Category Archives: The Mission

Emergence: New discoveries and new books enrich how we see the work of God

When you are feeling good, like after being in the park last Wednesday or Thursday (!), you probably feel like something good is “emerging.” Maybe you feel like Tony singing “something’s coming” in Westside Story.

Emergence is a constant we feel inside and experience coming at us. It is like catching a wave rippling through the universe and finding yourself moved to a new place. One of my clients said their therapy process led them to a new place of peace and understanding —  and they had no idea how they got there. But they felt, finally, like something new was possible. It is likely that something will “emerge” tomorrow. It will seem to come from out of no where.

President Garfield

The three books I’ve been reading (not always a good idea) have each encouraged me to think about “emergence” in one way or another. The first one moved me because it seems like the United States is never going to emerge out of the dreadful sin of racism and all the other hatred which laid in wait to be stirred up by Trump and his cronies. The book is President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier (2023).

Garfield colorized

I did not know how much I would relate to Garfield’s life! How he ran away from and ran into racism and hate during and after the Civil War sounds like a replay of what’s been happening since 9/11! Can the United States possibly be tempted to disenfranchise and otherize entire classes of people in the old name of white supremacy? This week it is a debate about Venezuelans.

In 2019, I thought we might actually emerge into new territory. People seemed to be susceptible to enlightenment in new ways. I hoped that white people, mainly, would repent of our sin and we’d come to new reconciliation. But the exact same thing happened as it did in 1876 when tired out, threatened men, tabled the issue in honor of profit protection and their own power – and those were the nice ones. The mean ones planned violence – and don’t imagine a new KKK is not possible! It seems like we periodically push the boundaries like the alien in John Hurt’s body, but some things never quite emerge.

I think James Garfield felt discouraged, too. He could feel the possibilities. He road a wave quite a way from his log cabin, preaching and teaching in the Ohio Reserve, clear to the Congress and then to the White House.

In 1878 Garfield quoted Junius Brutus from Coriolanus in his diary, “Let’s carry with us eyes and ears for the time / But hearts for the event.” The “event” was the emergence of something better. Coriolanus represents the arrogant old guard hurtling to a fall, and Garfield the plebian, idealistically undermining their surety. Ironically, the man who assassinated President Garfield three years later was angry with him for not rewarding him with a job from the spoils system Garfield had spent most of his career trying to eradicate. I picked up this book because I often wondered what it might have been like if he had not been killed. What was trying to emerge?

Nancy Abrams

A much more profound book is by a philosopher of science married to the famous cosmologist Joel R. Primack: A God That Could be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet (2015) by Nancy Abrams.  Abrams essentially made a god for herself out of “emergence.”

Mysteries abound and are simplified for public consumption when Abrams and Primack get a hold of them. I won’t even try to summarize their science-shattering revelations. But this video will help you (below). I hardly ever watch a long video, but this one is engaging and enlightening, especially if you want to keep up with the revolution of understanding our new space telescopes have provided.

Their exciting new theory is that stars are about 1% of the 99% of the universe we cannot see. “Cold dark matter” is interacting with “dark energy” creating something that looks like a web or like a picture of a cell in our bodies.

Abrams and Primack

Nancy was not troubled by the lack of God in their groundbreaking models until she entered a 12-step program for eating disorders and realized that, as an atheist, she had no way to connect with the “higher power” that was supposed to help her with her struggle. That got her thinking, “I had this sinking feeling that I had never really tried to understand God.”  Her book answers her question, “Can anything actually exist in the universe as science understands it that is worthy of being called God?”

What she comes up with is “emergence.” She describes it as something “new and radically unpredictable” which arises out of a collective. One example of emergence is the complex global economy that arose from local buying and selling. Another example is the way a swarm of ants can build an anthill even as no individual ant can understand how that might be done. She sees the universe working that way and that is her higher power.

For humans, God, she believes, is a phenomenon that emerges from our collective human aspirations. “We need to redefine God,” she said. “The emerging God is not king of the universe; it’s humanity’s bridge to understanding the universe.”

Boiling down her thoughts this way does not do them justice and does not describe the wonder of seeing how the universe has “emerged.” As she was teaching, my thoughts turned to questions about how slavery and the Civil War “emerged.” And how in 2019 a wave of power struggle upended my church and so many other collectives and institutions. Now we are all worrying about what will emerge from the wonder of A.I. I’m not known for focusing on the dark side of the dark matter. But I do admit it is there. If you are James Garfield or Nancy Abrams, you are expecting goodness and development or at least inevitability to emerge. I would like to be a point of light, myself.

Ray Anderson

Ray Anderson

The third book comes from a professor I knew of when I attended his seminary, Fuller. Ray Anderson died in 2009, but I am just getting to one of his last books: An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (2006). I never thought of the church we planted as an “emerging” church, but I think Anderson would have.  His ideas sort of bring Garfield and Abrams into the ongoing work of God I have experienced, as I think they experienced too. We all looked out into the stars and felt a shiver of wonder at what is coming, what seems to be moving, and how we are caught up in life.

Anderson loved the emergence he saw in the church. But he wanted to write a book to supply some underpinnings he thought the movement was missing. Beware, I’m going to boil down another philosopher; here goes. He saw the emerging church of the 2000’s as another expression of the Spirit, like we see the energy of the first church of Antioch escaping the gravitational pull of the mother church in Jerusalem. Here is how Brian McClaren asked his question in the intro:

Are we going to follow an Athens-based faith, where our message is domesticated and diluted by new cultures it encounters? Are we going to follow a Jerusalem-based faith, where our message is tamed and contained by a dominant culture from the past? Or are we going to follow an Antioch-based faith, where our message never loses its wild, untamed essence (flames of fie, rushing wind), but like a spring of living water or vibrant new wine, it always flows and is never contained in new forms?

The aspiration of the last sentence sounds like Garfield’s Disciples of Christ heart and Abrams’ brilliant insight: emergence.

Anderson distinguishes between what is “emergent” and what is “emerging.” When Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch to investigate what was going on, he was caught up in the emerging church that represented the newness their faith represented. The powers in Jerusalem rejected the Church’s “emergent” message of resurrection life and scattered the believers all over the world. Antioch was the fertile place an “anthill” formed, and soon ants were in every kitchen of the Roman Empire. To the honor of the Jerusalem elders, when Paul and Barnabas came back to report, they blessed them even if they did not become them.

That “untamed essence” is what Garfield, Abrams and Anderson all see and want to move with. Me too. I can see emergence in the past and I want to move with like-minded aspirants to see the best of the future.

I think it is a bit ironic for Abrams’ to rest her new faith in the latest discovery of science, which always thinks its latest revolution is the last one.  But what she is feeling about what she is seeing resonates with me. From the detritus of the last few years, I keep seeing “ants” aspiring together and bringing forth new things. Dare I say that the aspirations of David Hogg and his fellow survivors of the Stoneman High shooting finally resulted in the Office of Gun Violence Protection President Biden announced last week? Is my energetic local pastor, committed to the emergent gospel, going to build an emerging church on the crumbling foundation of the old? Something’s coming! I hope to move with that “dark energy” that makes for starshine.

You might be a green martyr sprouting despite your wound

I was surprised to find my favorite Tweeter, Dan White, featured in an interview in the New York Times: “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country” (First Person, July 21, 2022). There he was sprouting in an unusual,  new place like an Anabaptish weed.

Dan and his wife now direct the Kino Center in Puerto Rico. He was well known as a pastor and a teacher of pastors. But in the last few years he has become well known for being an ex-pastor. Maybe history will see him as one of the martyrs for their third-way faith. I think there are a few of those martyrs from my former church looking to sprout somewhere. They are among the hundreds of U.S. pastors and others who have been traumatized by the spasm of power grabbing convulsing the U.S.

Dan White was an innovative, fearless church reformer himself, but his unifying message was drowned in the sea of division and combat that has flooded the world and the church. I was talking to another pastor, another victim, last week and the only reason he could see for his plight came from a line from the Bible: people are subject to the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2 NRSVA). There is “something in the air,” isn’t there!

Talking about “martyrs” may seem an hysterical way to talk about people like Dan White. But Christians have experienced martyrdom in one way or another in every age of the church as they speak up about their faith. Tertullian is famous for saying in the year 197, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The treatment of my spiritual ancestors, the radical reformers of the 1500’s and before, is collected in a famous book called the Martyr’s Mirror. Martin Luther King was a martyr, along with John Lewis. Today, Jesus followers in India are being hounded by Hindu nationalists; and U.S. Christians are often hounded by Hinduish media myth makers.

Red, white and blue/green martyrs

As I was meditating through Margaret Guenther’s Book, Toward Holy Ground, I was intrigued by her reference to different colors assigned to different types of martyrs throughout Christian history. She was mainly interested in helping me affirm how wonderful it is, as an older Jesus follower, to discover the “marvelous freedom of living deliberately yet carelessly” as a “green” martyr who knows “the heroism and the sanctity of faithfulness to the ordinary,” who appreciates the discipline of the craftsman and has learned the patience of the harvester.

The original impulse of assigning different colors of martyrdom mainly had to do with different ways people “died daily” with Jesus. The colors mainly had to do with the way people expressed their religion – not the idea of “religion” born during the Enlightenment and subsequently expanded during the reordering of philosophical frameworks according to the scientific method (see here), but religion in its original sense of living under a “religio,” a rule (which is becoming popular again these days). The witness that leads to martyrdom is almost always more about how one lives than what one says.

The early Jesus followers had a rule of life which was so distinct from their society they were tagged as “Christians.” Their various rules came up against Roman and other rulers and got them killed. A Christian martyr gets in trouble because she follows the Ruler as a rule, even if she breaks the rules of the power of the air.

When Christianity started morphing into the government in the Roman Empire, Jesus followers sat in the seat of power and often found it practical to align with the “spirit at work among the disobedient.” So some Jesus followers longed for the experience of being beyond what the powers considered normal. This is a common development in spiritual enterprises; if you don’t keep transforming, something’s gotta give. For instance, the Benedictine monastic order started off as a brilliant adaptation to the chaos of the 6th century. Two hundred years later it was still going and expanding! But it needed reforming. Odo of Cluny helped do that. His reforming monastery ended up as one of the most influential institutions in Europe for another 500 years! But it got stagnant and corrupted, too. French revolutionaries were so sick of what the church had become, they literally tore down the huge church building in Cluny. (I saw the remnant). Something seems to be ‘giving” right now in the U.S., as well.

Red

We all understand red martyrs. Red stands for blood. I grew up in my non-Christian home schooled by old movies about martyrs like Quo VadisThat clip still gets my own blood stirred up.

White

By the 3rd  and 4th centuries, some Christians missed the clarifying threat of red martyrdom. Their impulse to go beyond what had become normal created “white” martyrs. Jerome (347-420) created this new category of martyr “for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.”

In Medieval Europe the impulse of the desert fathers and mothers was woven into most religion. So people looked farther, like the first monastics did. It became very popular for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the sites or relics of martyrs, putting themselves in the danger of not being able to get home or dying on the road. For instance, my hero, Francis of Assisi, made a pilgrimage to Egypt in 1219 in an attempt to convert Sultan al-Kamil and put an end to the 5th Crusade

Green

The Celtic Church added  the category of “green” martyrs (or blue), basically “glas.” Irish doesn’t really have a good cognate for green or blue in translation and “glas” is much more descriptive than either (see here). Glas is more specific to a place or natural phenomenon and less distinct as a concept, which is one of the reasons Celtic Christianity appeals to me. Glas martyrs experienced a kind of martyrdom by devoting themselves to practical rules in their own place, maybe even attached to a place, like Cuthbert wading into the water every day to pray (according to Bede), or monks living on Skellig Michael (which is glas in the picture above).

The martyr colors need an update

The red martyr has the feel of “I need to stand firm in an evil day” (Eph. 6:13). Red martyrdom usually comes upon people rather than them seeking it, like what happened to the kind people killed by Dylan Root. There are still red martyrs. Coptic churches are blown up. The Chinese government threatens the burgeoning church there. Inequities and violence sap the capacity of many brilliant servants in the U.S. I think a pastor, like Dan White, or anyone whose ministry is ended or hobbled by the power-hungry authoritarian elements rising up everywhere could be considered a red martyr. They are not killed, perhaps, but they are traumatized and often neutered.

The white martyr has the feel of “I’ve got to get out of this place” ( 2 Cor. 6:1-7:10). People are leaving the church in droves, looking for something more and getting out from under dominating leaders and moribund thinking. Any church leader who is mostly focused on getting or keeping power probably has a philosophy about to become moribund. In the U.S., people leave churches or kick out their leaders because their white supremacist/heteronormative denomination won’t change their hurtful theological statements; then people leave the newly cleansed churches because they have to toe the line to a legalistic application of the new theology, which is also non-inclusive and power-driven. Evacuations from church war zones reflect the spirit of the white martyrs of old who could not not tolerate the worldliness of their church.

The original white martyrs fled to the Egyptian desert. Their medieval imitators “fled” on pilgrimages. Americans go on some great pilgrimages, too (as you know I do). But I think their best contribution to white martyrdom is creating alternative communities in self-defined “wildernesses” in which to flee (I have done a bit of that myself). In an anti-institutional age (for good reason) people get out by getting small and getting communal. I know many people who have exited their church but held on to the small group where they got most of their face-to-face faith. Sometimes people get very small and intimate. As a newly-credentialed spiritual director, I know first hand that new spiritual directors are rapidly being minted for a lot of one-to-one Christianity (SDI has 6000 members!). Like Jesus followers have often done, people are escaping the ruins of old institutions and chaos.

Green martyrs have the feel of “This is not radical enough for me” (1 Peter). That’s not “radical” in the sense of extreme (although extremists have a similar motivation) but radical in the sense of intense, focused, true, basic. I think there are a lot of new green martyrs these days, looking around town for community, looking for a good rule of life in step with the Ruler. The church is not what is used to be even three years ago! Many people  I know feel a new freedom, a new sense of urgency, new inspiration. Their old way of life did not survive Covid or survive the evils associated with the ascendance of Christian nationalism. The expression of their faith is experiencing the renaissance of starting from scratch and imagining being faithful in their new surroundings.

Maybe Dan White is a green martyr out of necessity, cast out of the institution he created, living on his island, collecting the like-minded and like-wounded, appreciating the sacred in the ordinary, crafting something beautful, and harvesting his small garden — a green martyr despite his wound. Maybe nurses and teachers, Christian or not, should be considered green martyrs since they devote themselves to the common good in a specific place without recognition or pay even when the spirit of the air tries to tear down what they build up every day. Maybe you are a green martyr despite your wound and you should secretly wear the name to get some comfort as you stick with a day-to-day faith which is basic to you but hard to plant in a post-Covid world.

In appreciation for Ron Sider

Ron Sider was a large influence in my life, especially as a twentysomething seminarian. His seminal book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (1978) changed my viewpoint and helped make me a lifelong advocate for the poor. He even influenced our intentional community’s vision to devote ourselves to caring for the hungry.

In seminary I wrote a paper that compared his book to Vernard Eller’s The Simple Life: The Christian Stance Toward Possessions (1973), in which I found myself more committed to Eller’s premise than Sider’s more-evangelical stance. But Sider continued to influence me theologically and relationally, as I ended up in his first denomination and in his home town. Meeting him for the first time was a thrill.

In honor of his good, long life I thought I should republish a book review I wrote with Jonny Rashid in 2017 for a Brethren in Christ publication.  It demonstrates how he kept fresh and engaged for over sixty years in the cause of keeping the American church, in particular, accountable for our social action. Rest in peace good teacher and partner.

Book Review: The future of our faith: An intergenerational conversation on critical issues facing the church.
By Ronald J. Sider and Ben Lowe. Brazos Press. 2016
Reviewed by Rod White and Jonny Rashid

Ambitious people flock together

Ron Sider and Ben Lowe demonstrate their admirable ambition for the life of the church throughout The future of our faith: An intergenerational conversation on critical issues facing the church — the latest of the more than thirty books Sider has published. When some of us read it, we may feel pale in comparison as they marshal their experiences, drop names, and demonstrate their points with great acumen. Ron, especially, has amassed a wealth of knowledge and connections during his stimulating intellectual, ecumenical and literary life. He’s had quite a journey out of a little BIC church in southern Ontario! The Future of Our Faith is an extravagant title but don’t let it intimidate you. It is really about two caring people who are brilliant enough to deserve attention as they demonstrate the kind of dialogue that might stem the American church’s swift decline as it meets the next generation.

We share similar convictions about the next generation of the church and the dialogue that holds it together in love.

When I (Rod) was asked to write this review, I immediately thought it would be good to write it with Jonny. The book is trying to bridge differences between young and old, new and seasoned, and is interested in bridging the divides that societal labels reinforce. Ron appreciates the multicultural Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, where we live. Ben’s church, the Wheaton Chinese Church, is consciously working at a multicultural oneness. Jonny and I also represent the ambition, the age difference and the discipline of connecting people in the love of Jesus who might normally be at odds..

This book gravitates toward getting involved in the bigger issues on which both men have been concentrating. Both men mainly address their concerns through parachurch organizations, which are mostly driven by their personal energy. Jonny and I have been concentrating on the same issues in our community context, relying on our mutuality to take us where we need to go. I think we are the church they are looking for when they keep pointing out how lost the evangelical church has been since it first started hearing from Ron in the 1970’s.

These are their concerns, in brief

Ron Sider is concerned about evangelism surviving as millennials embrace social action more than biblical principles, truth in the postmodern era, the foundation for marriage where it is deteriorating, and having a gracious debate on homosexuality. Ben Lowe is concerned about having lifestyles that reflect faith, good political engagement, reconciling divisions in the church, and caring for creation.

There is little disagreement between them. Ron sounds like an engaging and aware 70-something who is going to die trying to make a difference. Ben sounds like an orthodox, been-burned 30-something who likes to push the boundaries of his background in order to do good.

Jonny and I do not disagree with each other much either, if at all. We agree to agree. But our agreement is forged in the fires of dialogue, which is mostly missing in the church, The BIC Church has spent a decade eradicating meaningful dialogue from their General and Regional Conferences (which are now more accurately labeled “assemblies”) as well as in general principle and practice. If this book has any wisdom to share, it is that such a move is the exact wrong direction for the future of our faith.

Jonny and I decided we could best serve you if we modeled the structure of the book and each chose a teaching to share and then responded to what the other said.

Rod’s thoughts on a big assumption

I do not think there is much wrong with this book. It might be a bit hard to read for people less aware of evangelical organizations; the authors are steeped in the subculture and in evangelical academia. But they are good writers who break it down well. They want to talk about key issues and they succeed in doing that.

What I will say has to do with their assumptions. They note an intergenerational tension in the family of God over what it means to be faithful today, and how we need to find a better way to sort these things out. This is true. But the problem might be that evangelicals (and church people in general) can’t stop talking about themselves. This book assumes people can talk to each other in the church about the intergenerational tension when one generation is quickly exiting the building.

Last summer, the Mennonite Review included a review of Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America. That book summarizes what Sider and Lowe are combatting. “Younger people today are simply less interested in religion. Looking at the numbers, Jones says the proportion of Americans who are white mainline Protestants and white evangelicals today is 32 percent, down from 51 percent in 1993. The reason for this change? More and more Americans are leaving organized religion, with 20 percent today considering themselves religiously unaffiliated. Many of the unaffiliated are young adults, who are less than half as likely as seniors to identify with a church. This rejection of organized religion by youth, Jones says, is a ‘major force of change in the religious landscape.’ Looking ahead, ‘there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon,’ he says. “By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as Protestants.”

We started working on this crisis of faith twenty years ago and most of our church members are millennials. It is not easy to evangelize among them when the vast majority of what is left of the evangelicals vote for the godless Trump who epitomizes what Lowe laments as faith without lifestyle. Plus Pence represents the narrow agenda of the religious right while climate change action is rolled back and minoritized people are targeted for police action. Sider and Lowe may be talking to a church that ceased to exist ten years ago.

Jonny’s response

I also do not find much issue with the text and I am grateful for Ron and Ben’s contribution. I think it will be good for those that need to read it. As I will say below, the assumptions are a little too vague and broad. I am unsure the audience of the text is listed specifically enough, and at times I think the strokes the authors paint with are too broad. But they definitely have their place, especially when considering popular (and vocal) evangelical audiences.

Jonny’s thoughts on priorities

As a 31-year-old pastor, it was quite an interesting experience Sider and Lowe speak to me about my priorities. As it turns out, Sider wasn’t far from the truth when he listed what my generation thinks is important, but I think one thing they may also find important is not being generalized. Across race, class, and regions, I think young Christians have a myriad of priorities. I think that the generalizations the authors made about millennials were particularly germane to a city-dwelling transplant in the Northeast U.S., but I do not think they would translate well to say, black people, suburban folks, or even millennials I know in the Midwest and the South. Since Jason Fileta wrote a sidebar in the text, I will note, that millennial Egyptian immigrants–like him and me–would likely “side” with Ron on many of his issues, and might actually need to learn something from Ben’s chapters.

Rod and I have had many robust discussions over the years in which I was on the side of the “older” generation and he the “younger.” The stereotypes (or “generalizations” to put it more mildly) simply have not been true in my experience. As it turns out, many millennials I know, are not interested in politics, race, or the environment; while many older folks I know are progressive on issues like gay marriage, are steeped in postmodernism, and are on the front lines of our political witness. Bifurcating the audience may cement them in their stereotyped places (or create more conflict between the groups).

As a millennial, the main thing that develops my faith is being taken seriously by my elders, especially in Circle of Hope. I was only 24 when I planted the church with fifty comrades six and a half years ago! When older leaders took me seriously, I took them seriously too. Our divisions, if any existed, were erased by working toward a common vision together.

But let me conclude by saying, I think this book does a service to the church by undoing many of the stereotypes unbelievers, from every generation, have about it. Like Rod noted already, the loudest Christians in our country are making it hard for us to prioritize issues like evangelism and truth, as well as debunk misunderstandings about how Christians see the environment and U.S. race relations.

Rod’s response

Jonny points out what might be a flaw in the book’s premise and in evangelical thinking. The authors seem to be speaking mainly to their subculture but they make universal assertions. That being said, it is good to know that Ben Lowe, in particular, is working hard at bridging the divisions. He even ran for Congress as a pro-life Democrat! His book Doing Good Without Giving Up reminds us, as C. S. Lewis put it, we don’t get second things by placing them first; we get second things by keeping first things first. As Christians, we don’t just aim at change; we aim at faithfulness, and out of faithfulness comes fruitfulness. Ron Sider also has an impressive history of not giving up — even writing this book in his 70’s! Ben Lowe is similarly inspirational (as is Jonny Rashid!)

We are glad to share their conclusion

As they summarize their work, the authors share an inspiring conclusion we could all share. “We come from different contexts and perspectives, and often struggle to understand or relate to one another. Overcoming this involves intentionally reaching out, opening up, and being vulnerable. It takes humility, patience, and sacrificial love. It may often be hard, and sometimes we’ll get hurt. But it’s still both possible and worthwhile. We all have weaknesses, prejudices and blind spots, both as individuals and as generations, often it’s our differences that help draw these out into the light where we can deal with and grow from them….The reality is that what separates us is far less significant  than what binds us together. Or rather, who binds us together.”

Resources for Understanding and Impacting the Borderlands

Saulo Padilla at the wall.

I am going to use this entry to collect resources I have for understanding and experiencing the tragedy and grace happening at the border in Arizona. The area on both sides is called the “borderlands” since it has a character and government all its own. On the American side the military presence of the U.S. and an array of Christians, mostly, who alleviate its cruelty meets the power of the cartels on the Mexican side, who have taken over immigration and made it human trafficking. The shadow Mexican government is also met, mainly by Christians, who care for people caught in the many crises that bang up against the U.S. wall.

Each of the headings is a link to one of seven blog posts I wrote while on the learning tour. Click the title to go to that page. On each of those posts are more specific resources connected to what we were learning each day. Below are general resources.

1. Fridays for the Future #6 — Phoenix/Tucson the most unsustainable: It’s about water

As far as I can tell, now that I know some, Tucson residents are as in denial about their unsustainable sprawl as my research indicated.

2. Education in Agua Prieta

I later got to know more about David Bonilla. He was an intelligent, kind beginning to our exploration of the borderlands, the first of many amazing people making a difference.

Root Causes

Webpage:
Migration Root Causes – MCC US Video
https://mcc.org/safe-refuge

Article:
Indigenous diaspora: Leaving home and the journey across Mexico

Podcast:
Aviva Chomsky on the Real Root Causes of Migration

3. Twentysomething migrants out in a cruel world

I had dinner with a young family of migrants in a shelter designed for their care. They gave me a personal picture of what is happening.

The Migration Experience/At the Border

Article:

How climate change is fueling the U.S. border (3 part series)
Border Patrol Leaves Migrants In Remote Town As Deaths Rise
https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/landless-mayans-coups-and-death-squads

Podcast:

The Out Crowd I: Goodbye, Stranger (thisamericanlife.org)
On Being: Luis Alberto Urrea-Borders Are Liminal Spaces

Books:
Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Rigoberta Menchu – Nobel Peace (Book)

Film:
Harvest of Empire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gW84cAN2Pw

Short Youtube Videos:
Guatemala, the CIA and United Fruit Company
Banana Republic: Guatemala, CIA and UFC

4. The two sides of the border wall

One of the main reasons I went to the borderlands was to see where Jesus was there. This was a good day for sensing the Lord’s presence in one of the wounds of the Earth.

Border Militarization and Deterrence

Website:
 The Birth Of Border Militarization
100- Mile Border Enforcement Zone

Article:
Failing To Bring Back The Dead
La Frontera: Artists Along The U.S. – Mexico Border

Podcast:
Beyond the Wall: Reflections From A Former Border Patrol Agent
The Out Crowd II: Take the Long Way Home (thisamericanlife.org)
NPR: When Migrants Die, Many Bodies Remain Unidentified

Books:
Intercultural Church: A Biblical Vision for an Age of Migration: Safwat MarzoukSafwat Marzouk
The Devil’s Highway
The Death And Life of Aida Hernandez

5. The legal razor wire on the other side of the wall

I helped migrants during the 2-5am shift at the immigrant center at the port of entry where people can come after they have been caught and summarily removed from the U.S. Then I learned about the lawyers who are trying to help them as they hold the U.S. accountable.

Border Crossing/Sponsorship/Detention

Video: Locked in a Box
Title 42 video: https://www.facebook.com/jorgeramosnews/videos/175798981046625

Podcast:
 Seeking Asylum: Reality at the US / Mexico Border

Books: Migrating to Prison: America’s Obsession with Locking Up Immigrants

6. Fridays for the Future #7: The Climate Wall

We met Todd Miller who has spent a lot of energy looking at the borderlands. He even wrote a book about how climate change  is creating immigration issues.

7. Death in the harsh desert

On the way to Sasabe we got into the desert ourselves to see and feel the desperation and courage of migrants – and to see how many of them die.

2020 open letter on migration from MCC U.S. executive director J Ron Byler.

 

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