Today we feature a guest contributor! She’s my best friend from high school, Rev. Dr. Kristy Kyle. A few weeks ago, she traveled to the border in El Paso with Repairers of the Breach to protest the inhumane treatment of recent migrants. Here is her story:
Three days ago, I boarded a plane for El Paso, TX. I live in Houston – yes, it’s Texas, but only people outside of Texas would think of Houston as anything other than the vibrant, diverse, progressive, sprawling metropolis that it is. I have a wife, son, a home, and a liberal Christian community that provides me with nourishment, support, and a pathway to engage in justice work in the world. I rail against the administration most days, but so often find little benefit to my fits. Instead, I’m at risk of bouncing between the two poles of depression and rage, wearing myself down until I can’t be helpful at all.
About a week ago, my minister forwarded me information about the Moral Mondays at the Borderlands action for justice that would take place in El Paso. She was headed out and asked if I’d like to join. If you are not familiar with Rev. William Barber or the organization Repairers of the Breach, I highly encourage you to get to know this giant of the faith. He is a prophetic voice for justice for the poor, racial equality, radical inclusion of all people into a fully realized U.S. Constitution, and he is unapologetic in his criticisms of modern American Christianity. He has, in no small measure, helped restore my own Christianity, so when I saw that he was taking his Moral Mondays work to El Paso, I wanted to be there.
I didn’t think the trip would be especially risky or dangerous. Yes, it was likely that many would be arrested as they participated in non-violent direct action, but the other Moral Mondays work I had seen encouraged participation at all levels, arrested or not. So I don’t think that I carried a lot of worries with me as I boarded the plane, but I certainly carried hope that what we were going to do would be important in some way.
I got to El Paso late on Sunday night, slept poorly, and woke early to prepare for the day. I had missed the larger gathering on Sunday night where immigrants and refugees shared their personal stories, but I was able to live-stream a good portion of the event. The night included an introduction to the Border Network for Human Rights, a fantastic local group that organizes local resources and people to educate, protect, and engage the local undocumented community in El Paso. Rev. Barber, Imam Suleiman, Rabbi Jacobs and other faith leaders spoke about justice and righteous action, and the crowd was led through songs and chants in preparation for the public stand to come. The room was full of excitement and enthusiasm and even though I only had the live-streamed version, it was clear that everyone there was prepared to make our public stand. On Monday morning, though, the air was different, the ethos was different.
We spent that morning in mandatory training: here’s what arrest might look like in El Paso –
here’s what jail looks like. Tell the judge about your medical needs. Tell the judge about your vacation plans. Tell the judge about dietary restrictions – El Paso is a poor town and we don’t have the resources to jail lots of people for misdemeanors, at least, that’s what we were told.
The jail support wing of our group assured us that they would remain with us every step of the way and be there to greet us with food and love once we were released. They cautioned us that while we should be prepared to perform our acts of non-violent direct action with El Paso local and Texas state police, we should comply with any Federal agents present and not risk committing any federal crimes. Fine. Check. No problem.
I’ve not been arrested before, and I’m not foolish enough to think that jail wouldn’t bother me.
But the weird wrinkle in the air wasn’t just personal fear. Something seemed off that morning, but not having participated in such a protest before, I couldn’t really name it, nor could I be sure that it wasn’t normal. Maybe all Moral Mondays are like this, I thought.
Indeed, something was different that morning. Just before we were to board our buses and head to the processing center, Rev. Barber and the other faith leaders came into the room and asked us a new question: Would we trust him? Would we trust our leadership? Would we trust the local people? Would we set aside the original plan and follow a new path? Yes, we would.
He told us that we would be wise as serpents and move together as one, that we would listen to instructions from our marshalls, that we would obey directives from the police, and that we would not allow our moment on Monday to jeopardize the larger movement in El Paso and at the border. I still wasn’t exactly sure what we would be doing, but it was clear that we would be doing it together.
We got on buses and drove to the El Paso Processing Center, part of the US Department of Homeland Security. A small group blocked the access road and the larger group of clergy gathered at the entrance gate. The gate was already closed upon our arrival, but we gathered there nonetheless and prayed together as our faith leaders spoke prayers of rebuke and warning and hope. They called for justice and humanity in the name of the God who has so many names.
After a few minutes, our safety marshals loudly called for us to move out of the street and onto sidewalks. As one, we moved and with chants of Forward Together, Not One Step Back, we walked in pairs back to our starting point. We gathered again and prayed, and then, ever the wise leader, Rev. Barber told us why the morning had shifted so strangely. The local groups in El Paso had warned us that should we block the Processing Center and refuse to move when asked, we would be at risk of being arrested and charged with federal conspiracy rather than a Class B misdemeanor in Texas. We were prepared for local or state sanction, but to invite federal charges was not our task that day. We would not choose that burden, and we should not allow the attention that the protest was designed to draw – attention to the people in the processing center, in the cages, separated from families – to be diverted onto something else. That was not our work.
Wise as serpents, Rev. Barber said. Wise as serpents. What good does it do for the Movement if the story is about a bunch of clergy fighting federal conspiracy charges? Would we still be helping, or would we be grandstanding? I wondered.
So we listened, we were disciplined, we were respectful, and we were a moral witness shining light into a dark and isolated place. We didn’t fix anything or solve any problems on Monday. The problems aren’t ours to solve. They are ours to identify. It is not OK that children are still being separated from their families. It is not OK that detainees are given frozen burritos for meals. It is not OK that ICE can raid a workplace and rip a family in half. It is not OK that the undocumented have to work in the underground, cash-only economy, risking abuse and exploitation, because no other path is available to them. It is not OK.
But strangely, irrationally, I have hope. I have hope because I got to witness Jews and Muslims and Christians and whatever the heck we are gather together to demand justice because God demands justice. I have hope because there is an essence that permeates the borderlands, that sits with the detainee, that swims in the river and lays on the shore, that shares the frozen burrito, that simply holds all of it right here, right now, that won’t let the suffering be alone.
I don’t have a better word for it than God. So God is already there and there is nothing that we can do to make that any more true than it already, always is.
But we must shine light, we must educate ourselves and our friends, we must demand justice, and we must keep doing it over and over and over. No, we don’t have to go to the border, we don’t have to march, we don’t have to write and preach. There’s no single best way. But we must to do the work that is ours to do. A faith community that sits idly by while refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants to continue to be mistreated is a community whose faith is dead. What gives me hope is seeing vibrant faith at work in so many here in this room and in El Paso even when the markers for more justice are fleeting and can seem so small. We can hold onto that hope and be as wise as serpents as we continue to do our work.