Thursday, March 6, 2014

Angels

For those who live alongside a border, hospitality is at once a virtue and an expectation. The coming and going of strangers is, at the same time, exotic and normal. The sharing of bread is a necessity and a privilege.

As a border resident, I enjoy learning new ways to practice hospitality. Recently, I was delighted by a story detailing how one woman would welcome an eighteen year old into that often strange, very exotic no man's land called adulthood.

The story came from a pediatrician, a woman who had practiced her trade long enough, she noted, to care for patients from their birth to adulthood. One of the nicer moments in her practice, she shared, was how good it was to sit with a newly minted 18-year-old, one who would be moving from pediatric care to that of a physician who cared for adults. The pediatrician said that she liked to pull out the patient’s file and go through it with him. 

“Look here,” she would say, “back when you were three years' old, we were worried that you might not be growing. But look at you now—a strapping young man!” Or she might show him what she had charted on the day that his mom brought him in after he had broken his wrist. “Do you remember how high up that tree you got?” she might remind him.

The conversational attention to detail of the young man's life was her way of honoring his history--and recognizing his new status. I can imagine the young patient sitting up straighter and straighter, as his physician, one who knows him so very intimately, affirms him as a human being, and, now, a new adult.

On the other hand, and just down the street from our home, live a group of young people for whom the celebration of their 18th birthday can be a brutal moment. These young women and men are "unaccompanied alien children" in the sensitive language of the law. They are young people, mostly from Central America, who have come to the USA to escape the nightmare that has taken over their homes. Many of them survive the long journey through Mexico only to end up captured by the border patrol.

Since 2003, the responsibility for unaccompanied children has been in the hands of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. This means that the Border Patrol has 72 hours to place a child that has been arrested in an approved shelter. There are fourteen of these shelters in our region, holding, today, March 6, 2014, 1,279 children.

These institutions offer shelter, clothing, meals, classes, and attention. For the most part, the facilities seem to offer a stunning difference between the experiences that the children had while crossing through Mexico, which featured endless days of hunger, cold, and, God can only weep at the thought, violence; and that of the shelters, in which there are three meals a day, classes in English, and, extraordinarily, snacks.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement works to reunite the children, as quickly as possible, with family members. The process, however, isn’t always a smooth one—and if the captured child is 17 years of age, the reunification has to take place before the child becomes an adult—that is, before the 18th birthday.

If a 17-going-on-18 hasn't managed to connect with her family, hasn't been able to arrange a release to be with a foster family, on her 18th birthday, she will not get a visit with a compassionate and gentle physician. Instead, Border Patrol agents will arrive at the shelter. They will remove their pistols and place them in the safe box, the clanging of the pistols, despite the thick walls, and multiple doors of the institution, can be heard from within. The officers will be invited within the sanctuary of the shelter and be allowed to take the now 18 year old off to immigration prison.

The first experience of this new adult, then, is that of being a criminal. She will be dressed in a prison uniform, she will be placed behind razor wire, and she will have no one looking out for her.

Can you take a moment to imagine what that must be like—the disorientation, the fright, the shock, especially for a young person who was, to begin with, fleeing for her very life?

The practice of hospitality is a subversive one, whether it takes place in a doctor’s office or in a small town along a migrant’s journey. The pediatrician’s message is subversive in that it so different from “the winner take all, you are on your own now” survivalist meme of 2014.  Subversive, too, is the action of the neighbor who takes the chance of hiding the 17-going-on-18 year old from the migra—this because our nation has grown afraid and our collective heart has shrunken and our vision of greatness has become clouded and we somehow think that these children, even if 18 year old children, are somehow dangerous.

Alongside a border, some of us refuse to see these children as dangerous, but rather as blessings.

This is not a new notion. I am reminded of the scene in Genesis 18, wherein Abraham, sitting “in the tent door in the heat of the day, lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them…And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, while they ate.”

Three men—seventeen years of age, or maybe eighteen? We don’t know their ages, because scripture only tells us that they were strangers, that they were hungry, and that they were angels.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Space

There are more than 1,200 shanty towns along the border in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. These neighborhoods are known as colonias. They typically feature what happens when poor peoples’ dreams run smack up against the implacable, tight-fisted politics of the second richest state in the union. In the case of colonias, 300,000 people ended up living in patched-together housing in a series of “friendly to business” developments that are short on amenities (street lighting and storm drainage, to mention a few) and long on profit margin.

 Jocelin and her husband Omar live in one of these communities. The couple has four children and eight years of happiness, although their joy is tinged by the sweat and weariness of too many years of working as field hands for nearby produce plantations.

Most of those eight years the family has spent piled up on top of each other in a small “travel trailer”—the sort of thing people used to pull behind a small truck. The trailer had a small bedroom, a tiny kitchen area, a tinier bathroom, a small-sized sitting area with just enough room for a table, and a little couch that lined the back wall of the trailer.

You get the picture—a cramped living space painfully carved out of the Great State of Texas by a family that spends its days cleaning the cucumbers and tomatoes that sooner or later end up decorating my Subway sandwich.

The family adapted to the space. Jocelin and Omar slept in the bedroom area, and two of the kids on the couch, and the other two arranged themselves along the hallway. Some times there was hot water and sometimes not. But, as Jocelin notes, there was always laughter.

Most recently, the family became the beneficiaries of an experimental “emergency recovery” housing program. A local organization of good people won a contract to experiment with possibilities for emergency housing after a natural disaster (in our case, a hurricane). The idea was to figure out how quickly a home could be put up after a calamity, and, to test to see if this new home would work better than the infamous trailers of post-Katrina fame.

A couple of weeks ago Jocelin and Omar moved into one of the homes that was part of the pilot project. Suddenly, they had more living space than they had ever known before in their life. While the house came with a refrigerator, an oven, and a microwave (all greatly appreciated), there was no furniture in the living room area and only a small dresser and a bed on one of the bedrooms. There were no pictures on the walls or rugs on the floors. When told that the place looked nice; she responded with confusion. “I think that it is a better place for my family, but I think that we went from being poor to being miserable. We feel sad here, and I don’t know why.”

But then a neighbor came by with a potted plant, which Jocelin carefully placed beside her other flowers and herbs. She walked the neighbor to the street, and thanked her. Jocelin looked up the street toward the school bus which was stopping and starting, leaving off children in front of their homes. She crossed her arms and waited. Soon her children would be home and the house would be filled, if not with furniture, then with the sound of her family.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Riding a Bike

Alongside a border, seventy children came together this past Saturday morning to learn about riding a bicycle. The bikes that were there to be loaned out had been lined up in rows. They were, like the children, of all sizes, and, like the children, seemed to glow in the south Texas January sun.

Bright green vests and brand new helmets were handed out in a flurry, and then, there were no more.  The children were lined up in pairs, facing the Belden Trail, a wide, thoughtfully-created bike path that is the kind of thing that makes one proud of their city. 

Seventy heads of all sizes were leaning over their handlebars, and seventy pairs of eyes were squinting ahead into the sun.  And then they were off in a flurry of pedals, near-misses and shared focus.

Some of the children crashed at the beginning of the ride, and some crashed upon their return, but there were no serious injuries, just laughter and the battle against gravity and the discipline of the Ones In Charge. The adults, for all of their responsibility, were kind with the children. “Stay to the right, now!”  “You can do it! I will stay with you!”

In the midst of all of the activity, it was these helpers who got my attention. They were unfailingly cheerful, offering constant encouragement. For these four hours on this Saturday morning, these volunteers were simply there for those kids lucky enough to have found someone to lend them a bicycle, a helmet and some attention.

And then the event was over. The bikes and helmets were handed back in, and everyone left on their separate ways, although already looking forward to the next biking event.

What struck me about the morning was the simple, ordinary goodness of it all. While putting the event together was much more work than one might imagine (so much work!), it was, and should be, the sort of thing that we should all expect to be happening in all of our neighborhoods, and all of the time. It is a simple, good thing that adults take a morning off to share with children the glorious freedom of riding a bike.  That this experience was created especially for children whose families can’t afford a bike lifted the event from the category of the good into the realm of beautiful.


I spent the last part of that Saturday morning riding beside Jocelyn, a quiet seven year old stuck at the back of the pact, and who spent a lot of energy wrestling with her bike. But then, as we turned down the stretch that took us to the finish of our ride, she suddenly leaned out over her handlebars and began peddling like mad. “I am leaving you behind!” she shouted back at me, laughing. I laughed as well, thinking, “Another child has learned to fly.”