This is the second in a series of stories from a recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. If you missed the first, please read it here. My attempt at telling these stories is not to speak for those that we met living in the borderlands – or the hundreds of thousands of others experiencing similar things – but to share what I experienced and the ways that it is already beginning to shape me.
During our border delegation experience in Agua Prieta, we as outsiders were continuously welcomed in to the lives, homes, and businesses of those that we met. We were welcomed in with smiles and hugs and something to eat and drink. We were generously welcomed to stay at the local church and provided with warm showers and beds to sleep in. People shared with us everything they had without hesitation, and for this, I am so thankful.
One particular dinner stands out to me, not because it was incredibly different or life-changing – but in fact the opposite. It was incredibly normal, yet embodied one of the truest spirits of radical hospitality that I have witnessed.
This particular evening, we were welcomed into the home of a young couple, who are heavily involved in the Presbyterian church in which we were staying. Our hosts were probably in their early thirties, with a young, shy daughter, who would peek out at us every once in a while as she called to one of her parents. Our group of about 15 squeezed through the door and around the tables in the main room of the house, where we were served a delicious lentil soup topped with cilantro and onions. As we filled our stomachs with the warm soup, we listened to stories of their journeys and what it’s like to live right on the border, in the shadow of the wall that is featured in our headlines daily.
While our female host had lived in Agua Prieta for her whole life, her husband had not. Originally from Chiapas, in the southernmost part of Mexico, he had also lived in the U.S. for a period of time. His life in Chiapas had not been easy, so as a young man, he’d decided that he would come to the U.S. in order to make a better life for himself and his family.
As we listened, I could hear the reluctancy in his voice as he struggled with how to share his experience as an unauthorized immigrant in the U.S. with a group of people from that very same country. In his carefully chosen words, our host described his experience in the U.S., and that of others in the same situation, as feeling like prison – whether you were being detained in an immigration center or not. Worried about getting caught without paperwork as well as not being able to speak any English, he only went out of the house to go to work, and then he returned straight home afterwards. His life was filled fear, which was not at all unwarranted. One day, this life he was slowly building for himself came crashing down when his fears were realized. The truck he and other workers were riding in was pulled over for a broken tail light. The stories he’d heard, about others that looked like him getting pulled over, often times with little to no valid reason, was happening to him. He was the only one in the truck without valid papers.
From this point on, as he entered into I.C.E. custody and on to a detention center, our country treated him even more like a prisoner. He spoke even less about his time in the detention center, stating instead that it was such a terrible experience that he requested to be deported after a few months. At least in Mexico, he would be free to continue on with his life.
Despite the heaviness of this conversation, our dinner still felt more like we were reuniting with old friends. Our hosts were quick to remind us that despite it all, their lives are normal. They are happy, they are grateful, and they are content with being together in their community.
In welcoming us – a group of American citizens – into their home, I was struck by their generosity and love. Despite the painful and difficult treatment that he had faced in our country, he welcomed us in. As I talked about in Part 1 of this series, we are representatives of the United States of America and need to understand our role in this. Afterall, the border wall is being constructed to protect us, right?
Just like our American society and policies subject unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. to a life driven by fear, we also seem to have constructed our immigration system around fear and a desire to protect ourselves from anyone that looks different or might threaten our “American” way of life.
That night in Agua Prieta, I was reminded of an important lesson from our dinner hosts about how we can better love our neighbors – by opening up our doors and hearts and inviting them into our homes and our lives. It might take some vulnerability and bravery, but true love knows no borders. Let’s choose welcome, not fear.
2019 is just beginning, and I hope that this fresh start will allow us the time and courage to review our immigration policies and to boldly encourage our elected officials to do the same. Whether they be unauthorized immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, or those who have a different skin/hair/eye color, let’s work on loving all of our neighbors fearlessly and faithfully advocating for more humanity, compassion, and justice amongst our society.
As I think about how I can break from my comfort zone to extend radical hospitality to those in my communities, just as I experienced in Agua Prieta, I am reminded of this quote, one that has been important to me throughout my travels:
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”– Maya Angelou