As I peered at the 15-foot-high U.S.-Mexico border wall on the outskirts of Douglas, Arizona, I felt sick to my stomach. Was this really happening here, in the United States, in the 21st century? My breath caught as the sight of this immovable barrier hit me.
The closer I walked toward the monstrosity, the more I saw that despite its perceived impenetrability, slivers of light were escaping through tiny openings in the steel. It made me think of line penned by Rumi, an ancient poet: "The wound is the place where light enters you."
I was wounded by the presentations we were hearing about past and current U.S. immigration policies. The tightening of our borders is growing the bitter fruit of trauma for migrants and asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America: family separations, deaths in the desert, deportations, and increasingly long and more convoluted paths toward legal U.S. status.
We visited the border wall in November to engage in collective and individual prayer and to lament. As participants of Mennonite Mission Network's alumni and friends service-learning tour to Arizona, we lifted to God the burden of all we were absorbing about these immigration heartaches.
According to latest statistics, the border wall has been built along 700 of the 1,900-plus miles that constitute the U.S.-Mexico border. Though it is not the number of miles constructed that gives power to this wall to divide and destroy trust among people groups. It is the psychological message sent to all of us that fear, rather than faith, will rule our lives.
Despite fear's shadow, it was the faith of migrants and those advocating for them that cast slivers of hope into my soul and lifted some of the wall's weight. Three examples were particularly poignant for me.
One is the work of Tucson, Arizona, artist Alvaro Enciso, born in Colombia. He has created more than 900 crosses to honor migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert. He calls his project "Where Dreams Die."
"I wanted to honor the deceased … and decided upon the symbol of the cross," Enciso said during a tour group presentation. "It is a Christian symbol of faith and a Christian symbol of death. It is also the instrument of torture used by the Roman Empire to kill people through the heat of the sun and the lack of water. These elements contribute to the death of migrants in the desert."
"The cross is also a geometrical equation that includes a vertical and a horizontal line — just like the coordinates on our maps where a red dot is placed to signify where a body was found."
Another example is the migrant advocacy work of Jack and Linda Knox in Douglas/Agua Prieta. For many years, as members of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, they have connected with migrants and U.S. border patrol agents charged with deporting the migrants back to their dangerous homelands.
At the Migrant Resource Center situated on the border in Agua Prieta, the Knoxes minister directly to migrants and asylum seekers. They befriend officials from their home community of Douglas. They talk with them on the streets and invite them into their home for coffee.
"Though those of us working for justice may perceive border patrol agents to be our enemies, they are human just like us," Jack Knox said. "In order to survive doing their work, day after day, they often have to harden their hearts so as not to feel all the pain. We hope that by befriending them, we can help humanize the situation for them, and all of us, who live and work in this community that is so beset by tension."
A third example, and perhaps the most crucial, is the perseverance of the migrants and asylum seekers. Katherine Smith, border and migration outreach coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee, encouraged trip participants to humanize the border situation by perceiving hope amidst hopelessness.
"Yes, there are a lot of sad things [that happen here], but my goal is to give you a different perspective," Smith said. "I meet a lot of really resilient people who have come into the United States with a strength that empowers them to flourish despite all the obstacles they confront in our current immigration system."
I pray that the light of these kinds of stories embolden us to lament, rather than deny, how we as U.S. citizens contribute to this wall of woundedness. May honest reckoning help us to peer beyond the barren steel into the faces of our migrant brothers and sisters who are persevering beyond the pain. May lament help move us to enact new policies that transcend immovable concrete with concrete advocacy and solidarity.
One tangible way of engaging such peace and justice issues is to participate in an upcoming Mission Network alumni and friends service-learning tour. The next tour, that will focus on racism, is planned for this March in Mississippi. To learn more about how you may join a tour, visit the service-learning tour page at MennoniteMission.net.