Pilgrimage in the Desert
Post Submitted by Kye Flannery, Harvard Divinity School, MDiv ’13
Imagine walking through the desert for three to five days, carrying your most important belongings on your back, moving toward an uncertain future, moving from a past so economically bleak that somehow this walk seems like a necessary evil. There’s a crunch of gravel under your feet. You don’t rest — if you’re slow, you may be left behind, and in this no man’s land, nobody will know where to start looking for you.
Sometimes you come across things that other people have left behind — backpacks, clothing, food wrappers. If you’re lucky, about when you start to run out of the two gallons of water you can carry, you find a water station, set up by a humanitarian aid organization like the Samaritans. If you’re still luckier, it won’t be monitored by the border patrol, and your pilgrimage will continue.
This week I went with a delegation of Harvard Divinity School students to visit the Arizona/Mexico border. Our Tucson, Arizona-based host organization, BorderLinks, introduced us to local organizers and communities of faith, and brought us into Nogales, Mexico, to meet with migrants who had crossed the border, and to learn about organizations helping those who had been deported.
This trip, for me, has been a direct result of the time I spent with other UUs protesting SB1070 at the end of July 2010 — the Phoenix area UU congregations called for help, and Standing on the Side of Love responded to the call.
Now here I was, in Mexico, speaking to deportees about their experiences, witnessing their exhaustion and their anguish.
In shaky Spanish, I asked how they were, what had brought them to this border town, and what they hoped to do next. I didn’t want to pry. I was surprised to find that, having been through significant trauma, a number of the migrants wanted to talk. (A word they use in Mexico for talking about something difficult, sort of getting it off your chest, is desahogarse — it means literally “undrowning oneself.”) We heard about family members across the border, the kind of work they hope to get, their experience of deportation, and what their next move might be.
Many of the migrants were disoriented and depleted. Many had no money, not even for a phone call. Some had little hope of getting back into the States, but were planning to try to cross again. Others seemed to lean even harder on a faith that knew no boundaries — as one man, Victor Manuel, said, “God does not forget his children.” He planned to make his way to Juarez, a much more dangerous city than Nogales, and try his luck at border-crossing there. He showed me the phone numbers of his brother in Texas and his sister in Toronto, who have no idea where he is. The numbers were written inside a pocket-sized Bible, which he’s managed to keep with him, all the way from El Salvador. I promised I’d call and let them know where he is.
Our last day in Nogales, we do a short hike into the desert, on some of the trails used by migrants and the “coyotes,” the smugglers who bring people across the desert, sometimes stripping them of their valuables, sometimes leaving them in the desert to die or get picked up by the border patrol, sometimes delivering them safely to their destination.
Our group is somber. My feet crunch on the gravel, and shift in the sand. The sun beats down. Within minutes, the fine desert sand has filtered in through the fabric of my shoes and socks. We find a tattered sweatshirt that has been left behind in a tree.
Our guide tells us about the bodies of migrants that are sometimes found by hikers, and, looking at this harsh desert landscape, it is clear that many will never be found. The savage beauty of the desert outlines clearly the desperation in taking this route anywhere. What keeps the migrants going? The landscape doesn’t seem to change. How easy it would be to lose one’s way.
I find myself walking quite deliberately, mindfully, feeling each step, as if it is not only mine, as if I am tracing the footsteps of others. I am, in fact. I am walking in their footsteps. How do they come this far? Why do they risk life and limb?
We get to the top of an incline and stop.
Turning around, the valley is spread out below us, and, in the distance, homes, cars, greenery — wealth.
And I think, in the heat, of what it means to walk as a pilgrim in the desert, on a pilgrimage that could end in many kinds of tragedy — there are snakes and sharp cactus and havelina, and always the merciless sun. It’s a pilgrimage that could end in death. But, somewhere to the north, there’s a promised land.
What can I do, as someone who already lives in heaven?
One thing I can do is to step outside, to start to try to understand it from a distance, from the outside looking in.
We begin to walk back into the land of milk and honey, ready for dinner. But we do not walk alone, and when we look down at the valley, we do not look as only ourselves. Our eyes see double. The desert stays with us, in our eyes and in our feet. We step over the barbed wire as strangers in a strange land, as pilgrims who seek to wash the dust from their feet and find themselves arrived, to find themselves home.