Desert Father: A Walking Sign of a Broken Immigration System
Last Tuesday over tamales and rice offered by the Duke Hispanic House of Studies, I met a modern-day desert father. The 3rd century desert fathers, driven by the Spirit into empty places, became holy ones whose lives of prayer and hospitality in the wastelands became signs of the different way of Christ in a broken world where the church had lost its way. For the last three years, in the borderland deserts of America, 80-year old Max Cisneros of New Mexico has walked and prayed to seek out strangers on what he calls their “journey of death.”
Sometimes the strangers they find making their way from Mexico to America are alive – desperately thirsty, their feet literally stuck inside their shoes due to the intense heat. Max and friends cut away the shoes, and soak and treat the feet. For Max it is a sacramental moment, where strangers become friends. “Never before have I experienced the blessings of the Lord as in washing their feet.”
Sometimes the strangers they find have died in the desert. Max says 8,000 bodies have been found over the past 3 years—men, women, and children. Max stakes a cross at the site of every body. If the person’s name is known (some die with friends beside them), it is remembered on the cross. “But even if there is no name they are never forgotten,” he says.
Sometimes they meet resistance in the desert, such as vigilante white “Minutemen” who patrol and slash the water containers which Max leaves throughout the desert. “Most churches don’t believe in what I’m doing,” he said. He bought his supply truck out of own money. Max got emotional. It is simple to him: “Their children are hungry,” he said. “If your children were hungry you’d do the same thing. No more deaths. Humanitarian aid is not a crime.”
The call to the desert came to Max at age 77, praying and hearing God say, “You pray in your church. You pray and go to the window to see who’s coming. Go out to practice what you’ve been preaching.”
A year ago the Duke Center for Reconciliation convened 70 U.S. peace and reconciliation leaders. A Latino participant kept pressing the brokenness of the immigration system. “Where are your churches on this?” he exhorted. A frustrated black pastor from a major city eventually stood up to respond. “That’s not an issue for my people,” he said. A give-and-take ensued, a restful lunch in Duke Gardens turned into a spontaneous time of wrestling with Christian faithfulness a broken immigration system—naming the black/brown divide, the failure of all Christians to act, churches from Denver to Iowa torn apart over immigration politics. In the gathering’s closing message the black pastor told of coming as strangers and leaving as companions, of being moved beyond “my people” into “God’s new we.”
Throughout the abandoned places of America’s borders, a prophet walks toward a “new we” among strangers and aliens as a living sign that the system is deeply broken—washing feet, clothing the naked, remembering the dead, offering water that others may live. It is time to walk and pray with our desert father.
[Watch the 2-minute video about Max, “Humanizing the Border”]