© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 20, 2011
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It has been said that the job of a minister is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. I ask you today to step into discomfort with me, starting with this thought: If you are walking around feeling comfortable, there is someone else bearing the weight, someone else forced into discomfort so that you can enjoy your comfortable life. Martin Luther King Jr., in his typical way of summing up discomforting truths with poetic elegance put it this way, "Before you've finished your breakfast this morning, you'll have relied on half of the world." This idea of others bearing the weight of our comfort is not nice to hear. It is highly inconvenient to our modern lifestyles. And it is an unassailable fact.
The reading we heard earlier, "Two Women" was written by a working-class Chilean woman in 1973, shortly after Chile's socialist president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown. A U.S. missionary translated the work and brought it with her when she was forced to leave Chile. This poem does an incredible job of illustrating exactly what I mean. In the interplay of the juxtaposed voices of a woman living on the margins and a woman of means, we see exactly how the privilege of one is carried on the back of the other. While one lives with all the food and travel her children could possibly need or desire, the other is forced to scramble for a few meager scraps, her children's bellies aching with emptiness and filled only with desperation.
As Americans struggle to adjust to a new normal that most in the world would do anything for, the poor around the world sink deeper into a true nightmare of food scarcity, a complete lack of opportunities for education and advancement, and a culture more concerned with celebrity than with the least amongst us.
Besides discomfort, I do not bring solutions. Although I will offer ideas on how you can engage with the issues we raise today, this is not a sermon intended to communicate a better immigration policy or a new economic model. Like the book, The Death of Josseline that many UUs around the country and in this very congregation have been reading as part of the UUA Common Read Program, I don't intend to try and solve our nation's ongoing immigration conversation. Rather, I hope to reveal the invisible people all around us that bear the weight of our comfort, and the first person I would like to make visible to you is the title character of the book I just referred to, Josseline.
Josseline left on an unimaginable trek from her tiny village in El Salvador to the United States, at the tender age of 14. With over two thousand miles separating her from her destination, the journey must have appeared impossible. But still she left. Here are some things you need to know about Josseline in order to understand why a 14-year-old girl would make such an impossible journey.
To begin with, many of you are probably thinking of your own children, and saying to yourself, well, I would have never let my child make that trip, no matter the desperation. So, the first thing you need to know is that Josseline's parents were not with her in her village to try and convince her otherwise, in fact, they were not in El Salvador at all, having left years earlier, along the same route she would take, searching for any kind of job that would provide some money they could send back to their family.
Besides not having seen her parents in several years, another thing you need to know about Josseline is that she had personally been caring for her 10-year-old brother for a long time now. Between the small remittances she received from her parents working in the United States and support from some extended family, she provided what little she could for his hungry mouth, probably making impossible choices between food, medicine and clothing that no adult, let alone a child, should ever have to make.
And finally, you need to understand that despite all of this, Josseline was every bit a 14-year-old girl, who had hopes and dreams and fantasies about what could lie on the other side of this journey.
When one leaves on a trip like this, they bring only what they can wear, as carrying anything more than some basic food will weigh them down too much. And Josseline's choice of clothing is revealing of her naiveté. This weeks-long trip would involve living on an overcrowded bus for days at a time, sleeping sometimes out in the open or at best on the floor of a cheap flophouse, fending off bandits, being dehydrated, too hot, too cold, and would include more arduous hiking than a peak-condition adult, let alone child, is prepared for. And for this incredible saga Josseline wore a light jacket lined in hot pink, wild bright green sneakers that began to disintegrate early on in the walk, and a pair of sweatpants that said "Hollywood" across her butt. She had told her family, friends, and I am sure anyone who would listen, that she would be wearing these pants as she was reunited with her mother in Los Angeles, the land of movie stars, where dreams really do come true.
We meet Josseline more than two-thirds of the way through her journey. Like most people making this trip, she is part of a larger group that has hired a guide, or a coyote, to lead them from their tiny village in El Salvador all the way to their final destination in Los Angeles. They have already been on countless buses and walked for dozens upon dozens of miles. They are now twenty miles north of the border, having climbed over a short wall at the official border. They are no longer worried about Mexico; they are now concerned with American Border agents and the scorching Arizona desert heat.
Up until this point things had been going as planned, but now, so close to the destination, Josseline suddenly fell to the ground and began to vomit violently. On this rugged journey, it only takes one small thing to go wrong for everything to suddenly spiral out of control. A harmless slip on a wet rock becomes a twisted ankle and a death sentence. An unnoticed brush against a cactus can bring cataclysmic infection and sickness. The scorching heat of the day and the bone-chilling cold of the night can team up on even the healthiest of bodies. We don't know what made Josseline sick, but we do know it is an all too common story.
And the group, composed of the coyote and mostly other adults, some of whom knew Josseline and her family well, had a decision to make. Every minute counted. They had a ride to meet in a few more miles along a deserted old highway and if they were not there, it would leave without them. Josseline was too sick and weak to go on any farther, and at 100 pounds, too heavy to be carried to the road. Against her brother's wailing, the group decided to leave her there, convinced just enough by the Coyote that a Border Patrol agent would certainly be by soon, that they left a young, sick girl alone in the harsh desert wilderness.
Four days later her brother arrived in Los Angeles and immediately told his mother what had happened, but it was far too late. That first night alone in the desert, the temperature dropped below freezing, and her clothes that spoke a thousand words about the yearnings of so many, failed to protect her frail young body, and Josseline died.
And I am just going to let us sit in the discomfort of that fact. There are so many ways to understand and explain this tragedy, but certainly no comforting silver linings. There are economic and political reasons, there are emotional and familial explanations, there are religious and cultural factors. But what I want to focus on right now is not the why, or the "what we can do to make it stop." Not because these are unimportant considerations. To the contrary, I would invite you to stay after the service today to participate in what I imagine will be an excellent conversation about these aspects of immigration. But I'm not going there because I don't have those answers, and I don't want to pretend I do.
Rather what I hope to accomplish today by sharing Josseline's story and its dramatic and tragic end, is to invite you into a different way of thinking about immigration. When Unitarian Universalists talk about the way we are connected, we use the term "the interconnected web of life." That is, we draw upon the image of a web as a metaphor to communicate our connectedness - every spoke a line between real human lives. And the point isn't merely that we are all connected, but rather that the action of one life has consequences that ripple across the web; that is, no action happens in isolation. Our immigration conversation is largely focused on how to stop people from coming into our country, when the truth of the matter is they don't really want to. And Josseline's death was the consequence of the way we live, the system we participate in and that supports our lifestyles. She is but one face of those who shoulder the weight of our comfort.
Yes, she was driven by desperation and dream on that journey to her lonely death, but she was also forced into it by situations far beyond her control, but less so beyond ours. We need to get past seeing immigration as being about how to stop people from coming into the US, and focus more on what we are doing to pull them here. As Leo Tolstoy said, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing him or herself."
With that uncomfortable truth now fully present in this space with us, let me turn to a more hopeful story from the book. One of the major factors driving people to leave their families in Mexico is that the bottom fell out of the world coffee market in the early 2000s and many families, especially in the southern Mexican states like Chiapas, were forced to leave their home villages in search of work. Many of them found decent wages on the border with the U.S. at cheap factories called maquiladors, that had sprung up in Mexico after NAFTA became law. But now many of those factories have been closing, shipping their work out to even cheaper and more exploitable markets in Asia. This left a huge population of unemployed and desperate people miles from the border with the United States.
At the same time, a group of coffee growers from Chiapas that had come north to work at the factories and was faced with this new dilemma of crossing the border to find work, made a different decision. First, they secured a microloan from the Presbyterian Border Ministry Frontera De Christo (Border of Christ) of $20,000 to start a coffee growers' co-op. Within the first year they were able to provide the founding members' families back in Chiapas a good price for their coffee. More villages in the area joined in and it quickly grew to include hundreds of families. These hundreds of families now co-op their beans, ship them 2,000 miles to their own roasting factory at the boarder, and then specially package and distribute them through a grass-roots network of churches and nonprofits. This had made it possible by 2008 for hundreds, and at this point more likely thousands, of people to stay at home, where they want to be. Think of that: just $20,000, a drop in the bucket in terms of the billions we spend on border enforcement, has allowed thousands to stay home.
Café Justo is an incredible model of how to empower people to take control of their own goods and to reap the benefits financially so they don't have to leave home.
Microcredit is certainly not the only engine that will drive a change. But it is a great example of a way to personally respond to the issue of immigration. And another thing it does, when you get involved through microcredit lending with an online organization like Kiva, is it continues the work we are engaged in here today, of revealing the invisible people that bear the weight of your comfort, and then also takes the important next step of beginning to work to correct that imbalance. Because, the point of afflicting the comfortable is not to make them hurt, but rather to make them engage.
And there are certainly many ways that you can engage this issue. As I said, I offer a warm invitation to stay after the service and to join the conversation that our Inclusiveness and Diversity Committee will be leading. There are also action steps from lobbying to local events that you can get plugged into on the UUA's Standing on the Side of Love webpage.
Also, I have started a Mission Peak Kiva giving group. Nicole and I have been providing microcredit loans through Kiva for years, and I would love to combine our efforts with all of you. If you are interested in joining the team, you should know there is a stiff competition going on between the Christians and the Atheists, the two highest-giving groups on Kiva, who have given millions in a competition to prove who-knows-what-exactly. But whatever it is, we UUs have a lot of catching up to do. I will send out a link to our kiva group in this weeks Mission Peak email digest, or you can go to Kiva.org and search for Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Finally, you can also join the next PCD Web Discussion, entitled: Immigration Matters! UUA President Peter Morales has said "How we treat immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, is today's equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement." The program will include a presentation and talk led by two ministers from the Pacific Central District, Rev. Pallas Stanford and Rev. Greg Ward, as they describe why they were willing to be arrested during the National Day of Non-Compliance Against SB 1070 in Phoenix last July. You will also hear UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski's first-hand account of the impact of that action, 6 months later, from the recent trip the UUA Board made to the border, and most importantly, share your own questions and values around immigration with other Unitarian Universalists across the district.
I hope you will continue to engage with this issue, to continue the hard and often discomforting work of standing on the side of love with those who need us.
May it be so. Ashe.
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