Most of the people who read this blog post live in what we could call the world of the #blessed (a.k.a. the land of #firstworldproblems). We have very real, valid emotional experiences and suffer inconveniences and even infuriating injustices, but we do not usually have our lives crushed catastrophically by impersonal systems that are in the background of our awareness.
Over the past four months that I have been supporting a refugee family, I have discovered first-hand a very different world in which people’s actual physical survival is at the mercy of indifferent impersonal bureaucracies like the kind that frustrate me but do not threaten my life. The world in which they live is what we might call the world of the crucified. It’s not that their stories are valid in a ways that #blessed people aren’t, but the lethal injustice they suffer is a crisis that can easily be ignored and turned into an anonymous statistic by those of us who are unaffected.
Two nights ago, I drove to Houston because I needed my car to be there and I needed to get on a plane the following morning. At about 1:00 am, I arrived at the airport hotel where I booked a reservation and there was a small problem: I had made the reservation for the following night and every room was booked even though one room was actually uninhabited.
So I had a bit of a meltdown and the people behind the counter had to call India to talk to the customer service guy with Hotels.com. And his hands were tied because the available room wasn’t in his system and he couldn’t cancel my incorrect reservation because it was within 24 hours. So there was a back and forth for about half an hour as I stood semi-comatose leaning on the counter.
I got exasperated and I started getting cheeky with the guy from India because he told me he had to get on another phone line to call the woman behind the counter who was two feet in front of me when I could have simply handed her the phone I was holding. The people behind the counter were very gracious with me. They made it work, and I gave them a five star rating. The guy from India probably deserved one too, but I had made him into the scapegoat for a maddening customer service bureaucracy.
The next morning, I was in line at an airport coffee shop and I witnessed another inhabitant of my #blessed world having a bad morning. I wasn’t paying close attention but an older white woman who had a lot of makeup and expensive looking jewelry was getting flustered with the barista I think because she wanted to grab a packaged item really quick and not wait in a 20 minute line where everyone else wanted a freshly made cup of coffee.
The barista very politely asked me if the older woman could jump in front of me and pay for her item. And she yelled at him, “So now you’re going to make a scene!” It was hard to tell what happened next because I looked down at my phone. But there was a big commotion as she left in a huff. And when I saw her a minute later, I shot her a dirty look because people in the world of the #blessed treat service employees as dispensable punching bags (kind of like I had done the night before with the guy who might have been from a south Asian country or simply had a south Asian accent).
Why did she flip out? She was probably late for her plane. She was probably embarrassed and self-conscious about the request she was making. She was also expressing a sense of entitlement that all members of the world of the #blessed have, not because it’s our fault, but because what’s real to us is our stress out about getting on planes in a timely way and our terror of being part of “a scene” that gets “made.”
There’s a different side to these interactions where the stakes are quite a bit higher. What happens if the stressed out lady in a hurry or the exasperated late night traveler from the world of #blessed take out their frustration by filing a complaint against the (usually brown or black) service employee who becomes the receptacle of our frustration? Then what was an inconvenience or humiliation for us becomes a job security issue for them.
The world of the #blessed and the world of the crucified come together in the place where people, whose thankless, anonymous, transactional jobs depend upon the feelings of the people they serve, have to suck it up and receive the crosses we put on their shoulders without losing their smile. Sometimes even a smile isn’t enough. If they give even a hint that they are having to stretch the rules to accommodate our presumptuousness and privilege, however politely they speak, then they might lose their jobs for “making a scene” that embarrasses us.
Now let me give you a completely different example of what life looks like in the world of the crucified. A family is physically threatened by masked men holding guns in one country so they flee to the one place that they’ve always heard is the bastion of freedom in the world. They don’t want to do anything deceitfully so they fly into Mexico, take a bus to the border, and walk up to the port of entry where they request political asylum.
Because the impersonal government bureaucracy they face doesn’t trust political asylum seekers as a matter of policy and has been further politicized by the strategic stoking of white anxiety against immigrants, the father in the family is imprisoned like a criminal while the mother and children are released into our country with the provision that the mother is not allowed to work and earn money while their asylum case is pending.
The mother and children find refuge miraculously through a chain of people that the Holy Spirit somehow strings together. Meanwhile, a lawyer agrees to take the father’s asylum case. Time passes and they think they have a flawless case because the mother has worked as a journalist and community organizer who was persecuted for her political work, the very definition of why political asylum was invented.
Meanwhile, even worse, the family learns that their teenage daughter was supposed to appear in court for an asylum proceeding they were never informed about because the immigration court system does not take any responsibility for proactively communicating with transient, extremely vulnerable people whose addresses change rapidly.
Despite the fact that the family filed a change of address form with ICE, the court system requires a different change of address form. Despite the fact that the agent behind the counter at the ICE office several weeks earlier had said there were no pending court dates, there were actually two: one for the daughter and one for the mother. The daughter missed hers so she was ordered for deportation in absentia while the mother must travel to her court date within a week’s time or she will be ordered for deportation and the whole family will be sent back to a country where a powerful paramilitary organization is trying to kill them.
So the impossible decision the family has to make is whether to split the family up so that the daughter doesn’t risk being stopped by ICE on the way to her mother’s court date or taking that awful risk so that the family doesn’t get split up. Everyone in the world of the #blessed has different advice to give the family. Some people wave off the potential danger the daughter faces because of the impracticality of ICE wasting its resources on a teenager. Others think the mother should travel alone. Others say that the mother shouldn’t even show up at her hearing but should go underground immediately because our government has gone fully fascist.
It’s impossible to see from the vantage point of #blessed how dangerous government agencies really are to those who are being crucified. Some of us have the existential need to be part of an epic struggle against fascism so we eat up every opportunity to sensationalize it. Others of us are sure that whatever happened in Nazi Germany could never happen here and that irresponsible analogies exacerbate our toxic social discourse. Others of us have had our eyes newly opened to horrors that we only knew about before in an anonymous statistical sense. Others of us have experienced the world of the crucified for enough time to know that the America that seems to have deteriorated now is an America that never existed for the crucified.
But none of us know what it’s like to be a man who fled for his life to a country he thought was the one bastion of freedom in the world only to wind up imprisoned and criminalized and told that he’s lying about what happened to his family. None of us know what it costs for that man to say, “I trust in the Lord. Not my will but his will be done.” I was in a prison visiting room in Arizona when he said that yesterday and I’ve been trying not to cry ever since then. But I knew that he was closer to Jesus in that moment than I will probably ever be. Because he lives in the world of the crucified where Jesus lives.
When the mother has her hearing this week, it’s possible that the deportation orders already issued against her family members will be red flags that automatically torpedo her chances at a fair hearing. It’s possible that the judge will say that because the family didn’t fill out the right change of address form for the court system within the mandated five days, the asylum case of the daughter cannot be reopened and their journey is simply over after everything the Holy Spirit made happen for the past several months.
Because I live in the world of the #blessed, I always presume that stories of desperate hardship are supposed to have happy endings. Honestly it seems like pious faith to say, “I’m sure everything will turn out fine because God’s in charge” as so many have said to me and as I so badly want to say. I presume that God is going to reach down and change the destiny of people I love because they’re my people and God loves me. I want them to be #blessed with me, my hand-picked crucified companions so that I won’t have to suffer the agony of seeing a family who has been sewn into my heart getting thrown away like a piece of trash by a shrugging bureaucracy whose policies are tailored to disincentivize migration to my country through abject cruelty.
But there are so many anonymous people in the world of the crucified. There are so many unconnected, un-cared for refugees from the hills of Honduras or the deserts of Sudan who will never get anywhere close to a shot at making it. What is Jesus doing for them? What about the people World Vision doesn’t have a page for? Does their suffering count if they don’t ever make it into the scope of vision of someone who lives in the world of the #blessed where I do?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. I just know that my life has come to matter more the more that I tumble into the netherworld of people whose lives don’t matter. The crucified world is where eternal life happens. The fake afterlife insurance version of eternal life that #blessed people have spun together to suit our existential tastes is a pathetic perversion of the actual life that Jesus invites us into when he says take up your cross and follow me. Take up your cross is the invitation to risk our #blessedness and allow ourselves to be crucified with those who never were #blessed.
So due to whatever strange mix of adolescent existential cravings, legitimate moral convictions, and genuine compassion are part of my soul, I will continue to give everything I have to fighting for the survival of this family whom God has given me to love, while a modern-day Ann Frank sleeps in the seat next to me through our perilous journey to justice.