If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


This past week end I attended a planning meeting for an immigration conference to be held in Waxahatchie, Texas at the Lakeview Camp and Conference Center on September 18-20, 2009. It is being sponsored by the Peace and Justice Support Network, Mennonite Mission Network, Urban Leaders Network, and Western District Conference of Menonite Church USA.

During my plane trip I read the book Lives on the Line: Dispatches from the U.S.- Mexico Border by Miriam Davidson. It looks at various immigration-related issues from slices of lives of people on the border. The focus is upon "Ambos Nogales," the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, U.S. and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Through the lives of Yolanda Sanchez, Jimmy Teyechea, Michael Andrew Elmer, Dario Miranda Valenzuela, Christina, and Jose and Hope Torres, author Mirian Davidson gives us an embodied glance into the maquiladoras, border crossings, impoverished children living in the tunnels, drug smuggling, border patrol, and a host of other realities of "lives on the line."

As I read the book I began to recognize place names and people I had encountered on a U.S.-Mexico border learning tour I went on in 2007 that connected trade with migration. The book refers to Cecilia Guzman, a former sanctary movement leader who was our tour guide through Nogales and into Mexico. She is a long time resident of Nogales, Sonora and has led many groups to see the realities of border life for BorderLinks, a Christian organization that raises awareness about immigration and border issues: http://www.borderlinks.org/bl/index.htm. I took her photo beneath a crucifix at a church in Benjamin Hill, Mexico where we spoke with a priest friend of Cecelia's who was involved in the sanctary movement in the 80's.

Here is my report of that 2007 border learning tour:

One of the men at the No Mas Muertas station on the Mexican side of the border at Nogales was replacing his shoe laces. I looked at the tennis shoes on the men who were in line to receive food and most of them were without shoe laces. The border patrol remove the shoe laces of those who have tried to cross over the Mexican border so that it is harder for them to run away from the border patrol if they try again. On this trip to the Arizona/Mexico border we heard other stories about how immigrants who were caught trying to cross into the U.S. At several places we visited we heard about how the border patrol didn’t give detainees any food or water to immigrants while they were being held for up to two days. We heard about hair pulling, shoving, punching, and how border patrol would turn up the air conditioning in the immigrants holding cells in the cold of winter as a form of harassment.

This experience was part of Migration and Trade Learning Tour co-sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee, the Peace and Justice Support Network, and BorderLinks, November 10-20, 2007. Ten people, including staff of MCC and BorderLinks, not only visited numerous border ministries to learn about the immigrant’s experience, but also put immigration into a larger context of the negative economic impact of trade agreements like NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement).

Upon arrival in Tucson, Arizona we stayed at the offices of BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona. BorderLinks is an experiential education ministry that began in 1987 as an outgrowth of the sanctuary movement. Their focus is on immigration, community formation, and social justice along the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico. Our work began sitting in on a Sunday School class on immigration at Shalom Mennonite Church, Tucson, Arizona. We heard how almost everyone, from teachers to doctors, were impacted on a daily basis by the realities of being near the border.

On our first day trip we met with Frontera de Christo, a border ministry of the Presbyterian church of U.S. and Mexico in Douglas, Arizona, and heard about their various ministries. One of their vital ministries is a Just Trade Business Development Center that works with Just Coffee, another stop on our group’s many visits. After a meal of beans, rice, and fresh tortillas and heard the stories of a number of migrant men who tried to cross over into the U.S., we slept on a linoleum floor at CAME a migrant shelter run by the Roman Catholic church in Agua Prieta, Mexico.

The sun of a new day shone down warm on us as we headed for a Migrant Resource Center located right next to the border fence in Agua Prieta. We spoke with a Catholic sister, who had volunteered at the center to provide basic necessities, first aid, and information to those who are dropped off at the border after being deported.

This was the second time I had visited Just Coffee. It is a fair trade plus cooperative. We heard about the families in Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, Mexico who grow the beans and how this allows them to stay in their homeland, rather than having to migrate north to the U.S. for economic survival. The roasting of the beans, packaging and shipping of the coffee takes place at Agua Prieta. The Peace and Justice Support Network is promoting Just Coffee.

Time was spent at the border fence reflecting on the migrant journey. Names of those who died crossing the border in the desert were read. Tears flowed from those who stood next to the border fence as they reflected on the harsh realities of survival and sustenance, of hunger and hope, of desperation and death.

In the afternoon we traveled in our van to Nogales, Sonora, Mexico and stayed overnight in homes where plastic water tanks are perched on the roofs like dark crows. Again, we ate the staples of the Mexican diet---rice, beans, and tortillas. In the morning the silent air was broken with upbeat Mexican music coming from a small water truck driving through the neighborhood. We packed the van and headed for Casa de La Misericordia, where we got to take our first shower in days. It is the Mexican headquarters of Borderlinks.

At the casa we heard from Francisco “Kiko” Trujillo, director of BorderLinks Mexico, a lifetime resident of Nogales who worked his way up to manager in the maquiladoras (U.S. run factories). Kiko emphasized the impact of NAFTA on the Mexican economy and the migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the U.S. Later that evening MCC workers went more indepth into NAFTA and its negative impact upon the Mexican economy as a major factor in the migration of Mexicans to the U.S.

Our group got a visual image of the link between workers and maquilas on a trip to the Industrial Park. Together we stood on a hill and looked down on a community where most of the workers of the maquilas came from. As we looked over the hill we could see the poor community with its shacks for homes and meandering dirt roads. When we turned to the other side we could see a number of large maquilas, modern U.S. owned factories and a row of nice houses for managers of the companies. Two communities stood in sharp contrast.

A short trip to the market provided a market basket, cost of living exercise of comparing prices of food in Mexico to the U.S. and what it would take in work hours to purchase these items by Mexicans. For example, it would take about 4 and ½ hours of work for the average Mexican to buy 36 disposable diapers!

The next day we drove to Benjamin Hill. There we went to the train station where many Mexicans hop on the moving train to try and cross the border to the U.S. Many of those who try to hop a ride are injured. On a previous trip to Mexico I heard the story of a young man on crutches who fell off the train and injured his foot.

In Benjamin Hill we walked across a plaza to a Catholic church with a ministry to migrants. An elderly woman greeted us all with a kiss on the cheek and told us stories about migrants as she sorted through beans in preparation for a meal. Not far from there we visited with Padre Ramon Quinonos of Our Lady of Fatima Church. We were inspired by his involvement in the sanctuary movement in the ‘80s, when churches in Mexico and the U.S. provided sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing the violence and oppression, supported by U.S. policies, in countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Our lunch discussion over rice, beans, and tortillas revealed some contrasting views between our group and the good padre about women that are connected to a culture of machismo. Still, we left inspired by the stories we heard of bold acts of resistance during the time of sanctuary movement.

Our final day in Mexico started off with a visit to a shelter for repatriated minors. There we heard about their ministry to youth who try to cross the border and children removed from abusive homes or living on the streets. Several young men told us their stories of trying to cross the border to the U.S. to help their families financially.

From the shelter our group went to a section of the border fence that had been decorated with border art. The art depicts the hopes and dreams, struggle and death of the migrant journey in metal figures attached to the border fence. As an artist I was moved by this creative expression in response to the hard realities of the border and the impact of U.S. economic and political policies upon the people.

The warm afternoon sun found us at Grupos Beta, a federally funded Mexican agency that offers basic services to migrants. They travel out in their vehicles to provide just enough water to leave the immediate desert. The migrants are told that they should return home, for the sake of their lives. It was at Grupo Beta that we were asked if we would like to view photos of people who died in the desert. They warned us that the photos were gruesome. We grimaced as we saw the effects of the hot sun as it cooked the bodies of those who collapsed, along with their hopes for a better life, under the hot desert sun. Those snapshots of death was stay with us forever.

At our next stop we saw the vultures circling. The vultures, better known as “coyotes,” were hanging around the No More Deaths site waiting to pounce on some migrant who might want to try and cross the border again. You could spot them by their new clothes and tennis shoes, combed hair, and cells phones. They were there to make a “killing,” or at least a profit off the vulnerable. But, I left thinking that the Mexican coyotes weren’t the only ones “making a killing” off the migrants. I remembered the huge maquilas next to the poor community of shacks and what we learned about NAFTA and how it has benefited U.S. businesses and impoverished the Mexican economy (except for small percentage of the wealthy elite).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Liberating Jonah

As a child the Jonah story was for me about a man who got swallowed by a whale. In my young mind he was no different from Pinocchio. As an adult I found this "whale of a tale" hard to swallow. The problem was not just because it was hard to believe that a human could stay three days inside the belly of a "big fish." In my evangelical fundamentalist church tradition the story was turned into a missionary tract with Jonah, the evangelist, being told by God to go preach to the sinners in Ninevah. And I was not interested in proselytizing people in foreign countries from other faith traditions.

I just finished reading a whole new take on the Jonah story. One that I can more easily swallow. The book is Liberating Jonah: Forming an Ethics of Reconciliation by Miguel A. De La Torre. I had read his book Reading the Bible from the Margins and Doing Ethics from the Margins, so I was curious to see what he had to say about the book of Jonah.

De La Torre interprets Jonah from the perspective of those on the margins of society. It is a liberationist reading of Jonah, which means that it is a reading with the political, economic, and social dimensions of the text placed in the foreground and utilizes a "hermeneutic of suspicion" that questions the hegemony of pietistic individualism, white eurocentricity, heterosexist patriarchy, capitalistic neoliberalism, and U.S. imperialism. His purpose is to study Jonah to "find biblically based paradigms for developing of discourse and action that can lead to reconciliation between and socioeconomic classes within the United States." A praxis mode of interpretation is emphasized in the final chapter by using contemporary case studies.

De La Torre's places the Jonah narrative within the socio-political context of the Assyrian empire. The Assyrian empire held the power in the story, while Jonah and the Israelites were among the marginalized. So, with this power dynamic it becomes more difficult to identify Jonah and the Israelites with the U.S. as an empire or Jonah as an example of missionary activity to foreign contries from within our U.S. context. We fit more analogously with Assyria. De La Torre examines the economic, racist, and religious faces of the U.S. as an empire. He also looks at the Jonah story as analogous to the marginalized calling for repentance and reconciliation from those in the dominant power structures.

Reconciliation take a good portion of the last part of the book. De La Torre's approach is to allow reconciliaion to be defined by and originate from the marginalized, who are most often the victims of the dominant culture. Forgiveness plays a significant role in his understanding of reconciliation. Reconciliation must be accompanied by justice and forgiveness by repentance, or else they become "cheap grace." Justice is understood as restorative justice over against retributive justice. De La Torre states that "restorative justice must include a retributional component." He seems to understand this component of "retribution" in terms of justice and restitution. I would question his understanding of justice and accountability as being "retribution," but agree with his call for accountability and restitution.

Finally, De La Torre notes some pitfalls the marginalized should avoid when challenging the dominant church and society. One pitfall is that reconciliation is embedded within Eurocentric constructions of what reconciliation means. This means that the marginalized and those with power will view reconciliation differently. Also, it means that the dominant church and society will seek to maintain its place of privilege in any attempts at reconciliation. Challenging white privilege should not turn into "a multiculturalism of symbolic concessions" rather than the redistribution of of power. And power should not be underestimated. Shedding tears over the past and present injustices cannot be a substitute for dismantling power and privilege. Peace cannot substitute for justice to the oppressed and marginalized.

De La Torre does not end his book on a hopeful note. Hope is the final pitfall. His hopelessness may be disturbing to some, particularly Christians. But, I understand why he has little hope for reconciliation, even in a context where many of us have been inspired by the recent message of hope in our U.S. presidential elections. De La Torre's lack of hope is based upon the long term consequences of neoliberalism, neocolonialism, imperialism, the entrenched nature of inequitable power and privilege, and a long history of racism, injustice, sexism, and oppression of marginalized groups that has taken hundreds of years to only partially be redressed and undone. Hope offered by the dominant culture most often appears contrived to the marginalized. In the end, reconciliation and justice are to be pursued not because there is hope that they will be fully realized, but because of the escatological promise of God. So, beyond all hope we believe in hope.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I am more hopeful today for our nation than I have been in the past 8 years. Barack Obama was elected president of the United States last night! I have more hope because the reign of the Bush administration is coming to an end. These past 8 years have been a nightmare for progressive thinkers and peace activists, for our nation and the world. I have more hope because Obama represents something different from pre-emptive warmaking based on falsehoods, if-you're-not-with-us-your-against-us-axis-of-evil confrontational foreign policy, saber rattling toward Iran, alienation of our allies and the world from the U.S., Patriot Acts and domestic surveillance, curtailing of civil rights, trickle-down economics favoring the wealthy, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib violation of human rights, justification of torture, and an economic crisis! With any change in direction from all that, I am more hopeful.

I am more hopeful because we elected our first African-American president, which is without precedent. I am not so naive to believe that racism is now dead in our society or that Obama will not have to encounter the ugly face of racism while in office. But, I couldn't help but be more hopeful when I watched on TV the many tearful, proud, and beaming faces of African-Americans, Euro-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians in the U.S. and around the world, as it was announced that Obama would ascend to the highest office in the land, inspite of the obvious racism that was injected into the election. My hope is not so much in what I kept hearing about how African-Americans can aspire to be something greater than they could ever have imagined, though that can be amazingly inspirational. My hope is that race can become more a part of our national dialogue and that inequities caused by trickle-down economics and structural injustices, which inequiably impact people of color, might be addressed more directly.

I am hopeful because Obama, whose parents were of an interracial marriage, raised without wealth by his grandparents after his mother's death, a Chicago community organizer and first time young senator, a self-identified "black man" became president of the United States.

That's why I like Shepherd Fairey's widely recognized poster of Obama with the word "Hope" underneath. It represents the hope of rising from obscurity to a place of pride and recognition for your gifts. Fairey, himself, rose up from being a skateboarder and guerilla street artist to instigating his worldwide "Andre the Giant has a Posse" sticker campaign to owning a printing company with clients like Pepsi, Hasbro, and Netscape and now for creating the most recognized visual image of the Barack Obama campaign (see Shepherd Fairey's work at: http://obeygiant.com/).

As we anticipate the next 4 years of an Obama presidency I am more hopeful, with a strong dose of realism, that we can visualize a future with the word "Hope" underneath.