Bearing Witness at the Border in El Paso 

The Rev. Canon Gail Avery, Canon for Transition and Community Engagement

THREE MASS SHOOTINGS IN A WEEK — Gilroy California, El Paso Texas, and Dayton Ohio.  In our culture of hate and violence, how does one follow Jesus?   

Less than one week before the August 3 killing spree at Walmart in El Paso, I participated in a “Moral Monday” vigil at the border, coordinated by Rev. Dr. William Barber and several local organizations.

I arrived in El Paso on Sunday, July 28, answering a clarion call to witness at the border. My sense of urgency to visit the border between the US and Mexico had been growing since being waved through a Border Patrol checkpoint in North Woodstock, NH two years ago. A white woman driving alone, I was literally waved through the checkpoint, with no stopping. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if I had been traveling with my daughter-in-law (who is Salvadoran) or my two beautiful biracial grandchildren? I suspect that if I had been, we would have been noticed. We would have been stopped and asked to answer many questions.

VIGIL AT THE BORDER

At a mass gathering the night before the vigil, we heard from a number of faith leaders. The message of Inman Omar Sulelman was particularly powerful. He said we need to be listening to our holy texts. The Quran says “We are called to welcome those who migrate to us.” In the Hebrew Bible there are 36 passages that speak of welcoming the alien in our midst. “Our faiths are on trial,” he said. “So is our nation and our humanity.”

Who do we want to be as a country? And how can we get there, together? Inman Sulelman concluded by saying that we need to SHOW UP, STAND UP, and VOTE UP.

Monday morning, over 500 people from across the United States, including Steve Ekerberg, a parishioner of St. Steven’s Pittsfield and Candidate for Holy Orders to the Diaconate, and I took part in the vigil.   

Approaching a US detention center and speaking through a small call box, clergy asked permission to enter the detention center to offer pastoral care to our people. Clergy’s request to visit with those detained was denied. Anticipating this, the organizers of the vigil had crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico earlier to visit migrant families living in a nearby refugee camp. What they saw and heard was horrific as well as illuminating.  

In our US detention centers, children as young as four years old are cutting themselves (often understood as a coping mechanism for people under extreme emotional distress) and shoe laces are being removed from people’s sneakers to prevent strangulation. Men in the El Paso detention center are participating in a hunger strike to protest human rights violations and the poor living conditions. 

A congressman later told me that while conditions aren’t great in Mexico, they are far better than what’s being provided in the United States. When asked why the difference, a Mexican authority said, ‘In your country you fear immigrants.  We don’t.  We’re happy to have them.” I also learned that the US Government is not providing any aid or support. We are depositing the people we’re deporting into Mexico and expecting Mexico to care for them. Independent shelters and faith communities are an integral part of that care since immigrants in Mexico are not looked upon as criminals.  

Ready to do my part, I also attended a non-violent civil disobedience training offered by the vigil organizers. I was willing to show up and stand up — not necessarily to be arrested, but to arrest the injustices that our nation is committing. Arm bands were handed out — green for those who chose to witness and yellow for those prepared to participate in civil disobedience. Using a black sharpie, I even wrote the number for jail support on my arm.

At the last moment, before embarking on our vigil, we were instructed to take off our armbands. The shooting in Gilroy had happened the night before and there were concerns about counter-protestors. Fear was even building that our civil disobedience would be looked upon as possible treason, carrying a 5-year minimum jail sentence.   

But in taking off the armband, I could feel something change in the room…it felt like we were unified — truly and finally one. One against the injustice and inhumane treatment of God’s creation. This is not a question of political right or left, but of following Jesus on the path of right versus wrong.

MURDER IN EL PASO

I returned safely to New Hampshire four days before the mass shooting. The Custom Border Patrol detention center where Steve Ekerberg and I gathered with hundreds of others was just 2.3 miles from the Walmart where Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old white male, had openly fired upon “Hispanics,” citing genocide as a pathway to sustainability. Our hotel was only 2.2 miles away.

After the President’s speech declaring that hatred has no place in America, I noticed words cascading down the right side of my computer screen. The black ribbons of words were chats coming from the YouTube feed I was watching. I was appalled and saddened by the hate that the chats were spewing. Most were blaming the “democRats” for the violence and hate in our country.  

The vitriolic rhetoric was uncannily similar to the anti-immigrant manifesto that the mass-shooter in El Paso had posted minutes before firing into the crowds at a Walmart, killing 22 people and wounding 26 others. The 4-page document said that politicians from both parties were to blame for the United States “rotting from the inside out” and that “the heavy Hispanic population will make us a democratic strong hold.” He concluded, “If we can get rid of enough people [the Hispanics] then our way of life can be more sustainable.”

Clearly, this attack was a response to what the shooter called “The Hispanic Invasion of Texas.” If carried out fully, my son, his wife, and their two biracial children — an Air Force family stationed in San Antonio, two hours away from the shooter’s home — would have been targeted. My daughter-in-law’s entire family lives in Houston, fleeing El Salvador in the 1980s after being targeted there. They are now US citizens, but would have been a target as well — again. Today, if they approached our border seeking political asylum, our nation would tell them — GO HOME.   

BACK HOME: PRAYER AND ACTION

A week later, back home, I attended another vigil: the Interfaith Prayer Vigil and Jericho Walk for Immigrant Justice.

This is a regular vigil that occurs bi-monthly at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office located at the Norris Cotton Building in Manchester. We gather on days that immigration cases are being heard. We begin in prayer and song, and then walk seven times around the building praying for the walls of injustice to come tumbling down.

That day, the vigil was attended by more people than usual. I believe each of us is seeking hope and justice — hope and justice that I’m convinced more than ever can only be found together, which our closing song expresses so well:     

Rise as One, by Aaron Fowler.

We will march as one
We will stand as one
We will rise as one (repeat)

REFRAIN

We will rise as one. We will rise as one
Working hand in hand, we will rise as one.

  1. We will dance…sing…, REFRAIN

  2. We will laugh….cry…., REFRAIN

  3. We will fight…..win…, REFRAIN

May our country find inner strength to be one, and work hand-in-hand in taking care of each other, including those who migrate to us.