April 2018

Monday, April 3, 2017

Walking a mile in their shoes

On our trip to El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, the sun was delightfully hot. On a desert meditation, I sat on a log in the shade of a constructed shelter because, after radiation a few years ago, I can’t be in the sun. It was a lovely desert day: maybe in the 80s with a slight breeze. Tiny yellow desert flowers bloomed across the sand and little brown birds chirped in the scrub brush. In the distance to my left, the rugged, brown Franklin Mountains formed a natural boundary between El Paso, Texas—one of the safest cities in the U.S. and Juarez, Mexico —a city a football field away from El Paso with Mexico’s highest murder rate. On the other side of those mountains was the much-discussed wall  (more like a iron fence) to keep people in Mexico from crossing over and hiking through the hot desert to El Paso, in the distance to my right.

In this Desert Meditation, I tried to follow my leader’s directions and meditate on what it would be like to be a refugee from Mexico walking through this desert , perhaps escaping violence or poverty. What would it be like to cross these dusty mountains and this hot desert? Mostly, however, I was aware of how well-taken care of I was, of the reality that I could never experience, or really imagine, what these refugees were going through. After all, I sat in the shade, and rocks lining a path told me where not to tread. I had bathed. My clothes were clean. Beside me was my filled water bottle. A few yards away, a bridge with a red handrail could carry me over an indentation that in wetter seasons may be a stream but is now dry and rocky, like everything else. The only thing I feared was the possibility of a snake, but with so many people around, I suspected I was even safe from snakebite. I was not afraid. I was not unsure. My passport was in my pants pocket.

This Desert Meditation occurred the first day of a weeklong border trip that my partner Ann and I participated in with seven other members of our church, Vicky Schmidt, our a spiritual guide from Abriendo Fronteras(Opening Borders) , and Father Bob, a Columban priest in El Paso who does the daily work of welcoming those outcast by our national policies. To learn about life on the border, we gathered in El Paso, Texas, and visited people and organizations there and in Juarez, Mexico. Our purpose was to learn about lives and issues on the border. With all the talk of “bad hombres” and other such language around deportation, this seemed like an important time to learn about this border from people who live there.

In addition to the desert meditation, we interviewed two border agents (both gentle Latino men). When asked about his faith and his job arresting immigrants, one said that he struggles with the humanity of what he does, but also tries to do this job kindly. After all, he said, it is a job, and he’s not responsible for what happens after he turns refugees over to the authorities. He has a family to feed and knows that he will treat immigrants better than others might. “How do you act justly in such an unjust system?” I wondered. It seemed that he was wondering that, too.

Our group experienced moments of heartbreak at a Detention Center, which looked like a prison and treated the detainees like criminals with their chains and jail uniforms, colored to indicate their level of something bad, I’d guess. There we participated in a mass. I looked at the men (in the first group) and women (in the second group) and noticed how young so many of them were. They might have been my high school students. The older ones might have been my students’ parents. In fact, all of them should have been in some respectful place instead of here.

 We also experienced moments of heartbreak at several deportation sentencing hearings. At one, a young man—surely he was a teenager—who had been caught twice using forged papers kept repeating, “I’m sorry, your honor. I know this was wrong…. I have failed my family.” I could only think that a system of such desperation and sacrifice was what was wrong. After the first four hearings, I slipped out to the restroom, and a Latina woman emerged from a stall, her eyes red and swollen from sobbing. I wondered whom she had lost on that day.

Amid the pain, there were hopeful places where people devoted their lives to helping the poor, particularly in Juarez, but in El Paso, too. We visited a “library,” really a tutoring center that served about 90 students a day in a small building in a poor part of Juarez (three tables outside stretched the small building’s capacity.) Cristina, an energetic woman who lives in the area ran the “library” because she could see in her own life the importance of an education.

We visited other places and people of hope, too many to provide adequate details: a medical clinic, a women’s cooperative, a day center for disabled children and their families, transitional housing for people released from detention in El Paso, and so forth.

One woman who was a refugee from Juarez violence that killed three members of her family served us dinner one night. Another night, our group cooked and served dinner to residents of one of the transitional houses. (I didn’t help, like at home. I just talked and listened, mostly to an older woman and her adult daughter who reminded me of the extravagantly odd women, relatives of Jackie Onassis, featured in the film Grey Gardens. They were not refugees but came twice a year on official business. The younger woman commented that she’d rather have puppies than children, and then the two women wove tales of exotic animals in their Oaxaca home: first dogs and rabbits, then a Noah’s ark that included birds, snakes, owls and chickens, and finally, of course, a lion. As my grandmother Edwards would have said with a chuckle, “Such stuff!”)

Throughout this experience, I thought of the Cherokee proverb, “Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” (Joe South and the Believers recorded a song on this theme  that was later picked up by Elvis Presley 

My kind friend Ellen pointed out that you have to take off your own shoes in order to walk in someone else’s shoes. An excellent point. There have been so many variations that deepen the metaphor.

A photograph of shoes by a janitor at a detention center connects to this metaphor and calls to mind comparisons to collections in Washington D.C.’s Holocaust museum . (All of his photographs are powerful.)

Harper Lee’s wise character Atticus changed the proverb in his advice to Scout: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it" (3.85-87).

Though shmoop’s comment that this sounds too much like Silence of the Lambs  is true and raises horrifying images, Atticus’s variation makes sense to me. I can no more walk in someone else’s shoes, even if I take mine off first, than I can climb into someone else’s skin.  Nor can anyone really understand my experience. (As Ani DiFranco once sang at a concert when she’d forgotten the words to the song she was singing: “Me, me, more about me, more about me…)

As I struggle with injustice against so many people: African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants and refugees, people who live in poverty, women, disabled people, GLBTQ and so forth, I am considering how best to work for justice.

Because I’m disabled, I speak sometimes from that experience, but I’m aware that even then I speak from my own experience and not from the experience of others with disabilities. I’m also a lesbian, and speak out for women’s rights and GLBTQ justice, but again I’m aware that I speak for myself and not for all women or all lesbians.

In most other areas, I am privileged in this society: I am white and educated. I grew up in an upper middle class home in the suburbs. I’ve always had health care. I own a home. I’m married.

Teresa Thuman, Sound Theatre Company’s artistic director in Seattle, Washington, inspires me with her approach: Last year, her theatre focused on the black experience in America, and she said she used her privilege to help support black voices by listening and providing the platform she had: She had black directors and actors, and they performed black works. She listened carefully to their ideas about editing and staging.

Since my disabilities, I am better at listening than acting (by which I mean taking action: I was never a stage actress and never will be). Perhaps this ability to listen but not to act is a gift. Perhaps I need to listen and to raise up unheard voices, not by speaking for others but by providing a forum for others to speak for themselves.

I’m starting in small ways: as a mentor and writing guide to homeless teenagers, I help them tell their truths. I led a poetry group for 16 months that invited elders in assisted living to share their thoughts and experiences, and I plan to do that again. I volunteer at a welcome van in order to help immigrants leaving a detention center in a nearby town find what they’re looking for. I’m in my church’s  Race and Spirituality study group, where my favorite works have been by African-Americans. (I highly recommend The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and The Third Reconstruction by William J. Barber II.) Since my brain tumors, I don’t have the energy I’d like to have to do all that I want to do for justice. Actually, I never did.

(Humility is another thing I’m learning. This quotation from Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw on the anniversary of Oscar Romero’s  assassination inspires me):

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.)

So, for now, I listen and learn and try to allow space for voices too often unheard. That’s all I know to do. Please let me know what you’re doing. Also, I’d love to hear what more I could be doing.

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