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Desert Father: A Walking Sign of a Broken Immigration System

October 15, 2009

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.”

groupA 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”]

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2009 12:29 pm

    I was just remembering the U.S. leader gathering mentioned here earlier today; Ivan’s tears, Ed’s wisdom and blessing, meeting Barbara for the first time, seeing dear friends like Brenda, Jim, Kevin, Randy, and other friends again, and connecting with so many of you who have influenced me through your writing. It was a precious time… And that time in the garden… Ahhhhhh… For such a time as this.

    I’m told by immigration reform advocates that the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill that Rep. Gutierrez will start the ball rolling on CIR. Politically, it must pass by March or April because ’10 is an election year and folks won’t want to touch it during campaign season. If it doesn’t pass by March there’s a good chance that Immigration reform won’t come before congress again for 3-4 more years.

    So, now is the time to let our voices be heard. Now is the time to stop families from being torn apart by raids, as they are every day in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Now is the time to join with the NAE to call for an earned path to citizenship for all immigrants within our borders.

    What a powerful and unexpected moment God gave us in the garden that day. I truly believe it was for such a time as this.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story with us, Chris, and for the reminder of God’s charge to us, “unusual suspects” to speak out in these days.

    In Faith and Justice…

    Your Jesus Sister,

  2. October 16, 2009 1:54 pm

    Great post. I was at the 2008 gathering; as immigration is an issue (the issue) for Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, I was keen on surfacing the issue at some point and was busy trying to keep it on our radar. From my perspective, I was not getting much traction. And then Walter Contreras spoke up…

    It was meaningful to me to see how God waited until His right time. We weren’t trying to talk about immigration at the moment of interruption. The agenda item at that point was ‘leadership,’ I believe. But it didn’t make much difference. Everyone stopped; Brenda Salter-McNeil started taking tons of notes. The lunch meeting turned into a strategy session; people volunteered to get information to those requesting more data and background on the issue; we started dreaming and connecting.

    Last week in D.C. at a national immigration mobilization, I met another young evangelical organizer from Texas who is working on this issue, it seems, largely because of how the Duke event changed leaders in his organization. The reverberations continue…


  3. Mary Jo permalink
    October 16, 2009 3:35 pm

    What I would like to learn from stories like these is how to cut right to the “love your neighbor” part —- ignoring everything about that “neighbor” which separates me from them. Max is an example of giving whatever he has, without questioning whether or not it is “enough,”……or whether or not it is “deserved.” Somehow, we can all learn to do that in our lives with the people we encounter, no matter what we have or where we are.

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