Dear President Obama, Turn The Grief-Bearing Ship Around

The Wall, Sasabe, fence and barrier

 

In a different form, this article originally appeared in the Mobile Press Register, 2011. Altered, it appeared in Patheos.com, August 29, 2014.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2014/08/an-open-letter-to-president-obama-and-members-of-the-united-state-congress-turn-the-grief-bearing-ship-around/

Dear President Obama and Members of Congress,

I am a Baptist Minister to the Community. My ministry focuses on the production of a migrant justice documentary, narrated by Martin Sheen, called The Second Cooler. I first felt called to make the documentary because I was heartbroken for the families, especially the mothers, whose children died under the blazing Arizona sun as they were trying to cross the heavily militarized border into the United States.

Through a terrible twist of fate, I joined them in grief.

On the night of April 17, 2009, my sixteen year old daughter, Leigh Anna, and her precious boyfriend were killed by a drunk driver in Huntsville. The car exploded on impact and Leigh Anna’s tiny body was consumed by flames. The driver was an undocumented migrant from Mexico.

My family and I lost a lot that night. A daughter, an only sister, a granddaughter, the son-in-law we might have had, grandchildren, an aunt, cousins. And on that fiery night we became one of the broken families with broken hearts and broken dreams.

One of my favorite memories of Leigh Anna was the day, about two years before her death, when she went with me to Athens. The Ku Klux Klan was holding an anti-immigrant protest. We went to participate in a counter-protest. I remember her holding a neon-yellow sign, as big as she was, that had one word written on it in big, black letters: LOVE.

I have my memories, but I grieve and I grieve and I grieve.

There is nothing special about my grief. It is no different from that of the young mother in Huntsville whose infant was suffocated by an anxious coyote in that treacherous southwestern desert. Or the grandparents of other children who have died of the brutal cold there, alone and scared. Or of the children whose fathers have been snatched from them and put into deportation. Or the mothers now making plans for someone else to take their children if they should be deported.

And I am reminded of Mary, prostrate with grief at the foot of her crucified son.

I am reminded that recklessness does not belong only to drunk drivers. Or to police officers engaged in high-speed chases.

Recklessness also belongs to the powers, princes, and potentates who wash their hands of the grieving people they accept as the collateral damage of their policies and programs. Who wash their hands of the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams.

And as I think long thoughts about Leigh Anna and that reckless night, I recall that I worship the God who said, “No!” to Pharaoh and his recklessness. The God who said, “No!” to Nebuchadnezzar and his recklessness. The God who said “No!” to Caesar and his recklessness.

I worship the God of the Exodus, the God of protection for those in fiery furnaces, the God of Resurrection. The God who takes sides with the broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams. The God who defies expectations and delights in dramatic reversals.

I remember Saul on the road to Damascus who heard a voice saying, Saul, “Why do you persecute me?” And he encountered himself in that profound moment and Saul became Paul, announcing the reality of the God who had effected the dramatic reversal, the dramatic “No!” to Caesar, the dramatic Resurrection.

And I recall John Newton, steering his deadly ship filled with desperate, grieving human beings bound for slavery. And that in an unexpected moment John Newton encountered himself on that alien sea, encountered his own recklessness, turned around his ship with its cargo of broken families, broken hearts, and broken dreams unsold, and wrote those endlessly beautiful words, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

President Obama and members of the United States Congress, in the days and weeks ahead, the political talk and strategizing about “comprehensive immigration reform” will resume. In its guise as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, “reform” is a deadly ship, a ship filled with nothing but more broken families, more broken hearts, and more broken dreams.

But I believe you already know this. In your efforts to further militarize our southwestern border with this package, carelessly disregarding the more migrants who are sure to lose their lives there, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to extend the system of indentured servitude duplicitously called the Guest Worker Program, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives. In your effort to push all undocumented people into the deportation system under the guise of a “path to citizenship”, you already know you are being reckless with other people’s lives.

I am asking you to encounter yourselves as did Paul and John Newton and turn this deadly grief-bearing ship around. I am asking you to reject political calculating with other people’s lives and begin working for justice.

 

A Christian Border Patrol Agent’s Reflection on The Border Wall

Now that Donald Trump has been elected president, immigration as a topic of Christian concern has re-surfaced—or, in some cases, simply surfaced.

My mind often wanders to this encounter I had with a deeply reflective Border Patrol agent on an airplane between Tucson, Arizona and Guanajuato, Mexico in 2011. I had gone to the area on the US/Mexico border to shoot footage for my migrant justice documentary, The Second Cooler, narrated by Martin Sheen.

My cinematographer, Adam Valencia, and I had been in the Sonoran Desert with Mike Wilson, a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Mike, a former Special Operations military officer in El Salvador and Presbyterian lay minister in Sells, Arizona, had long defied tribal elders’ prohibition on putting water in the desert for migrants attempting to cross through it into the United States. This despite the fact that the brutal desert had already taken the lives of at least 5,000 migrants.

Photo by Alejandra Platt. Used by permission.

Photo by Alejandra Platt. Used by permission.

Mike has four stations among the rattlesnakes and cacti where he sets out water: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, and St. John. He arranges them in the shape of a cross so any passing migrant will feel confident the water has not been poisoned.

As we were heading back to Tucson after shooting, while still on the reservation, we encountered a young, indigenous migrant from Oaxaca in southern Mexico. He name, oddly enough in this deathtrap, was Eulogio—eulogy. He was eighteen years old and had been wandering with his party in the desert for ten days. The previous three days he had neither food nor water. He was weak and asked us to call Border Patrol so he could turn himself in. Eulogio did not want to die in a foreign desert. He wanted to return home to his wife and seven month old son.

After Adam and I boarded the plane to journey on to Guanajuato, I called my husband to tell him about our encounter with Eulogio. When the call was finished, the young man sitting next to me on the plane asked me, “What kind of work do you do?” “I’m a filmmaker,” I said. “What kind of film?” “Immigration.” “What kind of work do you do?” “Border Patrol.”  We were delighted at the coincidence and laughed.

The agent told me his name was Steve. We chatted a long time.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Steve and his three brothers had been abandoned as young children by their parents in an orphanage where they languished for years. They had become so mentally disturbed that they used to urinate and defecate on one another. Eventually they were rescued by an American Mennonite couple. Over time, all recovered from the traumas of abandonment and abuse.

The brothers grew up on the principles of peace and non-involvement with the military. When Steve told his mother he was going to join the Border Patrol, holding to her faith principles, she objected to his decision.

Adam Valencia and Eulogio

Adam Valencia and Eulogio

When we met on the plane, Steve had been with Border Patrol for only about a year, but had turned in his resignation. He said he had decided to become a BP agent because he wanted to work outdoors and because he wanted to help stop drug trafficking. Steve learned, though, as he said, that being a Border Patrol agent really was about destroying people’s dreams. The dreams of people who were just like he had been earlier in his life. When he would find migrants wandering in the desert, they would beg him for their lives. He said they were as dependent on his mercy as he and his brothers had been on the mercy of strangers in that miserable orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

I asked Steve, “What is the youngest migrant you have ever captured in the desert?” He pointed to the baby daughter in his lap, dressed in pink frills and just beginning to stand. “About her age,” he said.

Painting by Guadalupe Serrano, used by permission.

Painting by Guadalupe Serrano, used by permission.

“I can’t do this any more”, Steve said. He reflected on the long, heavily militarized border wall called El Muro by many Latinos. “When we build border walls,” he said, “we act like we don’t believe in God at all. Our security is not in walls and Border Patrol agents. Our security is in God. We say we believe in God, but we act like we don’t believe in Him at all.”

Steve would not let me interview him on camera, although I asked him several times. I have no idea where he is now or what he is doing. His reflection on what it means to believe in God, however, will remain with me forever.

Dear Mr. Trump: You Do Not Represent Me

IMG_0293Dear Mr. Trump,

At the Republican National Convention last week, you invoked the names of parents whose children had been killed by undocumented immigrants. You indicated your impression that you represent them and their interests.

I want to let you know that my child, too, was killed by an undocumented immigrant. But you do not in any way represent me or my interests.

The picture here was taken of Leigh Anna Jimmerson, my 16 year old daughter, and her 19 year old boyfriend, Tad Joseph Mattle, on the night they died. You may be able to tell from the expressions on their faces that they were happy, beautiful people. I can tell you that to her family, Leigh Anna was Christmas, as they say. She was the Dancing Queen. Mardi Gras all year long.

On the night of April 17, 2009, an undocumented drunk driver slammed into them as they were stopped at a red light at a busy intersection in Huntsville, Alabama. The driver was being pursued, at a high speed, by a police officer. They died immediately. Tad’s car exploded on impact and Leigh Anna’s body burned up.

I am fortunate in that I was able to forgive the undocumented drunk driver. I never felt any anger toward him. I felt no hatred toward him. It just seemed to me that it had been a terribly bad night for everyone involved. I have often been grateful that in addition to the sadness that I carry with me every day of my life, I am not also burdened with bitterness.

imagesFor what it might be worth to you, this picture is one of my favorites of Leigh Anna. It was taken two years before she died. She had elected to go with me to a rally the Ku Klux Klan was having in Athens, Alabama. They were protesting illegal immigrants. We went to a counter protest. She was a little nervous, as you can imagine, but she wanted to go anyway. Once there, she held this sign which, as you can see, was as big as she.

As we were leaving the rally, a Klansman or Klan supporter said something rude to her (she never would tell me what he had said). I heard her say to him, laughing: “Love you back!”

At the trial the driver was convicted on two counts of murder. After the sentencing, he asked to speak to the families. He acknowledged what he had done. He asked for our forgiveness. Later, in a private conversation with him when he was on his way to prison, he told my husband and me that, if he could, he would change places with Tad and Leigh Anna.

The morning after the crash, the police officer who chased him said that he was perplexed that the faster he drove pursuing the driver, the faster the driver went.

The police never came to our house that evening. They never acknowledged their role in the death of my child. In the death of my dreams. The police officer who pursued the undocumented man never asked for my forgiveness. To my knowledge, he never faced any official consequences.

My heart goes out to the other families who have lost their children under similar circumstances. I do not ask them to forgive the one who took their child and their dreams. I understand not being able to forgive. There are those in my family who have not been able to forgive either. There is no shame in not being able to forgive someone who has caused you such grief.

You, however, are neither in a position to forgive or not to forgive. Instead, what you are doing, in my opinion, is encouraging people like you, people who neither are in a position to forgive or not to forgive, to get some sort of mean-spirited pleasure out of condemning people they have never met and who have never harmed them.

10208382_BG4I have a favor to ask of you, Mr. Trump. I want to ask you not to encourage mean-spiritedness towards undocumented immigrants. I want to ask you to speak about them in ways that would honor Leigh Anna and her gentleness of spirit. I would ask you to speak about them in ways that reflect the love she exhibited every day of her life. I would ask you to show the kind of courage she showed in attending a protest of the Ku Klux Klan when she was scared and when they, too, were acting out of mean-spiritedness.

Until you do, Mr. Trump, please know that you do not represent me or my interests.

In Memory of Leigh Anna Jimmerson: The Second Cooler

Anyone who has seen The Second Cooler knows that on the night of April 17, 2009, my daughter and her boyfriend were killed by a drunk driver in Huntsville, Alabama. Leigh Anna was 16 years old. Her boyfriend, Tad Joseph Mattle, was 19. The driver was an undocumented man from Mexico. I want to explain here why I included a “postscript” in the film about what happened that terrible night.

1913710_1173850593255_5670788_nBecause the film advocates for undocumented immigrants, there were people who felt the film would have more impact on audiences and help me achieve my purpose with the film if I made her death a bigger part of of it. Or, rather, making more of the fact that I forgave the man who killed her would help my purpose in making the film.

Others, after seeing an early version of the film wondered if it was a good idea to include any acknowledgement at all. They wondered whether it might appear self-serving or, worse, negatively affect the ability of the audience to reflect upon the content of the film itself. I, too, worried about both these things.

Yet, I felt I had no real choice but to acknowledge what happened. There were two reasons. The most important reason was that as an advocate, my mission is to pull back the curtain on reality, to expose reality as fully as I can. I concluded that I could not, in good conscience, suppress this piece of reality.

Taken April 17, 2009

Taken April 17, 2009

The second reason was that I believed that if I did not acknowledge her death in a way I thought might be helpful, that others would in ways that would not be helpful. Not 48 hours had passed after their deaths before some people were calling me “the worst mother ever” for forgiving the driver and Tad and Leigh Anna a couple of “stupid kids”.

Needless to say, her father, sister, and I grieve every day of our lives. And we miss, Tad, too, whom we absolutely adored, every single day. We miss the married couple they might have become. The children they might have had. But we cope and try to honor them in ways we feel they would have found meaningful.

Why am I telling you this now? Because on this coming April 17, the sixth anniversary of her death, I will be putting The Second Cooler into distribution. I do it in memory of LAJ and Tad.