It’s a cold and rainy November morning. I’m up as usual at 6:30 a.m., out the door shortly after 8:00. Overnight, a wintry chill has moved in. Though I’m dressed warmly, my un-gloved hands are numb before I’m halfway to the Metro station. I can’t very well get to my pockets as I manage an umbrella in one hand and my lunch in the other—leftovers from last night’s dinner. On this near-icy day I’ll be able to enjoy a warm midday meal of spaghetti and meatballs—comfort food, in the psychological sense. Physically, I’ll be plenty comfortable at my desk in a heated office, sitting in a cushioned swivel chair with lumbar support. Comfort food for what discomfort?
At the same moment that I’m becoming conscious of my numbing fingertips, my eyes fall upon three figures in the distance. Two, like me, are huddled under umbrellas. The one in the center has his hands in the pocket of a hooded gray jacket and is shuffling back and forth in front of the Home Depot sign. Like me, these men are halfway to work; unlike me, they don’t know where they’re going, if anywhere. Their job “security” involves waiting in a parking lot, hoping that someone will need a hand with a home improvement project they’re tackling this Veterans’ Day.
As I continue on my way to the Metro, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard comes to mind for the hundredth time since moving to this Washington, D.C. neighborhood. How I long to be able to come home on a day like today and play the role of the compassionate owner—rewarding a full day’s wages to all of those seeking work. My head tells me that such charity is unsustainable, that what needs to be addressed and dismantled are the systems of injustice that allow this 2,000-year-old parable to have contemporary relevance. It is for that very reason that I’ve been so vocal in promoting immigration reform, health care reform, and an end to wage theft. But in this moment my righteous anger falls to the wayside. My heart breaks as I sense what can only be a small fraction of their vulnerability, a feeling that echoes an experience I had two weeks earlier in a completely different world.
2,500 miles from my northeast D.C. home lies the once-sleepy town of Altar, Mexico. The mass migration occurring over the past twenty-five years has brought a whirl of activity to the area. People from throughout Central America are passing through; some are on their first journey to the United States, but for many, the trek through the desert has become all too commonplace. During our visit* to Altar, I spent the night at a small migrant shelter run by a Catholic congregation. For no cost, sojourners can get a warm supper, a place to sleep and bathe, a change of clothes if need be, and a warm breakfast for up to three nights, though extensions are granted under extenuating circumstances.
Those seeking refuge at CCAMYN (Centre Comunitario de Atención al Migrante y Necesitado, or the Attention Center for Migrants and those in Need), however, are rarely first-time travelers. Most have already been deported from the United States—some multiple times over—and know about the shelter only because it’s not their first time traveling through the region. Migrants on their first journey are more likely to seek assistance from coyotes, guides who will see them at least part of the way to the border, but who are also likely to exploit, rob, or even physically harm the migrants—who often spend nearly all, if not everything, they have on the journey. In many cases, migrants cannot afford to pay the full price of a coyote, and must agree to pay off the debt for years to come, once they’ve crossed the border.
During dinner at CCAMYN, I found myself sitting next to Juan. He couldn’t have been that much older than I am, but the thousands of miles separating our birthplaces have taken their toll. I’ve spent the past five years on the move—mostly traveling to, from and within Europe—accessing countless destinations with the click of a mouse. Juan has spent the better part of the last ten years trying repeatedly to reach my place of departure. Temporary success has been his at least a dozen times, but that night he was on the road again. He has family in the States now, and they’re there “legally.” But he cannot risk seeing his own nieces out of fear that his sister might be charged with “harboring.” His hope is to cross and lay low for a few months; maybe then he can figure out a way to spend Christmas with the only family he has.
Juan was the first to push back from the large table where about thirty of us had eaten. The inches between us became miles again, as he embarked—under the cover of darkness—on a journey I’d have no trouble making in broad daylight two days later. Neither would I have any trouble boarding a plane to fly me back across the country to our nation’s capital.
Weeks have passed since I spent a night on CCAMYN’s tile floor. Back in the office, I heat up my leftovers and recline in my chair, watching the rain. I wonder where Juan is, whether the laborers have landed a job today, when the policymakers in the buildings outside my window will respond to the widespread, highly-organized advocacy efforts surrounding immigration reform. I wonder if members of my own family, congregation, and circle of friends will be ready to hear the stories of my trip to the border without writing me off for being “partisan,” or naïve to the “complexities” surrounding the situation. But what is so complicated about the desire of parents to feed their children, of young adults to seek a better life for themselves, of people of faith to advocate for those on the margins and in the shadows?
I put down my empty dish and sink answerless into my chair. It’s not as if these questions haven’t entered into the debate before, so what is to be done? I remember the feeling that rose in my chest as I observed the day laborers that morning: the horrific heartbreak, the longing for an outpouring of compassion, the urgency for justice to be realized on earth. But a glance at my inbox tells me that I’m not the only one experiencing this urgency. Articles, reports, action alerts, prayer requests, invitations to conference calls and prayer vigils—a whole movement is at my fingertips. I push back my plate, sit up, roll in my chair, and reach for the mouse, returning to the vineyard where new laborers are always welcome.
*In late October I traveled with a 10-member OnFire team to the US-Mexico border. We participated in a 3-day border justice immersion experience through the popular education organization BorderLinks. OnFire is a network of young adults within the Methodist Federation for Social Action, a national grassroots organization that promotes social justice in and beyond the United Methodist Church.