“a cold drink of water. . .” A cold drink of water for a parched throat. Easy for us to do these days- turn on the tap add a little ice maybe and stretch out your hand in offering. Back in Jesus’s day, a cold cup of water? I suspect that came from the nearby well. Maybe water stayed cool in clay jars, but for cold you had to go down into the well. You had to go out of your way, I suspect, to offer that welcome to the stranger.
Jesus has been instructing his disciples on how to go about his ministry, spreading the words of God’s love- a love that looked so different from their society’s laws and norms, especially among those in power, in control. These prophets, traveling empty handed, sharing good news of a new day were threatening to those who were really just fine, thank you very much! So if one of these prophets, James, or John or Peter or Thomas were to meet up with the rulers of their day, the leaders of the Temple, those in power and were welcomed – was that welcome a soft spot where news of a different kind of society, a different way of being might be heard?
“a cold cup of water . . .”
This morning, I want to share a story of my recent trip to our southern border where I crossed my boundaries of faith and understanding. From my earlier shame in learning about my white privilege, further reading had got me to a state of disillusionment. . . “Now what?” I said to myself for months. . . “What do I do with this? Am I really racist?” I finally arrived at yes, “I am racist.” Not gun toting, swastika wielding racist . . . but I came to see bias in my behavior towards people of a different color skin.
I had long since intellectually acknowledged stories of oppression, racial injustice. And then one class in seminary got me reading and wondering and the more I was hearing and reading, the more I got curious and uncomfortable in my comfort of ignorance. I came to see that I cannot be completely whole if others around me have been harmed by the very systems from which I benefit and designed to protect me.
So, when a training was offered by ECCO, to the southern border I jumped in. And, this trip further dislocated me from my nice white world, leading me to opening myself to go deeper. This is a story about begrudgingly and then more openly welcoming a prophetic voice that said, listen carefully, “God’s love works differently than you thought.”
I find it especially fitting to share this story the day after we commemorate the anniversary of the birth of our nation. Indeed, having arrived in 1619 with African slaves already in hand?. . . By the time those founding fathers signed the declaration of independence, we had birthed so much more, at the expense of so many precious lives. The oppression of people of color - to effectively keep them on the margins, along with the efforts of those in power throughout our history, not just today, to stay in power, in control. This is a timely reflection. As a white woman of great privilege, I have so benefited from these systems.
So, here’s the story –
This past January, I spent 4 days with about 50 other curious clergy types, in a training hosted by an ECCO affiliated organization called “Faith in Action.” We were a racially diverse group, together encountering life in the southern borderlands, New Mexico, and the system of racism that has perpetuated for 400 years in this country, a system that got us where we are today. We went deep into a darkness, processed together what we had witnessed, and we came out changed.
Here are some highlights.
The Wall – our first morning together – the wall dividing Sunland Park, New Mexico from Anapra, Mexico. 14 feet tall, 4-inch thick iron pillars in a row for miles. My previous sense of shame resurfaced as I stood quietly at the border – what was my role in building this wall? . . . The wall building actually began back in 1964 – the year I was born – so it’s been a thing for a really long time. Until 3 years ago, the portion where we were was a 4-foot chain link fence. Standing there, I was able to stick my hand through the iron bars and take a selfie. Profound sadness as I tried ironically to smile for my own camera. Through the slats I saw small, makeshift houses and a bit of a dumping ground, and then. . . a tumble weed rolled by in the wind. A few feet down the wall I came to a construction crew building a house on the other side! The guys actually smiled and waved!
Would they have welcomed me if I had showed up at their door? I think so. . .
The following day, we sat in on “Operation Streamline,” a court system begun in 2005 to move newly detained immigrants through the court quickly so that they can be sent back from where they came, with efficiency. The fifty of us entered a cold court room, cold enough for us to need our coats. We witnessed 35 men and 3 women in short-sleeved orange body suits being led in shackles through the court, they were read their rights through a translator and asked to raise their right hands to swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They were in shackles, hands and feet attached by chain at the waist - How do you hold up your right hand when it is shackled to your waist??
Most will be sent back across the border the following week after they are sentenced. Some will wait in the detention center up six months waiting to tell their story of how things are back home. Meanwhile they live in barracks 50 to a room, bunkbeds one blanket and an orange jump suit. Stories we heard from those who had survived the inside of that system – frightening. This is not a new system of dealing with those entering our country illegally. It has been building for some time. . . through many generations of government leadership.
Back at the Catholic retreat center we spent hours and hours processing these and other experiences . . . all that we had witnessed in two days. What was made plain to us was the direct connection of systemic racism with our long evolved and expanding immigration policies.
Our trainers were not quite prepared for just how much processing we needed to do. It got messy, and not entirely welcoming. . . .There was dis-ease in our group as we listened and bristled, and there was dis-harmony as we struggled to comprehend where we each fit in these stories of oppression and racism.
Some in the group, of African descent, shared outrage --- and rightly so!! Here we are at the border of the U.S. learning about the pain and suffering at the hands of those upholding an oppressive, life-limiting US immigration policy and practice. But . . . for more than 400 years African slaves and their descendants have been fighting to be seen and heard. How great that we are here to learn of these injustices here on the border, but what about that story? Those who spoke out so, they were right!
One black pastor put it so well, “Where were you?” She stood up and asked us. She hesitated only a moment and looked around. . . “Where were you last year when my 13 year-old daughter was threatened and mistreated by the local police for walking home from school?” She continued, "How long do we have to wait for the oppression to end in our community? How long?"
This pastor, who was committed to bring about social justice to all who are oppressed . . . she broke us open to get to honest, painful discussions of the work we, as faith leaders, still have to do.
What I had not yet realized until this experience, was just how much I had to give up, from my power and privilege, how much I had to quiet down, back-up and give others, specifically my black siblings, their space to speak, to take the lead and be heard. In order to communicate an open welcome of new systems, I needed to back up and open the space wider. Like giving a cup of cold water to a parched prophet.
Thankfully, we did meet up with hope by way of a group of radical Catholic nuns at St. Thomas More Catholic church, in Chapparal, New Mexico. Their leader was the most amazing, prophetic, vibrant, energic nun, Sister Chabela. Sister Chabela of Chapparal – kind of rolls off your tongue, you know? She got us pumped up, clarified our vision of why we were gathered, crystalizing God’s call to walk with, love and heal those closest to the pain in our midst. We got further educated on the holy work of calling out injustice while tending to those most in need.
On this trip I learned that only by naming my own racism, calling it out loud, would I be able to begin to redirect and work toward dismantling it. I learned about welcoming that prophetic voice that says, we need to change how we live – we need to call out racism when we witness it – we need to be anti-racist! Cups of cold water to keep prophetic voices refreshed!
With God’s help, prodded by prophetic voices of change, offering fresh out-of-the-well living water, we need to welcome the change by entering into difficult conversations. Only then can we begin to dismantle life-limiting systems based on false narratives of who is fully human and who is less than. And as we engage in this welcome, holding out cups of cold water to God’s disciples calling for justice, we will not lose our reward.
We have so much to gain! May God help us on along the way.