The tragedy of a father and daughter from El Salvador drowning while he tried to save her from being swept away by the strong river current reminded the nation of the horror of the unfolding humanitarian crisis at the border.
We must see them.
Martínez was leading his family from El Salvador to legally seek asylum in the United States.
But he was not able to get through the long wait at the border crossing, so he sought to swim the Rio Grande, stand on American soil, turn himself and his family in to Border Patrol and ask for asylum there.
All of that is legal.
But the river took them before they had a chance.
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, on June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. Martínez’s wife, Tania, told Mexican authorities she watched her husband and child disappear in the strong current. (AP Photo/Julia Le Duc)
In addition to these deaths, the news from last weekend of migrant children held in detention in Border Patrol stations in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, without access to soap, toothbrushes, diapers or proper care, rightly caused an outcry from the public. Instead of the border security debate dominating the immigration headlines, Americans are now more fully seeing the human suffering of desperate migrants fleeing from home to a country that they hope will be a place of refuge.
The numbers of migrants coming are staggering.
People protest against U.S. immigration policies on the American side, right, of the Mexico-America border near Tijuana on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
The month of May saw almost 133,000 apprehensions at the U.S. southern border, with 96,000 consisting either of family units or unaccompanied children. The large numbers of migrants now turning themselves in to Border Patrol and asking for asylum has overwhelmed our system.
Our laws require that we hear and process asylum claims and that anyone who sets foot on U.S. soil can claim asylum, but with the government’s primary focus being on zero tolerance, deterrence, security, detention, deportation and keeping migrants away from the border, the number of families and children presenting themselves for asylum is too much to properly administer.
The Border Patrol is overwhelmed and chaos has ensued.
Hearing these stories this week reminded me of what I’ve seen in my own trips to the border in the past year, most recently to El Paso less than two months ago.
There, I connected with a network of churches receiving from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants a day. The churches gave the migrants food and drink and provided a temporary place to rest before they continued their journey to join family in other parts of America.
I’ll never forget seeing the hollow eyes on the faces of exhausted migrants huddled on cots in a church sanctuary that had been haphazardly turned into a migrant shelter in El Paso.
When I arrived, I was told that these migrants had been released by ICE that day to the church. It was midafternoon, but what struck me was that they were so very tired. They sat in the quiet church worship hall in silence. Some slept. Some just sat and stared. Babies didn’t even cry. Mothers held their children close and just looked ahead. No one said a word. No laughter, no conversation. No crying of the children. Just silence. They were all so tired.
I was told by the pastors of the church that many of the migrants who came to them day after day suffered from violence, rape, extortion and threats of being forced into drug gangs. Many of them saw loved ones murdered and they lived under threats of death at the hands of cartels and drug gangs.
Corrupt police and government officials could not protect the poor who were being used and extorted in these countries that are descending into lawlessness.
Yet, prayers from the pastors, shelter, food, love, hospitality, concern, and being received and embraced as fully human encouraged them greatly.
The work of Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical churches along the border over the past several months has been immense. I’ve seen with my own eyes, and through my research with the Evangelical Immigration Table, churches engaging in this hard but needed work of receiving migrants in San Diego-Tijuana; Nogales, Ariz.; El Paso, Texas; and elsewhere. These churches truly are being the hands and feet of Jesus.
But the other side of the work of the church is that it is often fellow Christians who come to the border from the south and make their way across.
I’ve heard from multiple sources that the majority of the migrants coming from Central America are evangelical Christians. I was told by a church shelter manager in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that as many as 75 percent of the migrants they served were evangelicals. Others in El Paso said the proportion of evangelical migrants was well over 50 percent. In significant ways, the ministry of receiving migrants by churches at the border is the ministry of the church embracing Christ himself.
Not long ago, a Nazarene pastor friend of mine was invited to meet with a group of asylum-seekers at the border. Among them was a man named Oscar and his little girl. He had fled to the U.S. to keep her safe. They shared a meal and then Oscar, who said he was part of an evangelical church, told my friend something profound.
“Somos familia,” he said. “Somos hermanos.”
We are family. We are brothers.
Was this the same Oscar? What matters is what the asylum-seeker my friend met said.
“Somos familia. Somos hermanos.”
John Garland, pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship, has also recently written that approximately 80 percent of the migrants that his church receives are evangelical Christians.
I write this not because I think that evangelical Christians have more value than people of other religions or no religion at all, but because I think it is important for American Christians to know that the migrants coming to us are also our brothers and sisters in Christ.
They are family.
How we treat them and see them is how we treat Jesus (Matthew 25:40).
I believe that Jesus sees these desperate people. I believe they matter to him.
Jesus saw Óscar and Valeria. Jesus saw the woman and the three little children who died in the desert. He sees all of the crowds of migrants, harassed and helpless and fleeing from a home where they are no longer safe to journey to a place they have never been.
He wants us to see them too.
Can we, like Jesus, be moved with compassion for the crowds of migrants coming to us? Can we pray for them and weep for migrants like Óscar and Valeria?
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced in June 2019 that her country would shift its focus from traditional metrics of national development like GDP to a well-being budget that prioritizes the happiness of citizens over capitalist gain. Although this sort of state-driven pursuit of happiness might appear to be a novel idea, it actually began in the 1970s, with Bhutan’s King Wangchuck proclaiming that “gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”
Humans seem to have always maintained an intense relationship to happiness. Research is converging on the key ingredients to a happy life, and they do not include increased consumption and more money. Other research indicates that we shouldn’t over-focus on happiness, as that can be counter-productive. Yet the more we seek happiness, the more it can elude us. No sooner have we found it than we begin to sense its fragility and certain end.
Since 2012 and the creation of the World Happiness Report, happiness has had a measurement, with Northern and Western Europe, as well as North America, and other democratic and wealthy countries regularly taking the top positions. This has left many of us scratching our heads. Does that mean that people in other regions such as Africa are necessarily depressed, sad or angry?
Chigozie Obioma, a Nigerian writer and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, asked himself this very question. Obioma’s work explores the negotiation between tradition and modernity and the impact on happiness. In his 2019 novel An Orchestra of Minorities the hero of the novel, Nonso, is a poor, uneducated chicken farmer who stops Ndali, a well-educated young woman, from hurling herself from a bridge. The narrator of the story is Nonso’s chi, the equivalent of a “guardian spirit” that inhabits the human in traditional Igbo cosmology. Nonso’s journey from poverty and ignorance to striving for an education and recognition do not, as it turns out, bring more happiness to his life. Could ignorance really mean bliss?
Having recently listened to a radio interview with Obioma, we were intrigued by his idea that happiness is “noisy and communal” in poorer regions of the world like Africa, whereas despair in wealthier countries like the United States is “silent and alone”. WHO research demonstrating lower suicide rates in Africa compared to Europe seems to back him up. We recently had a conversation with him to explore these questions.
How we face adversity
Obioma tells us that he has increasingly pondered hope and happiness while observing how people in the United States face adversity. Having counselled several depressed students and colleagues, and observing that each semester at least one student commits suicide, he wonders what sets us apart in our ability to maintain hope. The death of one of his students particularly shocked him:
“You know, this girl who killed herself had a job, was on a scholarship, had a car, she can take her passport from the US and go anywhere, anytime… she is in the richest country in the world.”
He suspects that the hopelessness comes from focusing on “external miseries”. So Obioma decided to investigate by going back to his native country to interview everyday people about hope, happiness, and thoughts of death. Once there, Obioma found the paradoxical coexistence of hope and deprivation.
He relates his exchanges with a particular street market vendor selling books (we’ll call him Chiso) in Lagos. Chiso is a father of two and his wife found herself unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and therefore unable to work. Obioma estimates the value of Chiso’s entire stock of books at around 200 dollars and his monthly salary around 80 dollars – at best. Yet despite being what Obioma refers to as the “wretched of the earth”, Chiso strongly believes that:
“tomorrow will be better… he believes that someday a miracle will turn his life around. It is an abstract idea; I mean, he has reasons to be sad too, right? He is unhappy with his situation. But he is deeply hopeful and can separate the difficulty of the now from the hope of tomorrow”.
Hope against hope
Obioma roamed Nigeria speaking with everyday people like Chiso on questions of hope and happiness, asking them “Have you ever considered suicide?” to which he received dozens of resounding “No!” responses. Many African countries like Nigeria are rife with grinding poverty, needless mortality, and high rates of violence. Yet for Obioma, hope is not about remaining complacent in in the face of great social ills. His is simply a story about radical hope and its implications for happiness in situations of far-reaching hopelessness.
Why then does Chiso continue to hope against all odds? Obioma notes that among the Igbo of south-eastern Nigeria, there is a belief in radical individuality tied again to the concept of the chi. It translates as “I have divinity in me; therefore, I am very important, and in some ways the centre of the world”. By extension, the Igbo believe that “if I strive, I can achieve this”. The fact that similar people have tried similar things and failed does not dampen this radical individuality.
Up to now, the Igbo individuality sounds a lot to us like the Protestant insistence on transformative individualism and direct access to the divine. Indeed, like much of southern Nigeria, the Igbo are now predominantly Christian. How does this affect how they see themselves? Whether Christian (in the south) or Muslim (in the north), Nigerians are highly religious. The kind of Nigerian Christianity that Chiso practices is a syncretic cocktail of European missionary-spread Christianity and traditional beliefs. In this way, Christianity does not negate the Igbo “divine individual” but seems rather to reinforce it, enabling people to harness a “all-powerful force to engineer the desired destiny”, says Obioma.
Understanding the human experience
In the early 2000s, one of us carried out ethnographic research on West African traditions and aesthetics in Werewere Liking’s pan-African arts cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. Liking’s Aesthetics of Necessity elaborate on how practical creativity is sparked in highly constrained, resource-strapped environments. For Liking, necessity is what spurs the self into creative action, and for Obioma, it’s what prevents a focus on ‘external miseries’ so prevalent among those living with plenty.
Like Obioma, we are struck by the tension between African “poor yet hopeful” and Western “wealthy yet depressed”. The Western philosophical tradition has always been concerned with the contradictions between wealth and happiness. Aristotle addressed this in his Eudemian Ethics, extolling the importance of “human flourishing”, or eudaimonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, he establishes the negative relationship between the pursuit of wealth and flourishing, reminding us that the “life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking… ” The relevance of Aristotle’s vision holds well today if we consider the negative impact of modern environments in places where wealth abounds. Wealth and modernity do correlate negatively with flourishing: just consider economist Richard Easterlin’s 1974 formulation of the Easterlin paradox: life satisfaction increases with GDP in poor countries, but grows flat in richer countries. In other words, the richer we are, the less we can buy our way into happiness.
So the examples abound – we are in a new age of inquiry into human happiness, particularly abetted by technology, which also brings into focus global inequalities. Yet the fundamental question about whether life is worth living requires a more direct answer. Hope says yes, life is worth living because the best is yet to come. Striving through adversity means hustling on into the future. Some people, it seems, did not need to spend the past two millennia to figure that out. Just ask Chiso.
The commission has the potential to educate the public about dozens of lynchings – some of which occurred with the knowledge or direct involvement of local, county and state government entities. The commission can also provide the opportunity for reconciliation between the families of those who were responsible and the families of those who were killed.
Can it live up to its promise?
Truth commissions around the world
I study human rights, with a particular interest in institutions that hold individuals, organizations and governments accountable for human rights abuses. My current research focuses on truth commissions and how they can be designed to be effective.
A truth commission is a temporary body that investigates different forms and systems of violence that happened in the past. Examples include the commissions that investigated apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Timor-Leste and the dictatorship in Chile.
Generally, governments establish commissions to examine documents and collect witness testimony. A key goal of commissions is preparing a report that details the facts and traces the legacies of violence and abuse. A second, related goal is reconciliation. In Maryland’s case, this would mean working toward respect, understanding and trust of those of other races and their experiences.
In addition, there have been commissions at the local level – for example, the 2004 commission in North Carolina that examined the killing of five anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in Greensboro in 1979. There have also been commissions at the state level – for example, the 2013 commission in Maine that investigated the separation of indigenous Wabanaki children from their communities since 1960.
However, the commission in Maryland will be the first to research lynchings, which investigative journalist Ida B. Wells in 1909 called the U.S.‘s “national crime.”
I have found in my research that a commission needs support from politicians, access to information, and community knowledge and involvement. It appears that the commission in Maryland has – or will have – each of these characteristics. In this regard, it is similar to previous successful commissions.
First, similar to South Africa, the commission has support from politicians on both sides of the aisle – in this case, Democrats and Republicans. Bipartisan support affords the commission public legitimacy as it seeks access to court records, historical archives, and local and statewide newspapers. So, it may be harder to politicize the commission’s work.
Second, as in Timor-Leste, where the commission held hearings in the villages where violence occurred, the commission in Maryland will hold hearings across the state, including in communities where lynchings occurred.
By operating throughout the state, the commission can more easily reach victims’ descendants and collect their stories. Collecting information from as many sources as possible is important to ascertain the truth.
In addition, the commission will be well positioned to broadly share its work and findings, through the hearings themselves, local news reporting and more. This is key to both truth and reconciliation.
In addition, while the families of those responsible for lynchings can work with the commission and take the opportunity to make amends to the victims’ families and communities, they may decline to do so. And victims’ families may not be prepared to forgive.
So, while the commission benefits from broad support from government leaders in Maryland, it may not enjoy similar support from the public.
Whether the obstacles I describe will overcome the strengths of the commission remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the commission represents an important first step and offers a guide for similar efforts in other states.
Daniel Hoskins with guns deposited at the Gregg County Courthouse, in Longview, Texas, following a race riot during the Red Summer. (Library of Congress)
Many people died during the summer and fall of 1919 because of race riots in cities across the country that occurred in more than three dozen cities, including Chicago and a rural county near Elaine, AK. In Chicago, from July 25-August 3, a race riot was ignited when a black teen was stoned to death after crossing an invisible boundary between a segregated part of the Chicago beaches. The riot left 38 people dead, more than 500 injured, and 1,000 black families homeless when their homes were burned down. In Elaine, AK, five whites and twenty-five to fifty Blacks were killed after black sharecroppers attended a farmer’s union meeting to get better pay for their cotton crops. A shooting incident at the meeting escalated into mob violence because of tense racial relations and increasing concern about labor unions at the time, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
Online Resources About the Summer of 1919
A digital archive, map, and timeline of riots and lynchings across the United States in 1919
The Chicago History Museum and the DuSable Museum of African American History come together to remember the historic events of the summer of 1919. Featuring artists and historians, this event recalls the 1919 race riots that forever changed Chicago’s sociopolitical atmosphere. As we reflect on their tragic legacy, we honor the life of Eugene Williams and others affected by police brutality and segregation.
Meet at Margaret T. Burroughs Beach, 3100 South Lake Shore Drive
Free and open to the public. No RSVPs needed.
Nancy Villafranca – Chicago History Museum, Director of Education
Erica Griffin – DuSable Museum, Director of Education
Julius L. Jones
Lethal Poetry, After School Matters, DuSable Museum
Momma Kemba as Ida B. Wells
Avery R. Young
Red Clay Dance Company
4:15–5:00 p.m. FLOAT
FLOAT by Jefferson Pinder and A.J. McClenon is a simple act in the remembrance of the riots of that summer a hundred years ago. Over 100 participants will peacefully drift across a historic invisible racial barrier using inflatables, reactivating and reclaiming a site of violence. While the participants are floating in the lake, at the exact time in which Eugene Williams was stoned to death in the water, a soundscape will draw the participants and the audience into a shared meditative moment.
On a Tuesday evening under the roof of a public picnic shelter, a group of women ages 20 to 55 groaned through a series of high-intensity exercises in the 88-degree heat and humidity.
Cheered on by their leader, who yelled, “you’re getting stronger,” and, “you’re going to feel like Popeye,” the women press on with jumping jacks, burpee box jumps and a set of other cardio exercises with inventive names: “dying cockroach,” “ski moguls,” and “sparky crabs.”
But the intensity of the boot-camp-like drill ended on a quieter, more reflective note 45-minutes later as the women came into a circle, their faces still flush from working out, to close with a prayer:
“Lord, thank you for the time we’ve been able to be together and just exercise,” said Julie Swift, one of the women. “Please bless all these ladies and sustain them through their week. In Jesus’ name we pray.”
After a unison “amen,” they roll up their mats, give each other a hug and head home — until the next workout.
A host of modern exercise groups have sprung up in the last decade that aim to create fitter bodies, minds and hearts: CrossFit, SoulCycle, Pure Barre, Orangetheory.
All promise to empower, strengthen and transform while creating a sense of community.
The latest is Females in Action, a Southern-style fitness program designed to make women stronger and develop friendships. The FiA brand is the female equivalent to F3 — its larger male counterpart, which aims to build men up through fitness, fellowship and faith.
But unlike the for-profit studios that cater to urban millennials willing and able to pay $40 a class, Females in Action (like F3) is free. Workout sessions are peer-led. They most often take place outdoors, in public parks or school fields. And they typically end with a spiritual high five.
“We are focused on fitness, but it goes beyond that,” explained Catherine Butler, who leads one of three Charlotte, North Carolina, FiA groups. “We are a community of women that lifts each other up.”
Started six years ago, FiA has grown to 53 regional workout groups spread across multiple states but heavily concentrated in North and South Carolina. Many are located in the suburbs and appeal to churchgoing working women whose husbands oftentimes participate in the male counterpart.
FiA estimates 5,700 women work out at its exercise sessions, and many say the biggest draw is the camaraderie and support the women offer one another.
“There’s nothing ever negative here,” said Caroline Uenking, 20, who accompanied her mother, Heather, to a recent workout. “It’s all positive.”
Caroline, who has some problems with her calves, and Heather, who has a hard time touching her toes, are never singled out, they said. Instead, they’re encouraged to do what they can, altering a particular exercise to meet their abilities.
Like the F3 male-only version from which it borrows extensively, the workouts have a certain military style that stems from one of its founders, David Redding, a former member of the Green Berets. Although some workouts incorporate yoga and others running, the typical session features aerobic exercise sets in which participants push themselves as hard as they can, rest and repeat.
In keeping with military nomenclature, participants are required to have nicknames, too. Stephanie Walton, the leader of the Apex group, is known as Peachtree; Janice Azeveda, who leads a group that meets in Cary, is known as Van Gogh.
But although the exercises are hardcore, the female-only environment makes it more inviting for some women.
A list of exercises drawn up by Stephanie Walton who leads the Females in Action workout in Apex, N.C. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron
Swift, 55, said she felt overwhelmed attending gym classes alongside men.
“I would prefer women who can influence each other,” she said.
The gender restriction may be part of FiA’s more traditional appeal. If some of the newer fitness center brands draw millennials with no particular faith, FiA draws people who tend to be more religiously conventional.
Though not explicitly Christian, FiA promotes the idea of a belief in a higher being, whatever that might be called (a formula that also echoes the second Alcoholics Anonymous step, “We came to be aware that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”).
Walton, a mom now studying for a degree in health and fitness science, said FiA made her a better person.
“Since I’ve been doing FiA I’ve been going to church more,” she said. “I’ve been doing more soul-searching. It’s just part of it. You start caring about people. You see their children being born. You do things for their husbands when their husbands are sick.”
Not everyone in F3 is religiously devout, and not all sessions end in prayer.
But the group leader, called a “Q,” is expected to end each workout with what’s called a “Circle of Trust,” intended as a short time to reflect.
Azevedo, who leads a 5:30 a.m. workout in nearby Cary, tends to keep things strictly nonsectarian. She concluded a recent session by reading a quote from personal coach Cheryl Richardson about the importance of self care.
A 58-year-old preschool teacher, Azevedo said she nearly fainted the first time she attended a FiA workout. She was never very athletic, she said, and gyms did nothing for her.
“If you decide not to go, nobody at the gym is going to say, ‘Hey, I missed you. Where were you?’” she said. “With this particular group, if you’re not there, somebody checks in with you and asks, ‘Are you OK?’ That’s a beautiful thing, having relationships of support. That’s really important.”
Through FiA, she’s lost weight and gained muscle. Best of all, FiA empowers women and cheers them on.
“It’s a life-changing group,” she said. “Physically you change because you’re taking care of your body. Mentally you change because you’re meeting new people and establishing new relationships and spiritually you change because you’re taking time out to reflect on your life. It’s a good thing.”