Rekindled by Ritual

How to hold the heartbreak and the outrage? Hundreds of babies and toddlers, schoolchildren and teenagers wrenched from the embrace of their parents, many now sobbing inconsolably in immigrant detention centers—some unbelievably lost in the system. My friend Rosalinda, who used to earn just pennies an hour working in a U.S. factory on the Mexican border, who had a nephew who was murdered there, felt a need to tell me her own family’s story of escape from desperate poverty and rampant violence. She related a harrowing saga of vulnerable hiding places, grueling river and desert crossings, capture and release by Border Patrol agents, and a second attempt—all endured so that her children might have safety, enough food, and the chance to grow up. It is unimaginable to think that they might have been stolen from her here.Bonfire

So we make phone calls, write letters, sign petitions, and take our candles to the park to pray and protest. We do it over and over because this is how we know to be human, to stay connected, to make sure that no victim is forgotten. Last month in the park, tears slipped down my cheeks as young American Jewish women slowly read out the names of the 60 unarmed Palestinian protesters who were massacred on May 14 in Gaza by Israeli troops, and then led us in a Hebrew Kaddish of mourning for them. In that extraordinary moment, I realized that there is deep within me a hunger for ritual, for gathering with others to remind ourselves of who we are, to keep ourselves grounded in hope. Continue reading

Murder on Shades Mountain

Last Thursday in Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative opened its museum dedicated to racial equality, at the heart of which is a profoundly powerful memorial to the more than 4,400 African-Americans who were lynched in this country between the Civil War and World War II. Three days later Melanie Morrison made a visit to Western North Carolina, reminding us that not all such acts of terrorism and brutality were carried out by white mobs under trees and the cover of darkness. Some were perpetrated in courtrooms in broad daylight.COVER MOSM_3.18

Melanie is the author of the newly released Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham. She and I first met in the fall of 1976 when we were students at Yale Divinity School. She had just spent three and a half years at Koinonia Partners, an interracial community in Americus, Georgia, that suffered through Klan shootings and a boycott during its early years. Though I didn’t know it then, I was on my way to Sojourners Community. Conversations with Melanie about theology, racism, and intentional community contributed to my decision to leave seminary after my first year and make the move to inner-city Washington, DC. Continue reading

Predators, Profit, and Precarity

To get to Lumpkin, Georgia, you have to really want to be there—or be taken against your will. The highways wind southwest of Atlanta, roughly paralleling the Chattahoochee River, for 143 miles. The town is parked on red clay amid tangles of kudzu, its square a cluster of shuttered storefronts next to an abandoned gas station, where the only visible signs of life on a mid-morning in early January were at the courthouse and a store labeled Christian Gun Sales (motto: “Guns Cheaper Than Dirt”).

Lumpkin’s thriving business is a few miles down the road, behind rows of razor wire. The Stewart Detention Center is where most of the undocumented men picked up in the Southeast by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) get imprisoned. Visiting is risky and daunting for the detainees’ families; most don’t have the means to make the journey to Lumpkin, and the motels give out 26 miles away in Columbus. So a dozen of us from Circle of Mercy, my faith community in Asheville, North Carolina, made the trip. Amilcar Valencia of El Refugio, a courageous and compassionate ministry of hospitality and advocacy a mile from the prison gate, warmly welcomed us and briefed us on Stewart and the men he selected for us to visit there.El Refugio

After a two-hour wait, two guards ushered me to the visiting area. Others in our group had to wait up to three hours more before one of the five tiny visiting cubicles available to the facility’s approximately 1,800 detainees was open. Francisco and I spoke on phones, separated by a wall of plexiglass. He told me he didn’t know until he was 19 that he was “illegal.” He had other things to worry about—especially a frequently absent father and a regularly abusive mother. They brought him here from Mexico when he was 3 years old. He was shocked when he found out that, for all those years of his growing up, he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. Continue reading

A Few Feet Closer to the Sun

Yesterday the snow was like a carpet of diamonds.

I’ve always loved snow. We had plenty of it in my growing-up years in Pennsylvania. But that didn’t prepare me for four college winters in Maine. From October to March, cafeteria trays were our makeshift sleds for hurtling down the small mountain on the edge of our campus, and a pair of cross-country skis took me at night into the silence of the woods that surrounded it. Some days we had to walk through tunnels of snow to get to our classes.Sun on snow

But I’ve never seen anything like yesterday. The morning temperature was 10 degrees, with wind chill below zero—unusual in these North Carolina mountains. The snow had fallen overnight in large crystals, and the effect was stunning: a mountainside sparkling with dazzling radiance, as if strewn with precious gems. Bundled up against the weather, I lingered at the scene until my toes began to go numb and I couldn’t resist the call of the fireplace, a warm afghan, and a mug of hot lemon-ginger tea at home. Continue reading

Lions and Coyotes and Calves, Oh My!

Two days ago, a calf was born on the 120-acre mountain farm next-door. On my morning walk that day, I rounded a turn in the trail and spied him under a chestnut tree by the creek, just hours old, still wobbly on his legs, his mother licking him vigorously. Last night a coyote tried to kill that newborn calf. His mother successfully thwarted the attack, but not without injury to her ear and face. On this morning’s walk, I noticed that all the cattle are huddled together at the bottom of the mountain, the calves in the center of their protective circle.Lion

Twenty years ago, when I was in South Africa observing the stunning work of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, friends there who were anxious to increase tourism and stimulate the economy after the devastating apartheid years encouraged me to visit Kruger National Park. Unforgettable are the majestic elephants, the herds of trotting giraffes and graceful gazelles, the hippos bellowing at a full orange moon rising over the Limpopo River. But what I remember most vividly is a trek into the savanna in an open-platform truck to view the lions at sunset. Before we began, our guide gave clear instructions: “Stay in the truck. Don’t separate yourself or make any movement that distinguishes you as an individual. As long as the lions think we’re one huge animal, they won’t attack.” Continue reading

Día de los Muertos

Here is the gorgeous ofrenda that Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) created for our Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) service:Day of the Dead Ofrenda.jpg

Last Thursday Juanita showed us how to craft large, elegant flowers out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners, and Carmen helped us to cut colorful papel picado banners. (Ancient experience making prom decorations and snowflakes came in handy.) We set up tables in a corner of the sanctuary and adorned them with our artistry. Additional decorations by the church youth group appeared on Sunday.

On Wednesday evening several church members joined us for a beautiful bilingual service. Added to our ofrenda were photographs of loved ones who had passed away. By each picture were offerings of their favorite foods: plantains, cookies, and chocolate candy, bottles of wine and cans of soda, believed to quench the thirst of the dead as their spirits make the long journey back to visit on earth. Marigolds, whose strong scent is thought to be a particularly appealing invitation for them to return, sat on the altar alongside burning candles. Continue reading

Lost in Translation

The woman on the phone, speaking heavily accented Spanish, introduced herself as Consuela to Rebecca, the coordinator and translator for our bilingual group Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith). Consuela said that she wanted to visit the group and offer a Medicaid presentation. It seemed a little odd to Rebecca, as the current administration has drastically cut funding for public outreach around healthcare, North Carolina has refused to expand Medicaid coverage, and it is generally unavailable to persons who are undocumented. “I’ll bring a variety of options, and a gift for each of the women,” Consuela explained. “It will be a Medicaid party.”

From time to time we’ve hosted presentations about urgent issues such as legal rights, family emergency plans, and local law enforcement. Rebecca figured that perhaps there were healthcare options of which she was unaware. So she said yes to Consuela’s offer and arranged for her to come last week.Old woman

Juanita and I were the first to arrive. Rebecca approached us, laughing heartily. Clarity had dawned on her earlier that morning when Consuela had called back to confirm her visit. “You won’t believe what I’ve done,” Rebecca said, rolling her eyes. The others began to gather. And then Consuela breezed in, lugging two carry-on-size suitcases. She pulled out a palette and personal mirror-on-a-stand for each of us and set them up around the table. I was at my first “Mary Kay party.” Continue reading