Category Archives: The Mission

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

Living Water for climate change action: The parable of the pines

A cheerful forest ranger told us amazing and troubling facts about the giant Sequoia trees we visited last week. She told us Native Americans knew how Sequoia reproduction worked, requiring fire to melt the seed cone’s covering and ash for a seedling’s first meal — but the “pioneers” ignored the natives, or did not bother to ask. The western states still haven’t become devoted to sustainable forest management.

Click pic for Fresno Bee article

That was not the most troubling part of the ranger’s talk, however. She added a line or two about climate change that kind of made me sick to my stomach. The striking landscape of the Sierras is somewhat despoiled by dead pine trees, as in the picture above. I could see the same thing if I went to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. But those gray skeletons really stick out in my native California. Where are the trees of my youth? The bark beetles attacked them and killed them. You can read about the beetles here.

To my horror, I found out climate change (NYTimes link) is finally attacking the giant Sequoias, in like fashion, even though they have adapted and endured for centuries. A few of them might be over 2000 years old! They have withstood pests, fire and people, until now. The horrible air pollution of the Central Valley of California is ruining the air they breathe at 6000 feet! What is worse, the warming climate brings new opportunity for bugs seeking to colonize new trees. The drought in California weakens the amazing Sequoias. They can withstand periods of dryness but not what has happened for the last twenty years.  The bugs are just beginning to discover how weak they are after centuries of being remarkably impervious to insects.

I came away with a parable the trees told me. The story I hear is: Once there were trees planted by the water. They flourished. Humans disrupted the natural flow, even the cycle of the earth, and the land became dryer and dryer. The trees became susceptible to destruction by opportunistic forces. So it is with a people. So it is with a person who is not replenished with Living Water.

We need to act

My first application of this parable is to devote myself to advocating real action to reverse the processes that have warmed the climate. Like the NYTimes article linked above reports, we can’t stop the climate from warming a degree more; it’s going to happen. But we could stave off further catastrophe. If there is any reason to be born in the American Empire, it must be to demand that every power possible is exerted to save humankind from being weeded out like a pine forest. Covid-19 could just be the beginning of the disasters we face.

My starting place for action is the church, since that is where I find the faith, hope and love to do something, not just talk about it. The church is experiencing something of a post-Covid climate change of its own these days, in general, in which people mostly fight rather than find reconciled ways to act. But I don’t have another place to go since it is the body of Christ. That ecosystem is the most resilient and adaptable society on the planet so I trust it will survive the 20’s.

After the church, I have been looking for action-oriented groups with whom to partner. I can at least give them money, although I intend to give them more time and love. MCC has been attending to the need for years. I have been asking around and have begun to zero in on further good groups (see the comments for a few of them). I wish there were more. Big Christian organizations, big non-profits and governments all have an underfunded department, it seems, that pays lip service to climate change while the institution keeps talking about itself. Didn’t Donald Trump raise $100 million in the first quarter to keep blaming immigrants for the virus spike in Florida? (He decamped to New Jersey, of course, abandoning Mar-a-Lago). That’s an extreme example of talking about yourself. If you have a favorite association please add it to the comments so we can get busy!

We need Living Water

My second application of the parable is to check my bark and inspect my loved ones for signs of distress. When my ficus tree showed scale, the first treatment offered was “make sure you are properly watering  the tree.” Being well-watered is the tree’s first defense. This truth directly applies to the spiritual life that sustains direct action in a pestilence-ridden world.

  • If you are a fellow psychotherapist, you are dealing with traumas that will wear you out if you are not sustained spiritually. This does not mean listening to a podcast at the gym or procuring a proper thought somewhere; it means enjoying direct access to Living Water. You are involved in a spiritual restoration project with every client and it requires spiritual resources.
  • If you are a Jesus follower (as many of my clients are, as well as my directees), we need to pray. So many of us read a book, listen to a speech, or do things that require headphones and call that a personal spiritual life. It is not enough. Those habits, on their own, cause spiritual drought. All that learning and relating to wise people is good. But if it does not lead to our own relationship with God in real time, it is more like living in a polluted atmosphere of overheated thought instead of resting in the cooling, restorative Living Water. I think my “life in the spirit” category in the right column could provide further, practical help.

What do I do when I find beetles laying eggs in my weakened spiritual bark?

First, I need to look for them and not assume having little water and being bug-infested is normal. The world allowed millions of the trees it did not cut down to be killed by climate change. We are also susceptible to such destructive forces and need to fight for our lives inside and out. We have choices we can make. Even if they are small ones, they add up.

Second, I can stop cooperating with people and institutions that suck the living water out of me until I can gain enough strength to go back and provide some water. Married couples I counsel often refuse to admit that they can individually change the terrible dance they dance with their partner simply by refusing to mirror their partner’s steps! Change the pattern, turn into something better even if the present regime cries foul.

Third, I must spend enough time with God so my roots actually soak up living water. Like a tree, yesterday’s drink does not last forever. Our spiritual lives are organic like that; we need living water sources to live. We are often told our bodies are 90% water. In spiritual terms I’d say we are 100% living water and 100% organic or we are less than fully alive.

Fourth, I can fight off the bugs. We stand up against death in as many ways as we are all unique. Sometimes we get together like an army. I’m looking to join up with allies right now to advocate for effective action on climate change so my grandchildren have a habitable planet and so I do not disgrace myself before my Creator by doing nothing. I won’t be waiting until I am sure I am taking perfect action before I take some steps. This post is me taking a step in the way I do. But I will find even better ways to make alliances and act. When we take action, we solidify our good intention into real attention. Who and what we attend to makes a big difference as to who we are becoming and what we can do.

This past week I attended to myself, my family and the Sequoias. God was in the midst. Turning that way turned on some light and illuminated further steps along the way to wholeness. God bless you on your own journey into what is next.

Share what you know in the comments please.

The end of Christian supremacy: New hope for resurrection

After our great sunrise meeting in the park on Easter I ate all sorts of delectable things I had missed for a long time. It seemed like a good time to exercise off a few pieces of candy, so Gwen and I took off for our nearby forest path. On the last leg, we went by Treetop Quest, the zipline and ropes course fun that opened not too long ago. I wondered what all the cars were doing parked along Chamonix Dr. on Easter Sunday. Treetop Quest was not closed for Easter.

I think you need to be a pretty old Christian to be surprised at what is open on Easter Sunday. My grandson kept looking at his father’s watch to see if the family brunch was going to end in time for him to make his soccer practice…on Easter Sunday.

The end of Christian supremacy

I had a job titled “youth director” for much of my twenties. Just for a reference point, Ronald Reagan ousted Jimmy Carter as president in 1981 when I was 27. Not long before then, I had an unforgettable conversation with a high school girl about the resurrection of Jesus. She had never heard of it. She literally did not know what the word “resurrection” meant, for sure. I remember going home to Gwen and talking about this experience, after I changed a couple of diapers. I told her this was the first rivulet of a flood of newness coming upon us who were used to our environment being saturated with Christianity. Jimmy Carter, the real Christian, who later went on to prove it, was replaced by Ronald Reagan, who’s soulmate, Nancy, consulted astrologers for auspicious times for Ronnie to do things. Reagan beget Bush who beget Trump.

I should not be surprised about Treetop Quest being open on Easter or that atheists and Muslims often protest when the government persists in putting up Christmas trees and, even worse, Nativity scenes in December. The big news in the social scientist sphere last month was that the regular census of religious adherents in the U.S. showed for the first time that over half the country are not church members.

Let’s be clear, Gallup has been measuring “church membership” for 80 years and plenty of megachurches do not even have a way to be a member, formally. One’s attendance is their membership; being on the mailing list or fundraising list is one’s membership. But plenty of long-lived churches have seen a decline in their membership; it is minus 25% in Philadelphia’s region in the last decade. Non-college graduates and unmarried individuals showed the greatest decline. Declines were proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates. Those groups have the highest rates of church membership, along with Southern residents and non-Hispanic Black adults.

All this data might be more about how people do not affiliate than about the prevalence of Christianity. It might be about how people are freeing themselves from heretical American theology and fraudulent church systems rather than deserting Jesus. But my anecdotal experiences of a rivulet of unbelief among high school students in the 80’s became a river among Gen Xers in Philadelphia in the 90’s. It feels like a sea change in the 2020’s. Christian supremacy is dying in the United States. It died a long time ago elsewhere.

Resurrection in post-Christian culture

My historical heroes are Desert Fathers and Mothers, Benedictines, Franciscans, Anabaptists, Wesleyans and others who always took the Jesus way between church factions fighting for or submitting to political power. Even when fighting for social justice I never thought winning the fight was anyone’s final solution. So I remember sitting in the front yard with my buddies back in my twenties, plotting what we should do now that Ronald Reagan was ushering in a new godless era – how’s that for prophecy! The part of the church that decided to defend Christian supremacy eventually helped elect Donald Trump! As Dr. King taught us, it is good to be on the “right side of history” – that is, to keep making history in collaboration with Jesus. I still find great joy in being on that quest.

I am happy the church is finally more like a minority group in the United States. For one reason, it is very clarifying. You can’t assume someone even knows it is Easter. “Christmas” is fully superseded by “holiday” and thinking Sunday is a day of rest, or special (besides being the weekend) makes one weird. I forgot about my cell meeting one time after it became another TV show last year — and I was in charge of it! Suddenly, being an actual Christian takes some effort when it is uncommon to be one. That effort is so good for us.

Parents now need to nurture faithful children rather than just send them to church. My parents were early adopters of post-Christianity. They probably would have been great modestly-believing church members if they had been able to get along with hypocrites. I could “go to church” as an act of differentiation. But no one would just send a kid to church these days; who knows what might happen to them? The children won’t hear about the resurrection in school, so they’ll need a parent. Our situation already sounds more like the Bible, doesn’t it?

The writers of the New Testament represent a tiny minority from a tiny part of the Roman Empire. They are not going along with what was going along. Jesus calls his way “narrow.” The broad way is leading to destruction, as in global warming and the cultural captivity of the church, among other things. Their message leads off with the incarnation of God and ends up with his resurrection. They never talk about going to church or taking over the government — they are the church and eventually undermine the government. Their message is so strong it keeps rising from the dead. American slaves get it, toss the faulty vessel in which it arrives and come up with their own improvement — they are still the most Christian element of the U.S. population! The liveliest parts of the 21st century church are in all the places European Christians brutally colonized the world in service to their idols. Jesus overcomes the world.

Being in the treetops on Sunday has a lot of merit and running around after a soccer ball could be a good thing. People have decided to follow Jesus under worse circumstances. Like I said, their master might not let them learn how to read or their colonizers might organize conflict between the people groups you just spent generations to reconcile. Jeff Bezos might spend his billions figuring out how to get more out of you. Another pandemic is not unlikely. In the face of all that, Jesus followers keep saying, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” echoing that first minority group writing the Bible:  

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. – 1 Peter 1:3-5

We must bring the Now to now

Image result for valentine on a melting glacier

I suspect Valentine was a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in his ways and position, 
when the authorities made their new law 
and thrust him into his new, secret obedience to Love. 

He once handed off his cross to the younger ones. 
But it quickly came around the track to him again. 
He was no longer the future but the now — 
the eternal now he knew so well beckoned him Home. 

And he brought that Home to his home. 
He brought that Now to now. 
He lived Eternally in the face of the powers 
who pretend to have the power of death. 

I know my Valentine is a wizened elder, 
old and comfortable in her ways and position. 
Yet the authorities still make their laws 
and thrust the young into choices which question all their love. 

What will You have us do with this baton we see, 
coming quickly to us across the melting glaciers 
in an age of lies when the evil go free 
and the machines bind the hearts and minds of the children? 

We must bring our Home to our home 
and bring our Now to now, 
and love Eternally in the face of the powers — 
prove they do not have the power of death 
over those who listen to the Spirit’s voice and follow.