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During our community discussion time on Friday, November 16, we were given 10 minutes to write on the prompt: What is something you are grateful for that you used to not be grateful for?
Due to luck of birth, being born in the United States to a middle class family, I have almost always had hot showers and baths, with the exception of a sibling using up all of the hot water before I showered. I remember as a child I would stay in the bath tub playing, singing, enjoying the water, for hours! My mom would say, “Why are you still in there? The water is cold now!”
As a teenager, a hot shower was one of the places I could go to escape from the stress of high school academia, scholarship applications, and social anxieties. I was in the habit of taking showers first thing before bed, which was often in the wee hours of the morning. Especially during the winter months in Wyoming, I would take a hot shower, then run into my room where I turned my furnace on full-blast and laid in front of it until I was lulled to sleep.
All of this to say, I have regularly enjoyed hot showers in my life, but I usually took them for granted. I didn’t stop to think, “Wow, I am thankful for that steamy shower!” There have been two periods in my life in which I distinctly remember not having access to hot showers. First, was when I was studying abroad in Ecuador. According to the study abroad program I went through, our host families were supposed to provide us with hot water. My host family said that my shower should have been hot, but it was only about 5% of the time. (I thuuuuuuroughly enjoyed those 5% days). I became used to the cold or, if lucky, lukewarm temperatures, and adapted. I executed my shower routine in record time, and then quickly went into my bedroom and crawled under the covers to warm up.
The second period of time in which I did not have hot showers, was when I moved into our YAV house in August. During the summer months, the cool showers didn’t feel too bad. As October approached, though, the cold showers were uncomfortable. I talked about it with my housemates, and it seemed that we were all experiencing the same shivery showers. At first, we accepted the cold water as part of our house, and jokingly chalked it up to be part of simple living. After a while (as outside temperatures dropped) we decided to ask our landlord/maintenance guy about it. He came over the same day we called, and with one twist of a knob, solved our problem! Apparently our water heater was set to “cool,” likely because of the summer months, and because the house was vacant for about six weeks before we arrived. We now have the luxury of hot showers!
This small example of shower temperatures reminds me of a few of the larger ideas that underlie the YAV program. First, it caused me to recognize my privilege. I have had the privilege to access hot water throughout my life. I had the privilege to call a maintenance person who came and fixed our problem for free. Second, I was reminded that I, nor my housemates, knew everything. It was a simple fix, but we were clueless. I was reminded that as a YAV, I should try not to come into a community or to a setting assuming that I know everything. I should try to rely on the expertise of the locals and those who were here before me, and may be here long after I leave.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend an event hosted by the Presbyterian Border Region Outreach (PBRO) in El Paso, Texas. It was a small group of about 20 people, including members of the PBRO board, folks from Frontera de Cristo in the Douglas/ Agua Prieta area, Jose Luis Casal who is the director of PC(USA) World Mission, representatives from the PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues, my housemate, Ryan, and I, our site coordinator, Alison, and Tucson activist, AmyBeth Willis. The weekend consisted of touring an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, hearing from an immigration legal services provider, meeting local Mexican partners from Pasos de Fe for lunch in Ciudad Juarez, learning from a panel of professors and activists, brainstorming next steps for the group and the larger church, and meeting friends at the border wall for a binational worship service.
As you can see, the weekend was full of experiences and memorable moments, but one that sticks out to me wasn’t on the agenda. When we were walking back to El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, we had to cross through a U.S. Port of Entry. There was a line for U.S. citizens, and a line for non-U.S. citizens. The line for U.S. citizens was much shorter and moving more quickly than the other. Because we were traveling with non-U.S. citizen friends, a few of us decided to wait in line with them. While waiting in the long line, I befriended a child, as I often do. The small child was with his mom and grandmother. Although he claimed to be eight, his mother told me he was four. As a typical four year old, he was in his “why” phase. As we talked, he kept asking me, “¿Por qué?, ¿por qué?, ¿por qué?” “¿Por qué esperamos en la fila?” Why are we waiting in the line? “Por qué no puedo hablar con el perro?” Why can’t I talk to the [police] dog? “¿Por qué están pitando los carros?” Why are the cars honking? Some of his questions I could easily answer, but others I could not, either due to the complexity of the answers or because I honestly did not know the answer. As I reflect on the PBRO event as a whole, I find myself often asking, “¿Por qué?”
¿Por qué hay gente acampada en el puente?
Why are there people camped on the bridge?
When we were on the narrow footbridge that connects Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, we walked by about 100 people (men, women, children, families) who were sitting or lying on the bridge. Some had blankets. Some had a backpack or small bag of belongings with them. People wearing Mexican Red Cross shirts were distributing food. A well-dressed woman was filling plastic cups with soda and handing them out. Someone from our group asked one of the people where they were from and how long they had been there. He was told that they were Honduran, and they had been camped on that narrow, concrete bridge for three days. They were waiting to enter the U.S. through the Port of Entry and to express their desire to fight for asylum. They looked tired, hungry, and nervous. But they also appeared hopeful. As I walked by, and tried to steal glances without staring, I couldn’t help but think their next step: detention. Hopefully for most of them, their family unit can remain intact, and after a few days at an ICE processing facility, they can live with family or friends in the U.S. For some, the father will be sent to an adult detention facility where he will spend months until he can pay bond (if an immigration judge even grants him bond) that can be upwards of $50,000, or until his case is finished, either by receiving asylum or being deported. If any of the faces I passed are teenagers without their parents, they will be sent to a detention facility for minors where they may be for months.
Entering through a Port of Entry and asking asylum, which these folks intended to do, is often termed “the right way” to enter the U.S. The El Paso Port of Entry recently processed as many as 300 individuals per day. Now, as the attorney at the Dioceses Refugee and Migrant Services explained to us, they are processing about three families per day. Why? It is not due to a lack of capacity. It is a choice. As those 100+ people sat waiting, without much food, water, or access to restrooms, on a concrete bridge, our U.S. officials deliberately created a bottle neck in the system. It is no wonder why many migrants end up crossing the border in the desert in dangerous conditions or through the Rio Grande and then seeking out a Border Patrol agent to ask for asylum, when “the right way” is so inaccessible.
¿Por qué el hombre con el sombrero de vaquero nos mintió tanto?
Why did the man in the cowboy hat lie to us so much?
At the end of the tour of the ICE detention facility, I was in the bathroom in tears. My tears were not of sorrow for the migrants I saw detained (although I did feel for them). My tears were of rage after being blatantly lied to for hours by our tour guide. Our guide was the Public Relations Coordinator- or something like that- for the federally operated ICE holding facility in El Paso. He was an old, white man who wore a cowboy hat, jeans, and a blazer. During the tour he emphasized that they are compassionate; that this is a holding facility, not a detention center. However, we saw men and women dressed in prison jumpsuits, locked in small rooms, and armed guards all over the premises, and we learned that individuals can be there for up to two years. He also said that Border Patrol agents go into the desert, rescue people, and bring them into this facility. And, if people just enter through a Port of Entry, they won’t have any problems. I don’t know what type of groups usually tour the facility. Maybe his lines would have been believed by naive, well-meaning church folk, but as a group of immigration activists and foreign nationals, we knew from first or second hand experience that what he was telling us absolutely not true. What I still do not understand is whether he knew he was lying to us or if he truly believes that, as he said, he is doing God’s work by detaining and controlling asylum seekers and refugees.
¿Por qué hay un muro que divide un grupo de creyentes que quieren adorar juntos?
Why is there a wall that divides a group of believers who want to worship together?
On Saturday afternoon, we had a worship service at the border wall between Sunland Park, New Mexico and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. We were joined by employees and volunteers of Pasos de Fe and their families. The prayers, hymns, and calls were in both Spanish and English. We passed the peace by reaching our arms through the wall and shaking hands. It was a beautiful service, but it was impossible not to wonder why an enormous, steel wall separated a group of followers of Jesus Christ as they sang, prayed, and shared communion.
¿Por qué, como discípulos de Cristo, vacilamos?
Why, as disciples of Christ, do we hesitate?
We profess belief in a divine human who taught love, who ate with prostitutes and sinners, who fled with his parents into a foreign land for safety. Yet we hesitate to speak out in love for vulnerable migrants. We hesitate to accept the difficult truth of how our government treats humans. We hesitate to act in whatever ways we can, (sometimes limited by location, abilities, and resources) to demonstrate the love of our savior, the love of our creator. As Jose Luis Casal challenged us at the end of the weekend, “We are not called to make things easy. We are called to make things just.”
Since I was a child, my favorite hymn has been “Here I am, Lord.” I even had the hymn number memorized so that I could quickly shout it out if our pastor ever asked for suggestions during worship, “Number 525 in the blue hymnal!”
For 15+ years, these lyrics have moved me every time that I sing them:
I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart.
I, who made the stars of night
I will make their darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?
I, the Lord of snow and rain
I have borne my people’s pain
I have wept for love of them
They turn away
I was recently moved in a new way by this old, favorite hymn. On October 21, we attended worship at Southside Presbyterian Church for Migrant Sunday. The whole service was dedicated to honoring people who make the difficult journey across the U.S. southern border, especially those who die in the desert due to thirst and exhaustion. Toward the end of the service, we sang my favorite hymn with different verses. Alison Harrington and AmyBeth Willis, two individuals who work tirelessly in the Tucson community for the safety and dignity of vulnerable migrants, wrote the following lyrics:
I, the Lord of borderlands, guide my people by my hand
All who wanter and are lost, I’ll search and find
Flood the desert with my love, raining mercy from above
Wounded feet and souls I’ll mend, whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart.
I, the Lord of those who cross, through the dessert, fearing loss,
seeking shelter in our land, you turn away
Precious children all alone, they are welcome in my home
but you find them, send them back, not in my name
I the Lord of those detained, I feel their longing and their pain
child and mother, fled from harm, they’re locked away
Greed and profit sway your hearts, may my love and grace impart
hands and feet on the move, to set them free.
After being moved to tears by this song, for what was probably the fiftieth time, I began to reflect on why it means so much to me. First, the verses in both the original and the “Immigrant Version” illustrate a God who remembers those who are suffering. I have always been inspired by that image of God. The lyrics align with some of my deepest values, which are to love the forgotten; care for the vulnerable; recognize that all are hurting in some way. The context in which these values have surfaced in my life has changed. When I sang this hymn at age 10, I thought of classmates sitting alone at the lunch table or the “a bit different” man at church. Now, the context in which I often find these values being expressed is well captured in the “Immigrant Version.” Motivated by my deep values, and feeling a partnership with a God who sees the forgotten, I can apply these lyrics not just to individuals in my personal life, but to entire groups of people who are marginalized and suffering.
I am also struck by this song’s clear, bold chorus. “Here I am… I will go, Lord, if you lead me.” It shows courage, vulnerability, and trust. Courage because sacrificing a safe and comfortable life for whatever God will use you for, is not easy. Vulnerability because you’re there, naked-per se, out in the open, sharing with God what gifts — and shortcomings — you have. Trust because you are letting go of full control of your life and giving God the reigns. Though I haven’t always lived up to this imagery throughout my life, when I sing, “Here I am, Lord,” I am inspired to do so. I am inspired to put my desires and plans aside so that I can be open and ready for whatever opportunity God has for me.
Really, it seems my entire YAV year is my saying, “Here I am.” My decision to get off the beaten path of college, grad school, career, was my saying, “Here I am.” My continued effort NOT to make too many concrete plans so that I can be open to new possibilities is my saying “Here I am.” Each day as a YAV, in ways both big and small, I am confronted with opportunities to say, “Here I am, Lord, I will hold your people in my heart.” I hope that I will remember the lyrics of this hymn, and continue to vulnerably and courageously sing, shout, and pray, “Here I am, Lord!”
I wrote the following on October 18 to be included in the November newsletter at University Presbyterian Church, my church in San Antonio. Though it is geared toward that audience, general updates are good for everyone, right?
Hello, UPC Family! I hope that you are doing well. It has been nearly three months now since Tanner and I last saw you all, which is hard to believe! I know that some of you are following our blogs, and may already know what we are up to, but I would like to offer a brief update on our Young Adult Volunteer year.
Since being lovingly sent off by you at Worship on July 29, we have been moving around a bit. For the first few weeks of August, we spent time with Tanner’s family in Austin, and with my family in Wyoming and Colorado. On August 20 we flew from Denver to Newark for our national orientation. National orientation took place at the Stony Point Center in New York. All of the first year Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) gathered there for a week of fellowship and training. There were 51 total YAVs there, and 10 YAV alums who facilitated our small groups. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a conference at Stony Point (lots of PC(USA) events are held there), I would highly recommend it! It is beautiful, and the food, which is mostly grown in their garden, is delicious!
After a week of national orientation, we flew to Tucson with the other two YAVs who are serving with us. We spent our first week here doing local orientation activities with our Site Coordinator, Alison. In the seven weeks since then, we have been busy with work and adjusting to life in Tucson. We live in a house with our two housemates, Miranda and Ryan. One of the core values of the YAV program is “Intentional Christian Community,” so we make an effort to cook and share two meals all together each week, have group discussions weekly, and spend time in fellowship.
Work has been great! The nonprofit organization that I am partnered with is the Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project. It is the only organization that serves the nearly 3,000 immigrants who are detained any given day in Arizona. I am a part of the Children’s Program, which means that I am working with unaccompanied minors, providing Know Your Rights presentations, conducting individual intakes, and working on their legal cases. I really like my co-workers, and I find the work emotionally draining, but highly rewarding! Tanner is working with Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, which provides home repair and accessibility modifications to low-income and elderly individuals. He is learning a lot about home repair while working in the field, and is helping the organization obtain funding with his grant writing skills. We come home very tired every evening, as I’m sure you can imagine, but we are very happy to be contributing to the community, especially to those who are living in the borderlands, or the margins, of society.
Please read our blogs for more in-depth reflections and updates. Again, I would like to thank you so very much for all of your prayers, encouragement, and financial support that made our YAV year possible! Please do not hesitate to reach out to me directly. My email is email@example.com, and my phone number is 210.xxx.xxxx.
I miss you all, and I am so proud to claim UPC as my church family!
According to Tucson locals, the hiking around here is great! As a fan of exercise, sunshine, and nature, I have been eager to explore some of the local trails. With the weather cooling off a bit, and with a relatively free weekend, yesterday was the perfect opportunity! Ryan, Miranda, Tanner, and I enjoyed a beautiful and refreshing hike at the Sweetwater Nature Preserve, which backs up to Saguaro National Park. The size and quantity of saguaro cacti was astonishing! See for yourself below!
I have subtitled this post “Part 1” because I expect that I will revisit the topic of intentional community periodically throughout the year.
Intentional Christian Community is one of the core values of the Young Adult Volunteer program. It is one of the reasons that I was more drawn to YAV than other service year programs. I thought that I knew, more or less, what intentional Christian community meant. I am learning, though, that I did not. In fact, I’ve been living in it for nearly two months, and I still feel like I am barely scratching the surface of fully understanding intentional community.
Although this post will mostly focus on the positive aspects of intentional community, it would be deceptive not to mention the challenges. When I imagined intentional Christian community prior to my arrival, I pictured theological discussions, playing board games, and sharing meals. (All of which are regular occurrences, by the way). What I did not consider were multi-hour long conversations about the house budget, tensions caused by trying to cooperatively write a grocery list, navigating conversations that were too deep for my patience or energy levels at the moment, or figuring out how to kindly ask a housemate to stop using my bath towel. All of that being said, communication and cooperation within our house have improved with time. As we get to know each other better, we are finding patterns and rhythms that work well for the four of us.
Not only was I naive to the challenges that intentional community would entail, I did not know the joy and comfort that it could bring. I feel deeply cared for by my three housemates. I get the sense that they want to get to know me– really get to know me– so that they can better support me. I know that their love and friendship is always there, but sometimes days go by without giving it much thought. But there have been a few instances in which it really hits me: I acutely feel intentional community.
One of those times was on Wednesday night during our community meal. We have community meals every Wednesday and Friday, which means that one house member decides what to cook and buys the ingredients, and all four of us cook and eat together. This Wednesday’s meal was a bit different than the rest, though, because we were short a compadre. Miranda went home because of a family emergency, and so was not physically with us. We did, though, Skype her in. Tanner, Ryan, and I gathered around the laptop, and shared with Miranda our recent trials and joys. We expressed our support to her and her family. She shared her concern and solidarity for me, as my family is currently facing a crisis that is uncannily similar to hers. At the end of our Skype call, Miranda asked if we wanted to pray together. Tanner, Ryan, and I joined hands. The four of us took turns praying for each other– deep, genuine prayers of concern and love. In that moment, I thought, “This is intentional Christian community.”
I also felt a strong sense of intentional community a couple of weeks ago when the four of us attended dinner with a Tucson Borderlands YAV board member. It was probably nothing like you would expect dinner with a board member to be. This board member, Julie Karra, lives with her family in an intentional community here in Tucson. The community is comprised of 11 adults, some with grown children, some with young families, and some single. There are several houses and a condo-like building that back up into a large outdoor space. In the outdoor space is a chicken coop, a reverse osmosis water tank, a washing machine, a bike rack, lots of space for kids to run and play, and a large wooden table where they share a meal every Friday evening. We were fortunate enough to have been invited to partake in one of their Friday community meals. Everyone there seemed to deeply care for each other and be excited to hear how everyone’s week went. The kids seemed to trust all of the adults, regardless of whether they were their parents or not, which reminded me of the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I was inspired by the happiness that I witnessed in this cooperative, simple living-focused community.
I learn more about community and what it means everyday. While I realize that living in intentional Christian community will not be without its challenges in the next 10 months, I am excited to live into the joy and support that it can offer.