Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Cross at the Border: Reflections on the House of Bishops meeting

I am bringing a cross back with me from Arizona. It is made of wood, about 18” high and painted white. Written in Sharpie pen across the front is the name Jorge Cruz Becerril. His birth date is written on the top of the cross; and January 23, 2003 is written at the bottom, which is the day he died in the desert from a combination of heat and dehydration as he tried to make the crossing from Mexico to the United States. Jorge’s name was among 300 or so read aloud at a weekly prayer vigil held at the border between Douglas, Arizona and Agua Pierta, Mexico – each name represented with their own cross. We were told that nearly 2000 people have died in the last three years along the “Douglas section,” which is just 41 miles of border marked by an eight foot high fence. A cross has been made for each person who has died – and the vigil is a weekly witness to one of the horrendous costs of our broken immigration policy.

I am also bringing back copies of a bishops’ pastoral letter on immigration (with corresponding theological resources), and a resolution which commits the Episcopal Church to raise $10 million dollars by Easter to help begin the reconstruction of the Diocese of Haiti (which is the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church). I have a copy of a “Mind of the House” resolution, requesting the Bishop of Pennsylvania to resign his office immediately and unconditionally, because the relationship between Bishop Bennison and his diocese is “irretrievably damaged” – after an ecclesiastical trial which found the bishop guilty of overlooking sexual misconduct thirty years ago but was overturned by an ecclesiastical court of review because the statute of limitations had expired. Our request to Bishop Bennison was a painful step to take – but it was taken as a witness to our holding one another accountable as bishops; and our commitment to “unequivocal solidarity with anyone who has been sexually abused or mistreated by a member of our clergy or by any member of our church.”

So I am bringing back a lot of paper – which is the fruit of good and hard work, and – to borrow from our own mission statement, is a reflection of a deeper commitment to engage the world.

Which is what 29 bishops did at the Mexican/Arizona border. In addition to the vigil, we visited a migrant shelter, which has provided support, food and water to some 17,000 people (in the last two years) who have been sent back to Mexico by the Border Patrol. We went to the Border Patrol facility – and heard first-hand from agents who have the daunting task of going into the desert to sort out drug smugglers from those who are just trying to get into America to find a job. We heard from a rancher whose patience has been tested by people trespassing and trashing his land. We heard from a woman who had recently been sent back to Mexico after having lived in Los Angeles with her husband for 20 years; where she worked as a quality control technician for all that time; where she gave birth to three children (all American citizens), and paid thousands of dollars over several years to lawyers who turned out not to be lawyers – not to mention the thousands of dollars she paid in social security taxes for a benefit she cannot legally receive.

We went to a water station in the desert, on the Mexican side about fifty yards from the fence. The desert sand burned through the soles of my shoes. The driver of the water truck was a Mexican man who had been volunteering for this ministry for over seven years. He is well known in the community, which is a good thing because he got word out to the drug traffickers that he was bringing a group of bishops into the desert, and that they should leave us alone. Which, thank God, they did.

Many of us expressed the hope that our trip to the border would yield greater clarity on the issue of immigration. In some ways it did. Our experience exposed the complexity of the issue. Our conversations and reflections revealed that while it is tempting to cast blame, there are no easy answers. The new Arizona law is an attempt for a quick fix – but from what I saw and heard, it has only made things worse. It has produced greater polarization and has generated toxic levels of fear.

The Presbyterian minister who has organized the weekly vigils and who has carried out a border ministry for twelve years, told a story about a rather heated exchange he had with a local parent who was trying to decide whether or not to allow her daughter to go on a half-day mission trip to Mexico. “Do you support illegal immigration?” she asked the pastor. “I suppose I do”, the pastor replied. “Every time I buy lettuce, stay in a hotel or play golf, I am supporting illegal immigration.” He then asked the mother if she supported illegal immigration.

There are so many feelings, opinions, postures and positions that separate us from one another. Sometimes it seems that we are all scattered across a desert of acrimony. As I bring the cross of Jorge Cruz Becerril home with me, the whole experience has brought home to me the importance and power of the cross. The cross holds us together – the living and the dead, the isolationists and the accommodators. It is the paradoxical symbol of an incredible human cost as well as the gateway to freedom. As the cross holds us together, we need to hold on to the cross – and carry its power into a fragmented world that needs our witness. Our commitment to the cross can reframe the conversation.


  1. thanks for bringing us news of the recent HofB meeting; it sounds as if you had some searing moments (including burning your feet right through your shoes! I'm grateful (on behalf of my friends in the Diocese of Pennsylvania) for your efforts on their behalf.

    Marge Christie

  2. Thank you for this insightful and thoughtful piece. As the author says, when so many angry words color discussion of immigration today, I am grateful for these reminders of the basic call of Christ to love and serve our neighbors.

  3. Plainly the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is our most important foreign-affairs issue in terms of its impact upon both countries. It's time to accept that the border is everyone's enemy. It stops nothing, and costs us dearly. Mexico is ravaged by U.S. drug users and gun sellers. The U.S. is ravaged by corrupt Mexican governments and police forces that work hand-in-glove with drugrunners. Millions of people pass illegally, then live in fear, exploited by heartless business owners and farmers who cheat them and threaten to have them deported if they complain. At the end of the Mexican War, in 1848, a call went out from a small group of Expansionists in the U.S. to annex all of Mexico and gradually bring all its people into the Union as citizens of new States. Had that been done in 1848, all of Mexico would now be peaceful, prosperous Sunbelt states, like that huge swath from Texas to California that we did create into States. We must do now what we should have done in 1848: bring Mexico into the Union; develop it for its ow people's sake, and ours; end the horrendous corruption of Mexican police and local governments; allow free movement of labor and capital across the erased border; let American retirees move to inexpensive areas in the new Southwest and not lose Medicare; develop Mexican oil and natural gas to fund electrification, sewage treatment, water treatment, and all the other things Mexicans have been denied in independence; and otherwise benefit, all of us, from seeing ourselves as fellow citizens, and fellow human beings, rather than Them and Us. Nothing less will do. We can pretend we can enforce the border, which we can't, or erase the border and work together for everybody's sake.

  4. Building walls imprisons us
    Denying sanctuary enslaves us
    Failing to recognize the humanity of others denigrates the holy spirit
    Turning our back on wayward travelers
    is an abomination to God

    Yo tango sed

    Didn't our Lord cry out from the cross Yo Tango Sed?

    Thanks for the reminder Mark.

    Link is from a 2008 Good Friday Meditation at St. Alban's

    peace and prayers to all the beloved,



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