Christ in the Camps

Migrant children are suffering. Christians need to help.

A Honduran asylum seeker, recently released from federal detention with fellow immigrants, holds the hand of her 6-year-old daughter at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas, on June 11, 2019.
A Honduran asylum seeker, recently released from federal detention with fellow immigrants, holds the hand of her 6-year-old daughter at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas, on June 11, 2019. (Loren Elliott / AFP / Getty)

I am a stumbling, doubting, failing, fearful Christian, so I fit right in with the rest of them. I was raised by atheists who, for complicated reasons, sent me to a Catholic school when I was 11, assuming that I was too smart to believe any of the abracadabra and would just focus on the classes.

But they had some other tricks up their sleeves, those Catholics. The first was prayer, which just about knocked me flat the first time I saw its practical application. One of the nuns came to talk with us about some dire issue from the real world; maybe it was Vietnam, maybe it was someone from the parish who was very ill—I don’t remember. She summed up the situation, and I sat there wondering what the action plan was, because that was the world I inhabited. And then she said that what we were going to do was pray about it. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Something terrible was happening and it would somehow improve if a classroom full of sixth graders closed their eyes and mumbled?

I lived in Berkeley, a radical place, and my parents were hard-core lefties (grape boycotters, war protesters, supporters of student strikes, occasional tear-gas-ees), so I had pretty much heard it all in my house, including a scheme to bring down Richard Nixon that was so improbable it might have worked. But this was the most radical thing I’d ever encountered. This was levitating-the-Pentagon type stuff. Why not give it a try?

The other thing that had my attention was a set of posters in Sister Kathleen’s room. You cannot imagine how important classroom posters were in the days before cellphones. You would be out of your mind with boredom, and you’d just gaze at them for hours. She had eight posters on her wall: the Beatitudes. I doubt I even knew that they had come from the Sermon on the Mount, or whether I even knew what the Sermon on the Mount was. All I knew was that I was a desperately unhappy person, and that the words on these posters were turning everything I believed on its head.

Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth;

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

What can I tell you? I drifted. I floated over. On some level, I just abandoned the rational world and found my place elsewhere; maybe I was already there and just hadn’t known it. My parents weren’t happy about it, but what could they do? They’d wanted private-school education on the cheap, and you get what you pay for.

All of this came back to me this morning as I read the first draft of this essay, which was nothing about the little Catholic school in Berkeley and all about how smart I am and how angry I feel right now. The subject of my anger is the wretched conditions the migrant children are enduring in the camps, and the display of my intelligence was a sophisticated reading of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Every single member of the United Nations is a party to the convention except … the United States. I had a lot to say about that. I had a great rant going, and it included a strong set of highly tweetable lines. I was already imagining myself talking about it on the radio and sounding like a very, very good person.

But then: Blessed are the meek.

The children are meek. The ones told to comb out one another’s lice and go to sleep hungry on cold floors under bright lights; the ones who have no one—no one at all, save one another—to comfort them. So I was on sound territory there. But the Beatitudes come at you sideways sometimes, and that’s when you’re really in trouble. It occurred to me this morning that maybe as a Christian I’m also supposed to be meek. To be humble.

I never should have agreed to go to that school.

I humbly reach out to the only faction of Americans I know of who have the ear of the administration and who care about children: my brothers and sisters in Christ who attend evangelical churches. It seems clear that we are in the midst of a profound humanitarian crisis and that children are being forced to suffer in terrible ways. Maybe it was never supposed to be this way; maybe the system just got overwhelmed. But this is a disaster. Children are programmed to think that any separation from a parent or a caregiver is a life-or-death situation. I keep imagining one of these children having a dream that he’s home, with his mother and brothers and sisters, but then waking up to see he’s still in a terrible place. If evangelical Christians stood up for these children, things could change in the camps very quickly.

I especially appeal to powerful evangelical leaders such as Rick Warren who have a heart for the immigrant. Warren famously said, “A Good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person, ‘Are you legal or illegal?’” The political problems and policy debates that brought us to this situation are not the point right now; the point is that children are cold and filthy and frightened and we can stop it, or at least greatly improve their situation.

I ask the pastors to request of the administration that all of us—the volunteers and charitable givers of all faiths and of no faith, the army of us who are so eager to help these children—can have access to the sites. Allow us to bring cots and toothbrushes and blankets and food. Allow us to arrange for carefully screened volunteers to work shifts at the sites, to help with diapers and bedtimes and combing for lice and checking for fevers. Allow us to be there when one of these children wakes up from a nightmare or breaks down from sorrow.

I also want to humbly ask all Americans to expedite getting all necessary aid to these children. A week of adult argument is an ocean of time to a 3-year-old. I respect the workers at Wayfair who are protesting the company’s planned fulfillment of an order of some 1,600 mattresses and 200 bunkbeds for one of the camps. Profiting from these camps is not morally acceptable. But this is an emergency, and we need to get those beds to those children as fast as possible. Getting 1,600 kids off those cold floors is close at hand—let’s not make them wait a minute longer.

Ever since the most recent round of reports on conditions in these camps came out, I’ve been waking up at night, thinking about the children and wondering what was going on at that moment. I know that while I lie in my warm bed, in my own home and with all my relatives accounted for, children are lying on those cold floors, desperate for their mother, and crying. At those moments, all I can do is think of the nuns at the School of the Madeleine, and how they believed that nothing—nothing at all—was beyond the reach of prayer. And so I lie there and do what millions of other Americans do when they think about these children and come up against the many brick walls keeping us from alleviating their plight: I pray for them.

We know exactly where Christ is, because he told us. He’s with the sick and the jailed and the hungry. He’s in those camps with those suffering children. And we need to be there, too.