Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: Risking Our Lives to Save Them

On Sunday, our pastor talked about the part of the Gospel that told us that those who would lose their lives would save them and those who would save their lives would use them.  He talked about the cost of the cross.  He talked about the French town of Huguenot Catholics who, at great risk to all, saved the town's Jews from the Nazis.

Our pastor reached right out to shake us out of our smug complacency.  We sit here, almost 100 years away from the rise of the Nazis, and we imagine that we would never let the situation get that bad.

Our pastor pointed out the increasingly harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.  He observed that churches in Alabama have declared that they will disobey the law by continuing to transport the children of illegal immigrants to Sunday School.  He told us about municipalities in Georgia who have declared that they will resist the attempts of authorities to enforce immigration laws.

He finished by asking us what we would do if the state of Florida enacted harsh laws.  It's an important question, since we live in a state that is likely to do just that.

Here's a poem that addresses that question.  I wrote it after hearing about people in the Southwest who set up water stations for illegal immigrants making that hazardous passage through the desert.  I wrote it in the summer of 2001, before the stricter laws passed in the days after September 11.  It seems like a relic from a simpler time, when people were allowed to set up water stations in national parks.  Yet it seems more relevant than ever.

This poem was first published in The South Carolina Review and was part of my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Modern Abolitionist

Two hundred years ago, we would have stitched
cloth, hung our quilts on the line to give guidance.
We would have sung songs, whispered directions,
left lamps burning in strategic windows.
Then, as now, we would have helped with the herding north.

Now we hang flags of blue plastic
above water stations in the desert. We patrol
these tanks to make sure they never run dry.
Dryness means quick death for those who make the daily
dashes towards freedom. We position
these water stations in national parks
under telephone poles that stretch high above, a sure sign
even during dehydration induced hallucinations. The flags whip
in the wind, a dry rustle above the rattlesnakes.

I keep extra food and water in the truck. When I see
parched refugees, dusty and sunburned, I offer
these meager rations. I’m not above
giving folks a ride. There’s no Fugitive
Slave Act to make me cower in fear.

Some mornings I find a few of them in the fields
or huddled against the garage, the barn.
Unlike my neighbors, I don’t threaten
them with my gun or call the law.
I’ve learned enough broken
Spanish to invite them to breakfast.
Eggs and toast translate to any language.

I wish I could fully claim my Abolitionist
heritage, instead of just dancing on the edge of lawlessness.
But I am no Harriet Tubman to safely lead
people out of slavery, no John Brown
to plot uprisings and raid munitions bunkers.
Alas, I don’t have the eloquence of Frederick Douglass.
All I can offer is a glass of water, a bite
of food, substandard shelter, and a ride north.

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