It’s called the Inn Project because it was near Christmas in 2016 when the request came from ICE. No longer able to hold minors with their parents in detention centers, ICE asked the UMC Desert Southwest Conference to set up transitional housing for asylum seekers who have entered the U.S. with their kids. The church looked around and said, “yeah, there’s room at the inn.”
I spend Wednesday mornings at this Inn, the basement of a church next door to the University of Arizona campus. The morning volunteers are responsible for cooking a hot breakfast and writing down the confirmation numbers for the guests' Greyhound bus tickets. Plus there’s always laundry to do -- an astonishing number of sheets to be washed as people come, sleep, and go again.
Today I’m putting the intake papers from January in chronological order by date of arrival so that I can do some math. Flipping through the papers I see changing names, ages, places of origin; and the repeating handwriting of a small group of volunteers. In January, 2018, this church basement received 155 families, a total of 329 people. Only one day of the 31 in January passed with no ICE van making a parking lot drop-off.
Since December, 2016, hundreds of people have stayed in this Inn each month, resting on their way to the friend or relative who will sponsor them while their asylum case is considered. Sleeping on cots, eating meals prepared by volunteers or other guests, passing information to family back home in Spanish, Mam, Papti, K’iche’, Romanian, Georgian, Farsi, and Portuguese. All those here are asylum seekers. All have traveled thousands of miles.
Magdalena (name changed for privacy), sitting across the table from me, came from Guatemala. She’s headed to Tennessee, a long distance still to go. “No, I don’t have kids,” I answer when she asks. She looks over her shoulder to check on her own two kids.
“That’s good,” she says, “it’s good you don’t have kids. Kids make your life more complicated. I have suffered so much on this trip, my kids have suffered so much, and I know it’s my fault.”
There’s no good response. I try anyway. “Sufriendo en busqueda de algo mejor?” She nods a little, and shrugs. In search of something better, sure -- but suffering all the same.
In the well-meaning work of service, any of us can easily slide into the idolization of those we seek to accompany. You see it in the rhetoric that calls for “the good kids” to stay and throws “criminal immigrants” out the window. So many volunteers I talk to, hearing the stories of people who sacrifice so much for their families, put migrants on a pedestal of heroic, superhuman sacrifice. It’s true that in pursuit of something better, Magdalena became a migrant; easy to see her just as a martyr, sacrificing for a better life for her children.
Of course, the truth is much more complicated. Migrants are people, selfish as well as self-sacrificing. Real accompaniment that connects us with real people requires questioning the system instead of following the demarcation of value the system lays out. We are called to ask why we have decided that migration is a crime, not just protect those who we decide are not “criminals.”
Magdalena is a criminal immigrant in the eyes of the law, with an electronic tracking anklet to prove it. Magdalena is a mom who, maybe, thinks fondly of the simpler days in her life before she had kids. She’s also a mom who has sacrificed much in search of something better, for her and for those kids who complicate her life so much. She carries guilt along with her toddler and the bag of peanut butter sandwiches we give her for the bus ride. Magdalena’s not a martyr, a saint, or a synecdoche for all those who migrate -- she’s a real person.
Migrants aren’t just one thing.
That same sentence, written a different way: People aren’t just one thing.
There are three kinds of work I do at the Inn Project. The service work of meeting basic needs, preparing food and fresh laundry. The accompaniment work of sitting with people and listening to whatever they share. The internal work of facing and uprooting my unconscious racism by retraining my subconscious into seeing “the other” as human beings. Which do you think is hardest?
The white supremacy that raised me says that non-white folks, indigenous folks, and folks from Latin American countries are not whole people. Their immigration status and fluency in non-English languages makes them less, here in this country, and less in the subconscious place that yet exists inside me where white supremacy shapes my unconscious instincts and gut reactions. I hate this in this culture. I hate this in me.
White supremacy dehumanizes non-white people and white people alike, though in different ways. Because I am committed to breaking my addiction to white supremacy (h/t Hannah Bonner) and the privileges afforded to my whiteness, I am forced to constantly learn and re-learn on a cellular level that people who are not white are actually people. My subconscious racism needs to be noticed with intent and retrained with consistent, conscientious effort.
So I make scrambled eggs, because it's breakfast time. I sit next to people and wait for the bus. And I look Magdalena in the eyes, and listen to what she’s willing to share, try to really see her -- not as an object or mechanism of my redemption, but as a whole person with whom I am grateful to share space.
I try to force my subconscious to see the wholeness of all the guests and repent,
because I want to be a whole person, too.
It comes up on our second date. We’re talking about what kind of books we read, and I’m trying to explain my love of trashy romance novels. “I started reading them back in college” I say, “when there was a big shooting on campus and I needed to read something that I knew had happy endings.” She starts to ask but I wave it away, and we get back to books.
I’m not sure when it happened, in the past 11 years -- when I got tired of establishing my credentials as a survivor. In strange ways it echoes disclosures about my sexuality: I’ve stopped coming out as a member of either community, and just started talking about it as part of my life. Instead of a grand statement of identity, I’d rather just tell you a story about my life and trust you’ll catch up. Less “I’m queer” and more “So when I was on a date with this woman, we…”
Less “I was a student at Virginia Tech when…” and more, well, conversations about why I started reading romance novels in college.
We’re not supposed to talk about trauma. It makes people uncomfortable to hear about the hard parts of our lives. But this event, that shattered the home of my university-student heart, shattered that boundary too. It grows easier with time, certainly, easier to reckon with violence as something that made me who I am. It grows easier, too, because this strange community of trauma survivors, survivors of this particular kind of violence, has grown and grown. It’s more common now, so who needs to come out as a member? It’s just something that happens.
Tucson is a city in a valley surrounded by mountains. The Catalinas, to the north, are my touchstone: as long as I can see them, I know which way I’m going and which way to turn. On days when the clouds hide them, I feel disoriented. It’s like I can’t locate my body in space, without that marker of North.
If the Catalinas orient my body, April 16th orients my sense of self. In most of the past decade, my year has turned around this point; the true New Year beginning on April 17. I’ve woken up in January or February sensing the April coming on, feeling the hurt washing out from that axis. This year the approach of this date has just been numbers on a calendar, without the anticipation of reliving this day in 2007. The passing of time changes the experience
Still I woke up today grieving, and everything feels hard and scary. The grief has been hiding in my bones. I’m living through April 16, 2018 waiting for the other shoe to drop, in an echo of that First April 16th eleven years ago.
It feels different with time but this date still pulls the needle of my compass.
“Today is the anniversary of the shooting at Tech,” I say to a friend on Skype, “so I’m just having a lot of feelings.”
A mentor of mine likes to say that “stories happen to people who tell them.” Sometimes, though, we get swept up in stories that are bigger than we are, stories we don’t want to tell but that are wrenched out of us. In this, at least we can choose the shape of the stories that we tell each year.
Now, let it be stories of the ways we cared for each other after our loss, rather than the violence of the loss itself. Let it be stories of the love we found and felt and shared, the ways we recovered, not the cavernous grief that knocked us down. Let it be the story of the letter posted in the student union from a kindergarten class in California, who wrote,
“We are sad.
We feel bad for you.
We are mad at the person who [hurt] you.”
We will not play with guns.”
On some level, I don't really believe change is possible.
I like to joke about a theoretical Nihilist Site Coordinator. My job, being a regular site coordinator, is to support and nurture young adults as they explore the world. I help them develop deeper life skills, critical thinking, systemic analysis, and commitment to work for a more just world. (This is why I'm constantly inviting my volunteers to "say more about that" as they process.) But sometimes when days have been long and conversations complicated, I deliriously imagine what the Nihilist Site Coordinator would say.
YAV: "My work supervisor is avoiding meetings with me, what should I do?"
NSC: "Take a nap, probably, work is meaningless."
YAV: "I can't figure out how to connect with one of my community members, how would you suggest I approach them?"
NSC: "I suggest you take your stipend and go out for tacos alone; relationships are fleeting and we'll all be dead eventually."
YAV: "We just fought about the dishes for the 50th time, what do we do?"
NSC: "Destroy all dishes and all hope."
It gets... a little dark.
There's some relief in these flights of fancy, though, too. If everything is meaningless, we don't have to struggle to hold people accountable to their commitments. If nothing matters, there's no point to fighting to build connections or community. If everything is meaningless and nothing matters, why try at all? Wouldn't it be easier just to stop, to give up, to acknowledge that things are wrecked and there's nothing we can do about it?
There are many parts of this world where the nihilist in me sounds right. Murderous white supremacy is woven into (is) the foundations of the society that made me, the heteropatriarchy in which I live and am complicit continues to kill without consequence, climate change is forcing migration and hunger and is as big as the whole world. Everything is terrible and exhausting.
This last piece is one where I feel particularly futile. I put solar panels on my house, and decreased my meat intake, and shut off the water when I brush my teeth, and still I know that entire industries - including energy, cement manufacturing, and agriculture - drive climate change on a global level. No amount of at-home changes I make will change those huge systems, and it's impossible to separate myself entirely from those systems. So what does it even matter?
This is where the Nihilist Site Coordinator in me meets the Gospel in me. All those years of trundling to church with my pastor father infected me with stories of Jesus, the compassionate homeless preacher who believed everyone was loved and should be treated that way. The friend who laughed and shared food and calmed the storm even when he was irritated at his nap being interrupted. The radical community organizer who taught non-violent resistance against empires of oppression and was killed for it. The dedicated, faith-filled community member who saw his own death coming, and kept working anyway. Who didn't take the easy way out. Who demands that we do the same.
Thinking about that Jesus pushes me up off my bed, onto my feet, and out once again into the work of resistance.
This June, those feet are going to carry me 260 miles, from Louisville KY to St Louis MO, in a community action to (among other things) ask the PCUSA to divest from fossil fuels. For me, this walk is an extreme "fake it till you make it:" I am choosing to participate in a community of resistance because I need it to carry me until I believe enough to carry myself. I want to do something with my body, since deep down, my spirit is a traitor. I hope to learn about the possibility of change from people who believe it, so that I can believe. More about the walk here.
NSC: "The planet is wrecked, why are you doing this ridiculous thing?"
Me: "Because Jesus changed the world, and since I signed up to follow him, I have to at least act as though I believe that I can too."
Author, Alison Wood
queer, white, cisgender, U.S. passport-holding, Presbyterian, church-employed, challenged by faith, imagining something better.
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