Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Let Us See, Lord

International Altars
Each All Soul’s Day, a Mass is held at the border fence dividing El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to commemorate the approximate 500 immigrants per year who have lost their lives on their migration journeys.  I attended on November 2nd for the third year in a row.  More than 500 people from the dioceses of El Paso, Juarez, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, as well as the bishops from both sides of the border were present.  It’s a moving sight, brothers and sisters gathered to worship in a spirit of unity while separated by a physical barrier.

2010 was the first time I went to the Border Mass.  It was the deadliest year to date in Ciudad Juárez, with the horrifying drug violence resulting in approximately 8 murders a day.  I stood on the Mexican side of the fence that year, peering into the United States with some families from Proyecto Santo Niño.  From that vantage point, the fence not only represents a sad display of the ways that we divide ourselves; it is a blockade to education, prosperity, and in many cases, safety.

Crosses to remember lives lost
The journey of migration to the U.S., similar to the journey that many of our immigrant ancestors bravely endured years ago, is not an easy one.  The trail from the south involves months of walking on foot or jumping on trains, something that can leave people severely injured or dead.  Many are raped, jumped, and robbed along the way.  In addition, the militarization of the U.S. border in recent years involves more fences, more weapons, and double the number of Border Patrol agents.  To avoid these areas, people increasingly attempt to cross through the treacherous desert where they can die of exhaustion and dehydration.  Nevertheless, economic and trade inequities have caused such desolation in Mexico that people still choose to migrate.

When the bishop said at the Mass that day, “Let us extend to one another a sign of Christ’s peace,” tears welled up from deep inside of me.  In this place, too many have lost someone in the drug war or to the perils of migration, and too many live in the violence of poverty every day. The sign of peace took on a meaning much deeper than the usual cordial hand-shakes.  People crowded the chain-link border fence, pressing two or three fingers together as they could through the openings.

Sign of peace
This year, a Border Patrol vehicle was parked at the Mass, and orange cones marked an off-limits area about a yard from the fence, making it look even more ridiculous than usual.  There would be only smiles and peace signs held in the air to those on the other side.  The Border Patrol says they did this for “security reasons.”  The only risk I see in allowing the sign of peace is a deeper realization of connection to our brothers and sisters.  Our world could use more of that risk.

The gospel reading at the Mass was from Matthew 25, the well-known parable in which the King separates the “lambs” from the “wolves” on Judgment Day.  The lambs have unknowingly served Jesus by serving those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick, or – strangers.  That day, something new stuck out to me in this reading that I’ve heard so many times before.  That is the word SEE.  The lambs respond to the King in the parable, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

It strikes me that the first step in each mentioned situation is seeing another human being and then responding to their need.  Jesus seems to be speaking of personal, relational giving.  The King doesn’t thank the lambs for dropping off their hand me downs and extra canned goods so that they’ll arrive to anonymous needy people.  Of course, those acts of generosity are inherently good and really make a difference.   But the problem is that when isolated, those acts are easy to walk away from with a good feeling, as if we have fulfilled a duty.  It allows us to keep ourselves as the givers and the “poor” as the needy receivers.  When we know people who are suffering, however, we might feel compassion, discomfort, anger, empathy, love.  We might see that we can give and receive mutually.  If our giving was coupled with and driven by truly seeing each other as human beings, the world could be transformed.

I’m thinking of “seeing” in the way that the Na’vi people use it in the movie Avatar.  Their traditional way of greeting each other is simple and powerful:  “I see you.”  Meaning - I reverently acknowledge your presence; I recognize you as an equal; I cherish you for all that you are; I see your heart, your yearnings, your dreams, your goodness; I see that we are a part of each other.  As I scanned the faces on the other side of the fence at the border Mass, squinting in the arresting afternoon sun, I felt like I was part of one big “I see you.”

This is the power of relationship.  I have seen it at work in my own life.  Growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t know much about the plight of the immigrant.  It wasn’t until I came to this very border on an immersion trip my junior year of college that I began to “see” the human beings involved.  I’ll never forget our first visit to a shelter for undocumented immigrants in El Paso.  We looked into the tearful eyes of a woman migrant from Central America as she shared her story with us.  After her husband was killed in cartel violence, she was left to provide for her 5 small children.  Unable to find sustaining work in her hometown, she made the heart-breaking decision to leave her kids with Grandma and come to the U.S.  She hoped to find a good job and to return home before the little ones grew up too much.  This woman, like the majority of immigrants in the U.S., would much rather be in her home culture with her family.  At the same time, she, like any good mother, will give anything to provide for her offspring.  She was just born in the “wrong” country.  How can I ever reduce immigration to a political issue when I know, through hundreds of personal encounters living on the border, that we’re talking about real people here?

I used to be able to think about “the poor” in an impersonal and disconnected way, too.  I heard people in the comfortable, middle-class circles where I grew up talk about the “lazy” people that leech off of government programs like food stamps.  I assumed similar attitudes, keeping the poor a separate entity and believing that their poverty was a result of their own choices.  I formed these ideas without knowing a single “poor” person.  Now, I sit and talk with many of those people on a weekly basis in my ministries.  I see their hearts.  Many people who step in my office divert their eyes, filled with dehumanizing shame at having to ask for help.  The majority are extremely hard-working people who have been dealt an unfair lot in life.  There are some people that “take advantage of the system.”  But when I really see them, compassion overflows.  I’ll never know what has happened to them through the years.  If I had walked life in their shoes, would I be sitting on the other side of the desk?

Our call as Christians is to strive evermore for this sacred “see-ing” of each other.  This week, we take time to thank God for the many, many blessings in our lives.  I pray that we take it a step further.   Can we also, out of our gratitude, be moved to love and serve in new ways?  In yesterday’s Gospel (Luke 18:35-43), a blind man sitting on the side of the road calls out to Jesus, “Lord, please let me see!”  Praying with the reading, I felt my own sinfulness cry, “Lord, I want to see!  Show me where I have been blind to those in need.  Show me the ways that I have been hateful, racist, ignorant, selfish, and closed to my neighbors.”  I need to identify the fences I have built in my own life that protect me from really seeing all of my brothers and sisters.  I hope that my first reaction can be love and not judgment to the “poor,” the “criminal,” and the “illegal” (can we please stop using this word?).  I hope I can see the Democrat or Republican, the Muslim, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, the annoying guy at the office, the friend whose politics are different than mine, the dirty, sunburned man begging on the corner.  Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together.

We’re called to “love one another,” but how can we really love if we don’t really see?  Let’s choose to place ourselves somewhere where our eyes can be opened.  Serve, not just for a day, at an outreach organization where the “poor” can become John, a father of three who loves to read; where the “immigrant” can become Yessenia, a teenager who left her home to escape violence and now finds herself alone in a strange country.  Form relationships and dialogue with those who suffer and those who see the world differently than you.  It is a risk to put up those two or three fingers to the hole in the chain-link fence and feel living, breathing fingers pressing back against ours.  It is dangerous, perhaps, to say, “I see you,” and mean it.  But the alternative is fatal: walking through life blind.

Let us be awakened so that when the King says to us, “You saw me…and…,” we’ll know exactly what he’s talking about.  As we break bread together in thanks this week, Lord, let us see!