A Migrant's Story
As we continue our exploration of this month's theme of "Journey," Rev. Peter offers further reflections on his trip to the border last December and examine the human right to migrate.
Sermon: "A Migrant's Story"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs
I would like to read you a poem this morning, written by Warsan Shire. Ms. Shire, who is 30 years old, was born in Kenya to Somali parents and raised in London. This poem, whose title is simply “Home,” speaks to the plight of refugees and migrants in graphic and sometimes violent terms, including use of the n-word and references to sexual assault. I will read an edited version of the poem, but encourage those who are courageous and curious and who won’t be traumatized by the language to read the full text, which will be included in the text of this sermon that will be posted on the church website. You can, of course, also find the full text online on other sites.
Maria and her six children, the oldest of whom was just eight and the youngest was an infant in her arms, were scared and confused. They had made the trek to Tijuana from their home country of Honduras as part of the so-called “migrant caravan.” Maria and her six children had walked most of the way, although for parts of the trip they’d been able to cram themselves onto a crowded truck bed with other asylum-seekers. To put their migration journey into perspective, Maria and her six children walked a distance that’s equivalent to walking from here to Los Angeles. Walking. With six children under eight years old.
“no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”
Maria and the two oldest of the six children were carrying tattered plastic shopping bags with the meagre personal belongings they’d brought along with them.
Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who has dedicated his career to helping death row inmates, tells us that, to work for justice, we need to be prepared to do four things: We need to “get proximate.” We need to “change the narrative.” We need to “hold onto hope.” And we need to “do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable.” By getting proximate, by stepping outside our own communities of comfort, by getting physically close to those who are oppressed, those who suffer, those whose lives are at risk, we enter into a different kind of relationship with them. Justice-making becomes more than an intellectual exercise. It becomes personal, intimate.
Changing the narrative invites us to open ourselves to a new way of seeing those who suffer. Not as enemy. Not as other. But as fellow human beings, each with a story of their own. The dominant narrative with asylum-seekers is about their criminality. Their violence. Their being a drain on our society and our limited resources. There is another story to be told, about the fact that immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than our natural-born citizens. That they pay billions of dollars a year in taxes, even those who are undocumented. That there is no “invasion” at our southern border, but a steady stream of women and children whose lives are at risk. We need to change the narrative.
Bryan Stevenson reminds us that we cannot afford to feel hopeless. He tells us that we’re either hopeful or we’re part of the problem. “Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” he tells us. He doesn’t have a prescription for inoculating us against hopelessness, but he tells us that being hopeful is our “superpower.” I would suggest that we stay hopeful by being in community with other justice seekers. That we find and join communities of hope and courage and compassion, where we can add our voice to the chorus singing for justice.
And, finally, we need to do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable. We need to stretch, to push the edge of our envelope of our ease and comfort. It doesn’t mean we need to put ourselves at unreasonable risk, but it means we need to be willing, at least temporarily, to leave the safety and security of what we know to find out what we can learn and what we can do. When I went to the border in December, I didn’t go live in a shelter with asylum-seekers. Each night, I crossed back into the safe and comfortable bosom of the United States. I didn’t dodge gunshots in Tijuana at night. I ate dinner at a Smashburger. But I did cross that border every morning, traveling back in time almost, into an underdeveloped country where poverty and violence are rampant. It was inconvenient and it was uncomfortable, and it changed me.
I desperately want to know where Maria and her six children are at this very moment. Are they still in Tijuana, waiting? Was their number called, and they’re together in detention awaiting an asylum hearing? Are they even still together, or have Maria’s children been taken from her? Does anyone know where those children are, or how to reunite them with Maria? Have they, under a cruel new policy of this Administration, applied for asylum in this country and then been returned to Tijuana, spit back out through the mouth of the monster, to await a verdict on their asylum claim? Are they, in the name of “migrant protection,” sitting in a shelter or living on the streets of the murder capital of Mexico, where more than 2,500 people were killed last year? Do they huddle in the fragile safety of a tent city full of other migrants, hoping to avoid the sex-traffickers, the gangs, the drug-runners who own the streets of Tijuana at night? I pray that they are among the lucky few who have been affixed with an ankle monitor and released, dropped off at the San Diego Greyhound terminal without so much as a dime to make a phone call. I pray that Maria and her six children have been taken in by the dedicated and overworked volunteers with the San Diego Rapid Response Network, which provides temporary housing, meals and clothing to asylum seekers, helps them locate family members or sponsors in the U.S., and even helps with their transportation. Because neither state, nor local, nor Federal assistance is offered to people like Maria and her six children.
Let us all pray for Maria and her six children, and for the thousands of men, women and children like her, whose fate is in the hands of our government. But let’s not stop with prayer. Let’s get proximate. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s always be hopeful, and let’s choose to do something inconvenient or uncomfortable. Because “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”
May it be so.
[i] Not her real name