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.
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 →
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.
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 →
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.
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 →
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:
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 →
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.
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 →
Hearing predictions of massive traffic jams, we launched our adventure toward totality on the back roads. Zigzagging our way, Bill and I and our friend Jo crossed the French Broad River in downtown Marshall, hurdled a couple of mountains as we cut south through Sandy Mush, wound over toward Trust and then down through Luck. Only the 12-mile stretch between Waynesville and the Blue Ridge Parkway was congested. We moved slowly then, but we moved. Luck had followed us.
As if we had timed it perfectly all along, we drove up Miracle Mountain (if there’s a better place to watch an eclipse, I don’t know it) and arrived right at noon at the home of the parents of our friend Missy. Her mother had prepared a bountiful Southern lunch of cold cuts, pimento cheese spread, pickles, iced tea—and Sun Chips and Moon Pies. Delightful! Continue reading →
I’d heard the jokes. I knew that zucchinis proliferate like rabbits (well, not exactly like rabbits). Still, I didn’t think it would hurt to put half a dozen seeds into the ground.
This, despite the $28 tomato I grew years ago when I was renting a tiny garage apartment on a small farm. I had just moved to the North Carolina mountains from inner-city Washington, D.C., and I was oblivious to water and sun requirements, to the truths of worms and mold. I bought plants, cages, and fertilizer, I watered and weeded—and got one tomato out of the whole deal. Continue reading →
Three-year-old Enrique’s favorite toy—a plastic helmet with a dark face shield, emblazoned with the word “POLICE”—was parked on his head. As he toddled up to our burly, 6-foot-8 county sheriff, with his mother Rosita watching nervously, the irony just about did me in.
As I’ve mentioned here before, for three hours every week a group calling ourselves Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith) gathers at a nearby church. A dozen Spanish-speaking women and an equal number of us English speakers share Bible study, exchange language lessons, and enjoy a potluck lunch. Fear has been running high since executive orders coming out of the White House targeted North Carolina as a state for increased deportations (see “Family Emergency Plan,” posted 2/13/17).
Understandably, when faced with such a terrifying threat, many people choose to lay low and keep to the shadows. But a few weeks ago Carmela announced over lunch, “I think the best way to keep from being sent back is to introduce ourselves to local law enforcement—let them see our children and get to know our families.” It seemed to me audacious and brave—and very frightening for my friends. Continue reading →
In October 1983, two dozen peace activists gathered in Philadelphia as war raged in Nicaragua. U.S.-backed forces known as contras were carrying out a campaign of terror and mayhem against the civilian population. A woman from North Carolina, who had led a church delegation to the embattled country three months before, reported that while she and her colleagues were there the mortar attacks, kidnappings, and massacres had temporarily ceased. What to do?
The answer was obvious. If the presence of U.S. citizens was enough to offer protection to Nicaraguans, we needed to figure out how to make that presence permanent. Someone voiced what I assumed all of us in the room were thinking: “You mean we’re going to ask people to risk their lives in a war zone for strangers—and make them pay to do it?” Exactly.
Thus was born Witness for Peace. It seemed clear to some of us that if we were going to issue such an invitation, we needed to be the first to go. Two months later, I headed to Nicaragua with the first team. In the meantime, U.S. military forces had invaded Grenada, and fear was running high among Nicaraguans that they would be next. Hearing their endless stories of anguish and loss, documenting contra atrocities, and standing in prayer with Nicaraguans at sites of attacks and massacres was life-changing for me. Continue reading →
She was standing by my mailbox yesterday afternoon, a thin woman with gray hair holding a little black dog. “Have you seen Sadie’s house?” she asked as I rolled down the car window.
“Can you describe it?”
Her face went blank. “I don’t reckon I can.”
“Did you walk up this road?”
“No,” she said, “I came over the mountain.” I looked at her frail limbs and her thin-soled shoes and had a hard time imagining it. She pointed up the dirt road that crosses a cattle pasture and dead-ends at Sara and Buck’s home, insisting as she took a step toward it that Sadie’s house was up that way. I pictured her opening the gate and tangling with either the cattle or Buck’s highly protective dogs, and I said, “Why don’t you get in the car and we’ll try to find Sadie’s house together?”
She smiled, introduced herself as Hazel, and settled into the passenger seat with her dog on her lap. I didn’t actually have a plan, other than to drive around the neighboring hollers until Hazel recognized someplace or somebody. Blessed providence, as I was turning the car around at the end of the road, she spied the mailbox with the name Campbell on it. “Why, Campbell, that’s my son’s name,” she commented. I asked her his first name. “Jack,” she said. Continue reading →