Better to Receive

San Diego, Calif. Family members reunite through bars and mesh of the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Friendship Park on November 17, 2013 in San Diego, Calif. The U.S. Border Patrol allows people on the American side to visit with friends and family through the fence on weekends, although under supervision from Border Patrol agents. Access to the fence from the Tijuana, Mexico side is 24/7. Deportation and the separation of families is a major theme in the immigration reform debate.

I was sitting on a raggedy picnic table looking up at the fence between Mexico and California. Towards the top of the fence, there was a painting of a man holding a balloon with one hand, holding his wife’s hand with the other, and the children floating behind them. That image was copied over and over as far as I could see. It captured what many people at this fence must feel. The desire to fly.

Because the sky doesn’t have any borders.

We were in Friendship Park in Tijuana, a place where there is a fence instead of a wall so that people on both sides of the border can come to see each other.

Patches of the one you love through tiny holes is better than nothing, I guess.

I was on the Mexican side. Just a few stamps and a look at my pale complexion got me here. Just a few stamps would get me back over.

I watched the woman in front of me talking to her husband through the fence. Separated because of deportation, perhaps. She stuck her pinky in through the hole to touch her beloved’s skin.

So close, but so far away.

In that moment I wished that I could give this woman my passport, my easy access into a place that was locked to her. That she could go to her husband and hold him close to her heart instead of trying to reach for him through her tiny wishing squares.

During dinner the night before, I sat across the table from a man who had been deported hours earlier. He had lived in Arizona since 1991. The life he knew for 24 years including his wife, children, and grandchildren, became a distant memory in a matter of hours. There was little hope for him to reunite with them. The four story holding center we were staying in was filled with men with similar stories.

We had also met Oscar, an unsung hero who has picked up thousands of unaccompanied minors from the border and in Tijuana. He feeds them, clothes them, and tries everything he can to reunite them with their families. Many of these young ones would find themselves on the streets or sold into the sex trade if Oscar was not giving his life to help them.

All of this weighed heavy on my heart as I sat gazing at that painting of a family floating away to a better place.

I had faced some of my own small tragedies that week: I found out one of my best friends has cancer. Another dear friend’s father had a stroke. And a third friend lost her adult son in a diving accident.

Throughout the week, our group had talked about the beauty of lamenting. Of sitting with someone in their pain and mourning with them, not attempting to fix anything. Just saying “I see your pain, and I weep with you.”

So I let myself cry for a while. For me. For my friends. For these beautiful people. For a world that waits in ancient yearning for light to come.

An older Mexican lady wearing a dirty yellow dress came over to me. Her calloused hands reached for a bag of pork rinds that she was trying to sell, but she paused when she saw that I was crying. Compassion shined from her.

She set her basket down, put her hands on my shoulders, and said “Christo, te ama. Christo te ama.”

Christ loves you.

She continued to pray in Spanish, words I didn’t understand.

I realized in that moment that in my ten or so times coming to Mexico, I never came receiving. I came to give.

Throughout high school I came to put on Vacation Bible Schools, which are some of the best memories of my life. In college and after college I came to do more evangelistic trips, and also taught and played several times for different events.

I always came singing, preaching, giving. And there was nothing wrong with that. There was a place for that.

But this trip was different. I came with my community through The Global Immersion  Project, an organization that has little agenda other than to seek to understand complex issues from different angles. This trip was helping us learn how to become everyday peacemakers, which looks a lot like listening hard to someone’s story, and in response contending with them, (tending to the issue with them), and working with each other and with God to see restoration come. 

I realized on this trip that the narrative of immigration had been tightly woven into Mexican culture, but  I knew almost nothing about it. I was acting like one of those friends that takes you to coffee and talks so much that you never get a word in edgewise. I finally stopped long enough to hear the people I have loved for so long tell their story.

It only took me two decades to realize that it was their turn to talk.

I listened. The story was tragic and beautiful. Like listening to a story often does, it changed my life.

I thought of all of this as the woman stood there with her hands on my back. I felt a compulsion to take her hands and say “I’m a Christian too! Can I pray for you?”

Because that’s what Jesus did, right? He washed the disciples feet. He served. Shouldn’t I be the one praying?The one serving?

But maybe in this scenario, I was the disciple in need of my feet being washed. How presumptuous of me to always compare myself to Jesus to in that story. Maybe this beautiful woman was being Jesus to me.

Jesus said that it was better to give than to receive, and I believe that is true in many circumstances.

But in some cases, it is better to receive than to give.

It is better to receive when it gives someone dignity.

It is better to receive when that interchange reminds us that we don’t stand on a ladder, but an open field, our arms around each other.

It is better to receive  if receiving means that you are listening. Listening and loving look so much alike that you can barely tell them apart.

It is better to receive when it helps us remember that we are all in the same boat, traveling through the tumultuous waters of human experience, comforting each other as we sail towards a better place.

So I didn’t say anything to this woman, and I didn’t stop her from praying for me. I felt her warm hands on my back when I needed human touch the most. I felt her prayers course over me like rain on a scorching hot day. She washed my feet. She washed my feet and I thought…

It feels so good to receive.

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