"In heaven, will God ask for papers?"

Friday, January 20, 2012

7th Grade Theologians

I have had the most interesting conversations about church with my middle schoolers lately.

The first conversation made me wonder about the "Catholic" identity here on the border. Given that most Mexicans would label themselves as "Roman Catholic," I expected to hear more testaments to the Catholic faith than what I have heard. In fact, at our monthly meetings that include most of the Christian churches and organizations in the downtown El Paso region, perhaps the smallest represented denomination present is Catholic.

While at a store in the mall with some of our middle school girls after an afternoon of bowling, a rack of necklaces caught the eye of one of the 7th graders. She was holding a cross necklace that very much resembled a rosary--it was pretty much the teenage hip version of a string of rosary beads. I commented on how pretty it was (it was a very appealing shade of turquoise), after which she responded, "Yeah it is, Miss, but I could never wear it. I'm a Christian." I made some sort of confused comment like, "Ok...but it's a cross...?" Only for her to look at me like, duh, this is for Catholics...not Christians.

Even today after a meeting with a woman who directs a center where many migrant women can take classes such as English, parenting, etc., she was explaining how yes, encouraging the women to become Christian is important, and Bible studies are even required, but that the organization's focus is not religious. But she did make a comment about how "only 20% of our women are Christian...cus the majority of them are Catholic."

Since when was Catholicism not a part of Christianity? I don't understand. It is such a fascinating understanding...or misunderstanding...of the Catholic faith.

Another conversation I had with some other middle school girls was more humbling than confusing. Recently I have been involved in organizing community members to give input in a recently presented community development bond. We invited many mothers to a meeting where they could give input on what they hope to see in their community. A couple 6th graders asked me about this meeting that their moms were going to go to after program that day, and after hearing me explain the bond, they lost interest very quickly, haha. Jokingly and slightly interested to see if I could regain their interest in the bond issue, I asked the girls, "Well, what would you like to see in your community?" After a few expected answers like more pools, bigger zoos, fewer school days, etc., one of them said "We need less churches...there are too many around here." and commented how on every street there seemed to be a church building. "They should all just go to one church."

What a revolutionary idea! This comment led to a discussion among us about denominational differences and how I don't think everyone would be willing or happy to go to just one same church altogether. The girls couldn't understand why. Church is church, right?

Differences in belief, tradition, and practice, and having a variety of faith communities in one region is a beautiful thing. Especially in a place like El Paso where I have seen wonderful ways folks of different traditions can work together to bring about change. But oh how wonderful it would be to have an innocent faith that just cannot grasp the idea of the necessity of having so many churches. And oh how much we can learn from such a faith.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

No Room at the Inn ... No Room in the country

A Christmas celebration featuring Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, Border Patrol, and a detained migrant.

Only in El Paso.

I had my first experience of celebrating the Posadas this past Christmas. Las Posadas is a commemoration of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus-in-the-womb's journey of finding a place to stay shortly before Jesus' birth.

I entered Cristo Rey (the church where we attended the posadas), expecting the same-old, same-old Christmas pageant-type performance that I was used to--cute little girls with crooked sparkly halos, voiceless shepherds who look so forlorn, and the typical proceeding of Mary and Joseph to the manger-side. Mind you, these were still elements included in the play (well, the shepherds showed a little bit of excitement for a change...), but before we cut right to the Star of the show, another story needed to be told.

I was delighted to see a few of my middle school kids up on the stage, taking roles in the play. But they were not dressed in robes or carrying staffs. Instead they were dressed in casual clothes, and sitting on a couch as though in their own living room. The scene began with a "typical" evening in the home of an El Pasoan family. The pre-teen and teenage kids were getting bored and bummed out that Mom and Dad are so busy all the time. They just want to go to church for Christmas!--is that too much to ask?! (Whatever teenager actually wants to go to church beats me.) As Mom tries to explain to them that they don't have the time, the scene cuts to the next scene, where Dad comes zooming in on a cart-made-car. Shortly behind him, though, is another "car" labeled "Police." He gets pulled over for speeding, but it doesn't take long for the policeman to recognize that this man does not have proper documentation, and with a quick phone call, we soon see the next "car" labeled "Border Patrol" zoom his way over.

Long story short, the man gets detained, his wife gets a phone call informing her of the news, and the family is worried that their father might not be able to spend Christmas with them, but perhaps more worried about the thought of being a separated family for who knows how long with the risk of him being deported.

But this story has a happy ending. The pastor of a friend's church helps the family find a lawyer, and the father is released from detention and allowed to spend Christmas with his family. Now, I wish I could say this story was entirely realistic. The parts including a simple traffic stop becoming a life-changing situation, a man being detained and separated from his family--those are the reality. Being let out of detention in time for Christmas, being able to spend the holidays worry-free--not so much reality.

I do not have much experience with detention centers, or even the process of deportation (my roommates handle those issues). But I have heard enough stories to know that it is NOT an easy process. I have friends, families I work with, neighbors, who live in constant fear. Parents won't send their kids to camp in fear of their child being stopped at a highway checkpoint. Parents won't sign their address on forms. Parents won't call the police to report abuse. All of these spur from the fear of "getting caught."

I don't care whether or not being "undocumented" is a crime... nobody should have to live in such fear.

I can't imagine how Mary and Joseph felt to be rejected as a guest at the inn, how difficult to make a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem must have been for Mary, a very expectant mother, or even the shame this unwed, pregnant teenager and her caring but confused Joseph must have experienced. But I can imagine those feelings of rejection, fear, and shame filling the lives and minds of the many people struggling to find a place to call "home," a place to be accepted--those crossing borders in search of a "better life." The reality of those we call "undocumented," "illegal," "alien" could be comparable to a wandering couple, looking for a safe place to deliver Hope.