For those who missed our Feb. 1 sharing at Park View Mennonite, you are warmly welcomed to come to Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s chapel on Feb. 14 at 11 a.m. in Martin Chapel. Abby, Kent, and Valerie will be sharing as a part of the regular chapel worship.
Hello friends! This is just a reminder that if you’re interested in seeing what photos we’ve been able to take, hearing what stories we have inside of us to tell, and the ability to ask us questions, we’ll be hosting a sharing and talkback event this evening at Park View Mennonite Church at 7:00 pm.
I think it’s fair to say on behalf of all of us that we are anxious to share our experiences with the churches and people that sent us. We’re so thankful for the opportunity to have gone to this part of the world and offered what skills we have to work for the betterment of humanity and safety and care of all we came in contact with.
In addition, we’d like to thank all of you that have followed us on the blog over the following week+ and those that have offered support via the GoFundMe. We could not have done this without you.
Thank you more than you can ever know.
As the delegation ‘re-enters’ to life here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, one of the things we each wanted to commit to was to continue learning about immigration justice and to work locally at the reality that border issues are present here, too. Included in this post are a few links to further reading about the situation at the border and about immigration justice issues. We invite you to share further resources with us as well!
From Zinn Education Project – Looking at the history of deportations in the U.S.
From Voices of San Diego – A Year of Chaos and Confusion at the Border
From NY Times – an article on the list system, which we will talk about on Friday.
Very briefly, John–who sported the best beard of all my merry traveling companions–loaned me the book cited above, and I was able to burn through it, mostly on the airplane ride home. I found it a moving, evocative, spiritual, and informative memoir about the history of–and contemporary life along–the US/Mexico border. Cantu is a Mexican-American who served with the US Border Patrol in the Southwest and Texas (both in the field and intelligence centers) for 4 years as an enterprising, young man, until his conscience, stress, pain, and haunted dreams caught up with him (leaving the Patrol to pursue graduate studies in international relations, the history of the border, and creative writing).
This book weaves together his personal experiences in the border patrol–providing a unique insider’s perspective–with his family story growing up as a Mexican-American, all overlaid with enlightening historical snap-shots of key moments in the history of the border (how it came to be and has changed over the years), as well as the every-hundred-years cycle of violent upheavals that seems to have framed modern Mexican history. In the process it provides a chilling window into the virulent drug war that has traumatized Mexicans–especially in the last 12 years–in a way that I don’t think most Americans comprehend.
The final third of the book follows his unplanned post-Patrol friendship with an older man who works as a custodian, who Cantu gradually gets to know through his side-work as a barrista. This generous elder had lived in the US without documents for 30 years. He is a hard-working, church-going, neighborly, family man, supporting a wife and 3 young, US-born children. As a result of a fateful choice to return to his home-town in Mexico to say good-bye to his dying mother, the man falls into a Kafkaesque trap of misfortune, detention, deportation, and separation from his family. This last, heart-breaking section provides one model of how a citizen might befriend and stand in solidarity with an immigrant neighbor in very practical, concrete, if at times painful, ways.
The memoir also traces Cantu’s evolving relationship with his own mother and his coming to terms, like her, with his identity as a Mexican and an American, and the desire that somehow these two cultures would have a more fruitful, just, and mutually respectful and informed relationship, going forward. Especially after the first short section or two, this book became a real “page-turner” for me, sweeping me along with its narrative power. I call it a real “skull-cracker” and bone-breaker, metaphorically, for the tear-evoking force of its human story of truth, change, pain, violence, power, struggle, friendship, family, and heritage, of painful love between people and people and people and the land. I’m returning this copy to the downtown H-burg library.
Spoiler Alert: if you are coming to hear our little group in person (this Friday, 7 PM, in the Parkview Mennonite Fellowship Hall), I will share there much of what follows. So, you could just hear it then and skip over this post. If not, here is a summary sketch of my experience at the border, especially as it revolved around my particular work at the World Central Kitchen, Tijuana branch (or “TJ”, hereafter, as the cool locals like to call it).
First, a few Caveats:
#1) Few things smack you in the forehead more forcefully about one’s own power and privilege than having the opportunity to go on a trip like this, to learn, to serve, to accompany, to stand in solidarity with, to steward stories, or whatever label you want to put on it, especially when you are going on someone else’s dime (our generous H-burg church supporters).
#2) Representing my particular congregation (Community Mennonite), I am well aware that I could count on both hands, both feet, and probably all my teeth the number of other individuals in our church that would have been better suited and skilled than I to go on this delegation. But, as I assume is the case with God, so with CMC in this particular situation, you go with the best available option, even if it isn’t particularly promising!
#3) Finally, and more poignantly and precisely with regards to Caveat #1 (about recognizing one’s power and privilege as, in my case, a white, American, middle-class, graduate-school educated, Christian, hetero, male) there is something surreal-bordering-on-obscene that I, with ease and largely light spirits, crossed the US/Mexico border at San Ysidro/Tijuana 5 times in 4 days, while for hundreds of thousands of my hermanos y hermanas this obstacle constitutes an often grueling, soul-sapping, traumatizing, dehumanizing, and, too often, impossible challenge, sometimes with literally life-and-death consequences and always with life-altering import for them and their families.
So, caveats in place…most of my days were spent at the World Central Kitchen (WCK, hereafter), TJ branch, as I said. Sanctuary Caravan, (SC hereafter), partnered with several organizations on the ground on both sides of the border, seconding some of its volunteers in a collaborative way. WCK was founded by a famous, five-star type Spanish chef, with the mission of making substantial, high-quality, healthy, daily meals in places in crisis and recovering from natural and man-made disasters. (This is one thing Trump gets right: the US/Mexico border is a crisis and a cruelty for many of our immigrant friends and has been for decades.) For example, they made hundreds of thousands of meals in Puerto Rico in the year following Hurricane Maria. (I realized a few days into my kitchen assignment that this was the organization/chef featured on a 60 Minutes segment I had happened to watch a few weeks earlier!)
Similarly to SC’s “40 Days at the Border” campaign, WCK had opened a branch in TJ in response to the November Caravan that Trump made a prominent part of his mid-term elections rhetoric. At its peak during these past 2 months in TJ, WCK’s little kitchen was producing 3000 meals a day, but during the week I was there it was more like 1000 meals/day, as some of the November caravaners had either: gotten their number called and crossed over into asylum-seeking detention on the San Diego side; become demoralized and headed home; settled into Mexico for the time being; crossed over to la otra lado (the other side) by other means; or fallen victim to harm, violence, or other misfortune in one way or another. However, another thousands-strong caravan from Central America (but including West Africans and other desperate global migrant-friends) was arriving in TJ as we left, so I believe the demand for food for hungry sojourners will continue for the foreseeable future.
The main migrant camp the kitchen delivered meals to twice-daily was called Barratal, but they also providing their meals to 5 or 6 local shelters in the TJ area. (To show the somewhat informal nature of the operation, the names of these camps and shelters–with corresponding numbers representing migrant friends–were written in magic marker on big pieces of white-paper taped to the walls of the kitchen, not unlike what one might see in a typical Sunday School room.) As I was leaving I was told by WCK longer-term staff that they were moving cooking equipment out to this camp, as the remaining migrants had organized and were willing and able to do cooking for themselves, if the entire camp itself was not closed-down by the Mexican authorities, as was being threatened during our week there.
The best part of the kitchen scene for me (beyond the wonderful food, of which I was generously invited to partake most lunches and suppers with the rest of the “family”, as they called whatever mix of staff and volunteers happened to come together for that day of comida/food production) was learning to know a little bit some of the multinational crew that made the place go, 7 days a week. There were migrant-volunteers and staff, from pretty much every country in Central America; there were regular local Tijuanan volunteers and staff; there was a WCK chef-organizer visiting from Guatemala (where she had been helping respond to the recent volcano eruption in her home country) to help out and see how things were done at the TJ branch (who was, interestingly, of Palestinian heritage); there were the “pro” chefs from the USA; and then there were longer and shorter-term “gringo” volunteers like myself (some from our particular week’s training group of SCers, but also from beyond our group). No one will soon forget the impression made by the kitchen “momma”, who had cheffed in Chicago for more than twenty years, and I also appreciated working under the direction of a fellow Pennsylvanian, a twenty-something woman who had been assisting the TJ project from the get-go.
Slicing and dicing at our work-stations was just the right space and pace for me to engage in basic Spanish conversations with my Latino/a co-workers and being there for four consecutive days allowed me to have second and third conversations with some of these folks, getting a small sense of their lives and vice-versa. And keeping us chopping to the beat was an awesome rock-and-roll soundtrack that would segue from The Beatles to Blondie to Beyonce and beyond! My last afternoon there we were working ahead to the next day (Saturday) and I was able to be a part of a well-oiled production of some 700, individually-wrapped ham sandwiches. This was perhaps not quite as impressive as Jesus’ Feeding of the 5000 (or even 4000) but it was the closest thing to it that I’ve seen!
One last anecdote to wrap up my reflection, that captures the kind of random encounter one could have in a place like TJ. Crossing a pedestrian bridge over the concrete-lined, dirty, trash-filled, but still-flowing Rio Tijuana–as I did each day to get to the kitchen–I would observe immigrants living as best as they could under concrete over-hangs alongside the river. (You may have seen images of this sharply-sloped concrete zone on the national news, the day some caravaner-friends, including women and children, attempted to run up the sides and over the US wall and were tear-gassed.) I had some left-over bagels from an a SC training, the breakfast table of which John and I had helped set-up that morning on the San Diego side. I decided to wander down to a rag-tag cluster of folks and offer them my bagels. (I have to confess, I ate one last half myself for my own lunch, showing how strong the impulse to meet my own needs first is.) I met a friendly young guy from Honduras who had lived in San Fran for awhile but had seemingly either been deported or returned home for other reasons. He had his brother with him this time and they had traveled 3 months with the caravan to get this far. He talked about the long walking, the hot days, and Trump. He said they were going to try to cruzar (cross over) that night. I wished him buen suerte (good luck) but later wished I had added vaya con Dios (go with God). Lord knows they needed it and my faith remains that God did go with them. But even Dios needs boots on the ground to accompany amigos in small ways and large, on their journey toward justice, a better life, and a border transformed into a multinational bridge.
I described this as a “random” encounter and it was. But organizations like SC and WCK on the border–and Faith Allies, , COSPU and New Bridges here in the Burg–seek out such encounters intentionally and stand in solidarity strategically, and this is what I believe all congregations of Jesus-followers should also pursue in this moment of unprecedented global refugee crisis, in a myriad of unique and appropriate ways fitting their particular contexts. That is my challenge to myself and to you all.
In doing so, I will leave you with the 3 guiding principles/practices shaping the SC “40 Days at the Border” campaign (a start-up operation that, by its own admission, was building the plane as it it flew it on this 2-month “experiment in truth”, to quote Gandhi, and thus encountering its fair share of turbulence along the way). These principles are:
#1) No Judgment: of the choices made by our sojourning friends, whose lead we are called to follow, as they make decisions for themselves, hopefully with the best information they can get, sometimes provided by a group like SC.
#2) Respect: of our sojourning friends, our co-workers, partner-organizations, and the work itself (plugging in as best as one can for the good of the collective and de-centering one’s own ambitions, expectations, anxieties, and need for affirmations) and, I might add, respect for our sending congregations, too.
#3) Finally, Do No Harm, as the Buddha, Hippocrates, and Jesus have all said in their own ways.
paz en Christo,
Kent Davis Sensenig
The delegation returned safely home last evening. As we process our experience and its importance in the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Cty. context, we invite you to join us this Friday, February 1 at 7pm for more stories and reflections. We will meet at Park View Mennonite Church in the Fellowship Hall. All welcome, free entry.
Over the course of our far too few days/nights here, I’ve been challenging myself not to take photos. “This sucks,” I think every time I catch myself as I’m reaching for my camera phone, “I want to remember that!” Every time I redirect myself, I struggle to let go of the feeling that I’m somehow losing the ability to capture moments and persons of significance to me.
As you may have read in one of my earlier blog posts, Do No Harm, we are strictly prohibited from taking photos of organization meeting places, workspaces, volunteers, and Friends. Capturing the image of any of the aforementioned could result in a breech of privacy, trust, and friendship: all things the coordinators and volunteers with Sanctuary Caravan have intentionally and painstakingly built here in Tijuana.
In addition to persons fleeing from conditions, gangs, and violence in their home countries, we need to remember that there are persons hiding from other persons within the caravan that is in Tijuana. Even having a camera out around them can cause trauma. That cost is just too great for one or two semi-blurred photographs. I think I can make it.
In the absence of taking photos, I’ve realized I’ve been pushing myself to respond to what I’m taking in in other ways. I’ve tried to become a human-camera of sorts. Using my IPad Pro that I was given for my birthday this fall, I’ve been both writing and sketching throughout the week. Included below is a bit of the work that I’ve done on the artistic front. These pieces are inspired by things I’ve seen, experienced, as well as the stories and experiences of others.