Monday, November 16, 2015

Part 2: The Mexican Ants

I made a friend named Roberto last week. He is in his early 40’s and has a wife and two daughters. He is a hard worker and you can tell by the sun spots on his face that he spends a significant amount of time outside. Roberto is used to a long commute. In fact it’s so long that he usually just stays in the same place he works. He rarely goes home to see his family even though he misses them. He is also very good with his money and puts almost every penny into savings for his family. I think Roberto is the bravest man I have ever met. Forget Captain America and Superman.

Roberto is a native of Mexico. He has lived in the U.S. in various states for quite a while. His commute to work from his family’s home requires a month of travel up through Mexico, and then at least a 3 night trek through the desert in the U.S. He has made this trip several times, with the last being 5 years ago when he came to California. Roberto could not support his family in Mexico with the very small wages offered by either farms or factories. His wife and children live with his mother and he sends home every penny he can to keep them alive. Even with his recent deportation from America, he is working to cross the border again. There is no other option. He told me he has done this so many times but he still gets scared.
That's me in the pink about to jump over a small canyon.
It was easy in the day light.
The large, spiky bushes make it nearly impossible to walk.

When you’re in the desert getting ready to jump the wall into the U.S., there are many things you don’t expect. Yes, there are snakes, little food and water, and border patrol agents every few miles, but there are also thorny plants that catch your clothes (and there’s no avoiding them), small canyons where rain water has carved 7 foot ditches that you can’t see in the dark, the wall itself is difficult to climb and even more difficult to jump down from on the other side, and Roberto even said it started snowing on him one time. The question to ask here is why would anyone do this if they didn’t have to?

Can you see their fingerprints from just a few hours ago?

Watch your step!

The last annual immigrant visa waiting list report issued by the U.S. Department of State was on November 1, 2014. This report breaks down the number of visa issuances in both the family and employment categories, with the total number of visas on the waiting list from Mexico coming to 1,323,978. The report also says that for the fiscal year of 2015 there is a limit of 25,900 visas that can be accepted, meaning a very small fraction of the people who have passed the test to enter our country will actually be allowed to this year. 

With numbers like these, the waiting list keeps getting more and more backed up. According to an article on the Center for Immigration Studies website from April of this year, most citizens from Mexico are waiting OVER 18 YEARS for their turn to come up on the U.S. entry list. And this time frame doesn’t even account for the years they spend saving up money to apply, or the time taken by the government to adjudicate each application! 

Roberto was living in extreme poverty, and many like him have very ill family members as well. They do not have 18 years to wait for a visa, so the risks of death and imprisonment they take to cross the desert and make it to slightly better employment is worth it to them.

These people are not criminals when they come to our country, they are victims.

While poverty runs rampant in the central part of Mexico, the borderlands are ruled by the Mexican drug cartel. If you want to jump the fence, you have to go through them. Roberto said he paid several thousand dollars to a Coyote leader in order to cross the first time. Coyotes are usually very mean men involved with the cartel who lead groups of migrants to a drop off point across the border in America. They usually have two separate missions: lead the migrants, and more importantly smuggle the drugs. According to a few border patrol agents we were able to speak with, drug smugglers often use the innocent families as bait for the agents to arrest while the leaders sprint away with backpacks of cocaine or marijuana. They also entice youth from both sides of the border to carry drugs for them, offering $2500 just to carry two backpacks over the fence. And because Douglas, AZ is not exactly Beverly Hills, even the high school students from the American side can be convinced to risk their lives for a sum of money to help their families.
Red dots indicate migrant deaths in the desert. 1,755 are shown.
That is only a fraction of the true number. 

Crosses set out to remember those who
lost their lives in the desert.

If the cartel can’t get a load of drugs across however, they just sell it on their own side of the wall, leading to a huge cocaine and heroin addiction problem all along the border of Mexico. One stop on our journey was to learn more about CRREDA; a residential drug treatment center for anyone and everyone who comes to their door.  I highly suggest clicking on this link to read a letter from Mark Adams, one of the leaders of our group, to learn more about the wonderful work CRREDA does and how the Presbyterian Church is able to partner with them. 

Border patrol agents will be quick to tell you how the cartel has made things so dangerous for the Mexicans and for the agents. But our site coordinator Matthew brought up a good point that has led me to many more questions.

Matthew said that people only misbehave when they have a need that isn’t being met.

If children misbehave when they need more love and attention, what do the people crossing the border illegally actually need? What are the members of the drug cartel crying out for that we refuse to hear? How many of these teenagers and young adults are only carrying drugs because a family member is under gun point? Why are they the ones suffering in our prisons if they are the victims? Where does the cycle begin?! Why can’t our governments communicate with one another?!
America is their emergency exit.
I will continue to stew on these questions and many others as I head back to my life in L.A. I hope you take them with you as well, and if you come up with anything good let me know! This is not a hopeless situation. Hope was found in many places over the week with Frontera de Cristo, CRREDA, Café Justo, Borderlinks, and my fellow YAVs who care so much. If you feel inspired, write a letter to your representatives in Congress and tell them we need to talk about these people who are dying to come live with us. Also, keep paying attention to those pesky political debates and see who knows the real truth about the issues facing our neighbors.

Many Americans view Latinos crossing into our country as tiny ants through a magnifying glass. They want to play the vicious game of smiting them with beams of light through the lens just for fun. But I believe that is not what we should be doing with our magnifying glasses. Let us turn the lens around and magnify the struggles of our neighbors to the whole world so that we all might have compassion and mercy.

Ephesians 2:11-22
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”

Cafe Justo
We drank A LOT of good coffee!

Food and fellowship is all you need!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Part 1: The American Lens

View on the drive over to Tucson, AZ.

The situation on the U.S./Mexico border is very complicated. But thanks be to God for his many ways of teaching us compassion, I was able to get a small taste of both sides of the story this past week.  The YAVs from Hollywood, CA, Denver, CO and Tucson, AZ joined up for a retreat to Tucson and Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, MX. The week was full of laughter and tears, new friends and maybe a few new enemies, but most of all it was the one of the most eye opening experiences I have ever had.
Desert mountains look very different from WV!

We worked our way backwards, starting from our current perspective as Americans and moving farther South to the perspective of Central and South Americans.  This first blog is about the beginning of my change in perspective as an American. A second blog will follow as my perception moved to the South side of the border.

The border wall splitting
Douglas and Agua Prieta.
U.S. on the right, Mexico on the left.
We arrived Saturday, Nov. 7th in Tucson, AZ, but our first real day was Sunday. We went to church at Southside Presbyterian which has gained national attention for giving sanctuary to Rosa Robles Loreto for over 15 months. We were lucky enough to be there on the day they announced that the government has finally granted Rosa relief from her order of deportation! She went home on Wednesday morning to reunite with her husband and two sons. As an American who believes we should not be deporting anyone from this land of plenty, I saw this is a great victory helping to keep families together and move toward smarter and more caring immigration policies. To learn more about this situation, visit Southside Presbyterian’s website:
Sign outside Southside Presbyerian Church.

Southside Presbyterian Church entrance

On Sunday evening we participated in the All Souls Procession which draws a crowd of over 100,000 people in Tucson! People make all kinds of costumes and floats in order to creatively remember their loved ones who have passed away. The tradition has only been going since 1990, but it draws so much attention for its inclusion of every religion and cultural practice. I had my face painted as an artistic skull not to be gruesome, but to remind us that we all have the same skeleton underneath. They also told us to bring a memento for someone we have lost and are remembering during the procession. While I was packing to come to Hollywood, I had thrown a deck of cards in to my backpack, not knowing if I would ever need them or not. But I think I brought them to carry with me to remember my Granddaddy Violett. He was constantly playing solitaire and he taught me to enjoy the game as well. Although he was never very artistic, I hope he is proud of me for honoring him in this way. It was a truly moving night seeing how everyone chose to remember their loved one, whether it was a huge float or a simple pin with a picture on it. The celebration of life was phenomenal! To learn more, click here:

Molds of children's shoes to remember
Syrian children killed in the war zone.

Southside Worker Center
On Monday we went back to Southside Presbyterian to talk to day laborers in their Southside Worker Center. The main coordinator talked to us about how they assign different workers to different jobs depending on what skills they have. I was impressed at how adamant he was that each work site must be verified as safe and a fair wage must be paid. He repeated several times that they are all human beings and must be treated as such.

But this was the part where I began to realize how skewed my perception of their situation was.

Coordinator for the center showing us goals
they have acheived.
Somewhere along the line I was taught to think of Latino immigrants as slimy, untrustworthy workers. Maybe from movies, maybe from living in the south and hearing racist adults make stupid comments. But why?? All these people really want is to work and be paid a fair wage for their labor. I also realized how stuck they are in their situation. Their options of employment are so often limited to construction and maintenance, but what little boy grows up saying that’s what he wants to be when he’s an adult? I am so lucky to have had almost an infinite amount of options laid out for me. Why can’t it be the same for them?

Lois is in the middle giving us
information on Operation Stream Line.

In the afternoon we talked to this fabulous little lady named Lois. She came to tell us about Operation Stream Line; a government program that stream lines migrants arrested in the desert straight into private prisons as criminals rather than immigrants. After talking to her we sat through a hearing for 79 latino men and women who had just tried to cross the border less than a week before.

The experience was surreal. The ceiling was extraordinarily high, with a huge seal of the U.S. up on the wall behind the judge. If you’ve seen The Hunger Games movies, this court room could have come straight out of The Capitol. In the middle of the room sat 79 latino men and women who were caught crossing the border mostly within the past 2-3 days. They were all chained around their ankles and handcuffed to a chain around their waist. White lawyers in fancy suits strutted around talking to each other and occasionally giving a reassuring smile to a detainee as part of the show. The judge entered and started calling up the “criminals” 6 to 8 at a time. In the 30 minutes they were allowed to meet with their semi-fluent in Spanish lawyer before trial, they had to be informed of their charges, the plea bargain they were going to take, and the questions the judge was going to ask and how they needed to respond.
Could you climb it?

We were there to have a trial for people where the outcome was already preplanned.

They were all charged with a misdemeanor of not entering the country through a legal port of entry, as well as a felony for having been deported once before and trying to come back again. The plea bargain they all take says their felony will be dropped if they serve 1-6 months in prison before being handed over to immigration for deportation. Many of them received the full 6 months, but the criteria for deciding the sentences is left up to the prosecutor’s discretion. Many migrants were very confused during the whole process. I counted at least 5 who could not answer the judge’s questions correctly, for example one man wanted to answer every question with “Gulpable,” which means guilty. He clearly did not understand the court system, the questions asked of him, or the charges against him, yet he was ultimately coached through the answers with his lawyer and the judge was able to give him his sentence. The migrants are also barely given a chance to speak for themselves and explain their situation. When the judge asks "Do you have anything to say?" the attorneys all speak for them and say "No, they do not." But what if they are fleeing from violence and are seeking asylum? That should never be a criminal offense! This is not what I was taught to be a fair trial in our country. I found myself asking how much different it will be to sit before God on a judgment day when all are set free rather than all guilty.

By Monday evening, I was full of questions.
Why are people working so hard to come into our country?
And why are we working so hard to keep them out of our “free” country?
Why are some human beings considered to be illegal and the rest of us aren’t?
How can judges and lawyers participate in something that so clearly goes against their Constitutional oath?

Marker for the border line
As we travelled closer to the Border on Tuesday, several of these questions began to unfold with answers. Read Part 2 of this blog to find out what happens South of the border and hear the stories of real human beings who live there.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Everyday Saints

Real LA Sistas
Unexpected art
 Dear readers,
I hope you will forgive me for the delay in blog posts, but much of my free time recently has been spent sleeping. No, I haven’t been sick, just very tired.

They told us from day 1 of being a YAV that self-care would be very important this year. Since I have always thought of myself as a very introspective person, I thought self-care would be pretty easy for me. Throughout my 22 years it’s been relatively simple to see and respond to what I need in my physical and mental health life.

That was before I started this intense year of service. I have chosen to work long hours for no pay, live in a house with 5 other personalities, and be separated from many people that I love dearly. So it didn’t take long before I started to crash and burn in the self-help department.

Movie night with the neighborhood kids
After much discernment over the past year, I decided to become a YAV and follow what I believe to be God’s path for my life. So when you put it that way, being here hasn’t felt like much of a choice at all; being here is just what I’m supposed to be doing. My job in street outreach is hard, but that’s just what I’m supposed to be doing. Coming home to work with kids from the neighborhood after a long day at work is hard, but that’s what I’m here to do. Having tough conversations of reconciliation with my housemates is hard, but that’s what I’m supposed to be doing to love my neighbor as myself.

What I realized this past week however, is that in the midst of everything God has laid out for me to be doing, He has also set out time for me to NOT be doing.  

Weekend fair with too many food trucks!
Last Saturday I took the day off and binge watched the medical show Scrubs on Netflix. (I also wore my Marshall School of Medicine scrubs shirt just to enhance the experience). I have also taken more naps instead of exercising after work, and I have a few select songs reminding me to relax on the dreary ride to work at 7 am. Chocolate has also been an integral part of everyday survival.

Haven't actually made it inside the zoo yet.
But apart from introvert activities, what I have found to be the most helpful and uplifting is to hear familiar voices and see smiling faces from back home via phone calls and Skype dates. Even when they don’t say it directly, my parents remind me of all the reasons I wanted to do this in the first place. Their love grounds me in what is important, and their pride in my work this year removes any doubt that I may have had for the week. Talking to my boyfriend, Brett, makes me look forward to carving out time in what seems like a rock solid schedule. Time spent in open conversation with him gives me a moment to process everything that is happening here, as well as learning what he is doing (and I will soon be doing) as a first year medical student.

Outdoor production of Taming of the Shrew;
stumbled upon in Pasadena
In church this morning at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, the sermon was titled “Quotidian Saints.” Pastor Dan talked about how quotidian is one of his new favorite words; it means ordinary, or everyday. Everyday Saints. He challenged us to think about the everyday saints around us, including ourselves, that have the ability to influence others for the better. My parents and Brett are quite certainly quotidian saints in my life, as are my other best friends at home, my prayer partner, Becky, my fishing buddy and mentor, Dr. Fox, my entire church family in Beckley, my old theater friends like Terry, and the list goes on and on and on! To think about all of these people and the way they have influenced my life up until this point is mind blowing. I wouldn’t be here doing everything that I am without them, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to continue through this year without knowing that they always have my back.

The scripture for today was also very fitting. Hebrews 12:1-2 says,

800 degrees pizza from Pasadena
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

If you are reading this blog, you are indeed part of the great cloud of witnesses that cheer me on as I run this race! Thank you! But this year is only going to get more and more challenging, so please keep your air horns and pompoms raised. You guys rock!


P.S. Don’t hesitate to send me mail! (Or on sale Halloween candy works, too).

First public library in Southern California
Marji McCoy
5846 Gregory Ave.
Hollywood, CA 90038

Hand bell choir at First Pres. Hollywood

Olvera Street; original street that started LA

Memorial Park Metro station

Olvera Street with Matthew, Jordan and Ambar

Beautiful views from climbing bridges at work