"In heaven, will God ask for papers?"

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Immigrant Posadas

Advent here on the border means a time to celebrate Las Posadas. The Posadas commemorate divinely pregnant Mary and her escort Joseph in search of Posada, meaning "inn" or "lodging" as Mary comes due to give birth to the Christ child. The usual Posada celebration includes people dressed as the nativity characters, who search for shelter, travelling from building to building, home to home, or, in our case since it was cold outside, from one group of people to another group within the sanctuary. Through song, the humble family requests to be let in--to be given posada as the birth draws near--and we witness a back-and-forth dialogue with the holy family and the innkeeper(s). With their first three requests, they are denied:

En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.

In the name of Heaven
I ask of you shelter,
For my beloved wife
Can go no farther.

Aquí no es mesón,
sigan adelante
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.

There's no inn here,
Go on with you,
I can't open up
You might be a rogue.

Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret.
Yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.

We're weary from traveling
from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter
by the name of Joseph.

No me importa el nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues que yo les digo
que nos hemos de abrir.

I don't care who you are,
Let me sleep.
I already told you
we're not going to open.

Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.

I ask you for lodging
dear man of the house.
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.

Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?

Well, if it's a queen
who's asking us for it,
why does she travel all alone
and in the night?

The holy travelers go unrecognized, and are a burden to the innkeeper, who doubts that they are more than just a begging humbug family, undeserving of shelter. But at the last stop, the innkeeper has sort of an epiphany, and the pilgrims are welcomed in. And the Christmas story continues.

Mi esposa es María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
My wife is Mary
She's the Queen of Heaven
who is going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.

¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.

Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter, pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.

Entren, Santos Peregrinos, Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón.
No de esta pobre morada
Sino de mi corazón.
Enter, Holy Pilgrims
Receive this corner
Not of this poor dwelling,
but of my heart.

A couple days ago, I attended a Posada celebration that took a more modern spin to the traditional story: one entitled "Posada del Barrio," given the English name of "Immigrant Posada." After being a part of this particular Posada re-enactment, there is no doubt in my mind that the biblically-based Posada celebration is relevant to this border community. As one of the speakers at the service shared, we often think of the Mary and Joseph's journey as a 2000-year-old story, and oftentimes neglect to remember its relevance still today - its aliveness still today. The intensity and reality of the words of the refined Immigrant Posada lyrics speared into me in a way that will never allow me to forget the relevance of the holy family's journey to our community today. Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus take the form of a foreign traveling family with no proper documentation. The Posada song begins with the innkeeper taking the form of an already-migrated US citizen, responding the requests of a border-crossing migrant:

En nombre de la justicia
Pido apoyo solidario
Cruce la línea de noche
Vengo de indocumentado
In the name of justice
I ask for support and solidarity
I crossed the border at night
I came without papers

No vengas con tu miseria
Ni vengas a molestar
Te voy a echar la migra
Pa que te mande a volar 

Don’t come with your misery
And don’t come to bother us
I’m going to report you to immigration
So they can send you packing
Paisano soy de tu tierra
Como tu vine a buscar
Con mi familia un trabajo
Mira mi necesidad
Countryman, I’m from your land
Like you I came with my family
In search of work
Look at my need

No me interesa quien sea
Deja ya de mendigar
Yo ya soy ciudadano
Y te voy a reportar

I’m not interested in who you are
Forget about begging
I’m already a citizen
And I’m going to report you

Ya va a nacer mi criatura
No tengo a donde llegar
Al brincar la muralla
Mi esposa quedo muy mal 

My child is about to be born
I have nowhere to stay
When we crossed over the wall
My wife got very hurt

Si me sigues molestando
La migra te voy a echar
Vete mojado a tu tierra
Aqui no tienes lugar

If you keep bothering me
I’m going to call immigration
Go back home, Wetback
There’s no place for you here.

Harshly realistic. Uncomfortable. Depressing. Comparable to the innkeeper of the Christmas story.

Then, similarly to the innkeeper's epiphany at the end of the traditional song, the US citizen has a change of heart. The community that had been rejecting the migrant, now undergoes a sort of conversion, and their rejection turns into a different response:

Peregrinos de mi tierra
Venga a la comunidad
Aqui nos organizamos
Por justicia y dignidad
Pilgrims of my land
Come join our community
Here we organize
For justice and dignity

Gracias les damos hermanos
Dios en ustedes esta
Gracia por darnos posada
Mil bendiciones tendrán

We give you thanks, brothers and sisters
May God be with you
Thank you for giving us a place to stay
You will receive a thousand blessings

Vamos juntos como Pueblo, como hermanos, 
como hermanas a sembrar
La justicia que en el barrio, que en el barrio, 
como estrella brillara 
Let us go together as a people, like brothers, 
like sisters to plant
The seed of justice that will shine like a bright star
in our community

For me the most amazing thing about the traditional Posada song is the innkeeper's transformation. After being annoyed and doubtful for three stanzas, the man's eyes are opened: This is the family he had heard about! The mother of Emmanuel - the Most High evolving within her. No way would he turn away the one carrying the promised Holy One. When his eyes recognized their holy identity, when his heart was open to the Divine, then he opened his arms and his home.

I don't think the Immigrant Posada is much different. Although we get less of a transition into the converted community who welcomes the migrant family, I can't help but to wonder if the transformation of attitude could occur because of a recognition of the Divine within the migrant.

When our eyes recognize God within our migrant brothers and sisters, will we be more motivated to open our arms and our home to them?

When our hearts are open to the Divine - when we are genuinely convicted of God's omnipresence, which includes humanity beyond our borders - will our attitude towards the migrant change?

Will we leave bitterness in the dust, and demonstrate compassion? Will we give traveling families hospitality instead of fear or separation?

Like the innkeeper's recognition of Mary, will we recognize the Holy One living within our migrant brothers and sisters?

The migrant shepherd, remembrance cross and water jug in hand.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lessons in what Giving means

I never thought that holding a family Christmas store at our outreach would lead me into a roller-coaster-of-emotions type of day, constantly being humbled, then forceful; frustrated, then joyful. Or reveal how much I truly care about the families with whom we work.

Meet Family #1. Mom has been one of the few moms I've really had the opportunity to connect well with, which might be because she speaks English fluently and uses texting to communicate frequently...but anyway, she's also very involved in her kids' lives and seems super smart. I've never really had a conversation with Dad, but he has been around at some events, and seems to be supportive of his wife and his kids, even though he is very quiet. Their son is one of my favorites in our program - always willing to have a conversation, asking questions, behaving well, and interested in many things. I would say he is one of the middle schoolers I connect with the best, and I truly enjoy working with him. He's got two younger sisters, so he is the older brother, the other "man of the house," etc. He's a super bright kid with tons of potential, and his sisters are the sweetest.

Anyway, I've never suspected this family to have too many issues, at least when it comes to familial disputes, money, legal papers, etc. Given I don't know them all that well, yet Mom seemed to be working pretty consistently, and always willing and ready to commit money or time to her kids' involvement in our programs, and always offering us feedback and genuine understanding. 

This afternoon the family walked in to our store, and once we got the kids into the "kids' room," the mom pulled me aside, and before I could even figure out that she wasn't interested in talking about the store, she was in tears. "They shut off our electricity this afternoon. My son got home before me and when I got back from work he said, 'the lights aren't working.'" She wasn't too interested in buying gifts this afternoon; she just wanted to be able to light her house and pay for rent for these days leading up to Christmas, and leading up to her next paycheck.

Meet Family #2. 

Mom and Dad had approached one of our staff members a couple of months ago, saying that both parents were out of work and having a hard time paying bills. Both of their kids are involved in our programs and have been for awhile. On top of dealing with money and work issues, both parents were also trying to sort out issues with their visas, spending weeks in Mexico at a time, unsure of exactly what would come of the trip, or when they would return. We never knew exactly who would be picking up the kids from program each day.

But recently, things have smoothed out for this family. Both parents can be in El Paso all the time, and each day we usually end up seeing both parents at least once. Mom was able to find a job connected with our programs, so she gets to be even more involved in her kids' activities and the operation of our outreach. Dad also just recently got a stable job, and seems happy with it.

They were one of the last ones to come to our store today. I was doing front door duty, and my coworker was serving as cashier. She came over to me and asked if we were still enforcing limits on how many gifts one family could buy, since it was the end of the night, and we still had many items leftover. I told her it was fine, especially since this family is super involved and because the mom in her new position has been helping us out so much. A minute or two later, I walked over to the check-out counter, just to make sure it all worked out. As the parents approached me, and before I gave them a chance to say anything, I said, "It's fine, it's fine. I'm okay with you buying whichever gifts you want." But they weren't interested in talking about gifts; at least not gifts for their kids.

After waving off my comments and asking if I'd prefer to converse in English or Spanish, Mom explained, "We are very grateful for all that we have right now - to both be working and be able to provide for our family. And it means so much that our kids can come to your programs. We want to make a donation to Ciudad Nueva. It is a small gift, but con mucho corazon (with a lot of heart)."

I was astounded. I guess I have just never really seen a family want to give back so much to our outreach, or a parent recognize the importance of something like our youth programs for their kids, or appreciate so much a connection that led to a job.

And the donation was hefty. Expecting maybe $20, $40, we pulled out $100 from a crisp white envelope, labeled to our organization, from the family. $100 was probably three times what they had just spent on Christmas gifts, and probably a pretty big portion of their Christmas bonus. $100 that held much thought, conversation, and appreciation, I am sure.

I think it is always interesting to do things where people that we would normally think of as "poor" need to contribute something - especially money - in order to receive something, in this case, to purchase Christmas gifts. It is all part of of the community transformation strategy we are trying to implement, but I guess you always run risks of excluding some people, charging prices beyond families' abilities, etc. And it's definitely not an easy thing to do. It's not easy to talk to a mom about options of paying for her kids' Christmas gifts - work in the store an hour, putting some items back, prioritizing finances, etc. It's not easy to reconcile misunderstandings from donors about why we believe holding a "store" is a better idea than simple Christmas giving or just doing "charity" with hand-outs. It's not easy to decide what price to put on a normally-$40 crock pot or $20 Barbie in a "highly reduced cost" store. It's not easy to deal with such a variety of families, who each bring a different amount of money in their pockets, who all bring different attitudes from pride to humility...and whom we love so much.

I definitely think that as I leave this day, I am left with an "I'm so grateful for what I have" type of attitude, similar to what people obtain after mission trips, working in soup kitchens, etc; but I think, more importantly, I'm left with simply an "I'm so grateful" attitude. I'm so grateful for having had the time with families that I did today, to breach some vulnerabilities on both sides of the table, and learn many a skill in financial empowerment.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Giving the same joy

(As a follow-up to my last post...)

This video explains why we are holding a Christmas store rather than just giving out gifts this Christmas. It is a different kind of giving that does not rob one's dignity. Empowerment rather than dependency is what we're about. We want to be able to give the gift-givers a gift, too. A gift that means more than a someone on the other side of town adding an extra $15 to buy a soccer ball on their already-$150 purchase, or a random person "adopting" a family because they can't purchase gifts themselves. How would you feel if you knew someone had purchased your family for Christmas? And taken over your privilege as a parent to give your children Christmas gifts?

"We were robbing mom and dad of their dignity. We were coming into their homes and saying, 'look, since you can't take care of yourself, we have to do it for you.'"

"It was like their impotence was being exposed in front of their family."

"And on Christmas morning, parents in the city will have the same joy that parents in the suburbs have of seeing their kids open the gifts that they have selected for them, earned through the efforts of their own hands. And there will be dignity in the process of giving."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A different way of thinking; a different kind of giving

Perhaps the most frustrating, and yet enlightening, moments in my life are when I realize that not everyone in the world thinks the same as I do.

Not all Christians think about theology the way I do; not all of my family members think about global connections like I do; not every "educated" young adult thinks about money the way I do; not every volunteer at Ciudad Nueva thinks about community development in the way that I have been trained to think.

But in this season of giving, never have I felt all the things that I have been exploring about social justice, community outreach, development, and empowerment, come to such a fore front.

This year, our outreach is holding a "Christmas store" in which we are seeking donations of items to serve as gifts-for-purchase for the parents and caretakers of our neighborhood. To me, and to most of our staff, this effort makes sense. We strive to get away from the "giving to the poor" mentality that oftentimes belittles and dehumanizes the recipients of the "gifts" of money, or Christmas gifts. Through our Christmas store (and our youth stores throughout the year), we hope to give families an opportunity to take their own steps in making Christmas giving happen in their household. Rather than simply giving out donated items at Christmastime to our families, we want to give the families - especially parents - a chance to pick out gifts for their loved ones, use their own money to purchase them at highly reduced cost, and give gifts that allow them to take ownership over how and what they give at Christmas.

However, not everyone is thinking this way about Christmas giving. I've encountered many people who are just flat out confused about the idea of a Christmas store: But why don't we just give these families gifts? Why trouble the families with selling gifts where they actually have to do something to be a part of receiving the gifts?

Our hope for the stores is to give the youth and families that we work with an opportunity to feel empowered, to take ownership, to feel capable.

There are many frustrations in hosting a store rather than just giving out gifts, including donors' disagreement; but in the long run, I believe taking those extra steps to go beyond hand-outs and to some sort of ownership--even $2 worth of ownership--will be beneficial and a small step towards the transformation of our community. And perhaps our single moms and tired dads will be able to feel a bit of that "good feeling" many "better-off" folks get when they send a check in the mail or give a basketball to the "needy" kid downtown. Except our moms and dads will actually know the recipients of the gifts pretty darn well, and perhaps that "good feeling" will have so much more meaning.

Now don't get me wrong - I highly appreciate those who do, in fact, send a monthly donation to charities of their choice, drop their change in the giving boxes at the check-out counter, or ship off a shoe box-ful of gifts to kids overseas. I recognize the need for charity and at times for "hand-outs." But I think our broken world is revealing that there is so much more yet to do.

My prayer and hope is that I myself can be patient and understanding with those who don't think like me - who have a desire to give, and want the youth and families of our neighborhood to receive Christmas gifts at no cost. I'm trying to remember the generosity and kindness in the hearts of those givers, while at the same time hoping for a transformation of their minds and hearts that can find a deeper balance between hand-outs and empowerment.

I cannot say that I have the "right way" of thinking, but I only know from my experiences and my learning that this is a step in the right direction.