We humans suffer enough already, without abandoning one another.
The season of Advent holds inherent tension. Torn between a coming Christmas and present waiting, the heart is pulled and stretched between God’s promise and a reality that falls short. We raise our eyes to the hills, expectant of the breaking dawn—the birth of hope and life—but as each second lingers we become more attuned to the bitter cold of shortened days and twisted fate that can, for many, make jubilant carols ring hollow.
That is true any year, but for me this Advent has been a particularly difficult one. It was ushered in by the death of my wife’s grandfather—the bittersweet mourning of a man who had long since grown tired of living, but whose absence is nonetheless acutely felt. Then, a week later, my high school best friend’s mother fell down the stairs and broke her neck. My friend reached out to tell me she’d never walk again. Last Tuesday, I heard from my aunt that her partner’s brother collapsed in the shower and died suddenly. Yesterday my friend called me back; things had quickly taken a turn for the worse with her mother. She had died. Tragedy heaped on tragedy, these accumulated reminders of our corporeal frailty, of how swiftly vibrant life can be extinguished without reason or explanation—trailing a ruinous wake.
Amidst all of this loss, I traveled to Tijuana with a group from Union Theological Seminary to work with Al Otro Lado, a legal organization that is running a pro-bono legal aid clinic to help asylum seekers. While we were there, we were asked to offer pastoral care to folks whose suffering is anything but natural. Although I was bouncing between personal tragedies, it was this forced suffering that shattered Advent’s normal strain completely. How do you make theological sense of people being forced to endure a devastating, and dangerous, wait—not because of some inexorable
Right now, there are between five and six thousand people officially waiting in Tijuana to petition the US for asylum. By officially, I mean it is documented—they’ve put their names on alist organized by migrants to create some semblance of order amidst the chaos our immigration policy has induced. The “officials” at the border do not keep such a list. Each day, US customs officials announce how many people they will listen to that day. Our first day, they called out just thirty names. Our second, they called out forty. At this rate, it will take hundreds of days just to hear the asylum claims of those presently waiting.
Most migrants don’t live anywhere near the US port of entry. The largest refugee encampment is at Barretal—an abandoned nightclub that’s about a 25-minute drive from the city center. Once the names are announced, however, they have only hours to appear. Most of the time, a makeshift human telephone chain of aid workers and migrants helps people know when their number is called. Sometimes, it doesn’t. On our second day, a man showed up to the border, frantic, whose number had been called the day prior. He was told, after weeks of waiting, that he had missed his opportunity—that he would need to wait again.
It’s worth reiterating: This is not a legal system. By international law, every person has the right to seek asylum—all they are required to do is present themselves. To subvert and circumvent this right, US customs and border patrol are taking every measure to keep migrants from stepping foot on US soil—forcing them to suffer in hopes that this will turn them away.
There is so much unavoidable suffering already. Your friend’s Mom descends a staircase she’s walked ten-thousand times, only to slip; you never get a chance to thank her for the hundreds of meals she cooked you, or for the way she always welcomed you as a son. Your aunt is diagnosed with cancer, forced to focus on her chemotherapy at a time that’s supposed to be joyous. A beloved husband and father collapses randomly in the shower, leaving behind a hole that can never be filled. These are the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” They are reminders of life’s ephemerality, reminders that no one lives outside humanity.
But, particularly in a world where unavoidable suffering is ubiquitous, how can we countenance that thousands are presently forced to live through unimaginable hardship that we could absolutely eradicate if we truly desired? There is no doubt; if we wanted to open our borders and welcome those who desperately need shelter, we could. We live amidst unprecedented abundance, and have accomplished tasks far more difficult than housing and caring for refugees. This is not a crisis stemming from a lack of means, but from a lack of will.
And still, Christmas is coming. In less than a week, millions of Christians in churches around the country will tell the story of a family forced to flee their country, fearing a vindictive tyrant. Some will arrive at this story joyful—giddy to open presents, spend time with family, and sing God’s praise. Others will drag themselves through the doors wearily; carrying weight in their hearts that nags and chafes against the joy they feel they’re supposed to experience. But every one of us will have the power to extend the justice of a warm welcome to the thousands who wait on our doorstep.
Mary and Joseph are at the door. Will we choose to celebrate Christmas?
Author Bio: Rev. Benjamin Perry is the Deputy Director of Communications and Marketing at Union Theological Seminary and works with the New York Poor People’s Campaign. In addition to Unbound, his writing on the intersection of faith and politics has appeared in outlets such as Slate, Bustle, Huffington Post, and Sojourners. You can follow him on Twitter at @FaithfullyBP.