U-C: What I See

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A final Migrant Trail Reflection: Death in the Desert

It wasn’t real, but the emotion evoked in me surprised me. At the end of our seventy-five mile trek through the desert, a group of about twenty of us agreed to a nonviolent witness as we passed the Border Patrol Tucson Sector headquarters in Tucson. It was to be a “die-in,” a simple dramatization on the sidewalk of migrants who are dying in the desert. Though I hadn’t intended to volunteer, my thirteen-year-old traveling companion Ben attended a gathering of those interested in participating that was held in our last campsite on Saturday afternoon. A little later, each of those who were to “die” on the side of the road asked someone to be their “mourner,” and I agreed to do so for Ben.

As we took our last water break on Sunday morning, our little group took some foam sleeping pads and went on ahead. It was telling that those who were dying needed the pads to lie on. At one hundred and six degrees, the gravel and concrete right-of-way between the sidewalk and Ajo Road would have badly burned them. Ben was seventh among those who had agreed to die. Without saying a word, he lay down on his stomach, fully extended with an arm outstretched, reaching toward an empty water bottle. Silently, I knelt beside him, leaning over his prostrate form on the gravel with my head in my hands.

My own emotion shocked me. Perhaps it was a natural feeling that welled up in me as we came to the end of a powerful and deeply meaningful experience. Maybe it was the particular connection I feel with Ben, and my more visceral realization that thirteen-year-olds like Ben account for some of the death statistics in the desert each year. Maybe it was the memory of encountering folks in similar condition during my “Samaritan Runs” in the desert over the last few years four years.

I never looked up as the line of walkers, now almost two hundred strong, moved silently past our witness. I focused on Ben, and on what it means when we lose children in the desert every year. Already this year, our current death count is ninety-nine men, women and children since October 1rst. Every one of those people has a story and a family that mourned for them the same way Ben’s family and I would mourn for Ben. It’s way to easy for the bodies to become statistics. As we finished our walk and drove home, the local NPR affiliate announced the death of someone in the desert over the weekend, just twenty miles or so to the west of where we had been walking all week.

Something is drastically wrong with the kind of desperation that leads thousands of people each day into the danger of the borderlands in an attempt to help their family survive. It’s wrong theologically for those of us who profess the Christian faith but then refuse to take seriously the Biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and to care for the suffering. It’s wrong politically for those of us who profess to be a caring and generous people to turn away from the crossers, insisting that they made their own choices and we’re not responsible for their welfare. It’s even worse when we demonize them as “potential terrorists” even while most agree that our economic well-being is built on the labor they desire to offer. It’s wrong economically for those of us who receive the benefits of cheap goods in the global economy to refuse to recognize that we will be unable to sustain the vast, growing, inequity that exists between those of us who have the good fortune to be the winners in the global economy and those who work on the underside of that economy and who find it impossible to feed their families, much less dream of something better for their children as I do for mine. It’s misguided from a security point of view to think that we can ever provide for the security of our children if we are unwilling to recognize the need for a modicum of economic stability for the children just to our south.

Seven days in the desert. Seventy-five miles. Temperatures well above one hundred degrees. This has been an experience that Ben and I won’t soon forget.

May God’s blessings rain down, this day, upon all of God’s people, and may each of us commit to be a part of that blessing.