My Trip to The Border (Operation Streamline)

My Trip to The Border (Operation Streamline)

A unique perspective from a past Border Witness participant.


More than a trip to Tucson, ours was a pilgrimage to the Mexican American border, and an experience that has shaken me to my core.  

One day after coming back from the desert walk, we went to a court to witness Operation Streamline.

Let me tell you this: when I entered that criminal court my heart was pounding. We saw 70 people captured in the desert by border patrol brought there, as the most heinous criminals, briefly released from their shackles to face a judge. Their crime was to cross from Mexico undocumented. As an immigrant myself, I feel uneasy, to say the least, because the rule of law, a system that is temporarily protecting me during my forced exile from my country, is the same used to condemn so many people, and they are my people too.

An hour into the proceedings and it wasn’t my heart but my brain that was pounding. What we witnessed was a very mechanical process, which was not designed to generate surprises or justice. The judge read the charges with the monotony of a rosary prayer,  while “the sinners” always responded with a sad dimmed voice: “culpable, guilty, culpable…” Using on average less than 2 minutes for each defendant, the judge condemned all of them to time, as always happen (except for this time one was sent to immediate deportation). Streamline judges have sentenced many legitimate asylum seekers, people with legal reasons to be here (and even some permanent residents and citizens). Just there is not enough time for them to present their cases.  

It was striking that everybody in the courtroom was so amicable. I am sure that later that day, every lawyer, agent, and even the judge went home to dinner with their kids or to watch tv and Netflix at home. They might not see it this way, but they work in a factory line that processes people as sausages, most of them innocents, sending them to jail, and then back to their countries, to their desperation, sometimes to circumstances of unjust persecution, to be tortured or killed. But these officers were not monsters; they were doing their job.  

In that instant came to my mind the trials of Adolf Eichmann in Israel as reported by Hannah Arendt, the philosopher that penned the concept of the Banality of Evil. At that time, most people regarded Eichmann as an evil monster, he was after all the father of the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews. But Arendt wasn’t most people: Eichmann didn’t strike to her as a particularly evil man but as a good bureaucrat. He clung to the idea that he was unable “to change anything” and that he was doing his job, obeying the law. That way Eichmann was not only claiming innocence but discrediting the idea that the Nazi criminals were psychopaths, different from us, from “normal” people. He was just a good citizen.

But he didn’t trick Arendt. What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. She didn’t conclude that situations such as the Holocaust can make ordinary people commit horrible crimes given specific contexts and incentives. And I am not equating Operation Streamline (that is the managerial name given to this unjust system) to the Holocaust, but stressing that in both situations the streamline judge, and the border patrol in Tucson – as Eichmann in Nazi Germany— were voluntarily following the principle of authority. But they forgot to apply another principle of the law: that of reciprocity, the golden rule. They decided to apply the law even if it was unjust. I can see that there is a substantial moral distance between the Final Solution and Operation Streamline. But shouldn’t there also exist a substantial moral distance between a totalitarian regime in the 20th century and democracy in the 21st? Today more clearly than in the past the moral choice between good and evil belongs to the individual. The voter, the politician, the legislator, the executioner chooses the ax and nobody can blame society for its own decisions. All our choices have political consequences even when the chooser seems politically powerless.

I’ll leave you with Hannah Arendt:

“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Don’t let the streamline judge, the border patrol, or the legislator to trick you. Don’t be as most people. Don’t comply, don’t be accomplices.

~ R

 

The Nuns I Always Wanted To Meet

The Nuns I Always Wanted To Meet

“Do I call them ‘Sister?’” My co-worker and I were settling our things into our assigned room at the convent. The air was hot and muggy, something I felt acutely as I was still in that heightened state of awareness that you feel your first moments in a new land. I had technically been to Honduras before, but everything felt new. “I dunno,” my colleague answered (she had been raised Catholic as well). “It’s kinda weird one way or the other.”

Two UUSC colleagues and I were in Honduras to be part of an accompaniment trip to support our partners/human rights activists returning to Honduras (written about much more clearly here). I had never been a part of an accompaniment trip before and felt out of my element for so many reasons: I do not consider myself a human rights expert; I am not an expert on Central American history nor international relations; I had never been a part of interfaith circles before; I knew this trip was going to be emotionally intense in ways that I was not prepared for. My background is in experiential education and I am perhaps too comfortable in the role of the facilitator–I get to (too often) lead and direct group emotional processes to a carefully thought out pedagogical question and thus open up a space for cognitive “awakening.” Sweet. But when faced with the personal stories of state-sanctioned torture and terror, what in the hell do you do with that? When faced with the deepest stories of both human hate and resilience, where can you emotively go?

Gina and the interfaith accompaniment delegation she traveled with in Honduras.

Our group was comprised of various human rights activists of various faiths. In particular, there were four nuns that I found myself keenly interested in. Would they be like the nuns of my catholic school childhood? Would they be like the nuns from the pueblo that I lived in during Peace Corps who, try as I might, I couldn’t make friends with (I remember angrily muttering to myself, ‘Doesn’t your religion compel you to be friendly?!’)”

I was standoffish during the delegation’s first morning worship. I am pretty open minded, but I didn’t know if this would be a journey back to the robot-like “praying” of 2nd grade. To my delight, instead of an authoritative dictatorship over my spiritual process (whoa, catholic school, leave your mark much?), Sister Mary Ellen lead us in bodywork. We did Tai-Chi. “Holy shit,” I thought, “this lady is really good at creating a mind-body connection.” Moreover, I could feel that this integrated fully with her deep understanding of her own Catholicism. And it wasn’t just her. When Sister Rosa Maria spoke about her work in Honduras, I could palpably feel both her toughness and love. (“I wouldn’t mess with her,” Jose, our delegation leader would say.) I felt the presence Sister Ann could bring sitting next to someone who was deeply grieving and afraid, I felt the strength that Sister Kathleen emoted as she lead a group of us (after hearing some of the hardest stories I had ever heard) to hold hands. She guided us to reconnect to spirit. She knit something back together. She held us together in community.

This isn’t saying that I’m returning to Catholicism. I’m not. But I know when I am in the presence of something good, I know when I am in the presence of people who have faced themselves and done their own work. Honduras was hard in a way that I don’t know how to write openly about, because I am afraid that I won’t do it justice–I don’t know where I end and it begins. I feel guilt that it was hard; I felt deep emotions during the journey, and then I got to leave. I feel embarrassed about how unequipped I was to hold it all. I feel anxiety about not knowing about how to move forward. I find myself reexamining my life choices up to now and asking myself, “With all that I know that is unjust in this world, have I done enough?”

But then I breathe and I remember. I think Sister Mary Ellen would say to let my emotions come. They are each a friend and have something to teach me. I think Sister Rosa Maria has her doubts and fears, too. I bet Sister Anne had to learn how to be present amidst pain. I’m sure Sister Kathleen doesn’t always feel strong.

After sitting and listening to a group of men tell their stories of being beaten, imprisoned, terrorized, and caged, we all stood in a circle. Sister Kathleen lead us in what I think was the most powerful prayer I have ever heard. We went around the circle and simply stated a word that gave us hope (or courage or something like that, to be honest I don’t remember the details). And then she lead the group in a song that most people knew the words to and people sang together. After crying, and still afraid, they sang.

We then had our own moment as a delegation to stand in a circle and be. I remember thinking, “I don’t know how to hold this, I don’t know how to hold this.” We gave time so that those of us who wanted to speak could speak. The responses varied from rage to sorrow to silence to everything in between. And as I stood there, I finally realized: I don’t need to know how to hold this. I cannot hold this as one person. We have to hold it together.

During one of our worships we had a chance for silent reflection. I think there was a prompt–I forget what that prompt was. But one of the sisters, at the end of the time, pointer to herself and said, “My body.” She then pointed to the group of us sitting in a circle and said, “My body.” And then she pointed to the greater environment and said, “My body.” I am so grateful to have finally met the nuns that I always wanted to meet. They were not able to give answers or make the horror of the world go away. But by the simple example of their presence and their persistence, they gave me a bit more strength to have faith in what could be, they helped me feel what true community might feel like, and they helped me to stay present in something I didn’t want to stay present in.

My body.

My sisters.

 

Gina Collignon is responsible for planning, developing, and supporting the UU College of Social Justice’s experiential learning programs. As the Senior Associate for Immersion Learning Programs, Collignon designs travel programs that connect participants to activists and change-makers in new environments so that participants can leave inspired to join related social justice campaigns in their home communities.
Join Us To Flood The Desert!

Join Us To Flood The Desert!

JOIN US TO FLOOD THE DESERT!
DIRECT ACTION IN ARIZONA, AUGUST 3-6, 2018

Leaders from the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice will be Flooding the Desert with Faith in August. Join Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray (President of the UUA), Rev. Mary Katherine Morn (President of UUSC), Rev. Kathleen McTigue (Director of the UU College of Social Justice) and Rachel Freed (Vice President and Chief Program Officer of UUSC) from August 3rd to the 6th in Arizona for this important action! Read Susan and Mary Katherine’s letter below for more information.


Dear Colleagues,

We are sending this letter to UU ministers and Directors of Religious Education to ask that you consider joining us for a specific resistance action planned for this August 3-6 in Tucson, AZ, called Flood the Desert. This is a strategic act of resistance in response to criminal charges being levied against activists whose humanitarian actions have been focused on saving the lives of migrants who are often lost in the desert.

Many of you will have heard of No More Deaths, a volunteer group that works along the rugged Arizona/Mexico border. It is a program affiliated with the UU Church of Tucson, AZ, and a partner organization of UUSC. Over the past decade, No More Deaths volunteers have hiked the migrant trails leaving water caches; staffed a first aid tent in the desert for migrants who are wounded or ill; and helped recover remains of hundreds who have lost their lives – marking the places with memorial shrines.

Nine volunteers with No More Deaths now face federal misdemeanor charges, and one faces felony charges, for their humanitarian assistance. These excessive charges are part of an escalating strategy to criminalize activism. They are meant to intimidate citizens away from dissent. In response, we are asking ministers and other religious leaders to join us in early August and Flood the Desert.

In an action of direct civil disobedience, religious leaders will assert the right to offer humanitarian aid by stocking water caches and in so doing, challenging the government’s utter disregard for the most basic human rights.

Our purpose in this action is three-fold. First, to call attention to the escalating injustice of US policies toward migrants in order to inspire others to raise their voices. Second, to act in solidarity with the volunteers facing criminal charges for living out their religious mandate to welcome and care for the stranger. And third, to raise the call of our faith traditions as an act of resistance against the cruelty and violence that dominate US policy and actions.

If you are able and willing to join us, please follow the link above to register.

In faith and solidarity,

 

Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray                                                 Rev. Mary Katherine Morn

President, UUA                                                                    President, UUSC

Lenten Reflection, Honduras

Praying the “stations of the cross” is a longstanding Lenten tradition all over the Christian world, during which believers are reminded of the last moments Jesus lived through as he carried his own cross to the crucifixion. Throughout Latin America, the Way of the Cross, or Via Crucis, is often an elaborate procession, during which a life-sized cross – usually made intentionally heavy – is carried to each inflection point of prayer.

Via Cruces Cross being carried in HondurasThe Via Crucis we followed last month in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, was different. It demonstrated vividly the power and peril faced by those whose deepest faith compels them to stand up against oppression. The cross they carried was covered with words —  poverty, violence, hatred, murders, torture, imprisonment – naming explicitly the weight the people carry, under the repressive presidency of Juan Orlando Hernandez. Those in the procession also carried 34 smaller crosses, each one bearing the name of a person who had been shot and killed by security forces in the past two months, since the fraudulent election that ensures Hernandez will continue in power.

I was in Honduras as one of 50 faith leaders who responded to a call for accompaniment, issued by religious and human rights leaders whose lives are in increased jeopardy as they continue to voice their indignation and opposition.  Our Via Crucis was allowed to proceed without interference. But later that day, and throughout our week in Honduras, we witnessed peaceful protests violently dispersed by members of the police and military.

This violence in all of its forms is the very real and present cross that our Honduran siblings carry every day. It is carried as well by human rights champions in El Salvador and Guatemala, and by the thousands of men, women, and children who are driven from all three countries to the deeply perilous path they follow north. If they make it across the US border, the migrants carry the weight of detention, actual or feared, and the uncertainty that shadows each moment.

In this Lenten season, as I remember the Via Crucis in which I participated in Honduras, I am thinking about what parts of the cross are mine to carry as a citizen of the United States. The teargas, water cannons, and live ammunition I saw used in Honduras are all products of the USA. In a very real sense, the Honduran government itself is a result of the approval and recognition our nation offered in the wake of the 2009 military coup, and offered again this past November in recognizing fraudulent elections. I want to stay awake to these truths. It’s by staying awake that we can find ways to act to shift US policy, and thereby shift the weight of the cross from the shoulders that have carried it for far too long.

Letter From Susan Frederick-Gray to Religious Professionals

Letter From Susan Frederick-Gray to Religious Professionals

Dear Colleagues,

As we enter a new year, we are more determined than ever to mobilize our UU communities around the core justice values that make our faith so relevant to the current political moment.

Among these core values is our commitment to the worth and dignity of each person, which leads us to resist laws and policies that treat some people as disposable.

Migrants are particularly vulnerable today, not only in border states but all over our country. And one of the best ways I know of for you as a religious leader to galvanize your own ministry toward migrant justice is to travel with the UU College of Social Justice on their Border Witness Journey for ministers and religious educators.

Kathleen McTigue, Susan Frederick-Gray and Religious Professionals Walking the migrant trails

Kathleen McTigue, Susan Frederick-Gray and Religious Professionals Walking the migrant trails

I know the power of this program first hand: I joined the 2014 journey, and found enormous support and benefit for my own ministry through the chance to travel, reflect, pray, and strategize with other religious leaders. The next program runs this coming May 8-12, and I hope you’ll be able to join it!

You can learn more and register by March 1st, 2018 at www.uucsj.org/theologyandmigration/

Thank you.

Susan
President of the Unitarian Universalist Association

 

Answering the Call for Solidarity and Action in Honduras

Answering the Call for Solidarity and Action in Honduras

In early January I received an email that began with these words:

We are writing you on behalf of Padre Melo, the Jesuit priest who has accompanied the Honduran people for more than 20 years. He is appealing to the international community for an emergency delegation: “We need you to organize people who will accompany us, witness what is happening here, and share it with the world”.

The Honduras presidential election last November has widely been condemned as fraudulent. Since then, people throughout the country have poured into the streets in peaceful protests that have often been met with lethal violence from the state.

The hope in sending an international delegation to Honduras is that our presence will shine a spotlight on the struggle and amplify the voices of those who are being ignored and silenced. UUSC has long been a champion of Honduran human rights groups, supporting our grassroots partners financially and working to lift up the stories and urgency behind their struggles. This brief journey of accompaniment is another way for our organization to show the Honduran people that they are not alone.

I decided almost immediately that I would answer Padre Melo’s call and join the emergency delegation, which departs Wednesday, January 24. While I have never been there before, I have heard of Padre Melo and the courageous work he and many other Hondurans are engaged in to advance fundamental human rights. I also know about the decades of financial and military support our own country has sent to the Honduran government, despite their many human rights violations. And, I believe that under the Trump administration, the thousands of people who try to flee the violence in Honduras are even less likely than before to find asylum here in the United States.

My desire to join the delegation is fueled by multiple interests. I’m driven by my commitment to human rights, as well as my sense of moral compromise as a U.S. citizen—knowing my own country has helped foment the violence from which it refuses to shelter those who flee. But I am also compelled by my faith: by the core values of Unitarian Universalism that remind me we are never really separate from one another. Our interdependent web links us to struggles for human rights and dignity, wherever they occur, and pulls us compellingly, relentlessly, to act as we are able to mitigate harm.

I believe in the power of prayer as a way to ground ourselves and to center our awareness on those who live daily in harm’s way. So, I ask you to pray for the people of Honduras, holding them in mind and heart, and to act on your prayers and concern by speaking out for the rights of those most at risk. I will have more to tell you on my return January 30, but for now I hope you will join me on this journey in spirit, by learning more about what is happening and preparing yourselves to answer future calls to support this critical human rights struggle.


For more information about how you can help, please read the press release from the Emergency Interfaith Delegation to Honduras