This last week, as I believe many of you know, a group of five others from Epworth and myself were in the Tucson area to offer what assistance we could at The Inn, a respite center run by a collaboration of United Methodist churches. The Inn opened its doors, which is really just the length of basement under the sanctuary which used to be a youth space, and has provided showers, fresh clothes, food and much needed sleep for thousands of mothers—some of them pregnant--fathers, children, babies, since December of 2016. Typically, The Inn serves 60 people at a time, and we expected that even though The Inn has fewer guests in the summer--the temperature hit over 110 degrees while we were there--there would be a lot to do to assist those who were present and prepare for the many more persons who would likely be coming when the weather turns cooler.
As it turned out, there were only two families when we arrived, whose needs were mostly being met by the regular Inn volunteers, so we focused on cleaning and organizing projects. On the afternoon of our first day, we had the privilege of seeing the sheer joy on the faces of the children when they swarmed their aunt as she came through the door, arriving to drive them to Phoenix where they would await an immigration hearing. Within a day, the other family had departed as well, and the projects needing to be done had been done.
Through a conversation with the United Methodist campus minister who partners with The Inn—the campus ministry being essentially on the same site—we learned of two projects that welcomed additional volunteers: End Operation Streamline and Humane Borders. It began to feel like God had something else in mind for us to do while we were in the borderlands.
Operation Streamline was established as policy in Texas in 2005, and quickly spread to other border states. Through Operation Streamline, crossing the border was changed from a civil to a criminal offense. After being initially detained, immigrants must go before a federal magistrate in groups of up to 70, with no more than 10-30 minutes preparation with a public defender. Typically, migrants accept a plea bargain, changing their charge from felony to misdemeanor, and in cases of re-entry, a prison sentence of 30-180 days. The rationale for Operation Streamline was that the consequences would be so high for crossing a border, the policy would be a deterrent. As a deterrent, Operation Streamline has been shown to have no effect on border crossings, but as a way to generate profits for the private prison system in the US, Operation Streamline has been shown to have a significant effect. Operation Streamline and the criminalization of migrants have contributed to record profits for corporations like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America.
The End Operation Streamline Coalition is a faith based group who organize to end this practice through demonstrations, witnessing and courtroom observance every day at the federal courthouse in Tucson at 1:30pm. Since we had done what we could do at The Inn, our Epworth group went to the Federal Courthouse to bear witness. We didn’t have much instruction on what to do, just to go to the Federal Courthouse in downtown Tucson, take the elevator to the second floor and look for a “humanitarian looking person.” Fortunately, the holy spirit led us right to her. As the elevator door closed a woman entered, and I thought she looked more like a humanitarian than a lawyer, not that those are mutually exclusive of course, and she was indeed the person we were looking for. She briefed us on what was going to happen in the courtroom and then we all went in.
Within a few minutes, a group of about 30 men and 5 women came in, their brown skin browned further by sun exposure, each of them in 5 point shackles, inhibited from walking normally. The journey of each person, after weeks and months traveling through hot and perilous conditions, had ended here. A few turned around to look at us, one man in particular. After all of what he had been through, his face still held hope, and a question of “do you see what is happening here?”—an affirmation of his own humanity even if the shackles around his body were designed to diminish that. Each person in this first group plead guilty, and our humanitarian guide, who was recording the proceedings, taking notes on variations and sentences, told us they would have been deported that day---back across the desert, and then, in many cases, another attempt to cross the border and enter in the US.
Our scripture today from Hebrews, opens with these words: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days,” then the scripture goes on to recount many who persevered by faith and continues “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”
It was impossible for me to read this scripture without thinking of the hundreds of thousands of persons who are now crossing through our southern deserts. Throughout history, people have migrated, and the journey has resulted in persecution, imprisonment and in some cases even death. The day after we sat and bore witness in the courtroom, we headed out at 6am with the group Humane Borders to fill water barrels at water stations in the desert. The water stations follow migrant trails, barely visible and are placed strategically by analyzing death maps, literally maps with red dots where persons have perished due to exposure and dehydration. Many of these persons died alone, either because they travelled alone or because their travelling group had to leave them.
Each blue Humane Borders water barrel had a large sticker with the Virgin of Guadalupe. “Why are these stickers on each barrel?” we asked our guide, Mike, who is a retired police officer from Washington State. He told us that the coyotes who take money to guide migrants across the border tell them that the water in the Humane Borders barrels isn’t safe, that it has been tainted with gasoline or other poison. The sticker is an assurance that the water is safe, an answer to prayer. The faithfulness of the migrants was evident at every turn, faithfulness in a God who desires their safety and fullness of life, faithfulness in a savior who understands their suffering.
The scripture from Hebrews closes with these words, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
For the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, this passage was about the power of Jesus Christ to bring to fruition the hope of people of faith. The line “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and brokenness that clings to us and run with perseverance the race that is set before us” is a well-known and well-loved piece of scripture. In the phrase “cloud of witnesses” the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was referring specifically to the long list of persons from the Hebrew scriptures who struggled in faith, who are set before us as examples and guides. Times were hard in those days, and the writer was trying to say that even without the example of Christ, these persons persevered, sometimes overcoming and attaining their goal, and sometimes not. In Christ, these cloud of witnesses can offer the additional assurance that a suffering God accompanies them in the struggle.
The truth is that times are hard for migrants in these days, and all of us bear the weight of knowing that something terrible is happening around us and particularly at our borders. The only way through to the other side of this is to act in faith, day by day, to show up, to listen for the movement of the holy spirit who guides us in new directions even when we thought we were going to be doing something else. One of the things that struck all of us was that when we went to the weekly organizing meeting of Humane Borders, we found seven regular people around a table, average age probably about 60, who are the core of a lifeline for hundreds of thousands. When the bad news that surrounds us seems overwhelming, the good news is that we are surrounded by not only a great cloud of witnesses in history, but in the migrants who act in hope and perseverance, a great cloud of witnesses in today’s time. They call us into the future, God’s future, and inspire and embolden us to act. If those who travel across countries, through deserts and valleys can face all they encounter, what can’t we face?
On our last day in Tucson, Rose Kimber shared with me the words of a pastor in new England who we both follow. His prayer for the day seemed to have been written just for us:
Sustained by those who have come before, who endured so that we may be brought this far, we carry on, against all odds, against all opposition. We are not intimidated by the thought that we will not achieve our goal in our lifetime. Of course not. This is not for us, but for our children's children's children. Our little triumphs and failures are ennobled, not by our successes, but by the immense grace of the work to which we devote ourselves
May we follow all of our great cloud of witnesses and the one who promises always to walk with us, God with us.