I stood in the aisle of the plane in Dallas waiting to get off after a short flight from San Antonio. I was row 30; it would be awhile. A young mother stood in front of me; her young daughter cradled in her arm leaning on one shoulder. Her other shoulder sagged under the weight of a bag. The two handles dug into her shoulder. The bag was about as simple as you could get. It looked like a large version of the re-usable bags that grocery stores distribute now. She put it down, pulled a jacket out of the bag and laid it over her shoulder—improvising a pad. But it proved too difficult to hoist the bag, hold her daughter and keep the jacket in place at the same time. I pulled up the straps and put the jacket in place. Feeling a bit chivalrous, but mostly debating whether I should just say “let me carry the bag off the plane for you.” But the less chivalrous part of me thinking, “and then what? Carry it all the way to her next flight?” In the midst of my internal debate I glanced down and noticed she had an ankle monitor on—at least I assumed that’s what it was. My first thought was, “I wonder what her story is? What did she do? How has the criminal justice system treated her?, etc.” Then I had the thought, perhaps it is not that she is out of prison, perhaps she is an immigrant. My thoughts were interrupted by her question to the woman beside her. She held out her two boarding passes—the one on top for her next flight—and, in Spanish, asked: “Do I have to get on another plane?” The woman just stared back at her, and I jumped in. I asked for the boarding pass. At first I started explaining that the gate was not on the boarding pass and then the reality of her question hit me. She needed much more basic information—“yes, you have to get on another plane.”
A jacket fell out of the bulging bag. I picked it up, took the bag off her shoulder and told her I would carry the bag and tell her what to do next when we got off the plane. But we are in Dallas. What if she has to ride that train thing to another terminal? And she only has 40 minutes.
I stood next to her wondering? Is she Honduran, Central American? Do we have a connection? I asked, “Where are you from?” “El Salvador.” I told her I had lived in Honduras for ten years. There was a whole host of questions I wanted to ask her, but well aware that others in our cramped airline aisle likely understood Spanish I refrained—wait until inside the terminal.
Thankfully her flight to LaGuardia left from the same terminal. I could walk her right to her gate. I started with general questions, but she did not hide her situation. “How long have you been in the U.S.?” “One month. I am seeking asylum.” “How long were you in a detention center?” “Fifteen days. That is the limit now. That is why I have this thing on my ankle. I have to go back to court in a month.” I replied that I was glad she did not have to be in any longer than that—many have suffered long stays. I asked, “Do you have family in New York?” “yes.” Then, boldly and with a deep desire to confirm what I suspected, confirm that at this moment I was walking beside one of the young women I have read about in TIME magazine, I asked, “Asylum from what?” “A gang threatened to kill me if I did not live with one of them that wanted me. They kidnapped me.” I stopped that line of questioning and asked if she had come by land. “Yes, and we crossed the river.” I wondered what all that short sentence contained. What all had she been through? How much did it cost her? But, we were close to her gate. I told her that we had worked with a church in a neighborhood with significant gang problems to let her know that I had a sense of what she was talking about. Then told her that El Salvador had a very special place in my heart because of its influence in my life. It was an honor to help a Salvadoran. I waited with her to talk to an agent at the gate—told the agent she did not speak English. He just confirmed she was in the right place, did not seem overly concerned for her. I took her over to a seat, and said to the woman sitting next her. “This woman does not speak English. If there are any announcements about gate changes or anything like that can you make sure she gets on the flight?” She nodded. I did not ask if the woman if she spoke Spanish. I figured she would communicate one way or another. I said “God bless you” to the Salvadoran woman, turned and started walking back to a monitor to find out where I had to get my flight. Overcome with emotion I started crying.
On one hand it is a very positive story. She had escaped, made it into the U.S., was not languishing in a detention center, and was headed toward family in New York. Yet the last fifteen minutes accentuated how much her life had been disrupted. She has been uprooted from her home, her land and thrust into a very foreign situation. I wish she could be at home in shalom. Sin seemed very concrete as I reflected on her situation. Its ripples spread far and wide—from the U.S. and deported gang members years ago to El Salvador, to her neighborhood, her life and now back to the U.S. How long Lord?
I had been in San Antonio for a board meeting of the Hispanic Summer Program, meeting with professors or administrators from a number of other seminaries. I had boarded the plane with the director of the program and the chairman of the board—both distinguished Hispanic professors and she a former seminary dean. I left the plane with a new member of the U.S. Latino/a community—very different types of conversations entering and leaving the plane, yet integrally connected.
Two weeks ago Lynn was in church with women and youth who at times sleep under their beds because of being in the cross fire of battling gangs in their Tegucigalpa neighborhood. Today I carried the belongings of a young woman who had escaped the bullets and a forced marriage. Things we read about in the news feel much different when you are standing next to them.
By, Mark D. Baker, Ph. D.
Professor of Mission and Theology
Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary