EDITOR’S NOTE: Serving the Story looks back on the sixth week of the community service road trip, spanning from the border city of El Paso, Texas to the border city of Tucson, Arizona – with predictable results.
The service at Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian rolls around to the concerns of the people, and I’m expecting the usual: The pastor shares a few terse written notes on a folks facing difficulties, perhaps asks if anyone has anything to add, then, never having left the altar, moves on. Business taken care of.
Instead, the pastor, Alison Harrington, abandons the altar entirely, walks to the nearest person with a raised hand – and simply hands over the microphone.
The voice of the parishioner, unfiltered.
In more ways than we care to notice, Christian church services are bound by space and time. For some reason, the service is supposed to last an hour – although if you wind up a few minutes early, most folks aren’t complaining. Most sanctuaries, meanwhile, put folks in the same old shoebox – a raised platform at one end serving to separate those leading the service from the congregation; if the choir isn’t there, it usually commands its own perch in the back. As for the audience, very few brave the front row, and some even hide in the back.
Southside defies all of that. The church design is based on a circular Native American kiva, placing those leading the service near the center. Among other things, this means folks come up to greet her even as the service is about to start. Meanwhile, the advertised service is a whopping hour-and-a-half. Eve at that, we’re running long – at least 20 people share concerns and celebrations. Their combined voices take up more time than the pastor’s own sermon.
That sermon, meanwhile, reminds us that churches are also bound by other dimensions. It focuses on the story of Joseph, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery – “I don’t know why we teach this story to children,” she jokes – only to have that misfortune lead to him achieving prominence as an interpreter of dreams and a leader of his people.
She notes this is an example of God turning “the harm that was intended” into something good. In the same way, she argues, the racism of the white church led to the creation of a black church, which then became the backbone of the civil rights movement. Similarly, 108 years ago, the refusal of Arizonans to worship alongside Native Americans led to the creation of Southside Presbyterian.
The church is turning harm into good in a particularly dramatic fashion right now – it’s given sanctuary to Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, along with his wife and daughter. The church is doing so to keep the U.S. government from breaking up a family that’s been living, working, and paying taxes in this country for 14 years. The church is not only providing refuge, but also working hard with legal advocacy and publicizing the case nationally. Meanwhile, the church collaborates with No More Deaths, a brave – and physically fit – group that risks encounters with the border patrol, drug cartel smugglers, and numerous natural dangers to haul water into the desert, where it’s left to help prevent lost immigrants from dying in the wilderness. In addition to all this, the church is the launching point for this week’s 75-mile Immigrant Trail walk, a memorial pilgrimage to honor immigrants who died attempting to cross.
Like its altar, Southside Presbyterian is right in the middle of things – and, Rev. Harrington argues, that’s simply the church putting its “faith foot forward.” It’s not political; it’s just what family does for family.
The challenge is to expand our concept of our family – one that reaches beyond blood kinship and friendship to people we’ve never met. One No More Deaths volunteer, Amanda Rutherford, easily imagines the strangers from south of the border who are both desperate and in many cases misled, getting lost in the desert attempting to cross. She helps deliver water to leave along the ever-shifting routes, hiking with up to eight gallons, in addition to her own supply. Her first run, she and her partner found someone seemingly on the brink of death from dehydration; they contacted Border Patrol, but not before the man looked at her and her partner with a sense of gratitude and connection so profound, it still sticks with her. She’s since set aside her interests to apply for law school in order to impact immigration policy — but she still makes her share of trail hikes, imagining others wandering disoriented in the desert.
Four days and twice as many hours of driving ago, I met Ruben Garcia, leader of El Paso’s Annunciation House. He argued that we are far more connected to the poor of Mexico than we care to admit, both spiritually and economically; he agreed that one reason we hesitate to honor that connection is because we’re afraid of what it implies for our lifestyles. After we finished talking, I communed over lunch with four of his young staff, whom had come from various parts of the country to live and work at the house.
The next day, I drove a half hour farther from the border, across the state line to Chaparral, New Mexico – an unincorporated colonia where the Sisters of the Assumption have long worked to meet the needs of the poor. Amid the rows of trailer homes and desert earth, the sisters – with help from students and staff from my own employer, Assumption College back in Massachusetts – built their convent, a compound of straw-built homes. The Sisters are not only spiritually grounded, but environmentally savvy.
Like Annunciation House or Southside Presbyterian, the Sisters don’t rigidly define their mission. Again, like a family, the nuns deal with whatever comes up, big or small, from prison ministry and after-school programs to the woman who drove up as the Sisters were hosting a group of international students from Georgetown. The woman’s son had just been in a car accident and she wanted to sit in the small but airy chapel to pray; the sisters delayed their tour until the woman was finished.
The Sisters were so warm, hospitable, and even funny, they even made me, an outside, feel like part of that family. When you’re on the road, those moments of connection are particularly appreciated; six week on the road has me feeling cut off and aloof, relegated to the margins of every group you encounter, simply because everyone knows you’re moving on. You’re shockingly grateful when someone gives you a job to do; when a truck showed up to load forty-odd sacks of donated goods from the Annunciation House basement, I felt I was sweating out a couple of days’ worth of melancholy as I dragged sacks up the stairs. In those moments, I get to feel like I’m part of something bigger.
Something at least a little like, well, a family.
But being part of a family is about more than doing chores – even if those chores have both practical and symbolic power. The choice to extend our sense of family runs through everything from the ways we engage others and meet their needs to our lifestyle choices, right down to the absurd amount I’ve spent eating out even as I spent the day interviewing folks who have taken vows of poverty.
Like this community service road trip in general, my journey toward a more deeply integrated sense of family has thousands of miles to go. How will I apply this to how I live my life as I go – and my life back in Worcester, if the car I’ve nicknamed Guzzler manages to get me back there? I’m not sure yet. But whatever change is inspired,it’ll be due in part to the example of folks like Southside Presbyterian and No More Deaths, Annunciation House and the Sisters of the Assumption.
And others like them still waiting ahead, just beyond the horizon.