Friday, June 29, 2007

Seminary Essay

Altar, Mexico, Holy Week 2005 –
Just south of the U.S./Mexico border.

The morning of Maundy Thursday holds a bright chill, but the warmth of the desert sun trickles down through the leaves of the trees in the central plaza of the dusty, tiny, yet incredibly busy town of Altar. Migrants mill about, eating, waiting. Waiting for their coyote (a guide, or a smuggler, depending on who’s answering the question), for their instructions, for their journey to continue, through the desert and into the U.S. We have removed our sunglasses, though the sunlight causes us to squint, so that the migrants might see the honesty and compassion in the eyes of this wayward group of gringos wandering through the plaza.

Felix and Rafaela have brought their three young sons, ages 16, 11, and 7, to cross with them through the desert into the land of supposed promise. As we approach, before they even see us, we note the fear coursing through them in their darting eyes, hunched-over backs, and wringing hands. They regard us with no less fear, answering our questions quietly, eyes still darting.

Where are you going?
We don’t know. To the States. After that, we don’t know. We have no plan.
Where are you from?
Why did you leave?
There is no work. We had a little farm, but we could not sell what we grew. We could not survive. We sold our land and now we are here. We arrived on the bus this morning, we have been traveling all night.
Is there anything you’d like to ask us? Is there something you’d like us to know?
Rafaela looks up from her anxious hands, looks into our eyes, her own eyes red with tears:
I just want there to be a safe place. A safe place for us and our children.

They speak so quietly, seated there with downcast eyes, that I must kneel down in front of them to be able to hear and translate well for my group. It is then that I notice Rafaela’s feet. She is wearing light leather sandals, leaving most of her feet exposed, little protection for her journey ahead. We have heard stories of people’s shoes falling to pieces as they hike the rocky, sandy, and cactus-laden trails; their bare feet become like raw meat, and I know that her little sandals will not last long – assuming she and her family survive long enough, and evade the Border Patrol well enough, to actually wear out a pair of shoes.

As I kneel there, trying to concentrate on translating well for the family and for my group, I cannot stop thinking about Rafaela’s feet, and I wonder to myself if I can possibly ask if she has other shoes. They have traveled all night, from a state in Mexico very far from Altar, Sonora, and I know that she has no idea what the desert holds for her. Their one little gallon of water is evidence that they do not know the dangers that lay ahead.

Our conversation begins to draw to a close – Felix has gone off with a man who we assume is to be their coyote – and when we tell Rafaela that we will pray for her and her family, her hands relax and she softens into a place of trust, and asks God to bless us, as well. I decide that the only right thing to do is to make sure she has good shoes.

And so, kneeling in front of her, I place my hands on her feet. They are warm and dusty, and rough, the feet of someone who has worked hard her whole life. I look up and ask, as sincerely and as respectfully as I can, “Doña Rafaela, do you have sturdier shoes? The desert is very harsh, with many rocks, and cactus with spines which will cut you. I hope you have sturdier shoes?” She nods, and says yes, and I have no choice but to believe her, even though they are carrying very little and I am not sure where these other shoes might be stowed. I cannot dishonor her by disbelieving her. I simply squeeze her feet gently, and say “Good, I am so glad. The desert is very hard on your feet. Dios le bendiga.” And I kiss her cheek, as is the custom, and our group quietly heads back to our van.


“Of course. You belong there.” A dear friend tells me this after I write her and tell her how hard it was to “come home” from the border, how at home I felt there, how being there I felt at home in my self. For me, the whole experience of coordinating the trip for my church, leading the group to the border, and witnessing their transformation, was the perfect reminder I needed of what drives me, and where God is calling me. “There” is the place God calls me to go, and the gifts God gives me to use, over and over again.

I am very lucky to have grown up in churches which were active in the world. Although I was baptized in a Methodist church by my grandfather, a Methodist minister, I grew up Presbyterian. The work of the church was exciting to me even as a child. I reaped the benefits of the loving church of my young childhood, where I knew I was loved unconditionally, an internalized knowledge which would come to hold me in great stead during struggles later in my life; of congregations which acknowledged the importance of the church being involved in the world, by hosting missionaries, selling SERRV crafts at potlucks, and gathering special offerings; of watching my mother plan with care the announcement of the Presbyterian Women’s Birthday Offering, which would go to a school and clinic in a black neighborhood in apartheid South Africa, and understanding that part of being a Christian and being “Church” meant acting in the world with justice, and working in the world for peace; of watching amazing women leaders, local and national, serve the church they loved with grace and wit and empowering strength, and wanting to be just like them when I grew up.

During those years, I learned to love the Bible, and to value the sacraments. I learned the importance of good liturgy and sacred music. I learned that communities of faith can be both a “joy and a concern,” as a friend of mine says. Most importantly, I came to know myself as a child of God, beloved, and safe enough to carry my heart in my hand as I journeyed forward.

My first experience of transformation, my first real sense of call, came when I was 16 years old. I was attending the 1986 Presbyterian Youth Triennium; One morning, the thousands of us gathered in the large auditorium for the plenary. After being introduced, a young woman, dressed simply, came out on to the stage, accompanied by a young man. Her name was Jean Peacock, and she began to speak of her work in Tucson, Arizona, as part of the Sanctuary movement.

I had never heard of such a thing. But I sat in rapt attention as she described the plight of Central Americans fleeing to the border, escaping brutality which at that point in my young life was new to me. She spoke of civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, of the campesinos fleeing death threats, massacres, torture, to the supposed refuge of the U.S., where they faced new struggles of entering the country illegally, traveling a new “Underground Railroad” throughout the U.S. and into Canada, to a tenuous safety. Few lucky ones were granted asylum, but strange it seemed, the U.S. officials did not believe the stories, and the vast majority were forced to live hidden lives.

When Jean introduced the young man with her, a former death squad member from El Salvador who had repented and fled the country, already my heart was pounding, and I could sense God speaking to me between the beats, urging me to listen in a way I had never listened before. What I was hearing was difficult – such tragedy, such violence, and the complicity of my own country – but I ached to know more. By the time he finished speaking, I knew that I was being called. I could not get their stories out of my head, nor my heart, nor my soul. While the kids around me were complaining that this had been a “downer” (and, interestingly, when I met Jean years later, she told me that she thought at the time that her speech had been unimpressive), I understood very clearly the voice that was now resounding in my heart: Pay attention: This is the life I am setting before you. Your life and work are going to be connected to Central America, in working for justice and for peace.

I heard that voice again, “Pay attention!” when I took mission trips to the U.S./Mexico border the next two summers, and again in college, when I would explore issues of immigration, the border, and Central America. And I heard it again in November 1989, when the 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, were assassinated; I was stopped short by the pictures on CNN on the big-screen TV in my dorm lobby. The next day there was a protest of the slaughter at my school. When the event was over, I stood on the steps of Dallas Hall, and looked out over the campus. My insides were churning as I looked up into the sun. I don’t remember now the exact words I said, but it was something like this: “Okay God. I’m listening. I’m here. I don’t know where this will take me, but I am here.”

I began work on a research paper which provided a Biblical and theological defense of the Sanctuary Movement. My research eventually led me to the Dallas Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America (IRTF), and I became an activist.

I am grateful that my “initiation” into activism came through IRTF, a group of thoughtful, prayerful folks who nurtured me and encouraged me. Through IRTF, I took part in organizing meetings and my first protest marches; learned how to write letters to my elected officials and to the editor; developed liturgies and worship services in memory of the Central American dead; and got arrested for the first (and far) time. I was mentored by faithful, long-time activists who saw in me gifts I did not yet know I had. Most importantly, I found my own voice, as I began to speak truth to power, and to talk about Central America with classmates and friends. I realized I was becoming one of those amazing women I had grown up wanting to be.

The next time God said “Pay attention!” was when I learned about a new PC(USA) mission program, Reconciliation and Mission (“R&M,” we lovingly called it for short). I was teaching in rural New Mexico but longing to find a way to go to Central America. I wanted to live with the people, learn from them, and hear their stories myself. R&M gave me the opportunity to do that, in a way which was exciting to me: the focus of the program was to bring healing between Central America and the U.S., to practice mutuality, and to model a new way of being in mission, one in which everyone’s voice is valued, and partnership is striven for rather than dependency.

As a program participant I lived in Costa Rica for 10 months, and then became the coordinator of the program itself. The years I spent involved in this project were full of rich, challenging experiences which helped me to grow personally and spiritually in a multitude of ways, and for which I am incredibly thankful. Because of R&M I was able to know wonderful churchfolk from all over the U. S.; travel throughout Central America and parts of Mexico, putting my feet on the blood-stained and hopeful earth; witness firsthand the crushing effect of U. S. economic, political, and military policy; sit with survivors of the civil wars and hear their stories, share my own, and together find ways to hope; learn new songs of liberation; hear from great theologians, both well-known and not; make great friendships which crossed all borders; and make pilgrimages to sacred sites, such as Mayan ceremonial grounds in Guatemala, Romero’s grave and El Mozote in El Salvador, and Somoza’s jails in Nicaragua. I became committed to the practices of mutuality, consensus-building, and non-violence.

Two of the most important lessons I learned had precisely to do with practicing reconciliation and mutuality. I was privileged to witness Central Americans letting go of their anger, however justifiable, towards the United States after spending time with U. S. folks who cared about Central Americans’ history and their lives; and I witnessed U. S. churches move from calling truth-telling Central Americans liars, to embracing them in the body of Christ. I saw this process happen over and over again, on small as well as grander scales, and discovered that reconciliation, while difficult, is indeed possible. Once we step into that space of desiring to be reconciled, we must trust that God will act, as God promises to do.

The wisdom of the world says that power must be wielded, not shared. But on the international planning team for R&M, we worked hard to practice mutuality. Each partner organization/church from the participating countries was represented on the team; the PC(USA), having all the money, could have continued to perpetuate the traditional pattern of mission, which was to create dependency and make all the decisions. However, we were all determined not to repeat those patterns, and while it was challenging at times, we were able to create a team in which decisions were made by consensus, all voices were honored, and honesty was valued. The fact that we were able to practice such mutuality while creating and maintaining a program which was producing substantive healing and transformation in the U.S. and Central America (and eventually Mexico), to me is proof that shared power is effective, and the way we must choose if true change, for the healing of the world, is sought.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity I was given in R&M, though, was to grow as a leader. I am thankful my supervisor gave me great freedom to explore and try things as I worked with the groups and the churches. I learned that I have great gifts in providing safe spaces for people to risk transformation; for creating meaningful liturgy; for meeting cries for justice with both an activist and a pastoral response; for writing and preaching and doing theology; for encouraging individuals in their own journeys towards wholeness; for speaking truth to power; and for crossing borders, both natural and imposed.

As I was just becoming comfortable stretching into this skin, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I put on a brave face but my work suffered, and I left R&M in 2000. My partner and I moved to Portland, OR and began waiting out the process for her to get U. S. residency. I also began the long journey back to myself.
My beloved is from El Salvador; her family fled to Guatemala when she was a child to escape death threats. She certainly has her own story of survival, as Guatemala proved to be equally terrifying. Throughout her struggle, she has held on to a love for life and a brilliant sense of joy; that tenacity in the face of despair has inspired me, and as I began the work to move out of depression, I held on to that tenacity until it became my own. From her I have also learned the power of prayer, and the importance of claiming God’s promises, and trusting them. These lessons have not only been important on my journey of faith, but also were crucial as I struggled with depression.

There were long stretches where I thought I would never get out of the “gray fog.” But I did the work faithfully, sometimes holding on only to the hope of the idea of trust that one day I would be well. Eventually, the fog began to dissipate, and I gloried in the sunlight. I gradually became more and more active in my church, found meaning in my job, and began to dream again.

My therapist once asked me how I kept choosing to stay alive; what did I hold on to? I thought of two things: how much my beloved loves me; and, because of that little church of my childhood, how much God loves me.

So here I am, stretching back into this skin that God has fitted for me. Flexing my muscles by leading my church group on its first mission trip felt good, and right, and I know that I am ready, ready to say yes to God again, eager for the next steps on the journey, steps which hopefully will take me to Denver and to Iliff. I am excited to find a school like Iliff, which values diversity, is committed to peace and justice, and practices an ecumenical and interfaith approach to theological study. I truly cannot wait to get started...or rather, I should say, continue on this journey.

The idea of going to seminary has been percolating for a long time, all the way back to that first mission trip to the border. When I got home, a woman from my home church (one of those women I wanted to be like) read my reflections and told me I should go to seminary. I was only 17, but since she was responsible for my father becoming a pastor, I thought I should pay attention. However, as a “preacher’s kid”, I saw how hard pastoring a church can be, and decided that was not for me.

That urging to go to seminary did not stop, however, both the comments from others as well as that burning sense inside of wanting to learn more and be more. But even when I finally said “yes” to the urging a few years ago, I found it hard to articulate why, exactly, seminary was the right choice for me.

I understand that one does not need a seminary education to be an activist, nor a theologian, nor even a preacher. Certainly there are plentiful examples of people who have successfully worked for peace and justice without that training.

What I understand about myself, however, is that God is calling me into leadership in a particular way. I find myself thinking back to Rafaela, the migrant woman whose feet I held in my hands; my desire in that moment was to respond pastorally – tending to her tired feet – as well as with justice-filled action – working to transform the systemic injustice which caused her feet to be tired to begin with.

The systemic injustices which led Rafaela and her family to have no choice but to risk their lives crossing the desert are the same injustices with which are wreaking havoc on this planet: “free” market economic policies which dehumanize, enslave, and impoverish; violent and military responses to conflict; the poisoning and abuse of the earth; corrupt governments who bow to corporate power rather than protecting and lifting up their people; a destructive politics of lies and divisiveness and death-dealing.

I believe that to face these challenges, communities of faith around the world must rise up with a unified voice and sing the liberating songs of life in the face of oppression. Particularly in this country, where complacency eats away at our activism, the church must take to the streets in a broad, ecumenical, interfaith, movement, practicing non-violence in our resistance to injustice. We must lift up the Biblical ideal of community based on economic justice and radical hospitality. Like Christ, we must welcome all at the table, be clever and wise in our tactics, be willing to risk even death in the service of life, and never forget that we are doing God’s work.

I believe that God is calling me to be a leader in such a movement, and that to be an effective leader, to practice “pastoral activism” meaningfully, I need the tools that seminary has to offer: the study of languages, of theology, of church history and missiology, of liturgy, of pastoral care. I hope that my studies would include not just classroom learning, but also opportunities for “experiential” education, such as spending more time on the border and doing research in Central America. And because I believe that this is sacred work to which God is calling me, I will be seeking ordination in the United Church of Christ.

I still feel the dry warmth of Rafaela’s feet in my hands. “Pay attention,” God says, as God has said over and over to me, and in that bright plaza I am aware that I am holding these sacred feet in my hands on Maundy Thursday, when we remember that Christ exemplified his own pastoral activism by washing the feet of his disciples. God calls me to pay attention, and I can do no other; by listening and following and trusting I have had an amazing journey already, and I cannot wait to discover what happens next.