CCAR members and clergy from other faiths were in El Paso, Texas July 28-29th for two days in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. We have invited them to share their experiences in a short series on RavBlog.
I don’t know the little girl’s name, but she is still with me.
On the side of a long, lonely road, with nine somber adults as her only company, this three-year-old delighted. She flitted about, unencumbered by the midsummer evening’s heavy, Texas heat. The billowing clouds of dust left in her wake provided a welcome relief from the eerie stillness of Clint’s Customs and Borders Facility, and the harsh geometry of the razor-wire fence surrounding it. This formerly little-known building became infamous for imprisoning children, stolen from their parents, penned in cages far beyond capacity, in conditions eye-witnesses described as squalid, degrading and torturous. The girl’s frolicking reminded me of how, beyond the basics of love, food, shelter and clothing, children need very little. They can amuse themselves with a patch of space, and the freedom to move about in it.
My colleagues and I had come to El Paso to join Reverend William Barber and Rabbi Rick Jacobs in Moral Monday at the Borderlands, an interfaith call to peaceful action, protesting our government’s intensifying assault on immigrants and refugees. A crowd of approximately 100 clergy stood at the gates of the El Paso detention center and, with about 500 people of faith accompanying us, requested to make a pastoral visit to the inmates inside. It was a national event, publicized and covered in every form of media.
Several hours later, a carload of Reform Jewish women – one lay leader, one cantor, three rabbis – drove 45 minutes to Clint for a far smaller, but no less meaningful, act of resistance. Every Monday night, people gather in front of this detention center for a candlelight vigil. It is energized by Peggy and Yvonne, who live in El Paso. They feel desperate, as do so many of us, to get as proximate as possible to the frightened children languishing inside. And so they come, and sometimes others join them.
I connected with Peggy through #CitizenPresence. This grassroots twitter network enables enraged Americans to pool resources, ideas and talents to support a steady flow of ordinary citizens into the Borderlands, so we can directly witness, protest and document the atrocities at their epicenter. It was started by Georgetown Law Professor, Heidi Li Feldman, who models that one determined person who pursues a vision can make great things happen.
When we arrived, we first met Ray, a retiree from Florida, who calls himself an “ashamed veteran.” Agitated to act, he raised a couple of thousand dollars and drove to Clint, set up large, hand-made protest signs, and remained there all day, every day, for as many weeks as his shoestring budget allowed. Chatting with Ray was Amy Cantrell, a Presbyterian Pastor, who had traveled from North Carolina for Moral Monday and is also part of #CitizensPresence.
Peggy and Yvonne pulled up. Peggy brought candles, and Yvonne brought her three-year-old granddaughter. Peggy invited us to join in their weekly ritual (my word, not hers). Dusk dissolved into dark, framing a full moon. We lit our candles and formed a circle. Each of us shared our reason for coming. We poured out rage and determination, helplessness and hope. Ray expressed his frustration at giving all that he could and still feeling like it wasn’t making a difference. I responded with the Pirkei Avot verse, “The task is not ours to complete, nor can we desist from it.” Pastor Amy gifted us with a simple and profound summary of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching: “Love is never wasted.”
We stood, our silence punctuated by little girl giggles and the occasional whoosh of a car zooming by.
Then, perhaps most poignant, our friends led us in singing lullabies, English and Spanish, to the children struggling for sleep under harsh lights, on hard floors, under Mylar sheets. Even if our offering couldn’t reach their ears, surely it was carried by God.
Yvonne invited us to share a Jewish song. Cantor Hollis Schachner introduced Hashkiveinu, describing it as a lullaby assuring that the darkness of night is not something to fear, but a blanket of divine protection. We sang, weaving Hebrew into these melodies of resistance.
By this point, sleepy from the late hour and her play, Yvonne’s granddaughter had made her way to our circle, settling inside at her grandmother’s feet. Peggy asked if we would offer a prayer. As the Jewish clergy began chanting and speaking the priestly benediction, all nine of us instinctively huddled close, protectively encircling the little girl. Nine adults, with a small child bringing us to minyan. A child whose name I don’t know. A child happy and well fed, heading home to a bath, a soft bed and a house full of family. A child only separated from the many children, whose names we don’t know, by concrete walls and barbed wire, the distance of a ball toss, and luck.
We carry them with us.
Rabbi Sarah Reines serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City.