I could not sleep last night. Instead, I lay in the dark listening to the rain and thinking of the toxin that has crept into this moist Oregon valley I call home.
There is fear in this valley, fear in the fields, fear on the farms, the nurseries, the vineyards and in the orchards where brown-skinned workers are pruning trees. Fear in the fruit processing facilities, the meat packing plants, the restaurants, and grocery stores. Fear in the hotel rooms where rarely opened Bibles sit in drawers while more brown-skinned people scrub floors. There is fear in schools as students sit in classrooms distracted by worries that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may have scooped away their parents while they were away. And now, there is even fear in the very places these hard-working people who have made their way across our southern border without the proper piece of paper, go to worship.
Earlier this month, a church in the small rural town of Woodburn, Oregon, or “Little Mexico,” as I’ve heard many Anglos refer to it, was broken into. The church’s alarm system was cut, its tabernacle and two chalices were shattered, and the files of an immigrants rights group trying to create a sanctuary for undocumented workers were rifled through than scattered.
Quietly, word spread about the break-in. This was during the chaos caused by President Trump’s executive order. I was saddened and outraged by this newest attack on an already fearful people. That’s how I found myself, an Indian-American atheist, at the vandalized church the following Sunday. A young Hispanic boy, the pastor’s first child, met me and about ten other guests in the parking lot and directed us to a side entrance. The chapel was too damaged to hold service. Instead, we were led into a stark room with metal tables and chairs set in a circle so parishioners could face one another.
I do not understand Spanish—but I do understand the language of fear and sorrow, and that language was writ large in that circle. The Pastor of the Woodburn church conducted a bi-lingual ceremony for his anglo guests. He talked of living as an “illegal”, of hiding in shadows not wanting to be seen or heard, of desiring nothing more than work, a way to earn wages so he and his family could survive, possibly even thrive. He talked about recent rumors of ICE showing up at schools, at grocery stores, in courthouses. Was this really happening? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, the damage was done. People were now afraid to leave their homes, afraid to go to work or to shop for food. Afraid even to come to church. Who broke in? Why? What were they after in those files? They had no answers.
The Pastor and his wife have three children. The youngest, an infant, was cradled in his mother’s arms. The two toddlers sat beside her as they watched their father with wide-eyes. Yes, the Pastor said, he broke a law when he came to Oregon without documentation. “But sometimes, one has to choose between breaking a law, and doing what is necessary to live.”
After the service, we went around the circle grasping one calloused hand after another.
Last night, I lay in bed listening to the rain fall, striking rooftop and pavement, seeping into soil and stone. I was safe and warm. So were my husband and son. All of us protected by the walls and roof of a home I’ve never had to flee because of war or repression or crime or lack of economic opportunity. I have never had to pack up my family and try to make my way through the night alone in a country that says I do not belong. My father came to this country a Muslim immigrant from India seeking an education. My mother’s parents came as Catholic immigrants from Germany. They built homes and businesses, raised families, took them on vacations to see this country, and always they celebrated the birth of this nation every Fourth of July, honoring the precepts that welcomed them.
For me, the art of being human is the art of understanding the falsehood in the word “other.” There are no borders on this planet, only human mindsets which tell us to fear what lies beyond our experience and imagination. We all breathe the same air, all require the same stuff of sustenance. All waters link, currents move around the globe, seeds disperse, so does soil and stories and sound. Animals migrate—whales, birds, wildebeest—humans, too.
How much more could we be if we stopped building walls and started to reach out to one another? How much more could we do if we fed our more compassionate nature rather than our more craven one?
I could not sleep last night, so I lay in the dark and listened to the rain soak the living soil that so many bend their back toward in order to feed and nourish us all.