Friday, April 18, 2014

Praying with our feet

                On Monday I joined others from our community on the first leg of a Holy Week pilgrimage to honor immigrants.  We started at the Church of the Holy Cross Catholic Church in Atlanta and walked three miles to the Church of the Open Table into Chamblee, an Atlanta suburb. 
This walk, a call to pray with our feet, began six years ago by members of the Alterna community in LaGrange, GA and now has several hundred participants and the support of many local congregations.  Each day of Holy Week people remember Jesus’ last days leading to his crucifixion and carry in prayer our brothers and sisters who, like Jesus and our ancestors, are immigrants.  Every year the procession is led by an immigrant who carries a wooden cross.  The cross this year had the names of children whose lives were directly affected by our detention and deportation system. 
After morning Mass a few dozen walkers gathered outside in front of the church.  Anton Flores read the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers.  He pointed to Jeremiah 7 where the Lord demands that we not rob the outcast, the orphan, the widow, the strangers among us of their dignity.  He challenged us to consider this question:  If we separate justice from worship are we turning our houses of worship into robbers dens?  You can read his reflection here.
We then formed a line and walked two by two along the narrow sidewalk past the strip malls and highways that could be anywhere in the United States.  Two police officers followed us to provide protection as we crossed the streets in safety.  Just this morning I heard this story on NPR that a man who  had lived and worked in the US for eleven years was arrested in LA and deported.  His crime: jaywalking.  During the Holy Week pilgrimage immigrants cross the street with police protection.  On most days, many of our sisters and brothers cannot casually cross the street in this land without fear.
I brought my four year old daughter.  Our neighbors also came along with their two young children.  Their daughter had just injured her ankle and couldn’t walk so they brought the double stroller.  They carried their one year old in a back pack so that my daughter could hitch a ride.  Since we had a stroller and rain was in the forecast, I went ahead and brought umbrellas, raincoats and water.  Before I had kids I used to look disdainfully at four year-olds being pushed in strollers like royalty.  But I knew we couldn’t keep pace with a large group of adults in normal weather and knew it would be even harder if it rained.  Here we were pushing our children and all our extra gear while the people around us walked empty handed.  My daughter walked for part of the way but soon her legs grew weary and we fell to the very back of the line while I carried her.  I imagined doing this in the desert, without water, with invisible prickly pear thorns in my ankles and doubted that we would be able to keep up.  I thought of all the mothers who make the journey across the border with young children without strollers, coffee, diapers, sippy cups, cell phones, snack trays, sunscreen, umbrellas or toys.  All they carry is an eight ounce plastic water bottle and hope for a better life.

We travelled to Atlanta in a fifteen passenger van.  Even though it was only a two hour ride, when we needed to use the bathroom we stopped.  For those who make it safely across the border on foot the next leg of the journey for many is to be smuggled from the border to a city in the interior.  This could mean being packed like sardines into the cab of a pickup or the back of a truck and told to be still and quiet while the truck drives, non-stop to its destination.  My bladder can’t stand the thought of a 9 hour drive, with kids, without a pit stop.   That is why they are told not to eat or drink before the trip.  This is what people will go through to work in chicken plants, pick our fruit and vegetables, clean our messes, keep us bringing home cheap bacon.
We stop  in the parking lot of a Mexican supermarket.   A young woman with a guitar and nails in her ears greets us with a smile and sings praise songs in Spanish.  Those who are able sing along.  My daughter later tells me that her “best day was the lady with the guitar.”
We arrive at the church and are served bread and soup.  Just as it is time to go home the sky opens and  the rain that waited so we could walk on dry ground, begins to pour.
Yesterday, on Maundy Thursday other members of our community joined in the 8 mile leg of the pilgrimage.  About 250 people walked through the city of Atlanta.  The walk ended with a ceremonial foot washing.  Twelve US Citizens were given the honor of washing the feet of twelve immigrants.

On the night that Jesus was betrayed he said to his disciples, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15)

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Lent 2014
In the early morning rush of waking sleepy heads, making breakfast, washing dishes, packing lunches the radio announces that the violence in Central African Republic has risen to such extremes that children are being decapitated.  I quickly turn off the kitchen radio.  I can’t bear to listen to the report that will follow those words.  I can’t bear for my children to hear or to try and calculate answers to the questions that would follow this knowledge.
I close my eyes and picture her sweet flower of a face, the dimpled grins of her three older brothers, the sweet new baby smell of her newborn brother, the scarred and broken body of her father, and the gentle long suffering smile of her mother.  They never told me of the hell they left behind, only of their thankfulness.
I deadhead the daffodils.  The brittle blooms crumble in my palms.  It is easy to destroy something that is already dead.  My children try to help and bring me fistfuls of bright yellow blooms too short to fit in a vase.  The flowers are wasted.  I get angry over flowers picked too soon.
Children are being decapitated in Central African Republic.  The reports say that many of the killers are Christians avenging family members who were killed by Muslims.  It is easy to destroy something that is already dead.  What does it take to kill one’s love for neighbor, one’s love for children?  How can life return to a nation where death has spread like cancer to the brain? 
During Lent we have been singing this song each Sunday:
Lamb of God you take away, take away the sins of the world.  Grant us your peace.
Lamb of God you take away, take away the sins of the world.  Have mercy on us.
My husband reminds me that “the sins of the world” are not only my short temper but these unthinkable, unspeakable acts of violence that Jesus has forgiven.
My six year old daughter asks me, “Mommy, how old do you have to be to be in a war?” 
“People don’t get to choose.  If war comes to them, it affects the whole community.”
“But how old do you have to be to fight in a war, like a soldier?”
I picture the child soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and other kidnapped children around the world forced to murder and maim.  What is the word for raped, drugged and drunk ten year-olds with machetes and AK-47s? Not soldiers.  Zombies?  I don’t give a full answer to her questions, because I know that at some point she will ask again and she will know and not be able to erase that knowledge of stolen childhood.
“In our country you have to be eighteen.” 
After a long, thoughtful pause, “So people could die when they are eighteen?  That is so young!” 
We visit our friends who got out of Central African Republic alive and now reside in an apartment complex near Atlanta.  We come to greet their fifth child, a son.  When their family stayed at our community they announced that mother was pregnant by singing a song of joy.  They named him, Bienvenue, Welcome.  When I walk up the stairs and into their quiet bedroom I am shocked to find not mother and baby but father alone in bed.  The same week that baby was born, father’s left eye and most of a malignant tumor had been removed his head.  The part of the tumor that touched a nerve on his brain could not be removed.  Doctors had taken skin from his leg and stitched it onto his face as a flesh eye patch.  He had needed a tracheotomy during surgery so his throat was bandaged.  With a grim prognosis-unable to walk, half blind, barely able to speak or eat- his body, like some ancient prophet, was a map of his wounded homeland.  My children want to come up and see the baby but I tell them no.  I go to the children so my husband can come with empty hands to give our friend the only gift he has to offer. He lays his hands upon him and prays.

Our sons kick a soccer ball in the parking lot and balance on a brick wall.  Our daughters find a garland of fake sunflowers.  They snap the blossoms off the plastic stem and crown the new big sister’s head with blooms.
At the end of a sunset walk my six year old is in tears.  Her fists are clenched and her face red hot.  She is enraged and indignant because her friend had just told her she is not strong.  We walk through the dance of talking it out; “When you said this, I felt that.  Please don’t do it again”  “I’m sorry”  “I forgive you.” Terse apologies are spoken.  They turn away from one another and go home into the descending dark.  I wonder if this practice will make them into blessed peacemakers when the stakes are higher?  My daughter wails with disappointment over their tenuous truce, “My birthday wish did not come true!  All I wanted was peace in the world.” 
My nine year old picks the only pink hyacinth in the yard.  I flush with anger.  I am enraged - over a picked flower.

It is Sunday morning.  The news does not rest.   In Central African Republic a mother grieves.  She told a reporter that two of her children were killed on their way to church.
It is another glorious sunset.  The sky a garment of pink and lavender.  My daughter holds a fluffy white dandelion head in her hand.  “Mama, let’s wish on it together so that it will come true.”  I wonder what our wish will be. Her hand on the nape of my neck , her voice soft and patient in my ear.  Had I already forgotten? “Peace in the world.”  We blow with all our might until the last black fleck is gone.   She grabs my hand in triumph, “Our wish will come true!”
At dawn I open the door to dark shadows on our welcome mat.  The cat has left an offering - a disemboweled and decapitated mouse.  Its parts evenly spaced on the mat.  Head.  Body.  Entrails.  The cat rubs against me with pride.  I lift the mat in disgust and carry his offering to the compost heap.  Cotton candy clouds of dawn speak only of beauty above the carnage.
My mother calls for advice about talking with children about the crucifixion.  Do they need to hear about the nails?  Of all punishments in that time and place this was the worst.  Worse than being fed to the lions.  Worse than decapitation.  Do they need to know how much pain he took upon himself? The time will come when they will know and will not be able to un-know.  For now, let them know they are loved.  Let them know of the empty tomb and of Jesus calling Mary by her name and asking, “Why are you weeping?”  
Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.
Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world.  Grant us your peace.