I’m padding around the house at midnight unable to sleep. The full moon lights up the living room with a ghostly sheen, but I turn on the twinkling Christmas lights anyway. They dangle and twist around the agave plant spire that acts as our Christmas tree. The desert is glowing with a silvery patina; the night owls are hooting. While the dogs are softly snoring (along with my husband), I look out at the glittering stars and frost blanketing the surrounding mountains. It is the most magical time of the year.
And I wonder who is out there.
I met at least a dozen men last Tuesday at the comedor who told me they plan to cross the border into the Sonoran desert and head for Utah, Washington, Florida. Did they find a little cave to sleep in on this freezing night? Did they build a fire to ward off the freezing temperatures? Are there children out there? Maybe they are taking advantage of the moonlight and covering some miles on foot tonight. Are they crouching in fear as helicopters hover overhead? How can people survive this frigid December weather?
A few days ago driving to town, I saw a man and woman walking along the side of the road, crossing a bridge heading toward the freeway. They looked Latino, or perhaps Native American; the woman appeared elderly, wrapped in a shawl. The man was assisting her as they walked.
I was late for a doctor appointment, had my mind on a long list of things to do, and needed to drive 60 miles more to Tucson. Slowing my car down, the couple looked at me. I looked at them. The woman waved her hand and looked me in the eye, trying to get my attention.
I kept on going.
Driving about a hundred yards I pulled over, trying to decide if I should go back. I was alone and it was still dark, before dawn. I could not let this couple into my life. My mind was too full of appointments and Christmas lists.
Feeling both fear and guilt, I looked behind me in the rear view mirror. I saw the car in back of me slow down and stop to talk to this couple. It looked like they were giving assistance, as the two climbed into the car.
I haven’t been able to get this incident out of my mind. It was a reminder to me that I need to pay attention to the stranger in my midst. I need to slow down and face my fears. Here I live in the wealthiest and most heavily armed country in the world, and I feel fear about people walking along the side of the road asking for help. I need to get a grip.
I’m also just too damn busy.
This week I participated in the annual posada in Nogales, Mexico—an event sponsored by the Kino Border Initiative and the Diocese Without Borders. The posada is the reenactment of a pregnant Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay in an inhospitable land. There is no room for them in Bethlehem. No one is welcoming, and the exhausted pair end up in a stable with the animals. Mary gives birth in a manger, a feeding trough full of hay. It is difficult to imagine a more humble birthplace.
They are the strangers at the side of the road.
Walking with several Samaritans from Arizona into Nogales, Mexico to the appointed meeting place for the posada, we wended our way through the aisles and gates of the port of entry with shoppers, honking cars and children running about.
“Is this going to be super religious? What happens during this parade,” asked one of the Samaritans, a newcomer to this work.
“Well,” I answered, “ it IS the Christmas story. And the sisters and Jesuits will be running the show. So, yes, it will probably be religious.”
When we reached the plaza there were people from the comedor in Mexico, with participants from Tucson and many surrounding villages and towns of the borderlands. Mary was fussing with her blue veil, and the angel’s wings were askew. Joseph, a hunky teen from a local high school, looked nervous.
When the burro arrived, Mary suddenly realized she had to ride this animal. She looked to her mother and expressed her fears about falling off. In fact, riding astride the donkey was a challenge, as she hiked up her gown and tried to figure out how to stay on the beast and look serene, composed and Biblical.
The street hawkers were out imploring me to stock up on their low priced pharmaceuticals, Viagra, bottles of tequila, and anti-depressants.
“K-Mart prices,” they shout. “Almost free!”
The day was dazzling and warm, and the sun shone fiercely on our motley group as we began our posada procession winding through the streets of Nogales, Sonora. Shopkeepers watched silently as we slowly walked along the wall toward the comedor. A chorus of dogs created an opera of barks and howls as we walked by their yards. Sirens wailed, and motorcycles revved up their engines. We quietly marched along the bumpy streets, watching out for the potholes and pavement cracks.
Stopping at the wall for singing and reflection, there were posada singers on the American side and on the Mexican side. Peering through the slats of the metal fence, the singers expressed the sordid truth about the plight of thousands of Latino people.
The songs did not mince words:
On the Mexican side of the wall the women sang out:
“Dehydrated and hungry
I crossed this desert.
As we jumped the wall
Our life was uncertain.”
On the American side of the wall the words pierced my heart:
“I don’t care if you die.
If you come to take advantage
And if you continue to interfere
We will shoot you.”
The refrains flowed back and forth. There were many verses which made me flinch. As an American, it was difficult to listen to these words. Unfortunately, the songs spoke of truths that my fellow Americans do not want to hear. The U.S. government has turned its back on a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions.
This was more than a religious procession about Mary and Joseph. The political and spiritual soul of Christmas was profoundly explored during our parade through Nogales.
I walked beside a couple of migrants who carried a banner proclaiming that “Laws are Unjust That Separate Families.” As we stopped along the way and heard the stories of men and women who were lost in the desert or locked up in detention centers for months, the migrants listened attentively. There were silent tears as many stared into the distance contemplating what lies ahead.
At last we reached the comedor where a feast and music greeted our procession. I thought about how my life is enriched when I let people in—poor people, rich people, people of color, white people, gay and straight people, Republicans, Democrats, agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Sitting down to eat with the diversity of this posada crowd, I felt connected to my brothers and sisters south of the border.
It was good to get away from the rampant consumerism of the Christmas season and just break bread with strangers and friends. We have so much in this beloved country of ours, and yet we are so involved in the frenzy of gift giving and receiving, we do not let the people in who matter.
May the spirit of this Christmas holiday give you a deeper connection with family, friends and the strangers among us.
May we open the doors of our hearts to the outcasts.
May we stop and help the stranger on the side of the road.
Please direct your comments and thoughts to Peg Bowden in the “Comments” section of the blog. I can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you wish to receive regular postings (usually once/month) to this blog, register in the Announcement List space in the right-hand column, and you are automatically on the email blog list. This is a new system. Many of you have already registered.
The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent deaths in the desert. Information and contributions can be directed to: www.gvsamaritans.org
Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico. The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico. Their website is: www.kinoborderinitiative.org
The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands. Non-profit status is pending. Contact Bob Phillips at: email@example.com for more information.