How to Live in a Mixed-Status Family

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There’s been a lot of attention at the U.S.-Mexico border this summer. I was grateful for the opportunity to visit the westernmost section of the border between San Diego and Tijuana in May. A few weeks ago, I traveled with a group of women from Welcome. to visit the South Texas border.

While there, I walked into a warehouse where parents and children sat fenced in "pods,” or areas separated by high chain-link fencing. Migrants were allowed no possessions and sat only with the aluminum-foil-like blankets many of us saw on the news earlier this year. I met Border Patrol officers and agents - likely the very ones who had separated children from their parents this summer.

Later, I went inside an ICE Detention Center, where I visited and prayed with a woman named Maricela. She was Guatemalan. I recognized the familiar way she spoke Spanish as soon as she began to share. My questions would have been bumbling and awkward even if I weren’t testing them out in my pitiful Spanish, but she graciously relayed her story anyway.

Maricela had been in detention for 11 months. She said she'd been fighting her case for asylum status in the U.S., but she had been turned down time and time again.

She told us that she had connected to God more since coming to the U.S. and prayed often. But she shared that the guards yelled at her when she prayed in the dorms. They told her she could do “that” in the chapel, but she shouldn't "seek God here."

Of course, God was and is present in every part of the detention center with her. God would have been even if she never asked for Him come to her. God is present with those who are lonely, mourning, abused, suffering, and marginalized. It is a beautiful promise that God remains present to each of us in our situations, regardless of qualifiers like documentation status.

So often when we hear hard stories, when we see injustice and hold the hands of those experiencing it, we struggle with knowing how to respond. What do we do to help?

I am encouraged by the Bible and the metaphor it offers us as the family of God. What does it mean to be family with those caught up in the immigration system? When Billy and I first married - he undocumented and I, a U.S. citizen - we bore the title of "mixed-status family."

Praying with Maricela in detention reminds me that the Church (capital “C”) is a mixed-status family.

Some of us live, work, and worship freely in the country of our birth or choice. Others of us in the family are like Maricela, who fled to the U.S., was denied entry, and then is told not to pray in her dorms. We are sisters in Christ, she and I. And our sisterhood in the family of faith draws me to the story of another sister whose life was secure while someone in her family faced grave danger.

Miriam, Moses' older sister, watched her mother give birth to a son at a time when Hebrew boys were sentenced to death. Like all parents, Moses' mom and dad did whatever they could to save his life. They hid him for three months before floating him down the Nile river in a basket, trusting God to protect him.

And Miriam - the sister whose life was not in danger - stood up and walked alongside him on the river’s edge. She looked out for him. She spoke up to a person in authority when she could, ultimately finding a creative solution to get her brother back into their mother’s arms. She walked alongside and engaged where she could.

Her example inspires me. She reminds me how family responds when one of its members faces danger. I had a sacred experience of witnessing the mixed-status family of God in the midst of its suffering. How do I - how do we - not turn away from our brothers and sisters, but walk alongside those whose lives are in jeopardy? Will we speak up when we can? How can we use our time, resources, voices, and influence to be family to people who have risked their lives for the hope of safety?

I am still wrestling with what it means to emulate Miriam in my everyday. I want to be like Maricela, to allow these hard places to bring me closer to God. And to my mixed-status family.