My mini-sermon at St. Mark’s Presbyterian

This past weekend, Jake, Brenda, Melissa and I went to Tucson to help out with a fundraising event Friday night at St. Mark’s Presbyterian, to benefit both  Cafe Justo (the coffee co-operative here in Agua Prieta) and a local family-run pottery business.  We were also invited to give a sermon in front of the congregation Sunday morning, taking turns speaking about our experience so far working here.  The following is a copy of what I wrote in preparation for my turn; since it turned out to be longer than I realized, what I actually said in church was shorter than this.  So if you like, you get to read the whole thing!

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The Story of Ruth & My Time Spent with Migrants on the US-Mexico Border

Good morning, everyone!  My name is Chris.  First of all, I’d like to thank you for having us to St. Mark’s for this morning’s service, and for the Taste of Chiapas event on Friday night; you have a beautiful church building here!  Peace be with you all.

I don’t remember if I’d ever even heard the story of Ruth and Naomi before this past week, to be honest.  I read the four chapters of the Book of Ruth with an open mind, wondering what I’d discover.  What I found puzzles me, as I think it would most of us.  Having lost her husband, why would Ruth leave behind her own homeland of Moab?  Naomi reminds Ruth that indeed they no longer have any significant ties to one another now that she has lost her male relatives.  Being unfamiliar with the story, and also with the historical context in which it takes place, I wondered at first whether perhaps Ruth might have felt she had no better choice for a prosperous life.  ‘Would a widow be able to re-marry in ancient Judah?,’ I wanted to know.  ‘Did her own husband leave her with little or no wealth, perhaps?’  But economic circumstance doesn’t seem a likely motivating factor based upon the information we’re given; in Ch. 1 Verse 9, Naomi tells each of her two daughters, “May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband,” implying that re-marriage was a culturally acceptable option in that day.  And while one of the daughters-in-law bids her a tearful goodbye, Ruth refuses.  She appears bound by filial piety, and says not only “Where you go, I will go” but also “where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

The story doesn’t provide us with much background as to the relationship between the two women, merely that they lived together in Moab for “about ten years.”  As women often married in their early years in that time, I might venture a guess that Ruth may have been relatively young when they first met.  Her relationship with Naomi, her new mother-in-law, was probably especially formative to her identity.  Ten years, after all, would seem like a longer time to one in her twenties than it might to someone much older!  Naomi, in telling others to no longer call her by her given name, but rather Mara- meaning ‘bitter’- believes that God has forsaken.  The loss of her husband and her sons has left her so down-trodden, Naomi appears not to consider herself worthy of further affection.  But ten years must have provided enough happiness for Ruth not to let such a relationship go so easily.  She is willing to travel to Bethlehem, in a faraway unknown land, to continue to be with Naomi.  Not only has she no assurance of finding a husband, but furthermore we can assume she was leaving her religion behind also, as Naomi’s words imply the peoples of Moab and Judah did not worship the same God.  For this commitment, Ruth ventures into the unknown, and eventually is rewarded by Boaz, who allows her to work his fields, advises her to find company among his other female workers, offers her harvest to share with her mother-in-law, and eventually weds her.

Lately, the Biblical story I’ve reflected upon most, regarding my own migration to the Border region as a YAV, has been that of Moses- twice, he leaves behind his homeland of Egypt to find new life in the desert, taking nothing with him but his desire to be free.  I’m happy to have found another story that parallels Exodus, one that has a central female figure, in telling of a leap into the unknown.  Like Jake (and Brenda), I am from far away, and I have my own reasons for feeling that I have left behind some form or another of famine in my own homeland, in Michigan.  But the kind of emptiness I might describe to you would be largely about emotions or spirituality.  The reason why the YAV program exists, and one of the reasons why I hope we continue coming back to the Church, is because famine (for far too many people) is not merely a metaphor.

I recently borrowed a book from Mark Adams called, “They Take Our Jobs!” and 20 Other Myths About Immigration; in light of Trump’s dubious run for the presidency, and my own new job placement, the title certainly grabbed my attention.  The introduction to the book reminds us that migration is simply “any movement of humans (or animals) from one area to another,” while immigration involves human crossing of government-established international boundaries, and is therefore only a function of the idea of the state, as first developed in 19th-Century Europe.  You’ve heard Jake refer to himself as a migrant, and I think it’s important for me, and all of us Americans who travel abroad to call ourselves if not ‘migrants’, then simply ‘travelers’, but never ‘ex-pats’; such a choice of words communicates that we don’t think we’re more entitled than others less fortunate with whom we share the planet.  I’d like to tell you briefly about some such folks I’ve met in the past couple weeks since I first found out I’d be working at the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta…

—-two different young men from Chiapas who spoke indigenous languages, including one about my own age with an injured ankle

—-couple who wanted to reclaim husband’s belongings (he had been deported in June of this year, he had never been given back his belongings), wife (carrying a little girl with her), showed me her valid work authorization card, but said she had never been instructed how to apply for a visa that actually allows her to enter the United States.  Mexican immigration refused to advise her when she asked for help; instead they sent her to us in the Migrant Resource Center, despite the fact that helping people apply for visas is completely beyond our scope.

—-woman who came in asking about her daughter arrested by Border Patrol, wanted to know where she was being held; I called the Mexican consulate to find out where she was, and subsequently the Detention Center in Florence, AZ to confirm her whereabouts.

—-two different men who spoke English fairly well, one of whom needed to go to the local Elektra (similar to Western Union) and arrange for his family members to send him money.  Since he wasn’t carrying Mexican ID with him, (agencies that arrest undocumented immigrants often confiscate their belongings, money and even ID cards) he would need a volunteer from the MRC to show his/her passport and set up an account on his behalf.

…these are people for whom, as I mentioned, the word ‘famine’ is, more than likely, not just a metaphor.  These are people who feel that they must leave their homes in order to attain a better life for themselves or their families.  Sadly, many of them feel incentivized to come to the United States illegally, which involves a dangerous desert crossing.  At our orientation in Stony Point, New York, we were advised that this is one such societal problem that we as YAVs cannot eradicate; we can merely walk a while with the poor.  And indeed, until we as a people demand a more merciful border policy (one that stems the flow of drugs without punishing the poor simply for seeking to escape poverty) there will be plenty of poor people who just might appreciate someone else to walk with- perhaps someone like me, perhaps someone like you.

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To anyone reading- sorry that I haven’t updated since leaving Orientation!  Been up to a fair amount in the last couple weeks…   

For one, I’ve toured different sections of the border wall.  Way to the east of Douglas, the wall abruptly ends and becomes a stretch of vehicle barrier with barbed wire draped across.  On the Mexican side, and far to the west, you can drive through the desert to a tree where people from No More Deaths and other volunteers leave water in the shade for migrants, and walk about 100 meters over steep hills, railroad, and parched earth to see the wall tower 20 feet or more over your head.  Here you would find sections where the lower half of the wall raises and lowers to allow Border Patrol vehicles to pass, or to clear away downed trees and other wreckage that could cause flooding if they obstructed enough rainfall.  I’ve been told that migrants do sometimes drown in the ditches that appear alongside the border wall.

But for those attempting the dangerous trek across the Mexican state of Sonora and into the Arizona deserts, the greatest danger is, of course, exposure to extreme heat and dehydration.  There are other hazards, too.  Some people break legs or twist ankles while climbing/jumping the wall, others develop terrible sores or blisters on their feet

Anyways, I feel like I have more to report now that I know I will be a coordinator for the Migrant Resource Center here in Agua Prieta.  Those who give their time in the MRC do their best to make migrants feel comfortable.  The Center is supposed to be a safe space where those in transit can come and have a free meal, receive some new clothing and basic medical care if they need, and share their experiences.  Volunteers ask migrants where they’re from, how they’ve managed to arrive in Agua Prieta, what their reasons for making the journey north might be, and whether they’ve just been deported.  If migrants claim any abuse at the hands of authorities, the MRC keeps a careful record of it.

Here are some examples of people I’ve interacted with in the past couple of days.  A young man (close to me in age) asked for new underwear, and I was embarrassed to find that we didn’t have any in his size on hand.  But he gladly accepted a larger pair of briefs.  A woman, probably in her early thirties, came in on Monday and showed us her feet.  On one of her ankles was a sore or scab at least the diameter of a golf ball; one of the ladies working my shift gave her some calamine lotion, criss-crossed some bandages over the wound, and offered her a clear new pair of white socks.  Then yesterday, another guy about my age came to us with a bad ankle.  He was having a hard time putting weight on it, so we gave him a crutch and took him to the hospital.  I do not know if his ankle turned out to be broken, or what happened to him.

I don’t know much about any of the folks who come to the Migrant Resource Center, really.  So far I haven’t been interviewing migrants myself, so while I’ve seen a fair amount of people enter the MRC in the past week or so, I don’t know their names, what they did/do for a living, what their families are like, what’s important to them, why exactly they left home, or what they hope for.  I just know they’re seeking something better.  I don’t believe I can give them that by passing out clothing and bean burritos, but hopefully, by being there, I can at least remind them that others care about their dignity.