Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.
Open the eyes of my heart. I want to see you.
For the first time in all my 19 years of life, I left the United States and entered—body and soul—into a new country. I physically stepped through the San Ysidro Port of Entry into Mexico with all of my belongings on my back. It was just me, my journal, a change of clothes, and a ready heart. I was beginning a pilgrimage, an entering into the unfamiliar, an unfamiliar I so desperately wanted to know and understand. And after crossing back to the U.S. two days later, I feel like I do know and understand just a little better.
Over the course of the weekend, our group talked to U.S. Border Patrol agents, viewed the border from the U.S. side, crossed the border, spoke to an organization in Tijuana that fights human trafficking, viewed the border from the Tijuana side, stayed at a migrant shelter with deportees, and worshipped at a Nazarene church in Tijuana alongside our TJ friends.
As we walked through Tijuana, I was initially overwhelmed with color. I was almost drowning in bright paints and bright blankets and bright signs and bright people. A cacophony of music of every kind was blasting through staticky speakers and car radios. But, I did recognize a sense of outward brokenness. I saw blatantly advertised sex tourism and children running around with styrofoam cups looking for loose change.
At one point, a little boy looked up at me with a cup in his hand, with his deep brown eyes and toothless smile, and in that moment, I realized my shelteredness. My ignorance and confusion of this kind of life. A heartbrokenness rose inside of me for these people, these people so like me and unlike me at the same time. I realized how separated I am from them—the physical barriers, the language barriers, the barriers of our own separate lives we live. And I recognized a small stirring inside my heart to begin to understand it all. To enter into this reality. To witness it and live it.
And now that I’m home, I need to write. This is how I process, and I need to tell about my experience and what I now know, having seen this all first-hand. This post is honest and raw. I am not trying to win an argument. I’m telling my story, exactly how I saw things through my eyes—my take on this complex, multi-faceted issue.
What I learned from U.S. Border Patrol Agent Mark Vander Lee at the Imperial Beach Border Station:
I learned a lot from Mr. Vander Lee. After 10 years as a border patrol agent, he said he has never gone to Mexico and has no reason to go to Mexico. He said he is sure he would be hated there. Because of his experience and the danger he puts himself in every day, he admitted he’s become unsensitized to a lot of tragedies. He sees immigration through a narrow lens of drugs and violence. One thing that struck me was when he talked about the lack of border patrol agents. On any given day at the border, the closest agent to him might be 10 miles away. Sometimes he has to arrest groups of 20, 30, even 60 all on his own. What I took away from his presentation is that he, too, is just as broken as some of the deportees I talked to later on the trip. We need to remember to thank Border Patrol Agents for, day and after day, quite literally risking their lives.
What I learned from Alma Tucker:
Alma runs an organization called International Network of Hearts that fights human trafficking in Tijuana and San Diego by housing and providing services for rescued victims, a lot of which are minors. Human trafficking, a billion-dollar industry, continues to be on the rise. Drugs can only be sold once, but humans can be sold over and over. It was shocking to drive through Tijuana’s red-light district in our bus and see women, in the middle of the afternoon, on the street waiting for dates. The most disturbing part was seeing a cop car parked in the street protecting the businesses, night clubs, and “gentleman’s clubs” that benefit from modern-day slavery.
What I learned from deportees at Casa Del Migrante:
Casa Del Migrante is a special, sacred place. It’s a Catholic-run migrant shelter that houses around 200 male deportees at any given time. There were migrants from all over: lots of Haitian migrants trying to get Mexican citizenship and undocumented migrants from the U.S. who were recently deported to Mexico and have no place to go because their lives—their families and homes—are in the U.S. Casa Del Migrante provides meals and a place for them to sleep while helping them find jobs, etc.
During dinner at the Casa, I sat across from a man named Gabriel. He spoke perfect English, so I was able to engage and hear his story. He was so full of suffering, but so full of hope. Gabriel moved with his parents from Mexico City to L.A. when he was four years old. He’s lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years—for most of his life. He’s been married 21 years and has three sons, the oldest of which is 19 like me. When I asked him his kid’s names, he teared up, and tiny wet droplets slipped down his cheeks into his thin mustache. His eyes were deep and sad. He smiled through his tears with his crooked teeth when he talked about his wife and sons. He was deported a few weeks ago and suffered immense depression to the point of being suicidal. He remembers standing on top of a building, wanting so badly to jump, feeling so defeated and empty, but something kept him from doing it. He showed us scars on his cheeks and wrist where he had cut himself when he was in that place of dark loss. He doesn’t know when he’ll see his family again, but he said God brought him out of his depression and gave him renewed motivation and faith that he will see them again soon. I listened to his pain, and I listened to and felt his contagious sense of hope. He has a crazy hope that keeps him alive, that got him a job so can work to see his family again, that gave him faith in God, that brought him to this migrant shelter. “Never give up,” said Gabriel. “Surround yourself with positive people. Keep going. No matter what, you gotta keep going. I know God is always with me.” Casa del Migrante, he said, has saved a lot of lives. As I ate a delicious dish of roasted potato, chicken, Mexican rice, refried beans, and fresh vegetable salad made by loving hands alongside these incredible men, I felt the eyes of my heart open wide. And it hurt in the best way possible.
Later that night, in the guest quarters of the migrant shelter where we stayed, our group sang the worship song “Open the Eyes of My Heart” in Spanish (Abre Mis Ojos oh Cristo) and everything I had felt and seen that day culminated into a complete outpouring of myself in worship. Jesus so tangibly showed himself to me that day. I saw Jesus more fully than ever before in the brokenness and poverty of Tijuana. He stirred in me and showed his love for me through his love for the brokenhearted.
This door is opened once a year on El Dia de Los Ninos (around April 30). Families are allowed to see each other for three minutes and hug before the door is closed again for the year. Left: American side. Right: TJ side.
Waking up in a migrant shelter reminds me that I, too, am a migrant. A migrant within my own country, but a migrant nonetheless. I am humbled to wake up in one of the most holy places I’ve ever been in. It is full of broken souls, and that’s what makes it so real and so beautiful. I’ve seen hurt here. I have seen extreme poverty and brokenness and pain, and still intense color and humanity. My heart is ripped wide open and painted brightly like the TJ border fence against the pale blue sky.
Maybe it’s symbolic I went on this trip right before Easter. In this final week of Lent, thanks to this trip, I feel I am walking to the cross. As Christians, we do not shun this suffering. We don’t ignore it. We walk into it, we live in it. We bring it into ourselves. The grace of God allows me to endure others’ suffering and look into it deeply. That is a gift. I couldn’t do that on my own. That is God working within me, whether I acknowledge it or not.
When I place my own nationality (being American) above my faith (being Christian) I have become dangerously idolatrous. It’s no one’s fault, really, but oftentimes we are raised to believe only one side of the story because we only see one side of the story. We don’t know about migrants because we don’t talk to them. We don’t know about border patrol because we are afraid of them.
There is so much more to every side of the story like I learned this weekend. It touched me to see families talk through the fence—so close, able to touch the tips of their fingers—but so, so far away. It touched me to hear border patrol agents talk about risking their lives and seeing tragedies every day. This is a complex issue.
But, we must learn to handle complexity and not get crushed by it. We must learn to lament and mourn, we must develop the heart to look into the causes of suffering. We must refuse to be consoled until injustice is wiped out. Stop and listen to the suffering and dwell in it. Don’t let it paralyze you—reflect and deconstruct it until you know what to do about what you’ve experienced.
We have this deep, disturbing, sometimes shouldn’t-match-reality faith. Christ is close to the brokenhearted. In this San Diego-Tijuana parish I live in, I will look for ways to serve Jesus that goes beyond borders.
The border is a complex issue. Human trafficking is real and growing. But, and this I know is true: hope is painfully real. So real it hurts, so real it scares us. Hope allowed me to write these painful words, and hope allows me to dwell and wrestle with suffering and understand suffering. Nietzsche, from what I read of him in my philosophy class, believed that “to be human is to suffer.” By entering straight into that suffering, that reality—and not shying away from it, ignoring it, or fabricating a false reality to comfort ourselves from it, we begin the difficult task of making small changes, of exercising our prophetic imaginations, of serving Christ above literally everything else. Even above our sense of identity or loyalty to a certain place. This is real and this is tough. I experienced a sense of suffering and pain in others that I never truly knew until now, but I realize that to be human is truly to know suffering. To know suffering and not run from it, to love others in it, and be okay with just being in it.
On this lovely Palm Sunday, as I watch a woman in a blue apron outside tie palms together with twine on a small plastic table, I can only think: Jesus truly is near to the brokenhearted. He is here and he is real and he is alive. Worshipping at the Nazarene church in Tijuana was beautiful. Singing praise in Spanish and praying in Spanish was surreal and humbling. How great and big is God that he is not separated by language like we are. How great and big is he that he extends himself beyond borders we have made for ourselves. How great is our God. How real is suffering and how valid are our individual sufferings. But how great is He. And that is reason enough to rejoice.
“Not all of us can do everything, of course, but who is there among us who cannot do something?”
– St. Scalabrini, Father of Migrants