A Report on El Paso

Dear friends,

Yesterday we marched. It will take me a long time to process the experience, and to fully determine what it meant for me to be part of this action on our southern border.

And I look forward to ongoing conversations about what the need to take such actions (i.e., the need to protest the presence of these detention camps on our border) might mean for us — what it might mean for you individually, which is a conversation I’d love to have with you, and what they might mean for us collectively, as an individual congregation but also as a part of a connectional church.

And we’ll get to all of that soon enough. In the meantime, let me begin by simply sharing with you the story of what happened yesterday.

All of us who’d come to El Paso to march were asked to gather at All Saints Episcopal Church, which would serve as the staging area for the action we were about to take.

We were a large group — maybe four hundred people — roughly half clergy of various kinds, and half laity, including a good number of people who did not identify with a faith tradition but were present as a matter of conscience.

We were asked to self-select into two groups. Those who were planning to engage in non-violent direct action tied yellow strips of cloth around their arms to indicate that they were willing to risk arrest. The rest of us (I was not in that group) tied green bands around our arms.

We then gathered in the sanctuary for our final instructions, and to find out exactly where we would be marching. (For security reasons that information had not yet been disclosed.)

At this point, Rev. Dr. Barber stepped into the pulpit and informed us that there had been a late-breaking change in plan.

The ground team that works every day on the border and in the detention camps — Border Network for Human Rights — had learned that authorities had been instructed to invoke a little used legal provision that stipulates that citizens who are protesting outside of federal facilities can be charged with criminal conspiracy, a felony, with a sentence of up to six years in prison and (I believe) a $25,000 fine. (One of the leaders suggested that this directive might have come down from Attorney General Barr. I don’t know if that’s true. But it’s sad enough just to think that it might be.)

So at Dr. Barber’s urging we stripped off our armbands. We would all be marching as one. There would be no direct action this day. (I’m not sure what that action was going to be, as I was not in that group.) And if for some reason the authorities arrested one of us, they would have to arrest all of us.

We were then informed that we would be marching, peaceably, toward a nearby federal detention center–euphemistically named the “El Paso Service Processing Center.”

And with that final instruction we boarded the six buses that would take us to our starting point. We gathered under a fiercely hot sun in an expansive vacant lot that sat adjacent to the center. As we did during the march in DC, we formed a long line and marched in pairs along the sidewalk that ran all along the front of the facility.

The center is sited on a busy road near the El Paso airport. (Type “El Paso Service Processing Center” into Google or Apple maps and you can see the location.) As we marched I took in the surroundings: a Popeye’s Chicken and an all-day diner on nearby intersections. And directly across the road from the center, a lush, well-manicured golf course.

That was on the outside.

Meanwhile, we had learned that a group of detainees had recently begun a hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions inside the camp, things about which I can only speculate but which, based on reports from other detention centers, I imagine might include poor food, lack of access to showers and lack of other sanitary and hygiene facilities, oppressive heat during the day, sleeping on concrete floors at night with only Mylar blankets for cover. And, of course, children separated from their parents and held in cages.

As we marched we passed several local people who were already present and protesting, including the man pictured at left above, holding a mock headstone marking the death of Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an eight-year-old boy (perhaps his son) who had died in ICE custody.

After perhaps two hundred yards we turned a corner and approached the main entrance to the facility, only to find that the gate had been closed. (It was open earlier, as there is a lot of official traffic in and out of the facility.)

Dr. Barber invited all the clergy to come forward and to gather round him. He then spoke into a rather formidable looking intercom outside the gate. He identified himself, and then noted that he was joined by a group of clergy (all of us on display on a video monitor inside the facility, I’m quite certain), and explained that we had come to provide pastoral care to the women, children and men being held in the center.

He got no reply and the gate remained closed.

It was disappointing not to be able to gain access to the facility and to do exactly what Dr. Barber said we were there to do. But as he later noted, they can lock the gate but they cannot hide the truth of what is being done behind the walls that surround the camp.

And that, too, was why we were there. To testify to this truth: that we know what is happening on the inside. That the Border Patrol and ICE agents do not do these things in our name. To stand in public solidarity with and for the people whose presence these officials are trying so hard to hide. To be a voice for the voiceless and to amplify their voices in our churches and mosques and temples and synagogues, on Facebook and Twitter, in editorials in our local papers and on our personal blogs.

We then had a prayer outside the gate for the detainees on the inside — and for the women and men tasked with holding them. And then we marched back to the vacant lot whence we started.

Before we boarded, Dr. Barber outlined the next steps he and the organizations he leads (Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign) are planning to take in this ongoing struggle to close the camps and secure the release of the detainees being illegally held in them.

First, they will be issuing a public call for Congressional hearings to take place, not in DC but on the border itself.

Second, if Washington won’t come to the border, then the border will come to them. Repairers of the Breach and the Poor People’s Campaign will be organizing more direct action events in DC, including protests in the capital building itself and in the offices of our Senators and Representatives.

Of course I will keep you apprised of these actions when they are announced, in the event you may wish to participate. If you would like to stay even more fully informed, I might suggest you visit their websites and sign up for their newsletters.

I close with one last story. Shortly after I arrived in El Paso, I found my way to a local eatery to have some lunch. It was a small Mexican restaurant, filled mostly with Spanish-speaking clientele.

As I was finishing up my enchiladas verdes, an older couple took their place at a table near me. Honestly, they looked like an adorable Mexican grandma and grandpa. It was Sunday, just after noon, and they looked like they had just come from church.

I had recently read the news reports about the way the president described Rep. Elijah Cummings’ district in Baltimore, how he believed it was infested with vermin, and that no human beings would want to live there — shrill and obvious racist dog-whistles.

It had already occurred to me that this must be how the president views all people of color, including the children being held in cages at the detention facility just up the road from where I sat. Because how else could you bring yourself to order the agencies you ultimately oversee to lock children in cages unless you think of them as something less than human?

I wondered if the president would also see this sweet-looking abuela y abuelo (grandma and grandpa) in this same way, as less than human, as a such a threat to white supremacy that they need to be locked in cages, too.

I texted that thought to Robyn, and noted that, in light of the president’s increasingly vitriolic and brazen racism, I was beginning to long for the day when Jehovah God would rain fair down upon that man’s head.

And then I realized that maybe we are that fire.

I certainly felt this fire when I heard Dr. Barber speak later that evening. He helped me understand more clearly that our tradition — the biblical tradition, the prophetic tradition, even the Christian tradition — leaves room for exactly this kind of anger. The Bible gives us language and permission to feel and even to express this anger (think of Jesus violently overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple).

The Bible also gives us language and permission to pass judgement, especially when officials who are charged with leading the people (be they high priests or pharaohs or presidents) veer dramatically from the ways of truth and righteousness.

Yes, Robyn replied. We are the fire. But we must remember that we are also the rain.

It was a beautiful reply, and exactly what I needed to hear in that moment, a critically important reminder that, yes, it is okay to burn with righteous anger — and under these current circumstance, how can we not?But this fire must always be fueled, ultimately, by love–love for God, love for our neighbors and, yes, somehow in ways I’m still working out for myself, even love for our enemies.

And if our anger burns, it must also, always, heal.

So burn bright this day friends. And shower the people you love with love.

En la lucha con Ustedes por la paz y justicia, siempre (In the struggle with you for peace and justice, always),