true religion

Religion is divisive, it’s undeniable. On one end of the privilege and wealth spectrum, those in power throughout history have wielded it to further cement their position and control others. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it has been an integral companion to the majority of the world’s poor, serving as a beacon of hope in the struggle to survive and a rock in times of desperation and instability. However expressed, religion has many faces.

The importance of religion surfaces repeatedly in the case of the Honduran migrants who make up the majority of the caravans heading towards the States. Immigration lawyer Rebecca Eichler, who has been working to counsel migrants who are seeking asylum in the U.S., has said the migrants’ strong faith surfaces again and again when they explain why they want to continue heading north. They resolutely believe God will protect them. One migrant man, after being informed of the reality of the border situation between Mexico and the U.S., was quoted as saying “With God, there are no borders.” Other immigration volunteers also report that the migrants understand the dire conditions at the American border, and that “without exception, their motivation for continuing on is an unbending belief in God.”

Eichler notes, it is “striking that the God of the migrants is so at odds with the God who blesses America.” While much could be said about this profound statement, any discussion of religion and gods should always boil down to identifying the true nature of love and the willingness to extend kindness to suffering beings – no matter where on the planet they reside, no matter their nationality, what they are fleeing, or what borders they cross. On this, all world religions seem to agree. Helping those in need is a core tenet of every major faith system around the globe.

An American volunteer who has been helping the caravan expressed that while he fears for the migrants and what they may encounter as they head north, he respects their self-determination and only knows that “in my moment with them I can treat them with dignity.” Not only is this a poignant example of serving as a bridge between divided populations, it is also a hallmark of real love – giving something away freely with no strings attached.

In contrast, it would seem that “the God who blesses America,” at least the one called upon by politicians in recent years, comes with many strings attached and a well-entrenched moral high ground designed to protect those who already possess the most. The underlying belief system of this God is that the poor and most vulnerable are only worthy of love and assistance if they adhere to the moral expectations of those in power.

However, I’m pretty sure it is our treatment of “the least of these” that was the gold standard by which our actions are be measured. For compassion isn’t dependent upon the recipient’s behavior, last I checked. It is dependent upon the condition of our hearts. True religion necessitates both compassion for those in need and a willingness to set aside our own comfort, preferences, and agenda to assist those less fortunate.

One migrant stated, “We plan to get in line at the border… hopefully, the American president will find it in his heart to let us in.” Although I am skeptical of the migrant’s hope for a change of heart in the President, surely a country of such great wealth can work towards compassionate solutions for the world’s poor who are congregating at its doorstep. After all, the Statue of Liberty herself says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I don’t know what will happen in the coming days in the standoff between the migrants’ God and “the God who blesses America.” But if love is indeed an indicator of true religion, then I side with love.

unity

In two to three weeks, the migrant caravan heading towards the U.S. border will stop in a town a half hour away from where I’m living. Right now supplies are being collected by local relief organizations to provide aid and assistance, things like socks, diapers, shoes, toothbrushes, clothing, food, and blankets. Living in close proximity to the caravan heading north sheds new light on the desperation that so many people groups around the world experience daily.

In debates over immigration, I often hear the refrain “Why can’t people do things in an orderly and legal way. There are procedures in place. This blunt disregard of the system is wrong.” This is the critique often made of both individuals trying to cross the border and mass groups in particular, such as this one. To me, this critique can only be spoken from a place of privilege. When your life is safe, secure, and without threat, you have all the time in the world to assume, well, if others played by the rules like I do (or have), a lot of this chaos would be solved. However, this privileged, and might I add simple, viewpoint neglects to understand the dynamic faced by people truly in crisis. When your life is threatened, or you face poverty or violence so extreme that walking thousands of miles is actually an attractive option, you are thinking on an entirely different plane. Your sole focus is survival, with a glimmer of hope that surely there is a life somewhere where I will not live in fear, danger, poverty, or hunger. When you are fleeing for your life, the “rules” of the system you are heading towards are not guiding your behavior. Desperation is, and a longing to live.

Just as the migrant caravan has a felt need for the supplies that are being collected for them, surely I (and might I add we) have an equal need to have our American and privileged world views transformed. The danger of privilege is that it colors our interpretation of “right and wrong,” and at the same time distorts our view of justice and love. This is especially troublesome, given that those with privilege possess the most resources to balance the gross inequality in the world.

If nothing else, Americans should be able to understand a people group driven by their belief that things can be better. Surely this is something that can garner a show of compassion, not military deployment, understanding, not judgement, and a renewed effort to solve the complexities inherent in the immigration system. For we must remember that it is not “us and them.” We are fellow citizens on this planet who are inextricably tied together in our common humanity.

contentment

This is my fourth time living in San Miguel. Each trip I learn more about the town, explore more nooks and crannies, and get better acquainted with the city. On the first three visits here, I had not found a good bakery. And by “good,” I mean one that offers yummy European-style pastries. I guess I didn’t necessarily expect to, but, San Miguel is quite the international town, so it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

I basically have a chocolate croissant addiction. Flakey, buttery dough and rich chocolate is pretty hard for me to resist. But I figured, hey, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for me to give up this habit. So, I decided to see it as a chance to reduce my sugar intake. You can imagine my surprise and subsequent delight then, when I discovered an Italian bakery in August. The owner is from Italy and had exactly the kinds of pastries I’d been secretly hoping to find. And then, wouldn’t you know it, in the following weeks I discovered three more places that also had European-style pastries. So now, it seems, it will be very hard to give up my pastry habit.

But the thing is, while finding the first bakery was fun and an unexpected discovery, finding the next three only served to launch me into comparison mode. Like, which bakery has the “best” flaky croissant. So of course I had to test them all. And then I said to Dave one evening, you know, I really don’t need 4 places to buy a croissant. In fact, I had been pretty content even when I didn’t know of a single place to find one. And it just reminded me that the more options you have, the greater the likelihood that your contentment levels will decline. Of course, there are official psychological studies that back this fact up (greater choice often leads to lower levels of happiness). But my simple pastry search taught me this quite easily.

Although I enjoy many things about the cosmopolitan feel of San Miguel, one thing I greatly admire about Mexican culture is that, as a whole. it tends to model contentment to a greater degree than the U.S. There isn’t the same quest for “more” that permeates American culture. And I like this. So, despite the fact that more choice is opening up to me the more I get to discover and know San Miguel, I hope I can retain a bit of the “less is more” benefit I enjoyed on my first visit. I’m not interested in multiple bakeries on every corner, each declaring why they are the best choice. I’d be happy without any. Well, ok….maybe just one.

community

I have long been attracted to Latin American countries for their warmth and friendliness. Although I have only visited a handful of them, across the board they excel at community. From greeting people on the street when you pass someone, to taxi drivers waving hello to one other in their cars as they drive through town, to families socializing together in central plazas, relational richness permeates Latin American cultures.

Recently we visited a tiny town about two hours away from San Miguel. Although small, it’s well known for a giant rock formation in the center of town and has attracted a large tourist population. The roads that lead up to this mountain are steep, and so mini-taxis (not cars, but motorized carts) line up to drive people to its base and the beginning of a hiking area.

As Mexico is a polite society, the mini-taxis take turns driving tourists, and so after returning from dropping off a passenger, they form a queue to wait for their next drive up the mountain. While waiting in line, I watched the drivers climb out of their own cart and into the one waiting next to them to chat. No driver was sitting in his cart by himself. I was unexpectedly moved by this act of connection. Each driver made a choice to be in intentional relationship with the adjacent driver. This would never happen in the States. When cabs (or any other form of transportation) are lined up waiting for their turn, no one leaves their vehicle to go sit in the neighboring one.

Being in a country that is so adept at relating highlights to me the poverty of the U.S. in this arena. As much as I appreciate certain aspects of America’s emphasis on the individual, extreme individualism always leads to isolation. My downstairs neighbor in LA is from Israel, and one of her first observations upon coming to the States was that it is a country of lonely people. Although perhaps this is not true everywhere (and less true in smaller towns and rural communities), I think isolation runs deep in urban areas where people are insulated from one another and culturally encouraged to be focused on their own goals and pursuits. “Busyness” is the value of the day, and when we are so busy, others always take a back seat. But perhaps in our busyness, we miss what is actually most important about our human existence – connection to one another.

Mexico’s emphasis on community and its valuing of people over production is refreshing and a most welcome change of pace. When people are valued, they experience being seen and known. And this is something much of the world could use in far greater measure.

connection

Networking happens on a completely different level in Mexico. If you think networking is useful for getting things done in the States, it doesn’t even begin to compare to how life works here. In Mexico, relationships are the primary currency for everything. And I’m talking about in-real-life, in-person relationships, not the internet kind (not liking someone’s Instagram post or friending them on Facebook). Actual in-person, daily interactions are how things get accomplished here, in a nuanced, extensive network that exists outside of most technology channels. I can’t tell you the number of resources I’ve learned about the past few months that only came by word of mouth, and when I later searched for the business, class, person, opportunity, etc. online, it was nowhere to be found. So much of life here does not have a corresponding internet presence.

This in-depth, relational currency that takes center stage in Mexico is much more time-consuming than surface online exchanges. It requires showing up somewhere, taking time to talk to people, and being much more present to your surroundings. But it is by far more rewarding. You come to “see” people in entirely new ways, and gain the riches of true human connection on a much deeper level. We lose something profound when efficiency is the main goal, as it is in the States. Technology aides this American fixation with efficiency, but it is prone to taking over real life in a negative way. Instead of simply remaining a tool, it seems to replace real life interactions with greater and greater frequency. It does not surprise me that people in Mexico, both expats and Mexicans alike, seem so much happier and content than their U.S. counterparts. We’re relational beings, and when real life relationships get crowded out by smart phone and computer connections, people’s spirits suffer.

So instead of being fixated on the online world, here my energy is captured by the real world and all it offers. That’s where life is happening. And the best part is, there’s no need or compulsion to post about any of it. (And if I do, like this blog post, ha, it’s because it’s flowing through me sheerly out of inspiration, not out of obligation.) This in and of itself is a breath of fresh air.

unfolding

unfold

I’ve been struggling with left brain/right brain tension since arriving here in San Miguel. Because I’ve been mostly in left brain/production mode for the past few years in LA, that’s left very little time for true exploring. It’s been awhile since my right brain has had a chance to come out and play without a strict structure set around it. I’m finding that the creative energy here in Mexico is much more conducive to exploring and simply receiving. It feels much more flexible and open than left brain energy. It also feels much more feminine.

Moving from a more linear, straight path production mode to a winding path of receiving and exploring asks for letting go of agenda for a while. Instead of zeroing in on task completion, we are better served by focusing on serendipity. This energy simply calls us to pay attention to what is. To observe what is happening, unfolding, and appearing around us, often at the exact right moment. The discipline here is presence, not production. Are we able to attune to the current moment and pay attention to the signs of guidance that are calling us forward.

As we deepen our ability to be present, we will find that life unfolds with very little prompting. And in fact, this process of unfolding serves to make more linear ways of thinking and approaching tasks feel quite limited in their movement. Instead of being regimented and measured, unfolding allows for something completely new to emerge because there are no restraints in place. When we are able to allow life to unfold, we find ourselves getting catapulted to places we never could have imagined previously, leaving us transformed in deep and unexpected ways.

kindness

After my recent excerpt about kindness in Mexico, I’ve decided I will occasionally write about kindness encounters south of the border that impact me ~ if for nothing else, to counter the steady stream of not so kind news…

Here is kindness report #2:

This hot afternoon I was in a cafe getting a cold drink, and the man next to my table accidentally bumped into me with his chair. He immediately apologized profusely and then went back to conversing with his wife and child. A few moments later he turned and asked inquisitively where I was from and struck up a conversation. As I chatted with him and his wife, I learned they were from Guadalajara and were visiting San Miguel as tourists for a few days. But in a few weeks they were headed to Ontario, CA to go camping with extended family there. When I told him I was from LA, he joked that LA was pretty much like Mexico, to which I laughed and agreed. The conversation continued for a while about their family in the States and details about my stay in San Miguel. They asked how I was enjoying their country and sincerely welcomed me as a foreigner multiple different times, saying repeatedly that they hoped I enjoyed my stay and that I was truly welcome.

This display of unexpected kindness moved me and I could not help but think with chagrin how many times the reverse scenario happens and a kind welcome is not the first thing extended.

It again gave me hope that citizens can rally and repair and restore relationships even when governments cannot. Despair is not the right response in these increasingly bizarre times we are living in. Hope is. Kindness is. Understanding is. Connecting is. Forging solidarity with whomever comes across our path – this is a way forward out of the division that is sprouting around us.