Good Friday Service at Metropolitan Memorial UMC
Rev. Bob Maddox
For three years in a row my wife and I have gone to Sahuarita, Arizona to work with the border ministry of the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ. That courageous and visionary congregation is at the hub of a huge network of churches and agencies committed to justice and humanitarian relief for migrants caught in the maw of that great and terrible Arizona desert. One really has to experience that monumentally ferocious problem to begin to get it. A few days on the Arizona puts human faces on the nearly intractable immigration problem under our present national policies.
For years Good Shepherd Church has co-sponsored an annual border issues fair that brings together dozens of groups that work in the desert on the Arizona and Mexico border. For our three years we have heard heart-wrenching stories of migrants facing the known and unknown terrors of trekking the desert primarily at night. We hear stories of the way Latin American families scrimp and save to pay upwards of $2000.00 to coyotes, guides, who are supposed to lead the migrants through the miles of mountainous, cactus infested desert. More times than a few the coyotes steal the money and leave the struggling migrants literally high and dry. Women who attempt the crossing, we were told, are routinely told to begin birth control pills well in advance because they almost for sure will be raped. Three years ago a Harvard University professor, originally from El Paso, Texas, gave the gathering a historical perspective on the migratory phenomenon. Last year the county medical examiner related the harrowing account of the hundreds of deaths in the desert from heat stroke, dehydrations, ruthless coyotes and venal drug cartels. He told us that from time to time so many unidentified bodies are found in the desert the county often has to rent refrigerated trucks to warehouse the deceased.
This year a young social archeologist detailed what he could learn from the detritus the migrants leave in the desert. He had pictures of piles of shredded shoes, coats, shirts, mountains of back packs, religious artifacts, rosaries, photos of loved ones, and discarded water bottles of every make and design.
Everyday teams of men and women make GPS-guided runs into the desert to distribute gallon jugs of water. Across the years these teams have charted the hundreds of unmarked trails the migrants can take in their efforts to elude the U.S. Border Patrol and make it into Tucson and beyond. The water-run teams have a system of marking and dating the jugs of water left on the trails. Two years in a row I made the water run with two separate teams. From the highway onto to dirt road and then to cattle trails and then across the convulsed terrain the beat up jeeps and four wheel drive vehicles creep out to the water drops. When I would think we could go no further one of the team members would consult his coordinates and lead us into a thorn and bramble strewn thicket to a water drop site. There we would find empty jugs and unopened jugs. Sadly we would also find jugs that had been slashed open by Minute Men and other vigilantes.
The archeologist and the pathologist said the trek required something like four gallons per traveler in summer just to make it. Imagine trudging through a fierce, if magnificent, desert with a laden backpack and one gallon of water much less four gallons. Tragically most migrants ignore the lessons learned about their need for water and try to make it with their small, novel water bottles. Most of the deaths especially in the 110heat of summer come from dehydration.
When have you endured gnawing thirst? When have you found yourself in a place with no water available? I have been thirsty but never beyond getting water within an hour or so.
Years ago Carlyle Marney wrote a Holy Week book entitled He Became Like Us. Marney takes off on each of the seven last words of Jesus as a way of emphasizing Jesus’ connection with those who killed him, with those who supported him, and, in the mystery of God, with Jesus’ existential connection with each of us. Whatever else Jesus may have literally cried from the cross he must certainly have cried out “I thirst.” Jesus knew about thirst in his dry and dusty land. He certainly knew about screaming thirst from others he had seen die on crosses, a regular occurrences under Roman occupation.
I am persuaded that in the mystery of God, Jesus understands the devastating thirst of those migrants stumbling through the forbidding Arizona desert. Lost to them in the struggles are the natural wonders of the terrain. Budding desert flowers and flitting birds hold no charm for these women and men. They stumble in terror of being brutalized by the drug lords, robbed by the guide, getting caught by the Border Patrol and soon they are desperately thirsty.
Jesus would be in downtown Washington, DC in the hardest hit parts of the city. Jesus would also be in the desert with the migrants, understanding their thirst for water and for hope; for escape from the Border Patrol and from the drug lord that threatens them and their families with death if they do not become mules toting fifty pounds of contraband on their backs across the mountains.
We are not there to give water to the dying Jesus. But we can be here, wherever thirsty people groan, giving real water as well as the water of life. Remember, like Jesus who cried out, “I thirst,” we human beings need both waters—from the gallon jug and from the touch of Jesus.
Note: Rev. Randy Mayer, pastor of Good Shepherd Church will be with us the weekend of June 30 and July 1 in a weekend presentation of the church’s ministry and a comprehensive display of desert/migrant art. This event is jointly sponsored by Westmoreland’s Music and Arts Committee and the Briggs Center for Faith and Action. My remarks flow from our experience with Rev. Mayer and his UCC Church on the desert border.