“We come here to struggle for the soul of this nation.” Imam Omar Suleiman spoke these words at the opening press conference for the “Love Knows No Borders: A Moral Call for Migrant Justice” action on December 10, 2018, at Border Field State Park in San Diego, California, organized by American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). As we, faith leaders from across the country, walked the muddy path from the parking lot to the beach, he told me about visiting the Wayne McCollum Detention Center in Waxahachie, Texas, and the horror of seeing huge tent after tent detaining migrants and children. He said he had never seen anything as horrifying in his life. He felt called to act against the lie of separation the wall asserts, detention, deportation that rips families apart, and the militarization of border communities.
We walked in formation in rows of four and, when it was too muddy, in single file. We were one row behind Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the Methodist church, Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ, Rabbi Brant Rosen of AFSC and Jewish Voice for Peace, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign. We marched solemnly the mile to the beach, singing “Rise up my people, my condors, my eagles, no human being will ever be illegal,” and “Nobody’s gonna turn us around,” as we heard that Border Patrol agents were gathering in riot gear on the beach to meet us, next to the 18-foot pylons that make up the border wall.
For a while I walked next to Rev. Shawna Foster, who is a Unitarian Universalist minister and a veteran affiliated with About Face: Veterans Against the War. In an interfaith service the night before, she testified movingly about her experience in the military and why she now actively works to end all wars. She said that the troops called to the border weeks ago were supposed to go home by December 15.
She preached the night before:
I fought for the freedom for us to ignore the plight of the refugee and migrant fleeing from the endless military interventions this country continues to fund. I fought for the freedom of this country to gas children, gas we cannot use in combat because it has been banned from war zones since 1993. . . . I don’t fight for those freedoms any more. No freedom is worth gassing children, separating parents from their children, killing migrants, pushing people into the desert, or forcing them to wait in tents that flood up to their necks. Together we are brave enough to fight for a just freedom in the name of love, and let us make it so.
We arrived at the beach and paused. Rev. Theoharis offered a prayer and then Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb and other faith leaders read the names of those who have been killed at the border trying to cross. The waves crashed as the names were read, and I was moved to bear witness to so many who died trying to find sanctuary. I thought of all those who stand in the tragic gap Quaker Parker Palmer speaks about, “the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible”: the gap between oppression and justice, the gap between lies and the truth, the gap between scarcity and abundance, and the gap between understanding that we are one people and that some are more deserving than others.
As we walked, I thought of a different fence, the boundary fence at the green line that separates Gaza from Israel. Since March 2018, Palestinians in Gaza have been organizing each Friday to protest that fence, the occupation of Palestine, and the blockade of Gaza. Most weeks Israeli snipers kill several of them. Since they began their protest to seek their rights as refugees, over 228 people have been killed and over 24,000 injured. Each week they return, seeking justice and the right to live as they desire. I thought the risk we were taking is so small in the face of what they have been risking, so small in the face of what the people migrating on the caravans from Central America have been risking.
How hard it was to know that all they sought was their own space of sanctuary, a place that nurtured their well-being.
AFSC sent several staff to Mexico to travel with the migrant caravans weeks ago. Traveling with the caravans was moving and troubling for those who went, seeing and hearing the perspectives of migrants walking thousands of miles just to live. One co-worker on that delegation had told me the day before what had moved him to tears. When they visited the stadium in Mexico City where the migrants were staying, there were lots of small children playing in the playground, sliding on the slides, climbing on the jungle gym, and swinging on the swings. He was struck by how normal a scene it was: they were just children playing. How hard it was to know that all they sought was their own space of sanctuary, a place that nurtured their well-being; how hard it was to know that when they reached the border, they might not be allowed asylum, or that they could be stolen from their parents and put into detention centers like the tent city in Tornillo, Texas.
The migrants joined together to walk in caravans to be safer on their journey. The longing for justice, to live the life they desire, had organized them. They had become a movement for the right to migrate, to seek a way out of poverty and violence. They were fleeing U.S. policy violence in many cases, situations made much worse by the U.S. government.
Recent moves by the United States have contributed directly to the conditions that led to this exodus, including upholding fraudulent elections in Honduras and refusing to speak out about the worsening human rights situation in Guatemala. The repression of Honduran citizens by security forces following contested elections last year has fueled forced displacement and migration of that country’s citizens. The United States backed that repression by recognizing the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández despite highly questionable elections, evidence of corruption, and human rights violations.
Our short walk was a small act of solidarity with the risks they had taken walking thousands of miles, compelled to seek homes away from violence and poverty.
We walked in single file, then in rows of four. The waves rushed up onto the beach. Drones and a helicopter circled overhead.
After the recitation of the names of the dead, Bishop Carcaño and Rev. Traci Blackmon anointed those who were willing. Then we turned to walk to the border wall that dips into the Pacific Ocean.
We walked in single file, then in rows of four. The waves rushed up onto the beach. Drones and a helicopter circled overhead. Those of us at the front carried water that had been consecrated the day before to offer a blessing to our migrant brothers, sisters, kin. Four Muslim leaders from the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) had volunteered to offer a song of prayer as we breached the concertina wire on the beach to walk to the wall to bless the migrants on the other side.
We slowed down, walking in silence toward the wall.
When we approached the concertina wire that marked the enforcement zone between the “invisible” line and the border wall pylons, about 30 Border Patrol agents confronted us in line formation. They had on jack boots, face shields, shin and knee pads, and army green uniforms. They carried batons, rifles, tear gas, and guns in holsters. They stood erect and shouted at us not to approach and that they didn’t want violence. I thought that was up to them.
We walked slowly toward Border Patrol, breaching the concertina wire. Muslims in the front line sang a prayer.
The waves crashed. I held up the water in the bottle and spoke:
We bring this consecrated water to the border wall because water knows no borders and love knows no borders. We bring this to greet our brothers and sisters on the other side of that wall. We say that wall is a lie, a lie of separation and hate that we disabuse, and we welcome our migrant brothers and sisters to come and seek asylum with us, to seek our care. The wall itself is violent. People of faith will be offering blessings to our brothers and sisters; we will pour out the water to welcome them.
Then I poured the water on the ground and passed it to other faith leaders who offered blessings and prayers. We stepped forward solemnly again and the Border Patrol agents yelled at us to move back. We started to sing, “Somebody’s building a wall and we won’t be silent anymore,” and other songs. We could hear the congregated faith leaders and migrants on the other side of the wall singing with us, joining us in solidarity. The Border Patrol agents came forward, put their hands on us, and pushed us back. They pushed us three times while we stood there, not resisting, but moving solemnly forward after they moved us back.
As we stood, staring into the eyes of the border agents, Department of Homeland Security police arrived with zip ties, and we knew they had come to arrest us.
We stood for some time, then felt compelled to kneel together, a vulnerable pose in front of militarized agents of the state. The Border Patrol agents stepped back, seemingly surprised by our kneeling. We kneeled and sang. Border Patrol agents kept yelling at my Muslim brother in the front line, pushing him. They kept asking me, the white, gray-haired lady, if I was okay. It seemed like they were wired to protect whiteness, though it also seemed disingenuous to pretend to offer me care given they had guns and billy clubs, and the way they treated my Muslim brother.
After an hour of standing in the face of the Border Patrol agents, we sang, “I am not afraid, I am not afraid. I will die for liberation, ’cause I know why I was made.” As we stood, staring into the eyes of the border agents, Department of Homeland Security police arrived with zip ties, and we knew they had come to arrest us. I was among the first three pulled out of the crowd, hands zip-tied behind me, and walked up the hill to stand next to the secondary border wall to be “sanitized”: have my belongings confiscated. I watched as fellow faith leaders were arrested and led up the hill.
A faith leader told me later that she watched as the Border Patrol agents started to fill their guns with rubber bullets. She thought it most likely they would shoot at the migrants, rather than at us. They had been trained to consider migrants enemies, when those at the border wall only sought sanctuary. Rubber bullets can kill. What had they done to deserve such violence pointed at them?
At that moment, the leaders asked the rest of those ready to get arrested to retreat. They had arrested 32 of us. Clearly, they would have arrested more of us if we had stayed. My co-worker asked later what they had arrested us for? All we did was stand on the beach, trying to reach the border wall pylons. It’s almost laughable that they arrested us for such an act.
They loaded us in police wagons and drove us up the hill, where we waited for two hours, confined to a tiny space with four other women. They took us out of the wagon, and most of us were cited with a “non-conformity” charge: failure to comply with lawful orders. After they wrote our citations, we went back to where the buses waited for us. I thought it fitting to be charged with “non-conformity” with injustice.
Since the action, I’ve had a lot of feelings. It was daunting to face khaki-clad border agents with billy clubs, face masks, tear gas canisters, and guns. When I offered the blessing and poured the water, I was shaking. I was scared, but what I experienced and faced was nothing in comparison to the risks that migrants are taking to travel here, or the horrors children and families incarcerated in detention centers are facing. For a couple hours I lost a bit of freedom, but it was within the context of a life of privilege.
We walked on that beach for a world beyond walls and borders that offers refuge for indigenous folks, for migrants, for any that face oppression; we walked for a world that recognizes the light of God in all people, and that truly is based on a belief in the equality of all people.
The truth is that the “soul of the nation” has been deeply disturbed for 500 years. Despite rhetoric in our founding documents that “all men are created equal,” the legacy of our history is one of deep denial. We all live on stolen land and reside in a society built from stolen labor. Our country was founded on the legacy of dispossession and settler colonialism, rooted in a belief that some are deserving of rights, but only some.
The land on which we stood was land stolen from the Kumeyaay people. The border bisects their historical homeland. I stood there opposed to the lies perpetuated by settler colonialism, lies that foundationally dehumanize those in the snare of the system. We walked on that beach for a world beyond walls and borders that offers refuge for indigenous folks, for migrants, for any that face oppression; we walked for a world that recognizes the light of God in all people, and that truly is based on a belief in the equality of all people.
We walked to demand that those with power enact justice, instead of brutality. May our walk as people of faith be one passage in our collective journey to heal the soul of the nation. This is my prayer. May it be yours as well.