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.

 

Are We Native Americans Your Pets?

Photos, Bios, Mike Wilson @ San Xavier, Mission - Dia de los Muertos Pilgrimage, by Hyatt 10-31-09

Photo courtesy of Michael Hyatt

Last week I had the pleasure of having Mike Wilson and his partner, Susan Ruff, in my home for a few days. Mike is a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. The reservation on which the nation is situated straddles the United States / Mexico border. I got to know Mike and Susan when I was filming my documentary, The Second Cooler, in which Mike appears.

Mike is an original. He is a Native American who joined the United States Army and trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He became a member of its Special Forces. Sent to El Salvador in the 1980s, his duty was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Salvadorans. That means that he was to encourage Salvadorans to assent to US domination.

While there, he had what in Christian circles is sometimes referred to as a Road to Damascus moment during which he encountered who he was and what he was doing. He concluded he was a “North American imperialist” in El Salvador.

He says that he was “called” out of the Army and into seminary, then called back out of seminary “by faith”. He was prompted by his conclusion that the Church had become an instrument of imperialism. He spent a year as a lay pastor, however, at the Presbyterian church in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation. For those who do not understand the idea of being “called”, it refers to a belief that God has placed a special task on a believer’s shoulders.  Today, Mike says, everything he does is because of his faith in God.

One of the issues which Mike, Susan, and I discussed at length under the cool arbor on my deck was Mike’s frustration with white people who will not confront tribal leadership on life and death issues. In this short clip from The Second Cooler, Mike talks about the running conflict he has had for years with tribal leaders of the nation. The context in the clip is the criticism he was receiving from his Presbyterian Session in Sells.

Mike With water

From The Second Cooler. Adam Valencia, photographer.

The conflict has to do with the fact that Mike puts water on tribal lands for migrants crossing there illegally. The migrants, who come from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere disproportionately are indigenous. Tribal leadership forbids him putting out water because they believe it encourages migrants to cross through their lands.

Part of the problem is that the militarization of the US / Mexico border, especially at the Arizona border, has been deliberately designed to push illegal immigrants into the vast, treacherous Sonora Desert which makes up much of the Nation’s land. Figures are difficult to come by, but estimates range from a very conservative 7,000 to approximately 21,000 since 1997 when records began to be kept.

Mike also has had a running conflict with immigrant advocates in Tucson. Advocates there, who are white or Latino, work day in and day out to rescue migrants, call attention to their deaths nationally, and keep records of deaths. Yet, they will not tell tribal leadership that they are wrong to contribute to migrant deaths by refusing to give them water.

Mike wants white and Latino advocates to stand up to tribal leadership arguing that human beings are suffering and their lives are hanging in the balance.

White and Latino advocates will not. They argue that to do so is a form of racism: “White people have told Native Americans what to do for too long.” And so, Mike not only is persona non grata among tribal leadership, he is persona non grata among the non-Native advocates in Tucson.

While we talked, I remembered a remark he made at the screening of The Second Cooler in Tucson at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2013 during the Q&A. A number of those whom he had tried to persuade to support him by standing up to tribal leadership were in the audience that evening. I recalled him having said to no one in particular, “What do you think we Tohono are? Your pets?”

Mike believes, and I agree, that preferring to let migrants die rather than stand up to the people who could help save their lives is, in and of itself, a particularly toxic form of racism. As Mike pointed out while we talked, refusing to stand up to people who hold other people’s lives in their hands because of their racial or ethnic identity is applying a different standard to their actions or lack thereof. I believe that a separate standard is necessarily a lower standard reflecting a lingering belief that Native Americans are too emotionally delicate, too childlike, to take criticism. And, because they are Natives and made fundamentally different from Whites, according to the logic, they are inherently incapable of racism.

Or, as Mike asks in the clip from The Second Cooler, rather than stand up to tribal leadership or wrestle with the nuances of racism, is it just “easier to let the migrants die”?

This is the racism which we can deny by taking the moral high ground of ultra sensitivity to Native Americans’ feelings.  We can deny our and Native racism while colluding in the brutal deaths of thousands of Mexican indigenous. Applying any moral yardstick, how can we justify this? Do migrant deaths really matter? Are Tohono O’odham tribal leaders full grown men and women?

Or are Native Americans our pets?