Sermon delivered by Council Governing Board member Isaac S. Villegas on May 28, 2018.
Coming and going, leaving and arriving, exit and entrance. That’s the theme permeating these verse from Exodus 19. Departures and arrivals, the movement of people as they leave one land for another—wandering and camping their way to new life.
On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-3)
They come and go, they camp and journey, then camp and journey again. And all along the way, God watches over them. God leads them and protects them. “I bore you on eagles’ wings,” God says, “and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God goes with them, with them on their wandering pilgrimage to freedom.
During the first week of May, 2018, Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles left her hometown of San Juan Ostuncalco in Guatemala, traveling 1,500 miles to Texas, crossing from Mexico into the United States somewhere near Laredo, finally arriving at San Bravo, a little over a mile into the United States. She was on her way to Virginia to reunite with her boyfriend and find work, but a U.S. border patrol agent killed her.
“She left home 15 days ago,” her mother told reporters. “Mamita,” Gómez Gonzáles said to her Lidia González Vásquez before she left home, “Mamita, we’re going to go on ahead, I’ll make money. There’s no work here.”
Her boyfriend Morales Yosimar, waiting for her in Virginia, was devastated when he heard the news—“Mi princesita,” he called her. That was her nickname, “Princesita,” “little princess.” She was nineteen, maybe twenty years old. We don’t know much about the U.S. federal officer who shot her, other than he has been a border patrol agent for fifteen years—a skilled professional, now a killer.
Princesita Gómez Gonzáles is part of a whole movement of people who have been enslaved by a global economy that keeps them poor, barely alive, desperate for work and desperate to escape the network of U.S. gangs that have migrated to Central America. For example, the infamous MS 13, Las Maras, Mara Salvatrucha, was made in the United States, a product of North American violence, assembled on the West Coast then exported to Central America through deportations, a federal immigration policy that spread the terror of U.S. gang warfare south of the border.
There are all sorts of reasons for migration, reasons as old as the first human beings. Movement is part of what it means to be human: to move with the rhythms of seasonal work, hunters following the migration patterns of animals, searching for food, struggling for their economic well-being, people fleeing famines and wars, migration as survival.
Gómez Gonzáles is like the Israelites in our passage from Exodus: on the move, liberation on the horizon, a migration empowered by hope. She is like the Israelites in our bible story, except then she isn’t—because she never makes it to the arms of her loved one in Virginia. She never gets to the place where they imagined they could build a life together. Instead, she dies in the desert and the hope beating in her heart, pulsing through her veins, empowering her journey—that hope leaks into the sand around her body, her dreams seeping from her dead life, pooled around what used to be her.
Memorial day is about remembering the dead, the casualties of war, of people who have died in their service to this country. It’s a strange thing to ask me to reflect on this day—it’s strange for two reasons. First, because I’m an Anabaptist, a Mennonite, a member of a Christian peace tradition. We refuse to fight in wars. We are conscientious resistors. On Memorial Day we remember people like Joseph and Michael Hofer, members of an Anabaptist community in South Dakota that refused to be drafted during the First World War, and who were incarcerated at the army facility in Leavenworth, Kansas for their resistance. They were starved to death for their witness against war.
The second reason why it’s strange for me to reflect on this country’s Memorial Day is because I’m the child of immigrants, from Central and South America, and I’ve never been able to claim a homeland, a country of my own. I belong between nations, my identity crisscrosses borders, my body an amalgam of cultures, my life bound up with family and communities not here. I live in spite of borders.
As the Chicana poet Gloria Anzaldúa once wrote, “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta,” an open wound, bleeding. The border pierces the land, cutting through peoples and places, severing loved ones who have always been on the move together. The border is a violence that reopens the wounds of war—the border as the legacy of warfare, a marking that justifies unceasing war, violence against people like Gómez Gonzáles. She’s a casualty of this country’s border war. She died in resistance against the border, against the way borders instigate violence. The U.S.-Mexican border is the continuation of war by other means, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency rather than the Department of Defense.
“We are not going to let this country be invaded,” declared Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s Attorney General, on May 7, 2018, in Scottsdale, Arizona. People like Princesita Gómez Gonzáles are invaders, according to Sessions, foreign insurgents assaulting his country. He said more than that to a crowd of his supporters in Scottsdale: “We are not going to let this country be invaded. We will not be stampeded.” Stampeded. That’s a word we use to describe cattle—“animals,” as president Trump said about some undocumented immigrants his administration has deported for their alleged gang involvement: “These aren’t people, these are animals,” he ranted at a White House meeting on May 15. They characterize migrants as invaders, as a stampede of animals, as cattle. And the border has become their slaughterhouse.
For this Memorial Day, I remember Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles, a brave woman, refusing the border, now a victim of this undeclared war against migration. An unofficial war yet warfare nonetheless.
Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles, whose only weapons were her feet.
Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles, whose only threat to this country was her hope—her dreams of work and love.