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Shared Sorrows by the River

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by Kurt Rietema

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Psalm 137:1-4

The day before, it was sunny and pleasant. A day full of activity–shopping for rice, beans, oil and other pantry items to make food baskets for 200 migrant families; coordinating with a Christian rehab center to make over 1500 tamales for a Christmas party at community center turned migrant shelter; and lining up entertainment. It was a magical night. An impossible one, really. In what other place might you find Haitians and Africans, Central Americans and North Americans gathering together over food, laughter, prayer and dancing? It felt like a kind of living parable, a dress rehearsal for the Great Banquet where at least for one night, the distinctions between us blurred at a table where everyone had enough.

But this morning the skies are overcast on the southern bank of the Rio Grande. We huddle together under a mesquite tree as raindrops fall like tears from thorny branches. Our guide this morning is Suly, a thirty-something Haitian woman, mother of three. Suly points across the river. “That’s where the border patrol rounded us up on horses.” For several days, she and thousands of other Haitian migrants were encamped under the international bridge with the belief that the US had opened the door for asylum seekers once again. “But once they started capturing us for deportation, we turned around and waded back across the river right here.”

Also with us that day was my friend, Jonathan Garcia, his wife, Pati, and his stepkids. It’s always been a backburner dream of ours to go on a trip with members from our church back in Croc, Templo Torre Fuerte. So when a supporter of our ministry reached out wondering how she could help out, I tossed out the idea of purchasing bus tickets and a block of hotel rooms so they could join us within their own borders. Jonathan was the first to volunteer.

They drove through the night and arrived at Ciudad Acuña just in time to help us move a few thousand pounds of rice, beans, and pantry essentials to make around 200 food baskets for migrant families. They’d never done anything like this as a family before. But by the way Vanesa threw herself into the work with such joy, one would hardly suspect it. And at the party the previous night, 7-year-old Erick cut up the dance floor alongside Suly’s son as if Mexican and Haitian companions were as commonplace as piñatas and head wounds.

There under the mesquite tree, looking out across the banks of the Rio Grande, Pati was weeping. Jonathan was pensive. Something deep was churning. Listening to Suly and other Haitians tell their stories and bear their wounds, you can’t help but feel the weight of their suffering. Their longings are so basic, so elemental, every human with a conscience knows them. “Why did I take this journey?” one of the Haitian men named Stanley pleaded with us. Stanley’s grandmother (who raised him and he calls “mom”) lives in Orlando, Florida. “It’s not that I wanted to take this path. I just want to see my mom.” He paused to collect himself. “I found out that my dad passed away through Facebook. I’m not going to let my mom die far away from me. I have to see her. I have to see her.”

To be honest, we didn’t “do” much during our fews days on the border. We restocked the migrant shelters with supplies. We helped them throw a big Christmas party they’d dreamed of doing, but didn’t have the resources for. We left a lot of money you all donated to meet ongoing needs. But mostly, we just listened. We ate meals with them. We forged deeper relationships with our partners doing the day to day work. But mostly, we just listened to their stories. Bearing witness becomes a way of holding another’s pain. It’s not fixing it. It’s a choice to stay vigil. To share their quiet torment with them. To remind them they’re not alone. To allow their wounds to wound us.

On the day of our departure, we had a time of reflection together. It was a special moment where Jonathan shared that he wanted to have this experience with his kids because that’s what he learned from being with Americans in Croc when he was a kid.

After I arrived at home, I got a text from Jonathan. “Yesterday we had dinner and on the journey we came across Haitians. Erick told us we should give them something to eat. Vanesa said that after what we saw she won’t see them the same. You have a big message to share. You take a veil from the eyes of the blind. To the deaf that can’t hear. Truthfully, I was against migrants but now I understand. Now we want to help them. Use us. All four of us.” There was more. “Do you know that for a long time, we’ve been trying to encourage Vanesa, to take her out of her sadness and pain. It’s been a difficult year… We’ve paid for treatment and psychologists. What so many psychologists haven’t been able to do, this experience has done for her. It made her return to being the girl she once was.”

For so much of my life, when I’ve encountered the pain of another my first impulse is to fix it. I want to make it go away—for them, yes. But also I want to make it go away for me. Because to not be able to fix it is to admit that there are some forces, some pain and some traumas big enough to swallow a person whole. But there, we’d encountered our Leviathan. There, by the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept. There on the mesquite tree, we hung our harps because Stanley can’t see his mom. Because Suly hasn’t seen her other two children in 5 years. Because Vanesa’s sadness hasn’t gone away.

When Jesus faced his own abandonment and death, when his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, Jesus requested three of his disciples, “Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 27:38). He didn’t ask them to fix it—even though Peter tried. Jesus just asked them to stay and keep watch so he wouldn’t be so alone. I can’t say that we fixed anything on the border. But I can say that we held one another. That we kept watch. That they felt less alone. And at least for one young woman, when her wounds met their wounds, a glimmer of dawn appeared on a once eternal, gray horizon.

If you are interested to learn more about trips to Ciudad Acuña, please contact us for more information.

About Kurt Rietema: Kurt is the Senior Director of YF Neighborhood at Youthfront. He holds a Master’s in Global Development and Social Justice from St. John’s University. Kurt is also an adjunct at MidAmerica Nazarene University and at William Jewell College. Kurt and his wife Emily live with their sons, Luke, Perkins and Leo in an under-resourced neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas called Argentine.

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