Mary Beth Writes

This is my first published writing. It appeared in 1984 in The Other Side, a social-activist evangelical publication based in Philadelphia, PA.

The Other Side was similar to and friends with Sojourners, a community of evangelical social activists based in Washington DC.  If you have ever heard Jim Wallis on NPR, or read any of his books, he is one of the founders of this small but influential slant of modern Christianity. Sojourners started in the Chicago area; I knew some of those good people decades ago.

After this first article I would go on to write quite a bit for The Other Side.  For several years I was listed as one of their Contributing Editors, an honor of which I am I am still proud.

This article is probably too long and the language I use to express my faith is a somewhat different now. Still, this experience was among the great adventures of my life as I lived what I still believe; faith is about community, risk, and joy.

…..

Peace Makers’ Freedom Train   /1984

Several Saturdays ago I did one more thing I never planned on doing in my whole life. I rode to Cincinnati in the back seat of a small car, slept the night in a sleeping bag on a hard floor, and rose at six the next morning to drive immediately back to Chicago.

Peacemaking, I am learning, is seldom a sensible business. Peace making reminds me of that old “back of the tapestry” metaphor. You stand around looking at a very big piece of cloth with endless knots and colors, runs and shapes tangled all through it. You stand there like a patient idiot, staring and staring at the cloth until finally someone comes along and turns it over for you. It’s then you realize you have been staring at the back side of a tapestry.

Actually, the “Voila, it’s a tapestry!” statement is no sure thing. It’s what we hope is going to get said someday. At the moment, the peacemaking I see, the peacemaking I am part of, is usually the fits and starts of knots and colors.

The peacemaking in question this time was the caravan. And, what the caravan was - was a van filled with one undocumented, “Illegal alien” Guatemalan family and the assorted cars of North American peacemakers who accompanied them on their journey.

This family, who has assumed the name Excot, is Mayan Indian. They are from a small village in the mountains of Guatemala. Felipe and Elena are loving, patient parents. They have five beautiful, wide-eyed, soft spoken children who tend to dazzle all North American adults. The reason they are in the United States these days is quite simple. They prefer to live. This is currently an impossible option for them in Guatemala. If they were to return they would be killed or “disappeared”.

Their story starts very simply. Felipe is a campesino, a farm worker. Although he had only four years of formal schooling, he is a clever, thoughtful person. In 1979 he was offered an opportunity by the Catholic church in his village to go to the city and take special training at a Catholic center to become a cultural worker. He did that. With four months of this special education, he went back to his village and with others, organized literacy classes.

One would not think this was an especially outrageous thing to do. But it was, it definitely was. Literate campesinos are a deadly threat to self-serving, repressive governments.

Felipe happened to be out of the village the day the soldiers came. The 17 people working with him in the reading classes were all shot and murdered. Someone escaped to tell Felipe. He fled into and over the mountains. He would never return to his village to live. For the next three years he subsisted as a laborer at coffee plantations along the coast.

Soldiers periodically came back to the village, looking for him. Elena’s brother Julio was killed during one of those times. Soldiers forced him to take them into the mountains in regards to a military matter – he was an army veteran and they insisted they needed his expertise although he had been out of the army for years. They said later that he died when he was caught in a skirmish. They did not explain why there was a bullet, shot at close range, in the back of his head.

The soldiers then came to Elena and asked where Felipe was. She responded that he was a drunken and adulterating husband, and that she had kicked him out. They believed her and left, although at one point they burned down her house. The only communications between Elena and Felipe during those years were occasional messages carried by priests, and three times when Felipe would return to a corn field near the village and wait for Elena to come to him. It was during one of these clandestine night meetings that they made their plans for escape. Within a month Elena walked out of her home with their children and met Felipe in the mountains. They walked north to Mexico and crossed the border. They found work as farm workers. They would both work from sun-up to sun-down at back breaking labor, yet their combined daily pay was fifty cents. They left because they couldn’t earn enough to feed the children. Again, mostly on foot, they made their way north and across a border, this time ours, trying to find a place where they could live in some safety. In this struggle, they connected with the loosely organized movement of religious persons who work on behalf of the thousands and thousands of people like Felipe and Elena, the “Sanctuary Movement.”

They made the decision to become a sanctuary family. This is not an especially easy of safe choice. Most Central and South Americans who cross our borders prefer to find their way into the relative safety of the Hispanic ghettoes of our cities. With no papers and few laws to protect them, anonymity is their best defense against the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Sanctuary families are never anonymous, for the INS knows their names, addresses, and often information about them makes its way back to vulnerable friends and family members in their home villages and towns. Sanctuary families are people willing to take on even more risk for the opportunity to tell people the truth of what is happening in their countries to their people.

The reason I know about these people and their story is that I am a member of Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of those Sanctuary Churches. Felipe and Elena and the children lived in our church for a few weeks. Their presence, and that of the Salvadoran family that lived among us before them, has affected us greatly.

The first time I saw the family was during a worship service when Ines, the baby, rode her father to the communion table. She babbled through the blessing and when Felipe kissed her, she threw open her arms to all of us gathered there. It was a stunning, holy moment. You cold nearly hear a flap of wings of angels, called down among us by that baby. You could nearly feel the press of angels and saints crowded there with us all at the communion table. Everyone knew how narrowly she and all her family has escaped death and oblivion to be with us and heaven that morning.

The sacred words didn’t sound old or familiar or trite. “The bread which is broken for you, the blood which is poured out for you.”

It was first time news – and it shook us to our bones.

“There is a place where the homes are empty and ravaged and the people have fled on foot into the night mountains. There is blood splattered onto the walls, into the dust. Christ has not stayed safely dead in old Palestine. Christ is dead all over again.  Eat the bread. Drink the cup. Open your eyes to the small brown people here at your communion table. For once again Christ is on the wrong side of the local law and your choices will no longer be convenient for you.”

That is what it seemed we heard. In communion, the way it happens, Christ was present and for that moment we clearly heard the words of the death and life into which we are called.

The journey which had begun in the green mountains of Guatemala was not over yet. Chicago was just a way station for the Excots. Their destination was Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery in the peaceful and ever so civilized Green Mountains of Vermont. The brothers there had decided to open their hearts and community to become the 100th Sanctuary in North America – to become a community of Christians willing to break the local law to provide haven for refugees.

Completing this journey was not to be any safer or easier for the family than the distance already come. Lately there have been arrests in the Southwest of undocumented Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and the peace-mongering people who were helping them flee to safety. This was an important factor in deciding how to transport the Excots.

On would think the logical thing, in light of the mounting danger of arrests by the INS, would be a quick, quiet trip. Maybe they could be sent in enormous empty maple syrup crates being returned from the Midwest to Vermont for refills! Maybe they should be driven in a straight-through, 18-hour driving marathon, in a car filled with lawyers and German Shepherds. That’s what I would have done.

But no. The peacemakers, with the full cooperation of this family who had everything to lose and nothing “sensible” to gain, decided otherwise. Together they cooked up a scheme worthy of a 1950’s situation comedy. These people all decided that the way to get from Chicago to Vermont was via caravan.  A caravan of a shifting dozen, poster-plastered cars; an over-ground Freedom Train that wended its way through the country. It stopped at ten major cities for press conferences, stayed three days in Washington DC for speaking and politicizing. It was an amazing spectacle. They could not have been more conspicuous if eight tiny reindeer had been pulling their van down the interstate.

I was with the caravan that first day. My husband and I were in the back seat of one of those caravan cars. All of us along were risking our freedom, our bankrolls, our legal records, and our reputations in that act. We were conspiring in the interstate transportation of “illegal aliens” and if they decided to catch you at it you can be fined and jailed.

So, it was a serious day, but definitely not a somber one. In fact, we had a lot of fun. Many of the people on the caravan, that first day at least were over-30. We were at ages where we had expected to find ourselves home color-coordinating the bathroom, or driving children to tennis lessons. Yet there we were, “The Big Chill” notwithstanding, arranging our lives around an ideal of justice for these people, a hope for their peace, a future for their children. We talked, shared stories, and ate brownies and coffee and oranges. We played music on the car’s tape deck and cheered whenever decade-old rock and toll came on. Our common rick and out common purpose made it uncannily easy to enjoy and know each other.

Towards Cincinnati, our conversation turned to our separate experiences with the Excots. I had cut Felipe’s hair, and was very impressed at the thickness of his Mayan hair. Len and Tom had taken them all to the zoo during their stay in Chicago. They went to pick them up at 10:00 in the morning, only to find the whole family asleep. Felipe woke up and then  apologized profusely. They had overslept, he said, because they had stayed up past midnight the night before singing songs from Guatemala!

Someone else has asked Felipe what was the “secret of success” was for rearing such wonderful children. We were all continually amazed that the children could play quietly together through two an three-hour adult meetings. Felipe answered several things. One was that one must never treat children with less than full respect one offers all human beings. But he also noted that sharing and cooperation for them was a survival skill. They had nothing to play with except each other. One of us had seen a child take a cupcake that was offered to her and carry it carefully back to her family, ready to share it with both her parents and four siblings. We were all, weeks after first meeting them, still astonished at their strength, simplicity, and joy in spirt of the horror and violence that rimmed their lives.

As we talked in the car, we began to get the words we needed to explain why we had come along on the caravan.  Politics, policies, and rules were absurd in the presence of this family. Distant people with powerful titles wanted passports, papers, “thing in order”. These same people refuse to acknowledge that there are desperate, murderous human rights violations in Guatemala. That government says it is “Anticommunist” – magic words for the current administration – and that seems to blanket every atrocity in the book. WE became angry in the car. When regulations prefer death to diplomatic embarrassment, when we sink so low that we choose our friends on the basis of what they say, and close our eyes to what they do, then the regulations are wrong and the people who created them are evil. As modern adults, we have become sophisticated and worldly-wise. We now know to say, “There is no black and white anymore, dear, it’s all just shades of grey.” Then this reality hits us. Here is black and white. A family will be murdered because the father taught people how to read. To not offer political asylum is to participate in those deaths.

It was during this conversation that we arrived in Cincinnati. We followed the caravan and were surprised that the streets were lined with dozens of gorgeous, gracious old houses and mansions. They had been built a century ago out of the rich river trade that passed there along the Ohio River. A verse I’d memorized as a child came to mind. “In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you that when I come again I may receive you unto myself.” (John 14: 2-3)

We rounded one more corner. There was another mansion, set back from the street. In front of it were two hundred people; holding signs, waving banners, and singing. We rolled down the windows and the words of the song filled the car. “Be not afraid, I go before you. Be not afraid, I am with you…” They were there to welcome Elena and Felipe and the children – and us! It was exactly the place Jesus had told his disciples about, the place I had learned about as a child. It was the place prepared for us, where people like us would not have to be afraid, and where we would never be alone. The 2000 year old promise rang like a bell in the moist spring air of good old American Cincinnati. We were gathered there in the name of life and God. It was the mansion prepared for us.

We spent the evening and night there in the Quaker meeting House (for that is what the mansion proved to be). We ate the feast – potluck – brought in for us. We talked with each other, took walks, watched ourselves on the 11:00 news and then spread our sleeping bags for our night’s rest. I smiled when I went upstairs to brush my teeth. From behind the door of the Excot’s bedroom, I could hear them still singing to their children.

We rose the next day at six, ate a breakfast of fruit and bagels, and then left. Most people, including new caravaners who joined in Cincinnati, continued onwards to Columbus and Pittsburgh. Those of us who had jobs to get back to turned around there and returned to Chicago.

 

It’s been a few weeks now. The Excots are safely settled in Vermont. By the time they got to Weston, there were 28 cars in the caravan. I hear the brothers, and most of the village of Weston, were standing outside the priory with all its bells ringing to welcome the family that morning.

I imagine that these days the children are busy charming the monks’ socks off. I wouldn’t be surprised if any day now a new star appeared in the East – the New England East, this time – for Weston has become another birthplace of life in this mad, violent world.

 

And, I am beginning to understand something about peacemaking and the tapestry and our lives and hope. Often it feels like the peace making things we do are odd, quirky adventures tacked onto “real”, ordinary, sensible life. After all, what logical connections are there among death squads in Central America, a refugee Maya family, and me, riding through Indiana and Ohio on a gray, rainy day in March? What difference does it possibly make if I do or don’t go along for that ride?

 

I don’t have any sure answers here. But, I do know what is happening in my life. Quite simply, it’s turning inside out. The things which I always assumed were the purpose and goal of life; to get ahead, to be practical and prudent, respectable and safe, are losing out to this new wild and crazy passion for peace, a willingness to risk my security in exchange for hope.

So the peace actions turn my life inside out, turn the tapestry over. They are times of high feelings, genuine intimacy, laughter, tears, and a freedom so clear it rings me. I am beginning to understand that these are the colors, the patterns, the connections of the tapestry turned over. It’s as beautiful as a good dream, as real as the voice of the person singing next to you, as good as the hug of the stranger who is sharing this risk with you.

And, I believe that someday the tapestry IS going to turn over.

Someday, as Amos said, justice IS going to roll down like mighty waters. Someday, as our parents said, our ships are going to come in. For us who are peacemakers, our ships will be bringing our heroes and our friends. Our ships will be heavy in those justice waters, with the weight of all those people: Oscar Romero is going to sail in on those ships, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and Gandhi. Disappeared women are going to ride high with their babies in their arms. And Felipe’s seventeen friends are going to be there, too, and the monks will be ringing bells to welcome them, too.

And I want to be there. And I think I will. And I’ll recognize it then. As I recognize it now on these days and in my life.

 

….

Dear Reading Pal,

Are you still here? Just today I talked with Brother Richard of Weston Priory in Vermont; I wanted to be sure this family had attained legal status. I also needed to be sure the priory was not at present providing sanctuary to other undocumented immigrants – the Sanctuary movement still lives because inane US policy against immigrants still lives.

Happy News! The Excot family is all well! Three returned to Guatemala where they live good lives. The kids are all adults now, of course, and have good jobs in various US communities. 

Comments

I remember riding with good friends, having a raucous sleepover in Ohio and generally feeling like the Merry Pranksters that we were.

Awesomeness. I love hearing about ur life’s experiences!

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