Stranger Courage

In honor of his 75th birthday, I was inscribing to my friend Randy a copy of a book that I co-authored. I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to “greater commitment, deeper compassion, and…”—well, something about courage. Having already used “greater” and “deeper,” my mind was momentarily absent of adjectives. After a little thought, I settled on “stronger.”

I don’t write in longhand much these days, and as I’m only a decade younger than Randy, my handwriting has become less legible with age. “Stronger” came out looking on the page like “stranger.” I laughed. Randy has indeed inspired me to stranger courage—and I think the world could use a lot more of it. Betsy & Randy - July 2019

I met Randy Kehler, his partner Betsy Corner, and their daughter Lillian in January 1990 in their almost-century-old clapboard home, tucked in the mountains of western Massachusetts—a home they were in danger of being evicted from at any moment. When word finally came almost two years later that federal marshals were on their way, Betsy left with 12-year-old Lillian. Randy stayed and, trying to calm his racing heart, sat down at the piano. He was hauled away in handcuffs—but only after finishing Bach/Gounod’s “Ave Maria” while the marshals waited. Continue reading

The Gift of Vulnerability

The jangle of an incoming text woke me from a deep sleep. “We’re in trouble,” it began. It was 5:16 a.m. California time. I was 2,000 miles from home, jet-lagged and groggy. I managed to send a reply to Michael along the lines of “Be there as soon as I can.”Michael and me with Sparky at the beach

Michael Galovic and Tamara Puffer met almost 25 years ago at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, when he was living there as a resident volunteer and she showed up one day to help out in the soup kitchen with the youth group from the suburban Presbyterian church where she served as associate pastor. Tamara kept coming back. Her time at the Open Door reshaped her theology and calling, and she began seeking a position where she could serve marginalized people like the homeless ones and former prisoners who were revealing Jesus to her there in transformative ways. Continue reading

Berta

We stood in the church sanctuary, surrounded by piles of bright tissue-paper flowers, festive streamers, and banners of the paper cut-outs known in Mexico as papeles picados—all joyfully fashioned the week before by those of us who meet every Thursday as Mujeres Unidas en Fe (Women United in Faith). We went to work decorating, bringing to life a colorful ofrenda (altar) for our November 2 Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration.Berta ofrenda 2

When we were finished, Berta added a plate of fruit, explaining that she loved the shiny color of the tangerines and the sweet aroma of the guavas. She seemed especially tired that day. But we had no idea that she would hold the place of honor at the heart of our ofrenda. Nothing could have prepared us for that shock. Only 38 years old, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter, Berta passed away three days later.

When we gathered again, Carmen and Rosalinda knelt in front of the ofrenda, clutching their rosaries, leading the rest of us in prayer. Berta grinned out at us, surrounded by flowers, candles, and her favorite foods, offered in the Mexican tradition of honoring the dead. Heaped on plates and in bowls were tamales, snap peas, pink wafer cookies, and chicharrones—wheels of fried pork rinds—doused with the blazing hot sauce valentina. Continue reading

Prey Without Ceasing

On the eve of Election Day, as the migrant caravan continues its dangerous journey north, I think of the words of the prophet Ezekiel to the ancient rulers: “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick…but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered…and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals…[They] have become prey. (Ezekiel 34:4-5, 8)

Focused on migrants as prey and compassionate responses to the immigration crisis, my second reflection from the Arizona-Mexico border was just published by The Christian Century:

crosses-migrant_deaths_border

Crosses mark the sites of migrant deaths. Photo by No More Deaths

Sometimes they find people wandering in the south Arizona desert—usually hungry, often lost, almost always dehydrated and desperate. Sometimes they find bodies—if they get there before the vultures and the coyotes. And sometimes they find bones, scattered and bleached by the sun. For the 300 volunteers who call themselves the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans, Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones is one that tragically resonates—as does the familiar Psalm 23, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Every week these Samaritans conduct compassionate searches around the Arizona-Mexico border, giving aid to migrants who need it. They gather up cherished possessions left behind in the sand: family pictures, icons of saints, a rosary, a child’s backpack, a well-loved doll. They collect signs of dashed dreams—a woman’s high heels and makeup kit, a man’s wide brush for painting houses, cloths used for wrapping tortillas, delicately embroidered with flowers and edged in bright crochet work—found strewn across this unforgiving land.

The Samaritans regularly place 55-gallon drums of drinking water throughout this arid wilderness. With an administration in Washington that is fanning flames of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, increasingly U.S. Border Patrol agents and members of militia and hate groups slash the drums or shoot them full of holes. One Border Patrol agent admitted that destroying water stations was part of his training.

Continue reading at https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/us-mexico-border-where-migrants-are-hunted

Samhain and Sukkot

We arrived at my friend Sandra’s home, a small parade of women, each carrying a hollowed-out squash or pumpkin – in one case, a scooped-out sweet potato. When the first chill of autumn hits, I always think of the ancient Celtic tradition of Samhain, which was celebrated in late October to mark the transition from harvest to winter. A large bonfire burned in every village square. Each family arrived with a hollow winter vegetable, into which they placed an ember from the communal fire, likely the root of our tradition of making jack-o-lanterns. They carried these embers home to light their own hearth fires as winter began to close in. We were carrying on the beautiful ritual in our own style.

Squash

We gathered around a fire, poised between looming Samhain and just-finished Sukkot. The late-September Jewish festival recalls the forty years that the Jews spent wandering in the wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt, when they lived in transitory shelters and ate manna that rained down from heaven. I first learned of Sukkot while I was in seminary in Atlanta in the 1990s, when for a week my Jewish neighbors hosted backyard parties in shelters they had temporarily created out of sheets of plywood and tree branches. Continue reading

Into the Jaws of a Crocodile

To our right the desert sunset was a dazzling blaze of gold with streaks of red behind towering saguaro cacti, as my partner Bill, our friend Becca, and I drove south from Phoenix to the Arizona-Mexico border. To our left a glowing, salmon-colored full moon rose and perched on a blue-gray mountain peak. We were on our way to participate with a hundred other people of faith from around the country in a week of prayer and protest, communion and confrontation, organized by the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ.Cross in desert

The breathtaking beauty of the moment was interrupted by a bank of glaring floodlights, affixed to an enormous metal arch spanning the other side of the highway, behind which waited a backup of northbound traffic. The Border Patrol checkpoint was chilling, like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie: the blinding lights, a phalanx of agents dressed in army green with weapons at the ready, a drug-sniffing dog running between cars. Continue reading

Visit from a Prophet

I slept late yesterday morning. By the time I had emerged from the trees on my walk, the pasture was already blanketed in a sultry haze. My mind was preoccupied with an upcoming trip and the pile of tasks I need to accomplish before I can leave for a week. I plodded along, barely noticing what was around me.Praying mantis 2

I felt a tiny prick above my right ankle and reached down reflexively to brush away a mosquito. This was some mosquito—huge and bright green, with a triangular face. When I tried to pry the odd creature away from my sock, it dug in the sharp spines on its forelegs and clung more fiercely. I was afraid it would leave behind a leg or two if I persisted, so I sat down in the grass and stared for a while at its curious face. Continue reading