The wind wasn’t stopped. Nor were the birds nor the waves. The sand was blown back and forth and the same plants grew on both sides. It was only the people who were prevented from crossing across the border.
I was with around 400 religious leaders from across the country last week just south of San Diego on the border between Mexico and the United States. It’s a unique spot where a twenty-foot high fence cuts the beach in half and goes down into the ocean. There were armed border patrol agents in combat gear. Other agents were on the hilltops with binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses. Multiple helicopters were in the sky at all times as well as one or two lower-flying drones. You could see people in Mexico through the slats of the fence.
We were gathered together to protest this administration’s anti-refugee practices and policies that, at that moment, meant there were thousands of people just on the other side of the border who were being prevented from crossing safely. If you only listened to what was coming out of the mouth of the US President, you’d be convinced that this was a group of “bad people,” “hardened criminals,” “diseased,” etc (these are actual quotes).
What we know is that most of these folks are fleeing the violence in their home countries that could be directly tied to the outcomes of US foreign policy. Just over the border in Mexico were families impoverished by these policies. They were desperate people seeking out a better life not hardened criminal seeking a way to take advantage of lack border security. These were people who were trying to figure out a way to save their lives and the lives of their families, not harm any of yours. They weren’t people seeking to create violence or harm but people seeking to escape it. People like many of our grandparents or your great-parents…
A week before we arrived to protest, these folks had been attacked with pepper spray and tear gas that was sprayed and sent in projectiles over the border. Although hundreds of eyewitnesses disagree, this was supposedly done in response to rock throwing or other acts of violence (at the very least, it was a very small number of folks engaging in this behavior). This moment has been referred to by some as an “attempted invasion” but they weren’t storming the ramparts. They were desperate people who had walked hundreds of miles out of desperation. They were people who were hungry and afraid and hurting. They were the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free. They were desperate and approached the border with desperation. If your family faced the same situation, what would you do?
And when they surged towards the border – children, infants, parents, refugees – we tear gassed them. We pepper sprayed them. I get the need for security. I understand the need for protection. But can you imagine if this had happened here? If – behind a few people throwing rocks – there were families, babies, and elderly folks can you imagine the police using massive amounts of pepper spray and tear gas? This wasn’t just an issue of an “accident,” either. The infants, the parents, the children, the elderly, the desperate there were not accidentally hit. They were targeted. They were targeted in the same way children were targeted in Birmingham with dogs and water hoses.
So, I and around 300 other religious folks gathered on December 10th in Border Field State Park south of San Diego. We had symbols around our necks and on our heads and in our hands on signs and placards that identified us from a wide variety of religious groups and cultural groups. After a press conference, we walked together and talked together for a while.
We found out where each other were from. I saw old friends I hadn’t seen in years. We showed each other pictures of our families and told our story about why we were that day. About 10% of those gathered were so moved that – when asked to step back from a sign on the sand that had been placed there to try and make conversation across the border impossible – they were arrested. Those of us who remained on the sand behind them applauded and clapped while singing songs of courage and encouragement to our colleagues and friends. These were people called to break federal law in order to say loudly; love is more important. Always. Love is more important.
And, on that day, we sang each other’s songs of hope, justice, and freedom. On that day, we chanted in languages we knew and languages that were unknown to us. On that day our voices were heard and like the wind, the birds and the water they all floated across the border and, at times, we heard applause. We heard some of the same words and the same songs float back.
That day, we were divided by the border but our spirits found a way through.