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Mercy Moments: Episode Seven

*The following episode contains anecdotes from an old friend.  Due to the nature of his status in the United States, all identifying information has been redacted.

Mercy Moments: Our lives are dripping with mercy.  Indeed, our world is drenched in it.

He doesn’t like the heat. It reminds him of the desert — once a place that held great promise and opportunity, it now acts only as a reminder of trauma and fear. 

“Was it worth it?  How could it have been worth it?”  I wonder as we move into the shade and continue our walk.

He tells me he was only 17 years old the first time he traveled North.  Growing up in a “survival culture”, it makes sense that his parents encouraged him to leave home in this way.  Lacking options, he felt compelled to leave.  He wasn’t the first in his family and he wouldn’t be the last.  In fact, at this point, it’s impossible to count the number of people he’s known who have traveled North like he did.  They traveled through the desert, mountains, and rivers. 

They traveled on foot, in trucks, and on boats or rafts.  They’ve been helped by family and strangers alike, by paid guides, future border patrol officers, and good Samaritans along the way.  They’ve been weighed down by the things they carried, and they’ve had to turn around when they didn’t carry enough.

As a kid, he used to love bologna sandwiches.  Now they remind him of the detention center at the border.  So, he smothers the sandwich with mustard – a condiment not provided while in detention – and continues to eat.  He tells me the first time he encountered Border Patrol; it was purposeful.  He knew he couldn’t keep up with the group, so he sought out the tracks of the CBP trucks and remained there signaling at security cameras, begging for help.  Eventually a truck would arrive, but as he waved it down, it swerved to avoid hitting him and continued on its way.  Hours later a second truck would pick him up and bring him to the detention center.

Another attempt at crossing involved walking for seven days in the desert.  By the third day the group’s food and water stores had been completely depleted and they began to drink from any puddle or stream they could find.  He became so sick, the group decided to leave him hidden in the brush to cover their own tracks.  He remembers lying there, scratching at the loose earth because it was cooler underneath the surface.  He fell asleep in the dirt.  When he woke, he cried out, but he knew there was no one near enough to save him.  This time, there were no vehicle tracks, no surveillance cameras.  He passed out.  When he woke again, he was in a hospital, never knowing how he had been discovered.

Was it worth it?  How could it have been worth it?

During the first Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus being led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days.  Just as Jesus prepared for his public ministry with prayer and fasting, we too have been invited by the Spirit to set aside time to be with the God of our hearts and to prepare ourselves for the work of the resurrection. 

Two metaphors often used in Lenten prayer and reflection are journey and desert.  While this imagery is clearly taken from scripture and echoes Jesus’ experiences, the present-day journeys through the desert made by migrants and asylum seekers might offer additional points of reflection, particularly moving us towards greater compassion for both ourselves and others.  

Throughout my career in ministry and now in immigration legal services, I have met countless people who have made the journey North through the desert.  Although commonalities exist, what leads each person into the desert is as varied as the individuals themselves.  While every story is unique, common reasons include gang violence, government corruption, domestic violence, LGBTQ discrimination, state violence, extreme poverty, a lack of options and opportunities, pursuit of family reunification, and the desire for “a better life”.

Understanding people’s stories can help us grow in compassion as we recognize the universal desires for safety, security, freedom, opportunity, and the very best for our families. And it’s certainly not only applicable to how we relate to the issue of immigration in the United States and, even more importantly, how we relate to immigrants themselves.  Understanding an individual’s motivations behind their choices and actions can help us in all our relationships and encounters with others. 

Of course, we can’t possibly obtain this kind of background knowledge for everyone we encounter, let alone for everyone we see on the news or follow on social media.  And that’s just one of the reasons I’m continually drawn back to the wisdom of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius wrote retreat directives in his book, The Spiritual Exercises, for both the guide and the retreatant.  In the directive known as “The Presupposition”, Ignatius, in so many words, reminds us that we should be eager to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, to ask questions to deepen our understanding rather than to accuse or debate, and ultimately to correct in a loving manner if we do find that someone’s words or actions were in some way thoughtless or even harmful. 

So, whether it’s the migrants journeying through the desert attempting to enter the U.S. without documentation, or the politicians who in recent months have bussed asylum seekers across the country to make a point, or your co-workers, or a stranger at the grocery store, or even your own spouse; Ignatius would encourage us to lovingly seek to understand one another.  Or at the very least, give people a chance.

The work of the resurrection is to build up a community that is grounded in the love which led Jesus into the desert to pray – the same love which led him out of the desert and into his ministry of connecting with those who were lacking connection, those who were misunderstood, and those who needed to be lovingly challenged.  As the end of our Lenten journeys draws near, may we reflect on both Jesus’ time in the desert and the migrants in the desert arriving at our border this very day, recognizing that both are inviting us to build up a community of kinship and compassion. 

May our journeys be worth it.