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People of Faith Confront the Border

Two thousand years ago, a young mother and father fled for their lives and left everything behind for the safety of their child. Their names were Mary and Joseph.

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I can’t help but think what would happen to this migrant family and their brown-skinned baby at our southern border today. This child, Jesus, would likely be torn from his mother’s arms.

These thoughts passed through my mind as I knelt, praying, at Tijuana Beach, near the border fence that separates Mexico from the United States. Migrant families could see us from the other side; I could see their eyes. “I’m here with you,” I thought, as I looked through the gaps in the fence. “There are people in this country who deeply, deeply care for you, and who are willing to put our bodies on the line to say this is not right.”

Moments later, I was arrested. Border agents in body armor and helmets zip-tied my wrists and took me away.

I was one of the faith leaders from many denominations who answered a call from the American Friends Service Committee to gather at the border as the culmination of a week of action, “Love Knows No Borders: A Moral Call for Migrant Justice.”

We came together, Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, to offer “prophetic moral witness,” something all of our faith traditions invite us to share.

I traveled to the border with a group from my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Boise, Idaho. I had protested before, joining a People’s Action delegation from Boise to Washington, D.C. in June to protest the forced separation of families at the border. That time, we were tens of thousands, and our protests helped force the Trump administration to change its policy. This time, I knew I might face arrest. I willingly took that risk alongside at least one hundred other faith leaders.

We gathered in our stoles and robes at Border Fields State Park, about a mile and a half from actual border wall, which extends into the ocean. Until recently, you could reach through the fence, touch, and pass notes. Families would even hold communion services. Now you can’t even get close – there’s a second fence of razor-sharp concertina wire about fifty feet from the fence on the U.S. side to prevent any kind of contact.

As we walked through the uneven terrain, which had been washed out by floods, we sang, prayed and thought about the conditions migrants face – and the unimaginable risks they take – as they walk thousands of miles to reach this country.

What would my life have to be like, I thought, what would it take for me to take my children, leave my home and flee my country of origin, knowing the incredible risks?

When we reached the fence, we formed a prayer circle, hearing the names of migrants who have died in detention read aloud. For each one, we said,”Presente!” lifting up the spirits of each of those who have died; carrying them with us.

Immigrants want the same things we want – an opportunity to provide for their families, and live happy, healthy productive lives.  I’ve lived and worked in Tuscon, Los Angeles, and now Boise, and never in my experience have I come across immigrants who wanted to game our system, or who come to the U.S. thinking “I’m moving to a country where I won’t have to work.”

They are here because of policies and actions that our country has taken in their home countries – economic policies and militarization and intervention that are creating a life that is unsustainable. They have no choice.

It’s part of our collective responsibility as humans, as Americans who have contributed to this crisis, and as persons of faith, to recognize our shared humanity, and to reach out our hands in solidarity.

As faith leaders, one of the themes we preach about all the time is abundance: there’s enough in life that we don’t need to live out of a model of scarcity. What is generosity, and what does it do? It opens up more connections between us, and deepens our personal experience.

It is wrong to say that as one of the richest countries in the world, we don’t have enough resources to share. This is true in our city, too – In Boise, we have a house on our church property which serves as affordable housing to a formerly homeless family. When we open our hearts in small ways and large, the rewards that come to us are exponentially magnified.

We walked down the beach until we reached a small gap in the concertina wire. Those in front dropped to their knees, and we sang and prayed for a good two hours before the border agents advanced upon us in riot gear.

“We don’t want any violence,” the border guards told us over loudspeakers. Here we are – a bunch of ministers in stoles and robes – they’re the ones with helmets and batons. But the insinuation was that they considered our peaceful presence an aggression.

As the tide started to go out, opening a space where we could approach the border wall, border guards gave the order, advanced in a tight formation and started to push us back. As they pushed we started to fall onto each other, and the arrests began.

As people were falling and the chaos of that moment escalated, I tried to right myself, but fell backwards onto Diane Schwabe, a fierce 80-year-old from my own congregation in Boise, who had been right behind me the whole time. We were then both singled out and arrested.

Zip-tied, pushed to our knees, border agents then marched us up the hill to a paddy wagon. Of the 32 of us they arrested, all but three were released with citations – which we expected, as the two Federal detention centers in San Diego are already full.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More than 15,000 young people are in detention in tent cities at our Southern border. Our government, it seems, has no plan to end the humanitarian crisis they have created, other than to build more tent cities, detain and intimidate.

I came home to Boise to the terrible news that a seven-year-old girl had died from neglect in ICE custody after being detained at the border. When I think of her, and the thousands of others we detain, it feels overwhelming – that there’s little that we as individuals can do.

But then I think back to Selma, where in 1965 Rev. Martin Luther King led marchers, with faith leaders at the front, across the Edmund Pettis Bridge to demand voting rights. I’ve only seen this on film and read about it, but I know they were turned back – violently – at first. They persisted, and ultimately crossed over to lead us as a nation towards a better place.

We remember that iconic moment, but it’s only now, with hindsight, that we can say it took thousands of protests like this, arrests, backroom negotiations and moments of witness before we could cross over. Standing on that bridge, it must have felt pretty demoralizing, because the odds were so overwhelming.

But then as now, we have to show up. And we’ll keep showing up, showing up, and showing up – because that’s what we’re invited to do for each other, as human beings and as people of faith. Showing up for one another may feel like all that we can do, but it’s what we must do, and we will. Again and again. For as long as it takes.