Immokalee: Here I raise my Ebenezer
Tamara Shope, from the new WOV Albuquerque chapter, travelled with other Women of Vision on a recent Vision Trip to Immokalee, FL. The purpose of the trip was to meet the real women and their families who work to put food on our tables, the migrant worker community which is often classified as the “invisible population.” Here she shares some of the stories they heard.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I am strongly connected to the concept of Ebenezers. In the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, God saved the Israelites from certain death. They were at their end and God rescued them in a way that only He could do. The people erected a high pile of stones that they could see as they traveled forth. They wanted to look back, see the stones they called Ebenezer (“stone of help”) and say, “Thus far the Lord hath brought us.” This story is threaded through one of my favorite hymns, “Come Thou Fount.”
“Here I raise my Ebenezer
Hither by Thine help I’m come
And I hope by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home”
We all have these kinds of sacred milestones in our memories. The moment I understood that I belonged to Christ, for example. Another: the moment I understood what grace I had been given and what grace I had yet to give. And now: the moment I held the hands of two women who risked everything – everything — for a chance, however slim, at hope.
Gloria: “Things here are very hard. But in Guatemala, it was so much worse.”
It is difficult to try to comprehend why a person would leave their family, their children, their home. This beautiful woman sat in front of us with tears in her eyes. Gloria had risked death. She risked rape. She risked it all. And for her, it was worth it because in America, she thought, there was at least the possibility of hope. In Guatemala, hope did not exist.
And for a while after she crossed the border into the U.S., hope still proved hard to find. Gloria endured incredible abuse and sadness. She was moved from state to state, farm to farm, house to house. Her husband became angry, giving into violence fueled by alcohol. And Gloria bore the brunt of his fury. He was later deported, and for the first time in a long time, Gloria felt peace.
“Libertad,” she said. Freedom.
Gloria holds her head high. She is a fighter.
“I may be little,” she said, “but I am a firecracker.”
Gloria’s journey over the U.S.-Mexico border was treacherous and she didn’t know whether she would live through it.
“We walked for six days in the desert,” she said. “We ran out of water. We ran out of food. We drank from a pond where cows were drinking too.”
Gloria and 19 other people crowded into a single car, each wondering whether life really would get better. Gloria is a mother of five. She has but one wish for her kids. She knows their ticket out of the crushing poverty she has endured will be education. “My desire for my children,” she says, “is that they learn to read.”
Gloria has three children still in Guatamala. She sends them money, she prays for them, she cries for them at night. Her dream is to have a house here in the U.S. In it, her kids would thrive. They would read and laugh. They would have hope.
She trembled as we prayed for her. She kissed me when she left our little house. “Dios te bendiga,” she said. God bless you.
Ruth: “She said that if I didn’t abort my baby, she wouldn’t help me.”
Ruth is 22 but has the face of a teenager. Her eyes, though, are much older. They have seen too much pain, too much loss, cried too many tears to belong to a little girl.
Ruth was a 15-year-old girl in Guatemala when she became pregnant for the first time. But in Guatemala, she said, she suffered. Her husband came to the U.S. to try to make things better for them. A few years later, he asked her to come too.
She left her baby with relatives. The journey would be too dangerous for a toddler. Ruth paid a man $2,000 to show her the way. He led her through the shadows to a moving train. They hopped on, hiding in the dark with 13 men Ruth had never met.
“All I could do was cry all night,” she said. “It is a miracle I didn’t die.”
Ruth’s tears push down her face at the memory. She remembers the pain of that terrible journey. She wasn’t sure whether she would ever see her firstborn again. She wasn’t sure whether she would find her husband or what to expect of the coyote she paid to lead her to him. She did not know whether the men she traveled with would harm her. She did not know whether she would live. At one point while wandering through the desert, she fainted, and a fellow traveler carried her until she was strong again.
Eventually, Ruth did find her husband, a man she had not seen in six years. And for three months, she was happy. She became pregnant and looked forward to this new life growing inside her. Perhaps this baby represented the new life she and her husband were making here. Maybe things were finally going to be OK.
Heartbreak, however, found Ruth again. Her husband was captured and sent to a facility in New Mexico for deportation. Her sister-in-law, who lived in Nashville, said she would help her on one condition: “Abort the baby,” she told her. “We can’t afford to take care of anyone else.”
God had a different plan for Ruth’s story. Her sister risked her own deportation to come find Ruth and bring her to Florida, where they now work the tomato fields for 13 hours a day, picking more than 2 tons of fruit daily to make a little more than $10,000 a year. Ruth picked tomatoes until she was seven months’ pregnant.
Three months ago, Ruth gave birth to a chubby baby boy with wild hair and a content disposition.
His name is Charlie, and he has never met his father.
“When one of us suffers, we all should feel the burden of it.”
My new friend Lynn said this on our last evening together in Immokalee. We were trying to process all that we had seen and heard during our weekend in Florida. She expected to be transformed. And the trip, she said, exceeded her expectation.
The stories we heard were devastating, heartbreaking. We went to bed each night with hearts full and minds racing. How is it possible that life in one country is so terrible it is worth risking death for a chance at hope in another country? What can we do to make life better for women like Ruth and Gloria? Can we make streams in the desert, rivers of hope for the men and women who risk everything just to see it? What does God expect of me?
William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.”
I still don’t have the answers to most of those questions that kept me up at night in Immokalee. I don’t know how to fix what’s broken in terms of policy, advocacy and other doing work. But in the end, one answer did find me.
What does God expect of me? First, to see, to hear, to know, to get it.
The benefit of this “vision trip” is that it wasn’t a “mission trip.” There was not a lot of work for us to do in Immokalee. We were expected to just be present with open eyes and hearts. We were shown the fields where Ruth worked. We watched the laborers crowd into buses at dawn. We saw the farmer who is just trying to do right by his family and community. We saw the company that depends on the laborers to pick and pack and travel from town to town throughout the year. We saw the jobs created for those who make it through the deserts to Immokalee. We saw the poverty that comes when $30 a day doesn’t cut it. And we saw that the issues surrounding the poverty are complicated.
I am overwhelmed by the idea that I can’t make things better for Ruth and Gloria right away. I can’t wipe away the memories and the pain. But on that night, resolution is not what they came to us for. They simply came to tell the story. They wanted us to know. They wanted us to see their towers of stones.
My friend Lynn was right. We, the children of God, should feel the weight of the agony endured by women like Ruth and Gloria. Regardless of politics and our feelings about immigration issues and other things that divide us, we should be united behind the command of our Lord to love and defend all who suffer.
“This is what the Lord Almighty said: `Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor.” (Zech. 7:9-10)
So, the question is whether I am meeting God’s expectations. Do I see? Do I get it?
I see that these stories, these individual heartbreaks were connected. They were connected to one another in devastation, but they are connected to Christ in hope. And I am connected to them. Their stories are now part of my story. These were women who could say, “Thus far the Lord hath brought me.” And when we raised our voices together in prayer and thanksgiving for them, I could say the same. Here I raise my Ebenezer.
by Tamara Shope, WOV Albuquerque