Desert Church

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The broad brim of my plain hat shades my face and neck from the relentless Arizona sun as my old mule packer’s boots crunch along a dry creek bed. A small band of us, strangers just days before, are holding what my journal describes as “Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of the Sonoran Desert.” We are a delegation of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). Our ages span five decades, we are more women than men, we are citizens of four nations, and our faith walks include Judaism, agnosticism, secular humanism, Quakerism, Roman Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, Buddhism, and neo-paganism. We are a motley crew, and not just theologically.

We do not speak as we trudge down the watercourse towards a small copse of trees. Our migrant aid kits – consisting of water, food, socks, and medical supplies – are heavy on our backs.

A hundred yards from the trees, we stop moving. We don’t want to surprise any migrants taking refuge in the shade. The Sonoran silence is sonorous. I take three breaths of air that is five degrees warmer than my body’s temperature and let out:

“¡Buenos días, amigos! Tenemos agua y comida y ayuda medico.” [“Good morning, friends. We have water and food and first aid.”]

A moment goes by, but there is no answer. The silence has swallowed my call to communion. “Somos amigos. ¡No somos la ley!” [“We are friends. We are not the law!”]

Then: “Somos la iglesia.”

We are the church.

What does it mean to live in a multifaith, multiethnic, multicultural society? It means celebrating difference, engaging radical inclusivity, and a continued dedication to Truth-seeking. Hate, bigotry, fear, xenophobia and nationalism have no place in the beloved community. Are there walls on the border of the Kin-dom of Heaven?

We leave several gallons of water under the trees and take away as much refuse as we can carry. Then we continue on our slow trek, our blue banner carried by the diminutive, self-described “Goth chick” from Indianapolis, followed by the solemn Buddhist monk, whose shaved head is protected by his crimson Christian Peace Teams ball cap.

Quaker theologian and goat-herd Jim Corbett seems to walk beside us in cracked cowboy boots,  the spirit of his arthritic hand occasionally pointing out some feature of this desert landscape that he loved. One of founders of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, Corbett pioneered something he called “civil initiative,” which involves enforcing the law, rather than breaking it, as Thoreau had done with “civil disobedience.”

Corbett believed, with regard to political refugees, that both Torah and international law require that the U.S. border be open to anyone in need of sanctuary. He crossed la frontera many times, accompanying Central Americans fleeing U.S.-sponsored tyranny, war, terrorism, and economic exploitation in their homelands. He was eventually tried in federal court, but like the trickster coyote he so admired, he escaped the grasp of Empire to return again to the mesquite scrub and the warm embrace of the Sonoran ecosystem.

The night before, lying in my tent, I had read Corbett’s words by bright moonlight: “There’s no way for us to take our stand with the refugees while retaining the privileges and immunities the war machine provides us. . . If we do give up our position of privilege, a place to stand with the dispossessed and serve the Peaceable Kingdom can only be found in a special kind of community that dedicates itself to such service. . . During recent weeks I’ve been discovering this catholic church that is a people rather than creed or rite, a living church of many cultures that must be met to be known.” (Jim Corbet, Goatwalking, 1991)

I like to believe that it is Corbett’s “living church” that is practicing Meeting for Worship on the Occasion of the Sonoran Desert, as our Christian Peacemaker Team wends its way through the hostile landscape under a relentless solar hammer. While our nominal religious identities might divide us, our covenantal practice of being church transcends all limited and flawed attempts to bind truth and fit it wholesale into a given book, creed, or ritual. The embodiment of compassion, the surrender of ego, the commitment to satyagraha, the welcoming of sacrificial witness, and the experience of the Earth as sacred – these are the religio that binds us together.

The next day, we are at a CPT aid station in Agua Prieta, on the Mexican side of the imaginary line called “border.” Kneeling on cement, under a portable canvas awning, Chaim and I are washing the feet of two men who have just been deported without receiving food, water, rest, or medical attention. Their feet are raw and blistered. One of the men, Diego, pulled a cactus spine out of the top of his foot this morning, and the injury is swollen and oozing pus. I bathe it carefully, dry it, and apply disinfectant and a bandage.

He is from Oaxaca, a brick mason, my age. He misses his kids. “¿Y tú?” he asks. [“And you?”]

He is curious about why we are here. He nods at my plain Quaker clothing. Some Latin Americans have known Mennonite and Amish homesteaders from el Norte who are also plain. “¿Christianos?” he asks.

“Sí,” says Chaim, who is as Jewish as a person can be. He means that we follow the teaching and example of that radical first-century rabbi whose mother, Miryam, called him Yeshua, rendered “Jesus” in the Greek. Chaim nods as he hands over a fresh pair of socks. “Somos Christianos.” [“We are Christians.”]

“Somos la iglesia,” I say. [“We are the church.”]

Diego smiles and nods. He pulls a small gold cross out of his shirt and kisses it. Then he says in heavily accented English:

“We are church!”  ~~~

Carl Magruder, MA, MDiv, BCC, is a “cradle Quaker” and palliative care chaplain, whose ministry is under the care of Strawberry Creek Meeting (PYM).