The Desert Belongs to No One and the Sky is Wide Open

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“The desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open.”[1] Words of the poet, Salah Al Hamdani. This is a sermon about borders—borders that divide people from people: not only national borders, which exist in so many cases as the results of long ago wars over land and resources—wars where might made right and the victor determined where and how the lines would be drawn; but also the borders of identity, as in the way race can become a border that divides us, the way class can become a border that divides us, the way sexual orientation, gender, age, ability, politics, religion can become borders that divide us. Still, if you take only one idea from this sermon, don’t let it be the message that people are divided. Instead, remember the words of the poet: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. The desert and the sky don’t recognize the borders we humans draw. Yes, we draw them, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We draw them, but there is also something in us—and by ‘us’ I mean liberal religious people, though I hope this is true for most people—there is something in us that rejects the idea of a divided human family. There is something in us that cannot tolerate a divided human family. Perhaps for Unitarian Universalists our sixth principle points most clearly towards this something in us: “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” There is something in us that longs to transcend the borders that divide us. There is something in us that knows the desert belongs to no one, that knows the sky is wide open. This morning I want to call forth and nurture that something in us. I want to call forth and nurture that something in us that believes we elevate our humanity and assert our dignity when we move across any border that isolates us from other human beings. This is the message I want you to hear: When it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

For me this is not only a political and social message. It is also a spiritual message.  I come back time and time again to the words of one of Unitarian Universalism’s spiritual forebears, the 19th century Unitarian minister turned Transcendentalist philosopher and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who once said, “Spirit primarily means wind; transgression; the crossing of a line; supercilious; the raising of an eyebrow.”[2] Although it was not the point he was making, I have always heard in these words a claim about what it means to be a spiritual person. Like the desert that belongs to no one, like the sky that is wide open, wind knows no borders. It blows where it blows. It transgresses. It crosses lines. It picks things up from one place and puts them down in another. If spirit primarily means wind, then I say being a spiritual person means cultivating a willingness and a desire to cross the lines that separate us from the rest of life. Being a spiritual person means actively transgressing our habitual ways of thinking, our creeds and dogmas, our unexamined assumptions and conventions that keep us separate from the rest of life. To be a spiritual person means being willing to cross borders, especially those that arbitrarily and unfairly separate us from the rest of life. If you are in doubt, err on the side of crossing.

In two weeks I will travel to Phoenix, AZ for the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly or “GA.” As some of you already know, this year’s GA is different than usual. This year, we convene in a state that is under boycott. Local immigrants’ rights organizations such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network[3] and Puente[4] (which means ‘bridge”) called for the boycott in April, 2010 when Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. At the time SB 1070 was one of the most radical anti-immigration statutes in the country, giving unprecedented powers to state and local police, sanctioning racial profiling, and blurring the line between state and federal authority related to the enforcement of immigration law. (Similarly radical laws have been passed in other states since that time such as Georgia’s HB 87[5] and Alabama’s HB 56.[6]) Given that the Unitarian Universalist Association had already scheduled its 2012 GA to take place in Phoenix, and given that Unitarian Universalists, despite having a range of opinions on the subject of illegal immigration, generally agree that laws like SB 1070 go too far in their violation of human rights and human dignity, the call for the boycott created a dilemma. Would we go to Phoenix and bring the millions of dollars that we typically pump into the local economy during GA, thereby tacitly supporting an unjust law? Or would we pull out of Phoenix and forfeit the more than $600,000 we’d already paid to reserve the convention center and hotels?

Two months after SB 1070 became law, our 2010 General Assembly convened in Minneapolis and wrestled with this dilemma. Should we go to Phoenix in 2012? Should we go to the border, or not? In the end, we decided to go. With input from the UU congregations in Arizona—especially in Phoenix—and with input from the grassroots organizers of the Arizona boycott, and after what the vast majority of participants described as a healthy and principled debate, we decided to stick with our plan to meet in Phoenix, but agreed that this will be a “Justice GA.” Instead of conducting business as usual, we will use our GA as an opportunity to learn firsthand about the plight of undocumented immigrants and their families; to bear witness to the injustices of AZ’s immigration law, the injustices that come with mass detention and deportation; and to call for federal immigration reform that respects the human dignity not only of immigrants but of working people in general.

Our ministry theme for June is borders. We chose this theme in reference to the Phoenix Justice GA. The reference is, of course, to national borders. There is no question that our national borders have become politically and economically divisive in recent years. They have also become a spiritual issue for many faith communities. What is our relationship to people who migrate across the border, especially those who are undocumented?  How are we called to treat immigrants? Does the old Biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger?” have any bearing on this national conversation? As a society we don’t agree on the answers to these questions. Certainly not all Unitarian Universalists agree on the answers to these questions. But the Unitarian Universalist Association has taken a very bold public stance in support of civil rights and humane treatment for undocumented immigrants, and I like to think that that is something we all can agree on.

For example, last Monday the Unitarian Universalist Standing on the Side of Love campaign called attention to a tragic anniversary. In an email to campaign followers, Dan Furmansky, the campaign director told the story of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas who was tased and beaten while in the custody of the United States Border Patrol on May 28, 2010. He was 42 years old. He died that night. “A San Diego resident since he was a teenager, Anastasio was captured at the U.S.-Mexico border while trying to return to his wife, Maria, and his five children after having been deported. The incident, captured on camera, offers a chilling glimpse of his screams and pleas for his life as a dozen agents stand over him. Border Patrol has refused to release the names of the agents responsible or reveal whether those involved have been disciplined.”[7] Rojas was murdered by Border Patrol agents. The murder was filmed. The film is on the internet. But no one has been held accountable. I don’t know anything about Mr. Rojas. I don’t know the circumstances that brought him to the US as a teenager. I don’t know why he was deported 25 years later. But, in the end, none of it matters: he didn’t deserve to die for trying to reunite with his wife and children. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to support civil rights for immigrants. That’s what I’m talking about when I say we need to respect the human dignity of immigrants. That’s why it feels so important for me to be present for Justice GA.

Was Mr. Rojas breaking the law when he crossed the US-Mexico border? Certainly. But can any of us imagine being separated from our children in that way, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to reunite with them? Can any of us imagine being forcibly removed from our community of 25 years—a community we’ve known as home since our childhood—and sent into what is essentially a foreign land, and not feeling compelled to do everything in our power to return? If it were me I don’t know if I’d have the courage or the nerve to cross back, but I’m convinced my spirit would be screaming, “Go! Transgress. Cross the line.” And if I were Mr. Rojas’ pastor and he came to me for counsel—“Pastor what should I do? My whole life is on the other side of this border”—although I would not feel remotely confident in my ability to counsel anyone in such a situation, even knowing how the story ends, I simply cannot imagine advising him to stay in Mexico and start a new life. I would want him to explore how long it would take for him to legally enter the US—it would likely be decades. If he could not tolerate that many years, I would consider with him the risks of crossing because I am aware people die in the desert, and they die in custody. But in the end, the desert belongs to no one, the sky is wide open. If his spirit were crying out for him to cross (as it clearly was), I would pray with him, tell him to be careful, to carry water, to not resist if he is caught. I would bless his journey. And his death would now weigh heavily on my heart and soul.

Earlier I read Sam Hamill’s poem, “Homeland Security,”[8] in which he pokes holes in this concept which predates the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, but which entered into the nation’s political life—and its spiritual life—with new-found vehemence and vigor, with a new-found hyper vigilance in the wake of those attacks. (“If you see something, say something.”) Hamill is saying we live with a false sense of homeland; we accept a lie about what the homeland is. The homeland we secure today is built on a legacy of violence. He names “our old genocides, the Indian Wars.” He names “those who sailed west with cargoes of human flesh in chains.” These legacies of imperialism, colonialism and racism live on in us (and by “us’ I mean the American people); they have made us a people rife with borders, a people prone to strengthening borders. “We cry, ‘We!’” says Sam Hamill. “We cry, ‘Them!’” These legacies of we and them permeate the American soul. They permeate the American spirit. I’m not just referring to the physical border Anastasio Hernandez Rojas crossed hoping to reunite with his family. I’m also referring to the psychic borders—for example, the one marked by racial difference that George Zimmerman perceived Trayvon Martin to be crossing before confronting him and eventually killing him this past February 26th in Sanford, Florida. In the aftermath of such atrocities, the legacies of we and them do battle within each of us and among all of us. That is, our collective instinct to secure the homeland does battle with that something in us that seeks to transcend borders. Our collective instinct to be wary and fearful of the other does battle with that something in us that is curious about and wants to be in relationship with the other. All the ways we divide people from people—race, class, ethnicity, culture, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, politics, faith and on and on—all of it does battle with what we know in our hearts: the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. All of it does battle with the notion that spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line.

The way we, the American people, speak of homeland today implies borders—strong, well-defended borders. It is not my intention to suggest that somehow we need more porous borders or that excessive airport security is not necessary to insure safety, or that the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all would become a reality if we somehow just did it. Our borders are with us for now. But that does not mean we cannot integrate Sam Hamill’s notion that the homeland is also “a state of grace, of peace, a whole new world that patiently awaits …. A taste of mind, a light flooding the garden, a transcendent moment of compassionate awareness, one extraordinary line in some old poem that reveals or exemplifies a possibility … in time … in time….”[9]  It is possible to have borders and still uphold human rights. It is possible to have borders and still respect human dignity. It is possible to have borders and simultaneously know and honor the people on the other side. It is possible to have borders that don’t tear families apart in the middle of night. That is the message of our justice GA in Phoenix.

I’m pretty sure there will always be a need for borders, that the presence of borders in our lives is, to some extent, inescapable. Nevertheless, we know in our hearts the desert belongs to no one and the sky is wide open. Spirit primarily means wind and a parent who loves their children, if they become separated, will do whatever is in their power to reunite with them. Knowing how perilous it can be to cross borders in our time, I do not give this advice lightly: when it comes to the question of borders, if you are in doubt, first be sure you know the risks, but err on the side of crossing.

Amen and blessed be.

 



[1] Al Hamdani, Salah, “In the Mirror of Baghdad,” Baghdad Mon Amour (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2008) p. 180.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Nature,” in Whicher, Stephen E., ed., Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960) p. 31.

[7] This quote is from Mr. Furmansky’s May 28, 2012 email. Mr. Rojas’ story and video of the tasing and beating that led to his death can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/anastasio-hernandez-rojas-death-border-patrol-tasing-footage_n_1441124.html#s=450562 and http://act.presente.org/sign/anastasio/?source=presente_website.

[8] Hamill, Sam, “Homeland Security” Measured By Stone (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2007) pp. 84-85.

[9] Ibid., p. 85.