2013 (while the average salary for non-profit CEOs is closer to $285,000).

According to CNN, in June, a week after Tornillo opened, BCFS was expected to receive $127,000,000 from the US Government during the fiscal year. Since that first week, the number appears to have skyrocketed to between $428,569,971 and $441,234,738 (depending on whether you go by Issue Date Fiscal Year or Funding Fiscal Year respectively) according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That is a lot of money, a lot of salaries. All relying on the continued imprisonment of children. All relying on the Administration’s policy of creating consequences in order to discourage sponsors from claiming children.

Beware the creation of an industry.

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(Grants made to BCFS by US Gov. Source: Department of Health and Human Services)

Transparency and Accountability

This leads us to some very important questions. First, the question of transparency and accountability. According to a 2014 article, concerns have been raised in the past to the Department of Health and Human Services about the lack of transparency exhibited by BCFS. If you were to look at their website, perhaps as a potential donor, you will not see any mention of the unaccompanied minor facilities, that presumably make up a good percentage of their income. While we can assume that running a tent city has not always been the history of BCFS, which began as an orphanage in Texas, that is the history that it is writing right now.

With each day that passes, and each child that spends another week or month in the desolation of Tornillo, we are normalizing the imprisonment of innocent children. With each person that signs a non-disclosure agreement to enter, and exits carrying the warm impression intentionally created for them and compassion for those that work there, normalization is carried back to the communities they inhabit.

How soon we forget our original horror.

When you open the website for BCFS, it opens with an image of a young blonde woman, and the words “Empowering Youth Through Education.” However, until a new press release was issued this week saying that children at Tornillo would be receiving instruction from teachers, they have only been provided with optional workbooks to work on if they choose. Establishing educational opportunities is surely a necessary and welcome change from the past 4 months. One would presume that the requirements to abide by State regulations, stipulated by the grants BCFS receives, should already have been being respected and that education should already have been being offered. However, Tornillo, being on Federal property, is not subject to State inspections or enforcement.

It has been difficult at times for advocates all along the border in Texas and Arizona to know how to respond. Most of the responses that have taken place have been directed towards the more profitable Southwest Key. Over the past few months, many advocates have restrained themselves from bringing attention to situations, fearing that children will be moved to even worse locations. To many, Tornillo seems like the worst-case scenario, but others fear that moving the kids out of sight to military bases would be even worse. It is hard to know what to do.

One thing I do know: we must fight normalizing this, and we must fight against the creation of one more mass incarceration institution reliant on bodies for income.

Part of me wonders if we are too late… has all of this already been happening, and already been established for years under our very noses? At the same time, looking at the numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services, I can see that income for both Southwest Key and BCFS has skyrocketed, doubling the amount of money they were receiving from the government last year. One can hope, that with the right amount of attention and pressure, we can prevent these and other organizations from being willing accomplices to the administration. One can hope, that we can discourage them from making this a normal part of their expected budget. One can hope, that we can prevent this from becoming business as usual.

Religious Responsibility

I have been struggling with what is our religious responsibility in this from the start. Throughout time when cruelty was enacted upon the vulnerable, there were religious leaders who collaborated and benefitted, and religious leaders who resisted in both public and private ways. When does the time come when we must choose? Where is the line that cannot be crossed? When does the moment come when we must risk it all?

These are questions that many of us have the luxury of asking, because we are not amongst the directly impacted community. Yet, I have heard the voice of a mother who expressed her shock that we were not jumping in our cars and storming the gates of Tornillo.

I have struggled with trying to be professional, trying to be collegial, trying to be respectful. I have held my tongue while watching different religious leaders make different choices.

That mother’s outrage at our complacency strips my soul bare.

Reading representatives from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention defending BCFS from critique, I know that Baptist Children and Family Services is not merely Baptist in name. They are claimed by the Southern Baptists, connected to the Southern Baptists. I wonder what my Baptists friends can do.

In seeking to examine our own practice, I have discussed with other pastors in Tucson how what we do with shelters here is different, and how to keep it that way. Most importantly, we do not hold children in confinement. We offer hospitality, welcome, food, clothing, and the freedom to leave at any time. There are not armed guards or fences, military helicopters or snipers on the roof as I saw on at least one occasion during my time at Tornillo. We work hard to communicate about consent and let guests know they are free to do as they choose and go where they choose. We are not funded by the government, we are supported by the church and you. We do not sign non-disclosure agreements, and as you see, have no problem using any knowledge we have to publicly critique the system. I believe those are important distinctions to maintain.

We must remain vigilant. The way things begin may not be how they end. You may start out setting up a few tents as a temporary shelter for separated kids, and end up running a tent city for thousands of unaccompanied minors.

How closely can the church cooperate with the government in serving immigrants before we have gone too far and become an accomplice to abuse? Where is the line? How much can we tolerate in order to maintain access to the vulnerable, without becoming desensitized to their suffering?

We must examine ourselves. Constantly. We must fight complacency.

 

Two Cities-One Heart: An Appeal to Listen to El Paso (with Juan Ortiz)

They say that El Paso/Juarez are two cities with one heart. While the rest of the nation views Juarez only through the eyes of the media, folks here look across the wall with affection towards the homes of people they love. Here in Southern Arizona, where people who grew up on the border call it Ambos Nogales, we can understand that. As dialogue and debate rages throughout the nation about what should be done along the border, those who actually live here have continued quietly and tirelessly laboring to make things better. This is how they have always lived. Knowing and living the cruelty of a people occupied by the Federal Government. Seeing and loving their family on both sides of the border. Being forgotten and overlooked by those that see this as a line on a map rather than a community.

Even now, as the home of their heart is suddenly a trending topic of trauma and dialogue and debate, they still find themselves often forgotten, ignored, and left out of the conversations that they should have been invited into decades ago. The reality of la Frontera is that there are people who have been living here and have been working for justice here all their lives, and they cannot be ignored any longer by those of us who say they want to make things better. We should know that the solutions to a community’s biggest dilemmas come from within that community. We must listen. It is those who have had boots on the ground for a lifetime, whose blood and sweat and tears have watered this land, some whose ancestors were here long before there was a border, who know what to do.

The time I spent in Tortilla was hot and difficult and dangerous, but what I did not share with you was the time I spent in the evenings. Time listening to and learning from some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Time learning from women to give birth to a new day. My wish would be that every person who cast their eye towards the border, with a thought to help, would first pause and listen and learn from those doing the work and then summon all their strength and resources to lift up those who are so tired and have been laboring for so very long in these trenches.

The following is an initial attempt to further that conversation. To profile some of the amazing local people and organizations that had such a huge impact on me during my time in El Paso/Juarez and Tornillo.

The majority of what follows, as well as the conclusion to this blog, was written by the my colleague, artist, scholar, activist and University of Arizona doctoral candidate, Juan Ortiz. A Pasean (person from El Paso) whose love for his community runs as strong as the Rio Grande that runs through it and as high as the mountains that rise above the two cities with one heart. 

The Annunciation House in El Paso, whose stated mission is to serve in the Gospel spirit of service and solidarity, and to accompany the migrant, homeless, and economically vulnerable peoples of the border region through hospitality, advocacy, and education. “We place ourselves among these poor so as to live our faith and transform our understanding of what constitutes more just relationships between peoples, countries, and economies.” It houses and provides refuge for refugees, immigrant and the homeless alike through the spirit of service and advocacy. It is deeply rooted in the community and housed in one of our most historical neighborhoods.  https://annunciationhouse.org

The Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee works hand in hand with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Annunciation house. The partnership allows local organizations to be able to aide immigrants from release to housing and desperately needed legal services. https://dmscelpaso.wixsite.com/dmscelpaso https://www.facebook.com/DMSCElPaso/

They also do the work of a community bail fund, to raise much needed money to bail the most vulnerable of our neighbors out of immigrant detention: https://www.fianzafund.org

Paola Fernandez is a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. The DMSC is a citizen-led gathering of people dedicated to raising community funds to then use to release detained mothers in the surrounding Ice detention facilities. Including families and mothers who have been separated from their children. Paola also works in other capacities in the community including with the Catholic Dioceses, El Paso del Sur and Movimiento Cosecha. Paola is one of the many young leaders in El Paso changing the face of activism and advocacy in our town, as well as one of the people bringing her community organizing skills and strength and positive energy to the movement!

Edith Tapia is a native to the El Paso/Juarez region and also a member of the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee. In addition to her support of detained migrants through their efforts, she also works as a Policy Research Analyst with the Hope Border Institute. In a short amount of time, she has packed in a profound amount of experience supporting, learning from, and advocating for the vulnerable on both sides of the border and throughout the United States. To learn more about the work of the Hope Border Institute: https://www.hopeborder.org

Las Americas is a 25-year-old non-profit on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, dedicated to serving the legal needs of the most vulnerable among immigrants: Asylum seekers, battered women and abandoned children. The El Paso port-of-entry sees the second highest number of people crossing into the United States by land, second only to San Diego. El Paso also has three major migrant detention centers in the surrounding areas. Las Americas being one of the most important service providers in the entire borderlands. http://las-americas.org 

Christina Garcia Christi is an El Paso native and has lived here most of her life. She has worked with Las Americas for the past 5 years. Besides her work at Las Americas, Christi is a first generation U.S. citizen, college/university graduate, and professional who is deeply invested in El Paso and in the immigrant rights/human rights community. She is a deeply caring and devoted person who always does her best to accommodate the many requests made of her and the agency during these times of crisis.

Linda Y. Rivas (pictured speaking in banner photo) was born in Mexico and raised in El Paso from the age of 4. Linda attended The University of Texas at El Paso and received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a minor in legal reasoning. She received a Juris Doctor from Loyola College of Law in New Orleans and was a legal intern with the Department of Justice. Linda is a lifelong advocate of human human rights. Linda’s first job as an attorney was as the West Texas VAWA Legal Supervisor at the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project where she worked in immigration law under the VAWA and U-VISA programs and engaged in domestic violence advocacy. She is currently the managing Attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center where she is focused on serving detained asylum seekers, a crucial role in what Las Americas does. She is also a new mother and a lead organizer for the El Paso Women’s March.

Melanie Gleason Melanie Gleason is the “Attorney on the Move”, investing her life fully in offering pro-bono support to immigrants along our Southern border. Having worked in southern Arizona for the past year, Melanie has recently moved to El Paso to support immigrants there and to collaborate with Las Americas. A true lawyer for the people, Melanie fit everything she owns into her tiny SmartCar and took the trip from Tucson to El Paso to dive even deeper into the places of greatest need. She is an incredible inspiration and someone who is willing to selfless give everything that she can for others. The daughter of an inner city Clevelander and a Thai immigrant, Melanie brings to all the work that she does her depth and breadth of experience and her sense of urgency and compassion. She is currently almost to her goal to cover the expenses of her work through November. To support her, give here: https://www.mightycause.com/story/Elpasoattorneyonthemove http://www.attorneyonthemove.com

In closing:

El Paso has had a long and proud tradition of immigrant advocacy and social justice practice since the Mexican Revolution up to the Chicano Movement of the 1960’s. As marginalized people living in oppressed conditions, people across the borderlands have come to understand and to demand the recognition of both their people and their city. The tragic events that have unfolded in our community that led to the internment and separation of families has had profound effects on our community. Yet, the community in response has learned come together in solidarity to decide next steps. We as a community are asking folks to consider actions that build the existing community groups, organizations, people and institutions that have and are doing the work and that will be here, far after the national spotlight has subsided.

The organization I belong to Movimiento Cosecha decided instead of committing to a short term direct action, instead to commit to long term relationships within the community and to give the funds raised directly to the community bail fund. A fund that has released many mothers in ICE detention facilities. Movimiento Cosecha is national organization led by directly impacted people fighting for the dignity, respect and permanent protection of all undocumented people in the United States. http://www.lahuelga.com

At the end of the day that is what should take precedence and guide the actions of anyone wanting to ally in this struggle. Potential “Allies” should ask themselves some very important and germane questions: Are the funds we are raising (in the name of the oppressed) directly helping those suffering from those oppressions? What are going to be the lasting consequences of our actions, what will they build? Will they be additive and constructive? Or will they be temporal, reductive, intrusive or destructive?

If you haven’t asked yourself these questions, please do so before you decide to come to a site of great trauma and dehumanization.

 

Not All Is Lost.

The news today felt like a tidal wave. Like that time I stepped on a yellow-jacket nest and they swarmed me from all sides. Yet, despair could not seem to find a good spot to land on me. I just kept hearing her words: “Not all is lost.”

Driving from El Paso to Tornillo with a woman directly impacted by our cruelty towards immigrants from Central America, she looked around at my car full of white folx and her response was, “Now I know that not all is lost.” 

This week, of all weeks, when it feels like the whole world is crashing down around us, this is the week she decided that not all is lost?

“After the election,” she explained, “everyone was saying such hateful things about us. It felt like nobody loved us. It felt like everyone wanted to get rid of us. But now I see you are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I.

Not all is lost, because all it takes to change this is enough of us to get up and actively refuse to let it happen. All it takes is a Rahab living at the wall and shielding the servants of God from the wall patrol that was searching for them. All it takes is a Ruth binding herself in solidarity to a Naomi of another land, refusing to let her walk through struggle and uncertainty alone. All it takes is an Esther, saying, “I will go to the king, though it be against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

All it takes is one person to say, “You are not alone.”

All it takes is you. You, creating a ripple in your neighborhood, that joins with all the others making ripples in their own, that turns into “justice running down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is what can push back this tide that feels like it will crush us all: you. 

Not all is lost, because we are not alone. If she can believe that, then so can I.

When we arrived at Tornillo, we planned to send up a balloon into the air, with a banner hanging down from it that read, “No estan solos” (You are not alone). We wanted the kids imprisoned in tents at Tornillo to know that there were people that cared about them, and that were fighting for them on the outside. It was simple, it would not have changed the world, but it would have given them hope. It would have reminded them that not all is lost. For us, that was worth the risk. 

Unfortunately the balloon never got up high enough for them to read. A local rancher, who had been encouraged to feel free to engage in vigilantism by CBP, interrupted and eventually pulled a revolver out, waving it around and threatening to shoot down the balloon. 

Despite the fact that he oversaw the alfalfa field next to where the kids were held in tents, where the crop duster had passed over the day before, he believed that all of this was fake news. The control of those who seek to undermine the truth was so strong upon him, that he believed what he heard from the administration on Fox News rather than what he saw with his very own eyes. The pressure from CBP was so great on him that he was waving a revolver around a bunch of people simply holding a big balloon. 

As she stood in front of his gun, her previous words echoed in my mindp1080645.jpg, “You are all here willing to risk everything with us. Now I know that not all is lost.”

Eventually through peaceful dialogue, he was deescalated, and perhaps began to realize how foolish he was being. He put his revolver in his front pocket. But that did not stop him from saying, “Well, I’ll let you do it if you pay me $5,000.” I wondered how much, if anything, CBP was paying him to outsource their intimidation. 

Eventually the balloon was deflated, as were our spirits, and we all went our separate ways. 

Still, not all was lost.

Not all is lost because she is not alone, because we are not alone, because you are not alone. 

As we wanted to tell the kids, “No estan solos.”

We will stand together, and we will stare directly into whatever threats come our way, and we will endure them as a people united. Like Ruth chose Naomi over her country. Like Rahab shielded the spies that climbed over the wall. Like Esther broke the law for a people threatened with obliteration. 

We will love one another and we will tell the truth, no matter how many lies and how much hate come our way. In order to stop atrocity, there just has to be enough people to say no – you are one of those people. We need your “No.”

Today I called my mother, and I told her that for the third time since the election of Donald Trump, I had stood within range of the weapon of a white man who was willing to do harm in his name.

And I do not stand here alone. The truth is that there are already so many people who already stand in the range of harm, regardless of what they do or say, but simply because of who they are. Simply because of the religion they practice. Simply because of the language they speak. Simply because of the country where they were born. Simply because of the color of their skin. Simply because they came desperate for help, and trusting we would aid them rather than kidnap their children. 

I’m not asking you if you will stand with me in the way of harm, I’m asking you if you will join me in standing with those who have no choice in the matter. Those who do not have the privilege of walking away. 

There is someone in your community who is tempted today to believe that all is lost. They cannot avoid the danger and fears they face by simply refusing to “talk politics” or trying not to “make people uncomfortable.” Their reality is discomfort, and there is no escape. They need to see that they are not alone. They need to see that you will stand with them. They need to trust that you will stay. 

Not all is lost. If she can believe that, then so can I. 

“Do not press me to leave you

    or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

    where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

    and your God my God.

Where you die, I will die—

    there will I be buried.

May the Lord do thus and so to me,

    and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!”

Ruth 1:16-17

*Conversation quoted with consent.

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.