Thursday, April 6, 2017

Love, in Four Words

Overseen in Roma Norte-"Full belly, happy heart."
I´d like to think that food classifies as it´s own love language. 

    One of my favorite aspects about living an immersive language experience is learning more about how linguistic differences are both born from and reflect cultural differences. Although Spanish and English are similar languages in many ways, (both use the same alphabet, generally similar grammar structure, etc...), there are also many differences. One of the greatest differences I have noticed is that in Spanish, there are more nuanced ways to express things, with more specific phrases and terminology for a concept than exist in English. 
  A recurring conversation I have had with Nef and Danny, friends, coworkers, and other members of my host community, is how one of the most universal experiences is expressed differently in English and Spanish: love. In Spanish, there are four different verbs that can be used to say "like/love": gustar, encantar, querer, and amar. Gustar is more often used for objects/activities, not people, and translates to "like": for example, Me gusta tocar el piano-"I like to play the piano". Encantar, would translate to "enchant", and is also used as "like", but in a stronger way-generally, also for objects/activities, and not people. Me encanta tocar el piano would be more equivalent to saying "I really, really, REALLY like playing the piano". Querer translates to "want", but is also used when you tell someone you love them-Te quiero. However, this is where a key linguistic and cultural difference plays in.

     The other, stronger way to say “I love you” is Te amo, from the verb amar. When I was in Spain, I was told that Te amo was something only reserved for between romantic partners-in Spain, you would never say Te amo to your parents, for example. But here in Mexico, saying Te amo can be used outside of a romantic context, and implies a deeper connection, whereas Te quiero is a phrase that doesn't quite translate in English. Te quiero means "I love you", but, for me, would translate more specifically to "I have deep feelings of affection for you and really, really care about you".

    When people ask me what are my favorite things about Mexico, I talk about my host community and the warmth of the culture here. The stereotype held by some Mexicans of US Americans is that we are a more reserved, less demonstrative culture, which I believe is reflected in our use of the word "love". My uncle, who is British, was very critical of that aspect of US culture when he first starting dating my aunt. She remembers him commenting to her in their early days of dating, "Jen, if you say you love chocolate, and then say you love me, how am I supposed to know you feel differently about chocolate than about me if you use the same word? You Americans use the word love too freely."

    On the other hand, people here are often surprised when I say that although in the US we use the word "love" very freely when describing our liking of a food, band, movie, etc...we don't have the Te quiero equivalent, and telling someone who is not a romantic partner or family member "I love you" can sometimes come off as awkward. When I was talking to Danny about my roommates´ visit, he was shocked to hear that I didn't say "I love you" to three of my closest friends.
    "Well," I told him, "in my experience, in US culture, sometimes saying “I love you" to someone who is not your partner or a family member can come off as a little strong".
    "But if you don´t tell them you love them, how do they know?", he responded.
     Which got me different about all the different ways that I have seen love expressed and received, both personally and within my host communities, even when the words “I love you” weren't directly spoken. I think that, regardless of cultural context, it is important to recognize and respect how people prefer to be loved and cared for. Some people specifically need to hear hear “I love you”-for others, a better expression of love could be someone helping them with the laundry. I grew up in a family that greatly valued physical affection-my mom's best friend once commented that my family was like a litter of puppies when we are all together. Here in Mexico, personal space bubbles are smaller (and not just on the metro at rush hour), and a common greeting between women or between a man and a woman is a kiss on the right cheek and a hug. As someone who thrives on physical affection, I quickly became comfortable with this cultural difference, but I have heard from other US-expats that it took them more time to get used to it. Looking back on the arc of this year so far, and forward towards the three months I have remaining, it has been beautiful for me to look back on the many specific ways I have received and continue to receive love this year:
  • When my friends Luis and Aymet drove 40 minutes out of their way to drop me off at my house, just to make sure I got home safe
  • When my friends Clem and Daniel invited me to go dancing with their group of friends at the beginning of my year, when they knew I was feeling a little lost and lonely
  • When my friend Anabel took the time to take me to her favorite taco place in the city after work, despite the traffic and the rain 
  • When my co-worker Noé learned I had studied piano, and insisted we form an office band
Jamming with the Eucumenical All-Stars 
  • When our office chef, Doña Marie, shows concern when I don´t try all of the dishes at lunch
  • When Antonia, my pastor´s wife, welcomed me in and took care of me for a weekend after I had spent that Friday up all night with food poisoning 
  • When my pastor, Miguel, updated me on the UNC-Oregon score this past Saturday when I couldn't watch the game, and invited me to watch the NCAA final at his house (and fellow Tar Heels, if that is not true love, I don't know what is)

Prepping for a Tar Heel victory 
With my favorite honorary Tar Heel 

  • When my friends Sonia and Noemi invited me to their home in Tlaxco for a weekend and made me feel like family
Visiting Sonia and Noemi´s family in Tlaxco. 

Celebrating Sonia and Noemi´s new book!
  • How the staff at the CEE greet every single person with a hug when they arrive, and insist on taking the time to celebrate every birthday with cake and gelatina
Celebrating an office birthday. 
  • The time, money, and energy my three college roommates spent to come down to Mexico City for a week
With my roommates at Castillo de Chapultepec. 
  • The accompaniment of my friends in the States and in other YAGM countries, via FB messages, Whatsapps, and and waking up early/staying up late for blurry Skype calls 
  • The unwavering support of my parents and family, who have always inspired me to keep exploring, even when that means being far from them
Hanging with my families. 
  • The calm reassurance and encouragement of my boyfriend Garrett, who has encouraged me to pursue my dreams, not just this year, but for the past four

Exploring Teotihuacán with Garrett.
  • Celebrating the twins´ first birthday with my country coordinators  
  • When my fellow YAGMex volunteers take the time to check in with me, sharing in both the good moments and the bad
YAGMex fam at our Xmas celebration. 
  • The sense of community in my church here in Mexico, Iglesia Luterana del Buen Pastor, as well as emails and messages of support from my church communities back in NC

My church community at Iglesia Luterana del Buen Pastor, celebrating a baby shower.
  • I could have written an entire list just of the ways that Nef and Danny have loved and cared for me this year-Nef insisting that I eat a fifth piece of toast, doing a ridiculous dance in the metro to cheer me up when he knows I´ve had a rough day, and telling me to put on a sweater because "Hace frio", even when it's 65 degrees outside; Danny brushing my hair, taking the time to cook the best enchiladas I have ever had, because he knows they are my favorite, and telling me that everything will be ok; staying up late to talk with me even when they are bone-tired from work; spending the day together in Los Dinamos, even when Nef had approaching exams; helping me with my grammar; every time they call me their hija; the hospitality they have shown to my visitors; listening to me and supporting me as I wrestle with personal and professional discernment; and all the hugs, laughter, jokes, meals, metro rides, museum visits, church services, tears, dishwashing, and (extra)ordinary moments we have shared these 8 months. If I know anything for certain from this year, it is that God was watching out for me when S/He made the three of us us a family.

Danny´s enchiladas!

Hanging out at Parque Nacional de los Dinamos 

Mis corazones 

    In our YAGM orientation in Chicago, YAGM staff and alum encouraged us to find "the magnificent in the mundane"-the hand of God moving in small, everyday moments. Although these moments listed here may not be earth-shattering or make any sort of news, they are the threads that form the fabric of my life and experience here. With far less time ahead of me than behind in my year here, it can be easy for me to get too caught up in planning future next steps. However, I know that part of my call this year is to be fully present as much as I can until I board that plane back to NC on July 7th. Until then, I find hope and strength in all the different ways I have been loved during my year here, and from a quote I recently taped to my mirror:

"No longer forward nor behind
I look in hope or fear
But, grateful, take the good I find
the best of now and here."'
-John Greenleaf Whittier

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Borderlands: Our (Im)migraton Retreat to the US/Mexican Border

Dear friends,
    Greetings from March! It is unfathomable to me how time has flown by so quickly-I have just a little over three months left in my year in México, a fact that becomes more bittersweet with each passing day. Spring has sprung in México City, with temperatures rising, the smog clearing up to let views of the mountains peak through, and bright purple flowers of the jacaranda tree lining the streets with color.  
   However, despite the excitement and anticipation I feel with the turn of the season, I write this newsletter with a heavier heart. This update will be primarily focused on our recent trip to the US/Mexican border (the Arizona/Sonora section). While this brief cross back into the US served to renew our visas for the second half of the year, the main purpose of this trip was to take the time to dig deep into immigration, looking at the issue from multiple perspectives: talking with Border Patrol, lawyers, faith leaders, community organizers, and migrants on both sides of the border. Through this trip, we sought to challenge ourselves to understand the complexities of migration: not only thinking of the migrants´ journey itself, but the role of global economics, US involvement, immigration policies, cultural shifts, and our response as US citizens called to live and walk alongside of our host communities in México for a year.
   It is not an understatement to say that this retreat was one of the most impactful experiences I have ever had, and I am still struggling to unpack everything we saw and learned. The days were long and jam-packed, with little time for processing. Although it was wonderful for me to be welcomed back into my host community, I still am haunted by thoughts of how the people I love and México as a whole will be affected by current political climate/immigration policies. It would be impossible for me to summarize our experience in just a few pages. However, I hope to offer a few snapshots from our experience. Thank you for all your thoughts, hopes, and prayers these past 7 months. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to contact me over FB.
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The Vigil  
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The concept of a vigil, in many ways, runs contradictory to US culture. In a fast-paced, task-oriented culture, a vigil requires time, patience, stillness, and being willing to sit in remembrance, even if it brings no “tangible” results. A vigil is a manifestation of the accompaniment philosophy-being willing to sit with someone in the pain and hurt, to bear witness on behalf of those who do not have a voice. In the US, vigils tend to happen only after major national tragedies-mass shootings, 9/11, etc…To find a vigil that memorializes the everyday losses that don’t make national news is rare. To find a vigil that has been doing that every week for 17 years is even rarer still.
But such is the vigil we participated in during our final day on the border: the Healing Our Borders vigil that for 17 years, has met every Tuesday at 5 pm along the highway that crosses from Douglas, AZ into Mexico. This dedicated group has made small, white wooden crosses for each migrant that has died in the desert in that district since 2000: the crosses now exceed 300. When known, they write the name, birth date, and the date the remains were found on the cross. When not known they can only put “Desconocido/a”-unknown.
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 Promptly at 5, we pull the carts full of crosses to the sidewalk paralleling the line of cars waiting to cross into Mexico. One by one, we each gather an armful of crosses and form a line, bracing ourselves against the chill as the sun sets below the desert skyline. The border wall looms a few hundred feet away, granting passage to the ones lucky enough to cross in an air-conditioned car.  The leader of the group clears his throat before lifting the cross and shouting the name written.
“PRESENTE”, we cry out in response.
We continue down the line, each one crying out the name, if known, on their cross, the rest responding with “PRESENTE”, and then placing the cross on the curb. We slowly work our way down the line, leaving a growing line of crosses, standing sentinels to the passing traffic. I heart skips a beat as I hear names shared by ones I love in Mexico-Daniel, Otero, Ávila, Peréz, Marquez, Maria, Mariana. I shudder to think of any of them having to make such a dangerous journey-dying in one of the most hideous ways imaginable, only to be found days or months afterwards, and to be thought of by some in the US as “just another Mexican”. I know if I really let myself process it emotionally, I will burst into tears, so I try to put my emotions on the back-burner and focus on the task at hand.
“This woman died in the desert, and her name, age, and circumstances are only known to God. We know for sure that she was someone’s beloved daughter. We can only speculate beyond that-she might have been someone’s sister, cousin, aunt, wife, girlfriend, or friend. Most importantly, she was made in God’s image, and is a beloved child of God.”

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After we cry out all the names, we slowly work our way back, collecting all the crosses lining the highway. We circle up where we first began and the leader chooses three cross at random. He speaks to how after 17 years of calling out these names, he feels a closeness to the people being remembered. For him, he shares, since he does not participate in a formal church community, this weekly ceremony is his form of ministry. One by one, he sends the three crosses around the circle, having each one of us pray over the person’s name as we receive the cross. One of the crosses reads “DESCONOCIDA”.
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Following a moment of silence, we place the three crosses with the rest, and head back to the vans. The wagons full of crosses, bearing names of migrants-mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, daughters, sons, grandparents, grandchildren, all beloved children of God and designed in Her/His image- are loaded into the back of a truck, and are driven off down the highway, to await the following week and following remembrance.  

The Wall
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Walking up to it almost feels like a surprise, which is a strange thing to say about a wall cutting like a metallic scar through the barren landscape for miles and miles along one of the longest borders in the world. Although I had seen the wall from a distance various times through our travels on both sides of the border, walking up to it is a whole other experience. Months of hearing vehement political discourse about “the wall” imbue its cold, hard flesh with another layer of solemnity. Tall, imposing segments of rusted metal loom above us, with enough space between the pillars to let flash flood waters, but not humans, pass through. Just a few feet away from me, lays my home country-a country that has felt more and more foreign to me as I watch sweeping political changes from afar. Most everyone I know in Mexico has commented on “the wall” at some point or another- Nef and Danny joke that we will have to plan meet-ups along the wall so they can meet their grandchildren at some point in the future, passing toys to them through the gaps. The jokes don’t feel so funny anymore.
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My passport weighs heavier in my purse, a small blue book has already given me so opportunities to cross the border with ease, in an air conditioned plane or van-an opportunity that thousands would give anything to have. During our retreat, we talk about the many, many facets of migration-the militarization of the border post-9/11, which has forced migrants to cross through more rural, dangerous parts of the border, resulting in an increase of migrant deaths; US involvement in Central American politics that have contributed to the violence and civil unrest that forces so many north; the trade agreements, such as NAFTA, that have made it impossible for many migrants to make a living and support their families; and the financial, political, and human costs of maintaining a border in such an inhospitable landscape. Any one of these aspects is extremely complex, and many people much smarter than I have dedicated their lives to understand these issues better. People like the people at the organization Fronteras de Cristo (Borders of Christ), an binational organization that works to increase greater understanding of and compassion for (im)migration issue, and who are accompanying us on our retreat.
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However, it’s one thing to discuss these topics in the abstract, and another to see them made manifest, tall and imposing, right before your eyes. Borders are fluid human-made constructs that change over time-God did not draw a permanent red line in the ground between Mexico and the US. As my friend Michael put it, “Racism and borders are all human-made, and they are at best a disappointment and at worst an abomination before God and the vision God has for us and of us. ´Our task is to create a world order that mirrors as closely as possible God's original intent and God's ultimate purpose... We may endure systems at odds with that vision, but we must not celebrate them or defend them from challenge or change.¨
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Our time at the wall is brief-maybe 10 minutes or so. My fellow YAGM-Mexico volunteer Anneka suggests that we have a word of prayer before we depart. We form a circle with about 20 or so people in total-our own group, another group associated with Fronteras de Cristo, and Fronteras de Cristo staff: 20 people hailing from the US, Canada, and Mexico and many different walks of life. Standing just a few feet away from my country, a country rocked by the hateful political discourse of a few who would believe the people who have received me and loved me this year are dangerous threats to the US, we pray for greater peace and reconciliation between two countries. Personally, I pray for Nef, Danny, the CEE, my church, Iglesia del Buen Pastor, and everyone I love in Mexico who will be affected in ways yet unknown by a turbulent political climate. As we make our way back through the brush to our vans, I think of all the way that I have seen God this year: the laughter shared with my host dads, the hugs from my church congregation, watching my pastor’s daughter take some of her first steps, impromptu jam sessions with my office band, my coworker taking the extra time to make sure I get home safe, my friend inviting me to her home for the weekend and her family making me feel like one of their own. These are the ties that bind us together as brothers and sisters in the kin-dom of God-ties that cannot be broken or obstructed by any wall.
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The Cross  
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The sun beats on my neck, turning the white skin into a deep, burnt red. The sand crunches beneath my hiking boots as we walk single file through the barren desert landscape-not the yellow smooth sand of cartoon images of the Sahara, but red, rocky, gravel that is hard to gain traction on. I think of the hiking boots that protect my feet-boots that cost more than most migrants walking this path would be able to earn in several months in their home countries. Although we are only out in the desert for a little over an hour, and in fairly mild weather, I find myself chugging my large water bottle, with the privilege of not having to think about rationing, knowing I will have soon access to clean drinking water and A/C. I remember my Wilderness First Aid class, and the discussion of dehydration-even in the temperate climate of the NC mountains, the lesson is the same: thirst kills. The normal chatter of the group falls into a hush as we reach our destination: a small, white metal cross, draped in rosaries, flowers, and other trinkets. “Desconocido, 2009” is all it reads. “Desconocido”-unknown.
It is our last day of our retreat, and we are walking with Jennifer and Laurie, a lovely couple who live on a ranch outside of Tucson. Their land includes areas that many migrants pass through, and they and many of their neighbors have given help to migrants who come to their doors, often extremely dehydrated, injured, or in need of other medical attention. Another part of their ministry involves taking groups such as ours to visit memorial sites of migrants who perished in the desert. A friend of theirs has made it his life's mission to erect a metal cross as close as possible to the site where a migrant´s remains have been found. He will be a busy man: the number of migrant deaths has already reached into the thousands. On our brief 20 minute walk, we pass dozens of scattered backpacks, shirts, pants, shoes, empty water bottles, and hats. Laurie tells me that she and Jennifer often have to warn families with young children not to go hiking in that area, due to the high probability of coming across human remains, in various states of decomposition.
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During our walk, we visit three memorial sites, reading poetry, scripture, and to take a moment of silence. The last site was dedicated to “Adolescente Desconocido”-Unknown Adolescent. Laurie said they assume that the migrant was an adolescent, but based on the size of the rib cage bones that were found, the person could have been much younger. Due to the harsh weather conditions, Laurie told us, remains decompose quickly, making it hard to gather identifying information. As the wind whips up dust around our ankles, I think of the families of these victims, waiting on the other side of the border-mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandparents, uncles, aunts-passing years not knowing what happened to their loved one. I think how this unknown adolescent, whose remains were found in 2009, would probably have been close to my age now-perhaps thinking about their career, life goals, marriage, maybe starting a family of their own. However, on this side of the border, their identities are only known to God. Before we leave, we read one last excerpt from the poem For You Who Came This Way & Farther, by Marie Vogl Gery:
Backbone breastbone carried you along roads
Roads you knew well, ones we may never see
Your skull held your brain safe and your eyes
All of these and more brought you to this place
Grasses & cacti grow around grow through
Creatures of this place move close
Scatter your bones roll your skull
Clean these for food play with them as toys
In what farm, village, or city does someone
Look at an old photo week and say your name
Again and again like a prayer
Caress that photo as though you were still near
When you followed the evening star
You took all the answers with you  
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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

On Stomach Bugs and Immigration Bans

Protesters at JFK International Airport-image from the New York Times

Dear friends,

Greetings from México City! Since my last post, I have enjoyed the holidays, receiving visitors, and celebrating Christmas and the New Year's with my host community. It is mind-blowing to me that we are already in February, and that I am quickly surpassing the halfway mark of my year. YAGM staff were correct in telling us at our Chicago orientation that this year would be the fastest of our lives! As much as these past few weeks have been filled with joy, they have also been filled with great political uncertainty, both in the US and here in México. México has awaited the Trump administration with trepidation, as the economy suffers blows from the 45% increase in gas prices (known here as the gasolinazo), peso hitting historic lows, a growing humanitarian crisis along the border, and fear as Trump takes steps to proceed with the infamous wall along the US-Mexican border. It has been a very strange week and a half for me as a US citizen abroad watching the incessant stream of news from the Trump administrative: infringements on reproductive rights; threats to health care access; signing of the executive order to build the border wall; the first official press conference marked by “alternative facts”; a federal probe of voter fraud; attacks on the press and scientific community; taking steps to proceed with the Dakota Access Pipeline; and now a temporary ban on refugees and people from 7 predominately Muslim countries. Merely typing that sentence left me overwhelmed, much less thinking of the very real consequences for so many people. But before I get into any of that, I want to share a story from this past week:
It is widely known that, although Mexican food is delicious, that sometimes foreigners literally can't “take the heat", and the strong flavors and spices can provoke upset stomachs, or “Montezuma´s revenge”, referring to a former Aztec emperor. Thankfully, this year, I have not had any issues with the food, including the delicious, if at times slightly questionable, street food. Or, I hadn't had any issues, before this past Thursday. Although I went to bed feeling fine, I woke up a few hours later profusely sweating, shaking, and realizing that I was going to quickly see my meals a second time round. And I did see them, several times throughout the night, until my stomach was finally empty. Thankfully, I was finally able to sleep, and woke up a few hours later feeling mostly fine.

My host dads had both happened to be out of town that night, and were very concerned when I informed them of my stomach bug, insisting that I stay at my pastor´s house for the weekend while they had to work. Although I come from a cultural context that encourages minimizing and shrugging off illness (I'm fine, I'm fine!), not to mention the exorbitant cost of health care for so many people in the States, I decided to take them up on the offer. I arrived at my pastor´s house to be welcomed by the warm arms of Toña, our pastor´s wife, and my unofficial Mexican mami. I went straight to bed, and woke up to find that she had prepared rice, Jello, and had brought juices for me while my stomach recovered. I spent the weekend with her, her kids, and my fellow YAGM volunteer Justin hanging out, shooting the breeze, watching Netflix, and helping get ready for church that Sunday. That weekend of rest and being in community not only helped my stomach recuperate, it warmed my soul.
At first glance, this story is a fairly normal, ordinary experience-people get stomach bugs all the time. For me, however, it is an example of what YAGM staff  had urged us to look for in our years-the holiness in the everyday moments, God manifest in the mundane. For me, this story is representative of the community that has welcomed me here-the concern of my host dads, my pastor´s wife who took care of me, my pastor who called from a conference in Chicago to see how I was doing, and my coworkers and congregation members from my church who checked up on me. For me, it is nothing short of miraculous that only after a few short months, I have a community that has washed me with love, that has accompanied me every step of the way.

The idea of accompaniment is core to the YAGM philosophy and a vein that runs throughout all aspects of life in México. “Te acompaño” or “I accompany you” is a common phrase, that both means literal physical accompaniment of someone to the store, market, etc.., but also an emotional accompaniment. It is knowing that you don't have to go it alone, that we are inherently communal, social creatures. The idea of “Yo no soy si tu no eres”: ”I am not me if you are not you”-that we are all inherently dependent on each other. It is an idea that runs very contrary to US culture, a culture that values independence, self-reliance, and individualism-think the image of the lone ranger, the cowboy riding off into the distance, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”, etc...At first, this idea was jarring to my US-based, preconceived idea of what it means to be someone coming into their young adulthood. However, this year has been a lot of self-critique and pride-swallowing, of being dependent on others for emotional, physical, and linguistic support, of admitting to myself that is ok to let my guard down, to be honest when things aren't fine, of being more willing to receive help.

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice” (Deuteronomy 24:17).

In wake of the recent immigration/refugee ban, I have seen these and similar verses being shared frequently on social media. These verses have newfound meaning for me this year, particularly the one from Leviticus. This year, I am the alien in the strange land-the alien that looks different, has a funny accent, makes a lot of grammatical errors, does not fully understand local customs, and sometimes has no clue what´s going on.  However, unlike so many of those who will be affected by this new ban, I have all the privileges of being a white, upper middle-class, straight, college-educated US citizen. As my fellow YAGM volunteers and I prepare for our upcoming retreat to the US-Mexican border, the power of my blue passport is not lost on me as I think of all those who were recently turned away from airports both in the US and abroad, while I will be able to enter that airport and cross that border with ease. My heart breaks reading stories of those who had worked for years, and upon receiving the visa, sold everything, left their jobs and communities, pulled their kids out of school, and spent thousands of dollars on flights, only to be turned away upon arrival. For the ones who endured hours of uncertainty in airports while waiting to reunite with their loved ones, while I know that come July, I will be able to reunite with my family with ease. For those who will not be able to save their families from brutal warfare and bloodshed, such as that which was seen in Aleppo just this past December. For our Muslim brothers and sisters in the US who fear future Islamophobic retaliation. This ban goes against the values we hold as a country-of welcoming “...your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...¨, of diversity as our strength, of giving refuge to those who need it.

As children of God, we are called to accompany and to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable, the most oppressed of our society: “the preferential option for the poor”, as it´s known in liberation theology. Just as my community accompanied me so beautifully during my stomach bug, we are called to accompany those who are fleeing some of the most brutal conditions on earth, those for whom this ban is truly a matter of life and death. As a church, we must denounce this ban which goes so clearly against what Jesus calls us to do. As Bishop Eaton wrote in her statement on the ban, "In Matthew 25:35, Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me". Our Lord not only commanded us to welcome the stranger, Jesus made it clear that when we welcome the stranger into our homes and our hearts-we welcome him". As a stranger in a strange land who has been the recipient of radical hospitality, I pray that our country takes swift and decisive action against this ban, and does not abstain from showing welcome to those who need it most.

"Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it."-Hebrews 13:2

Interested in ways to take action? If you are financially able, consider donating to one of many excellent organizations that support refugees, such as the ACLU, Lutheran Disaster Response, or many others such as the ones listed here and here. Contact your representatives, and contact them frequently-calling is much more effective than email, online petitions, or facebook statuses/tweets. Check out the website 5 Calls, which provides scripts and contact information to help you take 5 minutes to make 5 calls to your representatives. (And check out their many sources to see why calling is one of the most effective ways to get your voice heard).

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Give thanks

Dear friends,
    Holiday greetings from CDMX! I hope you are all enjoying the winter weather, whether that be cold and snowy or otherwise, and the holiday preparations. Although Mexico City is anything but cold and wintery (highs are generally in the mid-70s lows in the mid-40s), the city is embracing the holiday spirit, with Christmas lights, ice-skating rinks, artificial snow, and even a fake hill in the city center for kids to sled down. I have been busy getting ready for holiday celebrations with my host community-for my church´s Christmas posada (a re-enactment of the Christmas story) and my office's Christmas party, where your's truly will be performing with the office band, Los Ecumenical All Stars. As much as I have enjoyed getting ready for the holidays, I have been hit with occasional pangs of homesickness, knowing that this is my first holiday season away from home. However, I wanted to share an experience from our first YAGM group retreat that impacted me strongly, and and threw my experience of being away from home during the holidays into a whole new perspective.

    One of the many strengths of the YAGM program is that it intentionally works to build community, not only within our host communities, but also within the group of volunteers. YAGM volunteers regroup three times during the year for week-long retreats in order to rest, bond as a group, and share our experiences. This November, I spent Thanksgiving week with the other YAGM-Mexico volunteers and our country coordinators in the gorgeous state of Tlaxcala. After a few months in the city, it was wonderful to get out into the mountains, breath fresh air, and be outside of the traffic and congestion for a few days.

Some of the lovely Tlaxcala landscape. 
  Although I was excited to spend Thanksgiving with the other volunteers and our country coordinators, I felt pangs of homesickness in thinking of my family back at home. Thanksgiving in my family is a borderline sacred affair, with a spread of food of Southern Living magazine proportions. As a southerner, I associate Thanksgiving with fried turkey, cornbread and oyster stuffing, sweet potato soufflé, collard greens, and two types of cranberry sauce (one fresh, and the other that still has indentations from the can). Mostly though, I associate Thanksgiving with a lot of love and laughter, surrounded by a huge family.

I was thinking of memories of past Thanksgivings when on the day before Thanksgiving we went as a group to visit the migrant shelter La Sagrada Familia, in Apizaco, Tlaxcala. Our theme for our week-long retreat was globalization and economics, and we spent significant time discussing the impact of economic decisions and trade agreements (such as NAFTA) on the Mexican/Latin American economy and migration. As part of this discussion, we went to visit La Sagrada Familia, where YAGM volunteers have served in the past, and where one of our volunteers has just begun to serve this year. This shelter opened in 2010 and since then, has served about 30,000 guests, most of whom stay for 1-2 nights. 90% of the guests are 25-35 year old men, although they have received boys as young as 14 who are traveling alone, and women who have given birth in the shelter during their journeys (sound familiar?). Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, and are traveling north-either to the US, or to other locations in Mexico. Many are seeking greater economic opportunity, or are escaping violence-during our visit, we met an 18-year old man from Honduras whose 4 brothers were murdered by gangs, before his mom begged him to go the US for his own safety.

The shelter entrance. 

Mural at the shelter-¨Smile without limits.¨
The majority of migrants arrive to the shelter on the infamous La Bestia (the beast), referring to the system of trains that many migrants ride north. These trains are also known as ¨trains of death¨-by the time many migrants arrive to the shelter in Apizaco, they have been traveling for 15-20 days. They ride on the top of the train, although they sometimes have to cling to the side for 15-20 hours at a time. Almost all are assaulted, beaten, or robbed during their journey, and train company employees are known to shoot at the migrants as they pass by. Many women and girls are victims of rape and sexual violence during their journey. As they reach Apizaco and the colder climates without sufficient winter clothing, many are at risk for frostbite, hypothermia, and illness. La Bestia  passes right next to the shelter, and migrants have to leap off the moving train and avoid the cement poles that line both sides of the track. The train company erected these poles in order to deter migrants from riding the trains-however, there is a mere 50 cm. gap between the moving train car and the poles. Too frequently, when migrants try to jump down from the train car and avoid the poles, they are thrown under and crushed by the wheels. We were able to see this train pass during our visit, and although it was empty of passengers, I shuddered as I stood next to the tracks, heard the screech of the wheels, and saw the metal glow hot red as the cars lumbered north.

La Bestia passing by the shelter.

The narrow gap between the poles and the train. 

One of the things that has surprised me during my time in Mexico is how many people have ties to North Carolina, and my experience at La Sagrada Familia was no different. We were able to speak with a group of migrants who were staying at the shelter, and when I mentioned that I was from North Carolina, one of the men replied that he had lived in NC for years, and had spent significant time in Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville, Elizabeth City, and Wilson, where had worked in roofing for many years before being deported. His children, however, are US citizens and remain back in the US, awaiting him as he attempts another journey north. ¨I didn't go to the US to commit crimes or destroy the American dream-I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't even drive over the speed limit,¨ he shared with the group. ¨I came to do the jobs that no one wants to do, that US citizens don't want to do-no one wants to work in roofing in NC in the summer! I just want to provide a better life for my family.¨

Map of routes to the US. 

The group at La Sagrada Familia with our host Angel. 
With our time wrapping up, we wished the men best of luck in their journey, and our country coordinator Omar shared a special wish for the migrants, several of whom were fellow honduerños. ¨Never be ashamed of making this journey or trying to provide a better life for your families. It is nothing to be ashamed of. And if you ever feel unsafe in your communities back home, don't be afraid to take care of yourself and leave.¨ As we headed back to start preparations for Thanksgiving, I thought of the irony of visiting a migrant shelter the day before the US celebrates the welcoming of European refugees by the local indigenous population. I thought of the 18 year old man clinging to the side of the train in the cold, while my 18 year old brother is able to focus on his studies and friends at one of the top universities in the country. I thought of the tiny blue book sitting back in my suitcase that will allow me to comfortably cross back over the border to a life that couldn't be farther removed from those of many of the men we met at the shelter.

The gang getting dinner ready. 

    And the following day, as I sat down to a table groaning with the weight of food, looking out over the mountains, surrounded by a newfound family, I gave thanks. Thanks for the overabundant food, while many who I had met the day before didn't know where their next meal would come from. Thanks for my family back in the US, who I will be able to see again in just a few weeks, while many in the US wait for their loved ones, not knowing if they will survive the journey. Thanks for my fellow volunteers and country coordinators, who have been a source of joy and support these four months. Thanks for my host community in CDMX who has welcomed me with open arms, and carried me through the highs and lows. And thanks for those back in the US working to improve a broken immigration system, working to be a country that continues to receive ¨...your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free...¨, regardless of skin color, income, nationality, language, religion, or anything else. A country that can work to fulfill the promise that so many risk life and limb hoping to find-life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for all.

YAGM-Mexico fam. 
Quote at the shelter from a popular hymn-one translation reads: 
¨Let nothing disturb you, 
let nothing frighten you, 
everything passes, 
but God stays. 
Patience reaches all, 
(s)he who has God, 
lacks nothing: 
God alone suffices.¨