All posts by Rod White

How did SHOULD get into my meditation?

It is wonderful to watch the Evangelicals catch up with the rest of the Church when it comes to experiencing that personal relationship with God they always talk about. I had to desert them, for the most part, to have one.

I spent my first years of faith with the Baptists as they fought with the charismatics, who scared the pants off them (recent example). I felt a little guilty about my thrilling charismatic dalliances, because I was taught people like me were following feelings not facts and undermining the authority of scripture, thinking the Spirit was going to begin something already settled. The way I looked at, and still do, the Evangelicals arrested their development because of their Eurocentric and Enlightenment-dominated theology. They had to have the Bible front and center and had to interpret it in a way they considered “literal.” Only their “literal” was a pseudo-scientific, supposedly “innerrant” set of principles that still resemble a textbook to me. I suppose that’s why so many of them are still fighting about textbooks.

But I think a lot of Evangelicals are now catching up with last century’s main spiritual movement. Their development  parallels the translation development of a familiar Bible verse I was taught as a youngster — Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Version (KJV):

For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.

My preachers regularly skipped the meaning of this Proverb to concentrate on the first eleven words, which I was assigned as a memory verse: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” I got the idea, being male and all, that what we think is paramount. When CBT was invented, Evangelicals liked psychotherapy a bit more, since the modality was all about think-> feel-> behave.

But when boomers go looking for their memory verse in the new Evangelical Bible, the New International Version (NIV), they can’t find it. It has disappeared into a much more accurate rendering:

Do not eat the food of a begrudging host, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.

The extricated bit the preachers emphasized in my youth has appropriately become part of the previous sentence. The readers have begun to find out, like the Bible really says, that true discernment is all about the heart and right relationships, not just about how excellent one’s thoughts are.

The staying power of should

The Evangelicals are, more and more, turning toward developing hearts. But as they do, they often bring their heresies with them and undermine the process.

I stumbled on an example of this undermining when I explored the  Pause app. It is part of John Eldridge’s latest reinvention as a spiritual director. The app is a generous free gift that encourages us to buy his book and other things, as most apps do. I have friends who are enthusiastically using it. As with most Evangelical things, it is wordy and teachy. But the heart of it is good: Please pause and center in on God with you.

I decided to try the app to see if it is a good thing for my tech-connected spiritual companions. Normally I feel like relating to God through a machine is dangerous. But that is arguable. Even though I was holding my app fears at bay, I did not get far until I ran into a problem that made me not want to run into any more.

I had a Bible isssue. The whole thing is coming from the Bible, assuming it is the essential way God is revealed and our primary means of forming a relationship with Him. The Bible does not teach itself as that, especially in the passage in question. But I love the Bible and I think studying it is fundamental to following Jesus. So what does the Pause app give me? The New Living Translation (NLT). It is the revised Living Bible from the 1970’s. I had one of the originals with a cool handmade leather cover. I tried to find it so I could take a picture but I think I threw it away when I downsized since I hadn’t cracked it in 30 years.

The very first entry centers on a beautiful key passage from Ephesians 3 which opens up an expansive picture of all it means to know God through Jesus Christ. The NLT says:

I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God

Pause and let God speak to you through that! It is a wonderful statement and very accessible writing.

The NLT has merit, but I don’t think it is a good translation. It gets rid of things that might trouble postmodern sensibilities and adds things that fit modern evangelical preferences. Maybe it is still more of the paraphrase it started out as. I found it hard to meditate on it because I love relating to the Bible writers and couldn’t get over disputing what the translators considered revelation. I was also concerned about those less suspicious than I am.

I also had a heresy issue. This is my main reason to write today. Perhaps I learned to attend to clauses too well since one in this sentence bothered me:

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.

For one thing, nobody else translates the verse this way. The Greek implies to me a great celebration of the already but not fully realized place we stand in Christ, where we are one with God and growing into our fullness. Paul knows he and his readers have an eternity of revelation to relish; we are incomplete. But he also believes we are already risen with Christ, living in Him right now, and are fully entitled to know and love Him as we are known and loved. We don’t need to wait until we are dead or deserve it.

This most offending sentence includes the word SHOULD: “[M]ay you have the power to understand ” (as if you don’t ), “as all God’s people should.”  I was too irritated by the ever-present Evangelical “should” inserted, at the very beginning of the app’s program, no less! I could not even get started! I don’t think that “should” can be construed from the Greek. The paraphrasers just had to get it in there. I don’t think Paul is looking at his readers ruefully as if they should get their act together. Nor does he think God looks at him that way.

l am particularly sensitive to the overriding should my Evangelical directees bring to their development. They got the point. They get arrested by it. When they look inside they see guilt. They are always an aspiration, never acceptable, never enough. Their hope is often based on getting better, thinking better, behaving better, not on pausing to experience being better by being with Jesus, as Paul is praying they will know.

What do we hate more: Humility or Forgiveness?

It took a while

Our internet provider was trying, really they were. The autopay failed, for some reason. I lost consciousness about fixing it. They called us in France and I told my wife the call must be a scam, mainly because I was drunk with beautiful countryside and did not want to be bothered. I came home and paid the day after they cut me off.

Now I am waiting for the cable guy to show up because they could not reconnect, even after I bought a new modem to replace the one the nice lady said was too ancient to be trusted. I can almost guarantee you have had similar issues. We now live under the incomprehensible thumb of virtuality, so there are new challenges. But we still have the same old inner problems when we face them. I am mainly talking about the need for humility and forgiveness.

Sometimes I hate humility

It is downright shameful to mismanage the cable bill and subject your loved ones to a day without Netflix (and worse!). That sentence may have aroused a common response: “It’s no big deal. Don’t be so hard on yourself. It could happen to everyone. It will all work out.”

All that is true. But one might as well say, “Stuff that shame back where it belongs! I don’t want to see it. It is shameful to feel shame.” Being humiliated is tantamount to being murdered in our culture. So we walk around all day suspicious someone is trying to humiliate us. Our comedians amuse us by mocking people. We revel in scandalous revelations about celebrities.

While I was praying post-cable-fiasco, I felt I had some space to be humble. It is obvious to God, and to me when I am present to God, that I am fallible. Even though I strive to be unassailable, I mess up the cable bill and get shut off. Then I get defensive and look for someone to blame (like the cable company — the one that called me to tell me I was going to be shut off). Then I withdraw and don’t want to talk about it. Then I spend twelve hours in recovery until I can look at it and say to myself, “Yep. That happened. You did that.”

Being humble is just admitting who we really are and what we really did. It is being seen as God sees us. God knows we are dust, a breath. We have sinful responses to almost everything. Yet God loves us without reservation and respects us enough to fill us with the Holy Spirit and trust us to make our way into wholeness. Humility is not just admitting I am flawed. It is also admitting I am loved, regardless. It is admitting I can’t prevent all wrong, all suffering, and admitting I am not shameful if I don’t. I am just fallible and, apparently, nonetheless-lovable me.

But not as much as forgiveness

The other side of the humiliation of having one’s precious internet shut off is forgiveness. That word may have aroused some common responses in you. “No need to ask forgiveness. No problem. It’s nothing. Let’s just move on. You’re not to blame. You’re fine.”

Some of that is nice. But one might as well say, “Stuff that shame back where it belongs. I don’t want to be a part of it. It is embarrassing to be dealing with your private parts.” I think I said I was sorry about messing up the cable bill. I may have just looked regretful. Maybe I just furrowed my brow in self-loathing and projection. I can’t remember. I was too busy fretting about being in a situation where I needed to be forgiven. We are a punitive bunch in the U.S. We want justice. We want the “rule of law.” We ruthlessly apply any available law to ourselves, no matter how godless. And we expect the same of others.  When I am listening to couples trying to work things out, asking forgiveness or giving it is often not even a consideration – as if something else works!

I can relate to that resistance. As I was praying post-cable fiasco, I realized I needed to be humble enough to be forgiven. Even if everyone else just accepted my sins as no big deal (which is nice of them), I still felt ashamed. And until that shame was touched with grace, it was going to make an impact. It was going to flood my private parts with contempt and condemnation as I vainly tried to complete my uncompletable task of stuffing it, bearing it secretly like an ill-capped, undersea oil well, oozing pollution. All that over a cable bill!

I felt able to sit in my forgiven place with God (or I probably wouldn’t be writing this, right?). I even apologized more directly for messing up the screens. I felt released. I hope you do, too. Asking forgiveness and receiving it might be the beginning of freedom, of mental health, of love. Admitting how we hate it might be humble enough to get us started and get us reconciled with God. Avoiding that confession might keep us rolling around in some shame cycle waiting for the cable guy to come, another thing completely out of our  control.

Death in the harsh desert

On day six of our MCC learning tour of the Borderlands in Arizona, we spent a stirring time with Brian Best, one of the Tucson Samaritans. They are devoted to saving the lives of migrants who are making their way through the treacherous Sonoran desert. We took a dirt track off the two lane highway to Sasabe and were soon off the beaten track. The following video gives you an idea of the terrain a migrant has to get through without getting caught by the border patrol.

Our group was ending a time of prayer and remembrance around a cross placed by artist Alavaro Enciso on the spot closest to a reported death of a migrant. Thousands of deaths have been verified since Pima County started carefully tracking twenty years ago; many more people have never been found.

A baby cholla invaded my shoe

Brian Best gave us three hours to get a taste of what it is like to try to make it into the US. For one thing, almost every plant has stickers. I stepped near a baby cholla and spent the next hour getting spines out of my foot and shoe. It takes days to get through the desert and no one can carry as much water as they need. It might be safer to travel by night but hard to navigate and avoid the dangerous plants. There are rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions and other animals you need to avoid. It is very likely you don’t have the best clothes or supplies because you can’t afford them. It is quite cold at night and very hot in the day. It is a miracle anyone gets through.

As soon as we exited our van to walk with Brian, we saw a backpack laying on the ground, and then a pile of camouflage shirts and hats nearby. From the bushes we extracted two little satchels we saw. One had three phones in it. Brian’s best guess was the Border Patrol tracked the migrants with hilltop cameras and drones until they emerged at a convenient place to nab them.

My heart broke for these poor, desperate, invisible young men. Most people do not care about them. But they deserve to be remembered like anyone else. I took comfort that God sees and loves them, just like you. But I suffered over the fact that most Americans don’t see migrants as people and feel obligated, for economic reasons, not to love them.

Further resources

In Sasabe we visited the recently-opened welcome center for migrants, Casa de Esperanza, a project of Salvavision. Sasabe is a sleepy little desert town, but it is still a point of entry for migrants and a place where removed people are set loose. While we were there we were treated to snacks in the Super Coyote convenience store down the street.

Sasabe is the starting point for the annual Migrant Trail experience, which you can join. One of our MCC leaders for our tour, Saulo Padilla, walks the trail every year. He would be glad to tell you all about it. (Read Open Your Arms: An Invitation)

Saulo Padilla 
MCC US Immigration Education Coordinator
saulopadilla@mcc.org
574-304-9196

The next day we had another feast at the Tucson table of compassion and activism. We met John Fife, one of the originators of the Sanctuary Movement, which has spread much further than sanctuary churches. (More history)

Fridays for the Future #7: The Climate Wall

On day five of our learning tour in the borderlands in Arizona we met Todd Miller (toddmillerwriter.com). He has been writing about the borderlands for many years and filled us with useful, if a bit terrifying, info.

Miller wrote Storming the Wall: Climate change, Migration, and Homeland Security in 2017 and co-authored Global Climate Wall last month for the Transnational Institute (tni.org). I was glad to meet him. What follows is a version of what he is trying to get everyone to hear.

Climate change drives migration

Guatemala provides a good example of how the changing climate is impacting immigration and what the wealthy countries are doing about it.

As soon as the floodwaters of Hurricane Eta began to recede in November of 2020 people began to head north. 339,000 Guatemalans were displaced by natural catastrophes in 2020. Many people became desperate. They felt they had to face the walls, armed agents, and surveillance systems deployed by the U.S. — and forced on other countries, starting with the heavily enforced border in southern Mexico, to have a chance to live.

The U.S. Government knows environmental catastrophe and displacement within and migration from Central America are linked, whether caused by flooding or drought. In September 2018, after a year of severe drought in the region, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) commissioner Kevin McAleenan told the press, “Food insecurity, not violence, seems to be a key push factor informing the decision to travel from Guatemala, where we have seen the largest growth in migration this year.”

U.S. climate scientist Chris Castro said Central America is “ground zero” for the impact of global heating impact on the Americas. “It’s a paradigm of the wet gets wetter, the dry gets drier, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Everything gets more extreme.” There is an ever-widening swathe of land populated by subsistence farmers where rain has become less reliable.

Then came 2020. At the end of a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic came two back- to-back category four hurricanes. By January 2021, the World Food Programme calculated that those experiencing hunger nearly quadrupled from 2018 to 8 million, and 15% of people surveyed were making concrete plans to migrate north, twice the 2016 level. In 2020, in Honduras alone, almost a million people were displaced because of climate-related causes. This was only only a glimpse of what was happening worldwide with over 30 million people displaced by such events, three times more than those displaced by conflict or war in the same year.

Mexican police corral migrants after they cross the Suchiate River in January 2020

The response of big polluters? Invest in border security

In response the climate disaster and the migration it causes, wealthy countries are building security walls. I have now seen the incredible investment in border security at the US border with my own eyes. All over the world, the largest greenhouse gas emitters are also the world’s top border enforcers. Besides the US, countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany and the UK, as well as the European Union and its 27 member states, are constructing walls, deploying armed agents, erecting sophisticated and expensive surveillance technologies and biometric systems, and unmanned aerial systems, often in collaboration with a burgeoning global border industry. Globally, 63 border walls have been built, with 9 new ones announced, up from six when the Berlin Wall fell and South African apartheid was dismantled in 1989. This wall-building has accelerated since 9/11, and particularly since 2010. The US is funding and forcing Central American countries and Mexico to reinforce the US border by militarizing their own.

It seems that there is no limit to spending on national borders and immigration enforcement. US spending on militarizing its southern border and detention and deportation of immigrants has nearly tripled since 2003 from $9.2 billion to $25 billion today. Yet the world’s richest countries have failed to meet even their inadequate promises of money to tackle the impacts of climate change in the world’s poorest countries. The ratio of U.S. Border spending to climate financing, for example, is 11 to 1, based on the annual average between 2013 and 2018.

We are living in a world in which walls, border patrols, Black Hawk helicopters, unmanned aerial systems, motion sensors, and infrared cameras are placed between the world’s highest emitters and the lowest ones (like Guatemala), between the environmentally relatively secure and the environmentally exposed. The U.S. is exporting border protection to Central American countries in an attempt to deter people before they get too close.

This expanding global border regime is increasingly built by private industry. This fuels a lucrative border security industrial complex. Many of the same companies that the US, the EU and Australia have contracted to fortify their borders and detention systems also have been hired by fossil fuel companies in order to protect oil pipelines and other parts of the industry. The company G4S, for example, not only has contracts with the CBP to provide armed and armored transport for migrants arrested near the US–Mexico border, but also provides protection services to Royal Dutch Shell, the seventh largest corporate emitter of green house gas worldwide.

Rhetorically, political leaders from the world’s highest emitting countries are aware that the poor bear the burden of suffering. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for example, says he knows that the “consequences are falling disproportionately on vulnerable and low-income populations. And they’re worsening conditions and human suffering in places already afflicted by conflict, high levels of violence, instability.” With such awareness, one might assume that US national budgets would reflect the will to alleviate the suffering Blinken describes. Instead, the United States – and many of the other high-emitting countries – pour increasing money into border and immigration enforcement.

At the end of the day, budgets speak much louder than rhetoric. In the present status quo, tens of thousands of people from Guatemala and beyond will face the armed guards and gates of the United States, as thousands of others face the rough Mediterranean waters around Fortress Europe.

The Bible consistently tells us that how we treat the stranger is a measure of our right relationship with God. How the rich treat the planet creates strangers on their doorsteps. What would the Lord have us do?

Further Resources

One of the big moments of this day on our learning tour was visiting Casa Alitas. This mission started when someone found an immigrant released from custody and wandering around the bus station in Tucson, where they had been dropped. Women, especially, started inviting these strangers into their homes. They got a house where they convinced the authorities to drop released people. They outgrew it and moved into a soon-to-be-demolished monastery. The country eventually gave them a large, unused part of the youth detention center. I was moved to tears by the generosity and service of these inventive, compassionate people! Over 400 volunteers make their mission effective. One of them became an MCC worker and the leader of our tour. You might like to know her:

Katherine Smith  
Border & Migration Outreach Coordinator
West Coast Mennonite Central Committee
Tucson, AZ
Cell: (520) 600-1764
katherinesmith@mcc.org

Valarie Lee James found a manta buried in the desert sand near Tucson. It is the all-purpose cloth Central American women often embroider and then use to keep tortillas fresh or any other regular purpose.  It was a shockingly personal item to find. She then found another and another. She cleaned them, honored the, and turned them into art installations. One of which is in a permanent museum collection in Sweden. She then encouraged migrant women by engaging them in their art. She then realized their art could support them and other causes. Thus, their is an Etsy shop called Bordando Esperanza (hope embroidering/crafting).

The legal razor wire on the other side of the wall

I actually fell asleep in the back set of the van yesterday and missed my second visit to Bisbee Arizona!

I was sleepy because I volunteered to help with the 2-5am shift at the Migrant Resource Center, which is right at the exit of the border crossing. It is a project that began in the Church and remains a wonderful place of mercy for tired, scared and often bewildered people. We had sandwiches, coffee, blankets, a place to nap and a few supplied for about 80 people by my count. I helped one young man find a new pair of pants since his had been ripped on the razor wire. I also found him some new outerwear since his coat was full of thorns. Most of the mostly men waited to be retrieved by their smuggler and taken to a cartel “safe house.”

I was glad to be awake enough to meet Noah Schram of the Florence Project out of Tucson, now 120 lawyers and trained people advising and defending people in the immigration process. One of us jokingly told him we were on our learning tour trying to make sense of the U.S. Immigration process. He laughed too, because no one can really do that.

Right now Title 42 is still in place. It was one of Trump’s executive orders that effectively closed the border. In the name of public health no one was allowed in when they went the legal route of presenting themselves at the port of entry and there was no means to appeal. All the lawyers note this is against the international agreement on refugees to which the U.S. is a signer.

People still get in, however. They evade capture when they scale the wall or they manage not to die of thirst or exposure when they cross where the wall ends far out into the desert. Many do die and their remains quickly dry up; no one knows how many.

Those who cross and are captured from certain countries can get through an asylum loophole since Mexico will not take anyone back who is not from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. Unaccompanied minors get dropped off and get through the port of entry now under Biden’s rules. If a family with a young child is caught in the desert they usually get through.

Getting through and into the legal process of gaining asylum means going to the detention center part of a prison. There 14% of the migrants will get representation to help make their case to the immigration judge. Imagine being in your twenties, fleeing your impossible or violent situation, making it through the longest trip you’ve ever taken under the thumb of the cartel, making it over the wall or around it and through the desert, being caught by the military presence in the United States, taken to a prison, then getting into a bureaucratic and legal fight which is done mainly by English speakers!

That’s where Noah and his people come in, God bless them. The system is not designed to welcome strangers, just repel them. The judges are rarely impartial, taking the side of the unrepresented; many of them function more as another prosecutor. When I read the Bible these days I see how much of it is written with such injustice and lack of compassion in mind.

Further Resources

Noah Schram in making such good use of his law degree! The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project is on of many such projects along the border. Every immigrant needs an advocate to get through a system designed to trick them, detain them, and thwart them even when they are in line with international and U.S. law.

The 1951 Refugee Agreement is still in place.

The United States has long guaranteed the right to seek asylum to individuals who arrive at our southern border and ask for protection. But since March 20, 2020, that fundamental right has been largely suspended. Since that date, both migrants seeking a better life in the United States and those seeking to apply for asylum have been turned away and “expelled” back to Mexico or their home countries. These border expulsions are carried out under a little-known provision of U.S. health law, section 265 of Title 42, which the former Trump administration invoked to achieve its long-desired goal of shutting the border. The Biden administration has continued using this provision, and over 1.2 million expulsions have been carried out since the pandemic began, even though ports of entry remain open with nearly 11 million people crossing the southern border every month and thousands flying into the United States every day. (full article from the American Immigration Council)

The Department of Justice contributes to non-profits like FIRRP through its Legal Orientation Program. Only 14% of people seeking asylum are represented however. We spoke to one of them who somehow connected with people from a Tucson church visiting  Eloy. It took TWO YEARS for her unjust detention to be ended, but she made it. Now she has started a business.

Why do the authorities release people without their shoelaces? What in the impact of the Migrant Protection Policy (MPP)? (Anchorage Daily News)

Immigration court judges are not impartial. The system in broken. (NYTimes)

On this day we also visited the brick-making neighborhood of Agua Prieta, Sonora, to see DouglaPrieta. It is a project begun by women seeking more dignity to make their own way in the world. It is a mutual teaching center for backyard farming, sewing, carpentry and other skills. What we witnessed was how good a training center it was for disempowered women to become leaders and builders. They even made their own adobe bricks to make one of their buildings! I bought some of their work to take home.

The two sides of the border wall

One of my friends on our pilgrimage to the borderland in Arizona said, “I feel more life on the Mexican side of the wall.” Now that I have spent all day on the American side, I agree.

The mural above is on the Mexican side of the border wall in Agua Prieta. The quetzal bird is the national bird of Guatemala. It is known for not being able to live in captivity. The southern side of the wall is filled with inventive, positive art. The city put a park-like path along it and made it into a place to exercise. When we walked along it yesterday, we met people and said good morning.

Today we spent much of our time tracing the U.S. side of the wall for fifteen miles along the road only the border patrol uses. I can’t see it as anything but a blight. There is no life on the American side, only a vacant buffer zone. Patrol cars are parked at regular intervals, engines idling ready for action. Light poles, sometimes moats, sometimes two fences. Cameras are everywhere, some stationed on hills the distance. A helicopter tracked us for a while. It feels dangerous and overwhelming.

I can’t imagine how the U.S. could roll back such a commitment, now that the country has made such a huge investment in this presence. The wall itself cost $3-12 million a mile. Then you have the thousands of employees and equipment to maintain it, patrol it, surveil it and extend it.

Before we started our adventure along the wall, we prayed over it. Our guide noted that the ground it was built on is sacred because God created that earth for goodness out of love. Migrant and patrolman, cartel member and church member, south and north all live under God’s grace. They can all hear the blood of the unjustly killed, those dying alone in the desert, calling out for justice, just like Cain’s blood if they listen.

I stood praying with my hands on the second fence in the first section on the American side, feeling a lot of death after hearing the truth about what is happening on the border in the war between the U.S. and the cartels. A song from a funeral I led long ago came to my mind. I just got through the first line, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” I felt the fence begin to lightly vibrate under my fingers. I was so surprised I lifted them off like my hand was on a hot stovetop. I put them back and the fence was calm. But my heart was glad to have another sense that Jesus was with us all on the border. Even in this violent, desperate place, surely the Lord is with us.

Further resources

Jack and Linda Knox are legends in the minds of many who visit them in Douglas AZ (check out a video by them). They retired with service in mind and devote themselves to hospitality, volunteering and rabble rousing. Jack led us to the wall to pray and then took us on a wild ride on the border wall road to get a look at the miles of investment the U.S. has made to keep people out of the U.S.

This night we joined the Healing Our Borders prayer vigil on the road leading to the Douglas port of entry.  This memorial for people who have died in the desert and prayer for  just and loving  relationships with “the strangers” has been happening every Tuesday for over 20 years!

Twentysomething migrants out in a cruel world

One of my travel companions looked at my concerned face today and said, “But people are doing good things everywhere!” I had to agree, since I met them all day. But they are certainly not doing good things without opposition.

Let me concentrate on one of the several organizations we learned from today south of the border in Sonora, Mexico.

A memorial at the migrant welcome center in honor of people who died crossing the border.

I won’t tell you the name of the migrant shelter we visited. They are scared of the “criminal organization” that threatens them. Any undo publicity could prove dangerous. The director was recently threatened with death after a new security chief took over that spot in local gang by killing his rival. The director’s crime? He went to pick up refugees from India who strangely ended up on the train to Agua Prieta.

The “mafia’s” business is drugs and human trafficking. The shelter does not fit its business model, which is based on deception and control. If shelter volunteers help a migrant retrieve money from Western Union that deprives the gang of its tax. If they pick people up they can’t be wandering around confused and easier to kidnap for ransom. If they help people file police reports that’s obviously inhibiting business.

The director leads a ministry that was born in his Catholic Church 21 years ago. A small group took over a part of the church to care for men trying to get into the U.S. to work. They could house 16 people. They found money to expand to 44. The new building they just finished added 88 spots. It also includes new rooms for families. During the pandemic and under the ongoing Title 42 rule in the U.S., most refugees and asylum seekers from Central America are not even processed, just returned to Mexico. Those are the main people leaving their homes and the main group who wanders, confused and destitute, into the shelter. New realities mean some people have been in a waiting pattern in the shelter for a long time when the shelter’s idea was to provide a short term stay.

Peering through the border wall

We ate dinner with the people staying in the shelter. The couple with us at our table were from Honduras. They and their 1 1/2 year old had lived in a farm village in the mountains where there were no jobs except farming, no schooling and no hope. Plus they feared the increasing violence from rival gangs and threats from the long arms of various criminal organizations looking for people to lure into migration for $10-15K a person. The smugglers told them people with children were getting asylum and once in the U.S. a family would not be returned. That is not so.

They asked for asylum in Reynosa TX. They thought they were being taken for processing. Instead they were bussed to the airport and put on a plane for Tucson where they were transported to the border at Agua Prieta. To get another of the three tries for entry their smuggler promised, they need to get back to Reynosa, 18 hours away by car. Mexico has put a check point not far from Monterrey where they can catch migrants on the bus and stop their progress. I looked at that sweet couple and their son and could not imagine what awaited them in this cruel world.

The government will fly people across the country to discourage them from trying to enter it again? The “mafia” can walk into your shelter and tell you what you can’t do that might inhibit their illegal trade? Kamala Harris goes to Guatemala to tell people our border is closed to almost everyone and expects people poor enough to intend to walk to Reynosa to hear her?

Lord have mercy.

Further resources

I hope you will order your coffee Christmas presents from Cafe Justo. We heard a presentation about coffee growers in Chiapas eliminating the middleman and creating their own cooperative to roast and distribute the work of their hands.  It raised their standard of living, sent children to school and stabilized their valley. (also Facebook)

It is hard to decide how much to say about C.A.M. E. (Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus). They feel threatened. But they do have a Facebook page to garner support.

There is a technique under Biden for discouraging repeated attempts at illegal entry we ran into as we met migrants. The CBP (Customs and Border Protection) has been flying people from one port of entry to another to release them. Most of them think they are being taken to detention to work out asylum processes, but they find themselves in an unfamiliar new town in Mexico. (article)

Education in Agua Prieta

I am in Mexico. I hope to share some of what I am learning about the border each day this week. Here’s the first story.

David Bonilla wanted to stop talking about the cartel members who protect the educational services the Frontera mission supplies to poorly-served elementary kids on the Mexican side of the border at Douglas, Arizona. He would rather talk about the souls he snatched from that devil. They don’t ask to be protected. But the cartel considers “places of peace” valuable.

He was being translated so I could have missed some meaning. But I know he recalled a young boy said he wanted to be a hit man when he grew up when he first arrived for the enrichment their program supplies. That profession is the kind he could see around him. The leaders of the cartel are like a huge business (perhaps like UPenn) which provides services to whole sections of a town. The kids aspire to work for their elaborate trade indrugs and migrants. In Agua Prieta the city government and the cartel have somewhat equal power. It is more peaceful to have just one trafficking business rather than a war for your town. Many kids would like to see themselves riding around in the fancy Jeep that sometimes pulls up outside the after school program to make their presence felt.

Here the school day is 8-12. It is not enough to make progress in overcrowded classrooms. MCC had a worker for several years creating this additional free opportunity for further learning. Education provides more imagination to young minds deciding who the are in the shadow of the wall under the threat of violence.

I am happy David gives his life to the cause. He was a pastor in Bogota in a section of the city so marginal the authorities would not provide it electricity and water. They expected it to slide down the mountain. Before it did, David and his wife applied to work with MCC in Mexico as they had helped in Colombia.

Further resources

While everyone seems to have a website these days the main resources I discovered in the borderlands were PEOPLE! There are MANY wonderful people caring for the helpless and hopeless crashing into the American wall. Many of them are associated with MCC.

David Bonilla is doing a good job of whipping Frontera de Cristo into shape with his administrative skills. He got connected via MCC in Colombia.

You might want to look up my new friend Emily Miller whose home base is Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso. She is the Coordinator of projects and relationships for  Northern Mexico as part of MCC Mexico. emilymiller@mcc.org

Fridays for the Future #4 — PGW, the PUC and RNG: How gov’t gets in the way of climate action

Circa 2012

I have a resident expert on sustainability in my life: my friend Paul Kohl, the Director of Planning and Research at the PWD. His LinkedIn page says “PWD” for Philadelphia Water Department and that is the first abbreviation of many in this story. Get ready for PEA, PGW, PUC, RNG, NYC, PJM and maybe more.

It is all government-speak, which often obscures the reality of what is going on (like “Who are we even talking about? And what is ‘sustainability’ supposed to mean?”). These days the torturously slow, maddening pace of government regarding climate change is clogging up the immediate action we need to take.

For instance, I wrote a note to Kenyatta Johnson, the councilman for my congregation’s district in Philly. (I plan to contact everyone, once I find out who is who. I am making you a list). I got a nice phone message from his communications director, Vincent Thompson, who I have met on the street. He told me he was sending me a link for the Office of Sustainability. He said the City Council does not do much about climate change but may pass legislation proposed by the Mayor’s Office in which the Office of Sustainability falls. Kristine Knapp is the director. I am acquainted with her since she used to lead the Passyunk Square Civic Association, I was associated with their board for a hot minute back in the day. She’s great, but if you look at the office’s site, it will be hard to find something that resembles radical action. When Vincent called me again (! — you are on it!) I told him he could have directed me to Emily Shapira at PEA (Philadelphia Energy Authority) which is the brainchild of Darrel Clarke and is an arm of the City Council. It is hard to keep track of all these overlapping agencies. I am not sure they even get along.

Even though it often feels like a dead end, we need to talk to the government, somehow. You can put as many solar panels on your house as you like, which is good. But it is the work of government, not individuals, which is the main problem with the atmosphere. The main corporate polluters have a moral obligation to stop polluting, but the capitalist system under which they function has a deadly logic of its own and needs to be restrained by the government before profit-taking kills us all.

RNG could be part of the picture

My friend Paul knows all about these things as the scientist, engineer, under-affirmed leader and government project manager he has been. He told me a story about PGW (the city-owned energy utility) which demonstrates how government can work but then can be its own problem.

A 2015 report by the Pennsylvania PUC (Public Utilities Commission) found 7,600 total leaks across PGW’s (Philadelphia Gas Works‘) system with more than half being classified as hazardous.  (Good work PUC!) In June of 2021 (yes, SIX YEARS later) PGW announced plans to cut methane emissions 80% by 2050 by modernizing infrastructure and implementing new technology, according to this news release. The leaking methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming at a rate more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide. There are projects all over the country to cap it or capture it.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — quoted report is from 2018) and the City of Philadelphia have committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 to keep warming below 1.5 degrees centigrade.

  • This goal my not be enough, but it is the popular goal.
  • The federal government stalled during Trump’s FOUR YEARS (Rex Tillerson was Sec. of State, for one thing!).
  • The pandemic slowed or stopped some serious work.
  • The City has more fights about people having to come back to the office than they do about the best way to save the planet.

But we press on. The 20% of the methane loss they don’t think they can stop will be “offset” through planting trees or other measures, according to Rob Altenburg, senior director of energy and climate at PennFuture, a well-funded (as in Heinz and Pew and downtown galas) nonprofit focused on leading the transition to a clean energy economy across Pennsylvania.

Part of PGW’s plan is to seek “renewable natural gas (RNG) sources for gas supply, along with other RNG development opportunities.” RNG technology is itching to get going. Advanced anaerobic digestors are the new thing. NYC has some. In Philly, there is a proposed project to capture methane from food waste on an old refinery site that finally made its way through the courts in June of 2021 (report). PGW wanted to be purveyors of such RNG so we can keep the natural gas in the ground.

PA PUC Chair Gladys Dutrieuille

By August of 2021, the PUC stepped in and quashed the pilot project (Inquirer story). They did not disagree with the idea of it. But the law that gives the PUC authority to regulate utilities requires it to make sure consumers get the cheapest possible rates. RNG, at this point, costs about two to five times more than natural gas. So a majority of the board interpreted the law to say the small amount of expensive gas PGW planned to buy to get this industry going was not OK.

And some critics say RNG is not the best solution to methane from landfills and might even cause more pollution (article). And there will always be people saying we need to radically decrease consumption, not just try to change technology fast enough to keep up our destructive pace.

The Inquirer could not resist ending their article on the proposed plant by putting the blame on government: “The Republican-controlled General Assembly has demonstrated little appetite for climate mandates, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which might result in higher consumer costs.”

[BTW — I called the PUC to see why there are only three members right now instead of the prescribed five.  Their phone tree let’s you know what they do! They only took five minutes for the call back! But they could not answer my question and sent me up a level. After a minute and a half I was put into voicemail. Haven’t heard anything in two weeks — they must not have a Vincent.]

Paul’s RNG ideas

I would not say Paul is optimistic about the future, but he has certainly become an expert in providing us one as part of the PWD. He was part of the City’s plan for sustainability as represented in the PGW diversification study  and the PWD sustainability plans.

Paul knows how to capture energy from sewage and had a pilot plant running at one point. It successfully gave proof of concept but had technical issues and fell by the bureaucratic wayside. Two treatment plants, one in Bridesburg and one near the airport, run portions of their processes with methane and heat captured from waste.

In the northeast, the system captures both thermal and electrical energy from wastewater gas. Anaerobic digesters process sludge filtered from wastewater to produce biogas, which fuels engines creating heat and power for the plant. In addition, capturing the heat in the water being treated creates on-site energy that would normally be lost in transmission, increasing efficiency. In the southwest, the biogas is used to heat, dry and pelletize the waste. When you pass one of these plants and see the flares burning, that’s wasting the gas. That outlet is more for an emergency than for regular operation. You should call your Council member and ask why we are wasting gas.

Apart from admiring all the good work Paul and others are trying to do, this week’s exploration feels full of bureaucratic roadblocks and lack of cohesion. That probably seems a lot like your family maybe, or your church — people are people. I came away thinking I had better pray! One reason is so I don’t get consumed with anxiety — I think most of us are practicing not knowing too much about climate change because it is too terrible.  The other reason  to pray is so I take some action in the face of painfully slow progress — as usual, if God does not save us, we will not be saved.