Reflections on the border

Alicia M. Van Riggs

At a decisive period in the political and historical debate on immigration and undocumented workers, in January a group of PSR students, faculty, and staff spent two weeks in El Paso, Texas, USA and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. We were there to see, to hear, and to try to come to understand the social, economic, and political realities of this border community and to do some hard theological thinking about our response as Christian leaders to these realities. We stayed at Casa Puente (“Bridge House”) and formed a close community, cooking our meals, sharing our lives, and going out to experience the border context. We made several trips into Ciudad Juarez, across the several bridges over the Rio Grande. We also made several visits in El Paso to organizations that are making a positive response to the many problems of the border.

All of us felt the pull of enormous questions, including: What can we do? Ruben Garcia, the director of a group of centers serving undocumented people in El Paso, told us that because we have the privilege of a theological education and will go on to positions of leadership in some organization, we must publically articulate a theological position that will make a positive difference on the border and anywhere else that people suffer.

With that in mind, the assignment for the students at the end of the two weeks was to write a theological reflection about their experience that will be used for further educational efforts. The papers from this class will be published in a booklet that the UCC will use for border education. The paper excerpted below, written by one of the students who took the trip, is a representative of their public theological voice.

— Randi Walker, associate professor of church history

What I bring home from El Paso is a reflection, and then a reconstruction, of my own construction of “home.” Home is an address and a familiarity with cracks in the sidewalk, the nearest bus lines, and the best price for a gallon of milk. But home is more, it is a presence built by names: street names, neighbor’s names, names of pets buried in the backyard, and being called by name as evening falls, called in for dinner, called in for bedtime, called home. How does God create a home for humans?

Alicia M. Van Riggs
Alicia M. Van Riggs

I also bring back from El Paso the firm belief that as a child of God my concept of home has been enlarged to make room for the presence of God on the US border, the austere beauty of the desert bringing into even clearer relief the suffering of the people who inhabit the desert on both sides of the fence.

By the end of the first week of our immersion trip to the border, I was feeling disoriented, mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. On our “free day,” I set out early for museums and to walk around downtown. I ended the day by walking along Rim Road, the road that follows the top of the old Rio Grande floodplain, up along Franklin Mountain, the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains. I walked higher and higher, passing larger and larger homes, and then kept walking past the end of the sidewalk and past the end of the widened shoulder. I walked up and up and up until I was satisfied that the vista was complete and I could feel grounded again.

To my left were mountains receding into Texas. To my right were mountains receding into New Mexico and Mexico. I looked down into the valley at my feet, surrounded by such regal mountains, jagged peaks proudly ringing this basin. It is a basin of gods, but it is also a belly of a goddess whose lost children have furtively crossed boundaries, and some of whom lie half-buried in shallow graves in the sand.

The idea of a goddess searching for her lost children comes from Luis Leon’s book La Llorona’s Children. La Llorona, an image from Aztec religion, moves within shifting landscapes, weeping by day and by night, searching for her lost children, searching to bring them home. La Llorona’s children are created by our borders: “they are the walking invisible dead known as the ‘illegal’ population; they haunt society with their invisibility.” This fluidity of identity, based on porous boundaries and identities, recalls the bush that burned but was not consumed.

As I continued to look down into the valley, acrid smoke rose from the valley floor and pierced the sunset. The pillars of smoke reminded me of the guiding smoke from the Exodus story:

“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night; the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13.21-22, RSV)

I wondered if others, other strangers lost in the desert, saw the column of smoke and joined the Israelites? Was the smoke for the lost, for the unnamed and nameless, as well as for the chosen ones? Does the concept of home extend to others who are not at first included?

Upon reflection, I now think differently about the smoke over Juarez, the maquila-smokestack emissions. The smoke is there to be seen — it is an affront, it cries to be visible. I will follow the pillar of smoke too, Juarez says. An outsider standing at the river’s edge, demanding to be seen, hoping against hope that someone, anyone, will believe in them and lead them home.

This is another way in which I was transformed by my trip to El Paso: I am filled with the need to bring visibility to the invisible, and my call as a preacher is to invite others to do so, too, no matter where their home is.

I conclude reflection by reminding myself that God so loved the world that God came to make a home among us, to be a fully alive human being inviting us to share in the power of God’s transforming love. This home that God invites us into is one where razor wire is repurposed into artwork, where concrete river culverts are torn up and used as building materials, where the vista from Rim Road shows all that is possible as well as all that is hurting.