September 19, 2010
Weatherly Heights Baptist Church
“A lot of water. A lot of light. And a God of the cosmos who changes ZIP codes.
Here is something I bet you didn’t know. In the original Greek, John 1:14 reads: “And the Word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us. Do ya’ll know what a “tabernacle” was? It was a tent used by the Hebrews to worship God in while they wandered in the desert during the Exodus.
A lot of water. A lot of light. And a God of the cosmos who changes ZIP codes by pitching his tent among aliens on the run from Pharaoh, wandering in a foreign desert.
And that gets me to the Migrant Trail Walk.
For those of you who don’t know, I have been an advocate for illegal migrants for a number of years now.
And what I have come to realize is that migrants are not being pulled by America, they are being pushed by economic policies which are far bigger than they are. And that because of the militarization of the border which began in conjunction with those policies, they are being pushed far away from the safety of crossing through the urban areas and into treacherous desert areas where to date the remains of around 5,000 migrants—men, women, children, and babies—have been recovered. And that these deaths were anticipated by the Federal government which thought they would act as a “deterrent” to illegal migration. If you want to, you can go online and read about this policy of deterrence in the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service’s document called the Southwest Border Strategy.
I’ve talked a lot about these things.
For the past seven years, a coalition of groups which advocate for migrants has gotten people to go on a 75 mile long walk through Arizona’s Sonora Desert to call attention to migrant deaths.
In May of 2010, I decided to stop talking for a little while and join the walkers. We began by driving from Tucson to a place called Sasabe. Sasabe is at the end of a section of border wall, and there is not much there other than a few lonely Border Patrol agents.
For symbolic reasons, we walked from the station a few steps over into Mexico, turned around, came back, showed our passports and began our six days of walking, much of it through the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. The temperature was in the 90s.
And when I say we walked, that is what we did. We walked. And we walked. And we walked. We walked as many as 15 miles a day. And every day the temperature rose. By the time we walked into Tucson, 75 miles later, the temperature was a deadly 108 degrees.
We had been cautioned to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants and hats on our heads so that we wouldn’t succumb to the treacherous Arizona sun. And to wear sturdy hiking shoes so that we wouldn’t twist an ankle stepping over rock after rock.
And we were on the constant watch-out for cactus, especially little barrel shaped cactus called cholla which has evil fish-hooks on the ends of numerous spines and which jumps on you as you pass by. And when we would see those little, evil cacti we would call out: “Cholla!”
When we reached our campsite for the day, we would put shade up over our heads and lay a plastic cloth on the ground and sit very close together and wait—for hours—for the stifling heat to subside. And I would use my bedroll to elevate my swollen legs and someone I did not know would have his feet in my face and it was at this point that I would say, “I can’t stand this.” But once it was cooler we would pitch our tents because if you pitched your tent while it was hot, your tent would become an oven.
I was well outside my ZIP code. I don’t camp. I cannot emphasize this enough. My idea of roughing it is when the bathroom is down the hall.
But mainly I was outside my ZIP code because I was with people whose backgrounds are quite unlike mine. And because we had a lot of time on our hands the words flew.
And there were really only two people who spoke my native tongue. One was a man, about my age, who grew up Baptist in Mississippi, moved to Oregon, became a Mennonite, and can sing “Jesus Is On the Main Line” like nobody’s business. But he told me that when he first moved to Mississippi as a child, he had not understood the significance of Southern mores. And he remembers being surrounded once by a gang of kids who had him on the ground and were kicking him and yelling “kill the nigger-lover!” And I could relate to what he had been through.
And there was a young singer / songwriter who, after graduating from a Presbyterian college in North Carolina, had spent a year in a Mexican shelter for migrants who have been deported and was on his way home. One of his songs is called “Birmingham” and the refrain is: “Mr. Politician, its time to take a stand about the state of things. One thing that we don’t need here in the sand is another Birmingham, another burnin’ Birmingham.”
That was 2 people out of 56 who spoke my language. There was also a big, angry, cowboy member of a peace and justice group. There was a young Native American man who was on the walk for Native American reasons who the big, angry, peace and justice cowboy deported back to Tucson because he wouldn’t wear a shirt.
There was a leather-faced man who said the Gila monster was his totem. He said that he had been walking in the desert once when he approached a Gila monster who reminded him that he—the Gila monster—had been there first and asked the man to respect that. When I asked this man about his Native American religion he looked puzzled and said, “No. I’m not Native American. I’m Quaker.”
There was a man-of-few-words Peruvian Methodist minister from Rhode Island who was not crazy about the Native American who wouldn’t wear his shirt.
There was a Franciscan monk, formerly Lutheran, who walked with his brown robe over his jeans.
There was a gay woman who grew up Jewish in Morelos, Mexico but is now an atheist and a gay man from Washington, DC who also grew up Jewish and who also is now an atheist. The gay, born as a Jew Mexican woman told me that two years ago, her sister had crossed illegally through the same area we were in. She had had a good smuggler, a good coyote as they say, who got word of drug deals in the area. To avoid the drug smugglers, he had had to move his group through an area of the desert unknown to him and they wandered, lost, for two days and two nights.
There was a Mexican-American transgendering lawyer named Mel who, after I told him about the death of my daughter Leigh Anna, got together a group of people to sing “I’ll Fly Away” because he loves the song and thought it would mean something to me.
And there was a Mexican botanist who, when he could find two scraggly trees, would string up a hammock and say, “Just relax.” And he would wash our feet and put ointment and bandages on our blisters. And the big, angry, peace and justice cowboy got mad because he said that had never been done before on the Migrant Trail Walk.
And so we ZIP code changing, form changing, tent pitching aliens in a foreign desert walked. And we walked. And we walked. 75 miles. Six days.
And our experience was nothing like that of migrants because we had two things migrants don’t have. A lot of light. And a lot of water.
We found our way by the light of day. Migrants, on the other hand, move at night in order to escape being detected. The cholla cactus—that evil little cactus with the fish hooks which jumps on you—we could see and warn one another of. But migrants can’t see the cholla or any other cactus, can’t see snakes, can’t see Gila monsters, can’t see ants, can’t see rocks or ravines. And during the daytime, they hide in the ravines and cover themselves with debris among the cholla and snakes.
Once I asked a little boy and his sister who had migrated through this wilderness to tell me about their experiences. The little boy said, “Well, I was a little bit scared.” And when I asked why, he said, “Cause in the desert there are-are-are lizards and-and-and-snakes.” And his sister said she remembered the long grass that was always poking her and always sticking her. And I asked, “Were you scared?” And when she said yes, I asked her why and she said, “Because I used to be afraid of the dark.” And it took me years to comprehend what she had meant.
We had a lot of light.
And we had a lot of water. It takes a gallon of water per person per day to survive the heat of the scorching Sonora Desert. And it takes six days of walking in a straight line to get from Sasabe to Tucson. Do the math. One person cannot possibly carry six gallons of water or more if that person is carrying water for a little girl or a grandfather.
So, in order for us to change our symbolic ZIP codes, we had to have water brought to us. We had to have a lot of water brought to us.
There is a group in Arizona called Humane Borders which places water in the desert for migrants. They came out from Tucson every day, bringing enough water so that every hour and a half we could refill our water bottles and soak our bandanas in ice water. And every three hours we got a full rest stop where we refilled our water bottles and ate fresh fruit and salted nuts and completely replenished the nutrients our bodies need so that we could keep going.
And in the evenings, after the day cooled off a bit, other groups brought us food—cold salads and ice cream. And a tile artisan troubadour who grew up in Nogales, Mexico, the city which has a twin city in Arizona—twins cities divided by a militarized border wall—would come out in the evenings from Tucson and sing his songs about deaths in foreign deserts.
But the best part was the water. One evening the people from Humane Borders came with their water truck. And they brought a hose and a bottle of shampoo. And for no reason whatsoever other than their great generosity of spirit towards us, they shampooed our hair. And the desert sand turned to mud and splashed on our legs but we didn’t care because our hair was clean and we were cool and we all laughed like little kids. And I got so carried away by this baptism in generosity and shampoo and the great river of water brought in by truck that I told them it was like the kingdom of heaven drawn near.
And so, we had a little adventure. But the 5,000 migrants whose remains have been recovered from the American Southwest were not enjoying a little adventure. They had risked it all and had lost.
In February, 2008, a man whose name is Daniel Millis and several others with a group called No More Deaths discovered the body of 14-year-old Josseline Janiletha Hernandez Quintero. Josseline and her 10 year old brother had been trying to re-unite with their mother who had migrated to Los Angeles. They were from El Salvador and already had crossed, illegally, through Guatemala and had made it safely across Mexico’s 2,000 hostile miles.
Talk about changing ZIP codes.
She and her party finally had crossed near Sasabe—the place we had begun our walk. But Josseline could no longer keep up and her coyote left her behind. It was January and the weather was as treacherous as it is in July. A winter rain had come up and the temperature had dropped to 29 degrees. And so Josseline froze to death, alone in an alien desert, wearing her pink-lined jacket, her green tennis shoes, and a pair of sweat pants which said “Hollywood” on the seat.
On February 8, 2008, Daniel Millis, one of the people who had discovered Josseline’s body, was arrested by agents of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was arrested for littering—for leaving garbage in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. The garbage he had left was gallon jugs of water which he had set out for migrants.
There are many people in Arizona who are responding to the humanitarian crisis on our southern border. A group called Samaritan Patrol travels along the migrant trails calling out to migrants hiding in the ravines and thorns. As they walk they call out in singsong Spanish: “We have water! Food! Medicine! We are not Border Patrol! We are from a church! We have water! Food!” Sometimes migrants will come out and sometimes they won’t.
Once, a group was walking and calling out their singsong. No migrants had come out and eventually they turned around to go back to the road. And to their astonishment, there on the trail were a few migrants, a few of the expelled people, with a little water and a little food. The migrants, who were unfamiliar with the Samaritans’ accent, had misunderstood and thought they were begging for help. And so these aliens in a foreign desert risked coming out into the light to bring life to the Samaritans.
Talk about words becoming flesh.
There is a young mother in Huntsville who crossed that alien desert with her infant. Border Patrol was in the area and so, to keep the agents from hearing them, the coyote covered the baby’s mouth to silence it. When he took his hand away, he realized he had smothered the baby.
A lot of light. A lot of water. And the freedom not to be silent.
And so finally we got into Tucson. It was late morning and the temperature was 108 degrees. Well-wishers were there, applauding, and Fox TV. And the big, angry, peace and justice cowboy made a speech about how important it is to stop migrant deaths and cried. And a priest met us and had an old-fashioned foot washing ceremony. And the priest cried.
A lot of water. A lot of light. And the freedom not to be silent.
Which brings me back to where I started. To the Beginning. To that time before God began God’s six days of creativity. To that time when the earth was a formless void—a lot of nothing covered by darkness. Characterized by immobility and silence. But then something happened. During God’s six days of activity, God sent a wind to interrupt the immobility. And God broke the silence by speaking light into being. And this spoken Word which called light into being was God. And all things came into being through this Word God and without this Word God not one thing came into being. And what came into being was life and the life was light and the darkness could not overcome it. And the Word God changed shape and changed form and moved over a great distance and pitched a tent in the midst of people who had been pushed from Egypt and were wandering, aliens in a foreign desert.
And make no mistake—this was not what Pharaoh had in mind. What Pharaoh had in mind was immobility and people who adjusted to their status. And what Caesar had in mind was immobility and people who adjusted to their status. What Pharaoh had in mind was death. What Caesar had in mind was death.
But immobility and death were not what God had in mind. The God who spoke Living Waters and Light and Spatial Mobility into being had Life in mind. And the God who changed form and crossed the boundary line did so without papers and without the permission of Pharaoh and his agents, of Caesar and his agents.
And so illegal migration is a complex and complicated issue that is here to stay. But the most fundamental issue is not at all complicated. The most fundamental issue—the theological issue—is: whom do we serve? Pharaoh and Caesar and their idols of death? Or the God of life?
Would you pray with me?”
©Ellin Jimmerson, 2010