Waiting

December 28th, 2019

“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part”

Tom Petty – from “The Waiting”

She called me three times yesterday.

It doesn’t bother me that she called so often. It bothers me that I couldn’t do much to help her.

Every call she makes starts with a recording from a prison phone service:

“You have a call, at no expense to you, from (enter name), an inmate at the Ellsworth Correctional Center. To accept this call, press or say ‘five’.”

I always press “five”. The call isn’t really “at no expense” because I set up and paid for the prepaid phone service with the vendor. Well, whatever…she needs to call sometimes.

After I hit the number five on the phone, the recording said, “All calls not properly placed by an attorney may be monitored or recorded. You may begin speaking now.”

There was a momentary pause, and then I heard her voice say, “Hello?”

I answered, “Yeah, what’s up?”

She replied slowly, “I’m feeling really stressed. Some of the other girls here already know when they are going to be released, but I haven’t heard anything.”

“Do these women have cases in Kenosha County?’

The girl replied, “No. I am the only one from Kenosha county. They are from all different counties.”

I told the girl, “Well, every county in the state is like a separate kingdom. Each one has its own rules. Kenosha may be doing things differently than all the rest.”

She said, “It’s been a week since I graduated from the program. The people here should have sent my paperwork to the judge in Kenosha.”

“They probably did.”

She asked me, “Can you check on CCAP to see if there is anything new showing on my court case?”

“Yeah, give me a second.”

I went to CCAP site and checked on the young woman’s most recent court case.

I told her, “There is nothing new.”

“Nothing since September of this year?”

“No, nothing.”

“Well, okay.”

Then she said, “I hope the judge gets the paperwork and signs it, otherwise I will be here until June.”

“Yeah, that would suck.”

She sighed and said anxiously, “What if I don’t get out?”

I replied, “Your facilitator and your probation officer both seem to think that you are getting out soon. They already set you up with Medicaid/Badgercare. If they thought you would be staying in there until June, they wouldn’t have done all this.”

She thought for a moment and said, “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”

Then the  young woman asked me, “If I am stuck here until June, can I have a TV?”

I thought for moment, and said, “Sure.”

Note: TV’s for prison inmates have to come from a certified vendor. The outsides of these televisions are made of clear plastic, to prevent somebody from smuggling something into the prison. The televisions are of inferior quality and absolutely worthless in the outside world. They are also quite expensive.

She asked me, “Can you check with Kenosha County to see if they got my paperwork?”

“Sure. What exactly do I ask for?”

The young woman told me,”It’s called the ‘earned release program completion form’, and they should be able to find it.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, and ask them if the judge has seen it yet.”

“Okay.”

I told her, “I can’t do that now, but I can call the courthouse on Monday. I will visit you on Monday night.

She said, “That will be good. If I know that they at least have the paperwork, I won’t feel so worried.”

“Then that’s what I will do.”

“Okay, thanks. See you on Monday.”

She won’t stop worrying. I know that. I won’t stop worrying either. She knows that too. This will fester until we know for certain that she getting released.

I won’t know when she is getting released from prison until the night before. People have asked me why the folks running the prison system operate like that.

The answer is: “Because they can.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isolation

December 26th, 2019

“People say we’ve got it made
Don’t they know we’re so afraid?
Isolation

We’re afraid to be alone
Everybody got to have a home
Isolation”

John Lennon – from the song “Isolation”

I attended Mass on Christmas Eve. It was late in the afternoon. The church was crowded, much more so than at a Sunday service. Everything was decorated for Christmas, to enhance the festive mood. I went there by myself. It looked to me like all the other people had arrived in groups, most likely as families. There were many faces that I didn’t recognize, and those faces didn’t recognize me either.

Before the liturgy started, Father Michael asked everyone to turn to the people standing around them and greet them. That’s what we did. The folks on every side of me shook my hand, and smiling, said, “Merry Christmas!”

For some reason, I replied to all of them in German. I said, “Frohe Weihnachten!” I guess I did that because that is what I would say to my wife, Karin. I also did that to see if anybody would even notice.

No one did.

That set the tone for the rest of the Mass. I was alone in a crowd. I suppose I could have asked Stefan to come with me, but he was busy with his new girlfriend. I didn’t want him to come to church with me out of some sense of filial duty. I didn’t want him to spend time with me reluctantly.

I could have gone to party after Mass. Freya, a woman I know from Voces de la Frontera, had invited me to come to her house for a get together. Freya is really nice. She lives across town from me, at least a half hour drive. I know her, but I wouldn’t really know anybody else at that party. Once again, I would be alone in a crowd. I considered how many drinks I would require to become even remotely sociable, and then I compared that number with how drinks it would take to get me busted for drunk driving on the way home. The number was nearly the same. It was best for me just to stay home.

When I was working as a supervisor at a trucking company, we always had a holiday party. For members of management the gathering was mandatory. Forced festivity is repugnant to me. I can’t deal with fake joy. I experienced the same sort of thing when I was an Army officer. Formal military affairs were never optional. The results in both the corporate and military environments were usually the same: massive drinking and mindless conversation. I learned to hate Christmas parties.

I have nothing against celebrating Christmas. I would just like to be able to do so in a spontaneous way. Christmas parties, even among friends, tend to follow certain scripts that don’t change from year to year. That can be comforting. It can also be boring.

I am glad that Christmas is over.

 

Apologetics

December 23rd, 2019

I was talking with a friend of mine who has recently retired. He was an civil engineer early in his life, and then he became a physician. Now he is trying to find a new path and purpose.

I asked him what he wanted to do. My friend said,

“I think I want to write Christian apologetics. I want to prove that Christianity is better than, say, Judaism or Islam.”

That put me into the devil’s advocate mode.

“So, how exactly are you going to do that? Based on my experience, Christians are not more ethical than anybody else.”

He replied, “That doesn’t matter. The truth is the truth. It’s like with a motor. Just because some of the motors don’t run well doesn’t mean that the design is wrong.”

I hate this kind of conversation.

I probably should have asked my friend who his target audience would be. Was he hoping to sway people who are not part of the Church? Most works of Christian apologetics are read solely by Christians. I told my friend that it sounded like he was trying to convince people who are already convinced. I could be wrong, but clever religious arguments don’t convert anybody. Actions do.

There is a quote from Tertullian, an early Christian apologist. He said,

“See how these Christians love one another.”

That’s the key. An outsider is not likely to read about Christianity on a whim. However, a non-believer may show some curiosity about the faith if he or she comes into contact with Christians who actually live the Gospel message. Such people do exist, and their lives speak more loudly than intellectual arguments. Think of Francis of Assisi.

I have read religious books by Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I read their books because I am impressed by their lives. Their words and actions totally matched. I would much rather read something from a person like that than I would read something from, say, Joel Osteen.

Faith is a gift, It is fundamentally intuitive. “Proofs” about Christianity are only effective if a person has already accepted a few key assumptions. A person needs to believe that there is a God, and that this deity is good, loving, and accessible. The physical evidence for all of that is ambiguous. We all live on the same planet, and yet we have billions of different ideas about God. We can all agree that gravity exists, but we differ concerning the reality of God.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. I will go to Mass in the evening, and profess my belief that God came to earth in the form of a baby two thousand years ago. Does that make any rational sense? Probably not. However, it feels right. It feels very right. I’ll go with my gut.

There is a quote from Stuart Chase:

“For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”

I wish my friend good luck with his writing.

 

 

 

Ignoring the Elephant

December 21st, 2019

“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
Somehow
Somehow…”

 

Jason Isbell – from the song “Elephant”

 

Some of us gathered at her apartment yesterday afternoon. We met there to cheer her up. She’s been through a lot. She is still going through a lot.

All of us know each other from a German Bible study group. Our meetings were both religious and cultural. We discussed theology in German and English. Most of us have been friends for at least fifteen or twenty years, probably longer. I don’t go to the Bible study anymore. However, I keep in touch with the other participants.

Liz orchestrated the Christmas party. She is good at that sort of thing. She has a knack for getting people together, at least for a little while. We visited with a woman who is somewhat isolated at this point. It is hard for this lady to go out, so we brought the party to her.

We did German things. That seems to be the strongest connection for us at this time. We made a heroic effort to sing some German Christmas carols: “Kling, Gloeckchen”, “Leise rieselt der Schnee”, and “Stille Nacht”. We snacked, and we discussed different aspects of our lives. We are mostly all retired now. We can all see the goalposts. Mortality looms large. Everybody talked, except for the woman we were there to see. She stayed in the kitchen. She was there, but not quite.

Eventually, I got up and walked into the kitchen. The woman was busy being busy. She was preparing food, and generally keeping a safe distance from the noise and the laughter in the living room. I think that she was glad that we were with her, but it was still difficult for her.

I looked at her. She’s a petit woman, thin as a wraith. She has always been thin, but not like this. I remember when Karin and I first met her, many years ago. It was at a religious service during Germanfest at the lakefront. The service was a Protestant sort of thing (the Catholics and and the Protestants trade off each year at the festival). Somehow we connected with this woman and her little girl. It was karma. We were supposed to meet her.

I looked at her yesterday, and I saw that the years had not been kind. She has struggled mightily, and it shows. Her little girl is now grown up, and this daughter is hooked on smack. The woman I know is caring for her daughter’s son, because her daughter cannot or will not be a mother. The woman is tired and hurt beyond anything that mortals should endure.

I understand this.

We talked.

I asked about her cancer.

She told me, in her thick German accent, “I have the cancer in my neck. The doctors want me to do all sorts of stuff. If I do what they say, then I will probably lose my voice. My saliva glands will be destroyed. I may need a feeding tube. No, I’m not doing that. They tell me, ‘You are going to die’, and I don’t care. I will deal with it in other ways.”

Then she said, “I just want to care for the little boy.”

For how long?

Damn, I admire this woman. She is strong in ways that I can never be. She is staring at death, and death is blinking back at her.

While we talked, she started to cry.

It was hard for me to see, because I was blinded by the tears in my eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Border

December 21st, 2019

The following letter from me was posted in the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin. It also made it into the Racine Journal Times.

“Dear Editor: We don’t hear much about immigration anymore. The news media don’t report on the topic. The politicians are busy with other issues. It seems like there are no more problems at our southern border. That’s not true.

The migrants and asylum seekers are still at the border, desperately trying to find safety in the United States. There are still hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, in places like Juarez, Mexico, camping in parks and streets. There are still destitute people who have no home.

How do I know this?

I went to El Paso and Juarez. I saw these people. I know who they are. I met them.

I was in Juarez with a small group from the Catholic Coalition for Migrants and Refugees. We spent five days living the migrants’ world. It’s a scary place. It’s a dangerous place.

The Trump administration did not solve the crisis at the border. It just shoved the problem a couple miles further south. The suffering and fear are still there. Most people just can’t see it.

I did.”

Well, This Sucks

December 18th, 2019

There is a building on the corner of Canal and Van Buren in downtown Chicago, not far from the river. There is nothing remarkable about this structure. It looks like most other  office buildings, a place that could house any kind of business. This particular establishment is the home of the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). This is where the immigration courts are located. This is where people get deported, or maybe not.

The EOIR is on the fourth floor of the building. Security is tight. I had to remove my belt and my shoes, and take everything out of my pockets. It was easier for me to visit somebody in the Taycheedah maximum security prison than it was for me to get into the EOIR. The guards seem to be full of themselves. Some of these rent-a-cops clearly savored their authority. That set the tone for rest of the visit. The message was: “We run this place. You don’t.”

The seal of the Department of Justice dominates the entrance, along with a photo of Donald Trump. He smiles like a shark.

The EOIR has no windows. There is just a winding corridor with bland, bureaucratic walls of baize. There are ten entrances to ten courtrooms. People sit in burgundy-colored plastic chairs. They stare at walls that are empty except for a few outdated notices from the Department of Justice. There are no vending machines. However, there are bathrooms. And there are people with guns.

Joanna, Linda, and I got there at lunch time. The courts were not in session. They would resume their work in an hour. The hallway slowly filled with people. A Russian family stood around talking with their Jewish lawyer. The attorney wore a kippah, so I assume that he was Jewish. I could be wrong. A varieties of Latinos showed up. Then a Chinese family came. The corridor became loud with a babble of different languages.

The three of us waited for a young Mexican woman who was scheduled to have her court appearance at 1:00 PM. This young woman was seeking asylum, along with her four small children. I had never met this woman before. Joanna knew her, at least a little bit. A group of us had been trying to help the woman with money and clothing. I don’t think that any of us knew her story. We might have heard bits and pieces of it, but we really didn’t know her.

In a couple hours we would know all about her.

As we waited for our young lady to arrive, I looked and listened to the people around me. I tried to be aware of who they were, and what they might be feeling. I could almost taste their stress. Some of them laughed and joked a bit too loudly. Some of them just stared straight ahead. Some of them looked around with tight smiles on their faces. Some of them stared at their phones.

All these people were worried. All of them. They knew that they were in a time and a place that would change their lives forever. They just didn’t know their lives would change.

The young woman arrived. She was without her children. Joanna greeted her with a smile and a hug, as did Linda. Joanna gave the woman a small pouch that probably held a rosary. The young woman was very nervous, and rightly so. We all sat down together, and I asked the young woman, in very broken Spanish, about her lawyer. She replied that he would arrive ten minutes prior to the court appearance.

That seemed odd, because most of the other people had lawyers already with them.  In fact, one of the attorneys was busy playing with a little boy, while his legal partner discussed their case with the parents of the child. It seemed like the woman’s lawyer was cutting it close.

Her “abogado” showed up at the time he said he would. He was a young man, with a beard and eyeglasses. He wore a white shirt, plaid tie, baby blue vest, and a black jacket. He had worn loafers with rainbow colored socks. I guess that is professional.

Just before 1:00 PM, we all walked into the court room. It was a small room, and it lacked a bailiff and a jury box. Immigration courts are administrative courts. They are part of the Department of Justice, not part of the judicial branch of the federal government. As such, these courts play by different rules. In a federal court the government must prove a case against an individual. In an immigration court the opposite applies. The U.S. government is not required to show why a person should be deported. Instead, the immigrant must show why he or she should be allowed to remain in this country. The burden of proof is on the immigrant at all times.

There were only a few people in the court room. There was the young woman, an interpreter, the judge, the woman’s attorney, and the lawyer for the Department of Homeland Security. The lawyer for the DHS was a big, stocky man who looked like he should be coaching high school football. Oh, and there was our trio, observing the proceedings and supporting the young woman.

The young woman’s appearance actually consisted of three separate cases. First, she was applying for asylum, which is a real bitch to get. To get asylum in the United States you have to prove two things:

“Asylum has two basic requirements. First, an asylum applicant must establish that he or she fears persecution in their home country. Second, the applicant must prove that he or she would be persecuted on account of one of five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group.”

Just because somebody is trying to kill is not sufficient grounds to qualify for asylum. They must want to kill you for certain specific reasons.

Second, the young woman was trying to get relief of removal. That means she wanted to judge, at his discretion, to allow her to remain in the U.S, if he believed that she was in danger if deported to Mexico. This is assuming he denied her asylum request.

Third, she was trying for relief of removal based on the Convention Against Torture. That means she is trying to show that, if she returned to Mexico, she would be tortured, and therefore should be allowed to remain in the United States.

Using a baseball analogy, she gets three swings at the ball.

The immigration lawyer called only one witness, and that was the young woman. She was the whole show. The young woman wanted to blurt things out, much to the chagrin of the interpreter and the judge. The judge had to rein her in repeatedly. He told her, “You will get to tell you whole story.” She just needed to do that in small, digestible pieces.

The young woman’s story was as convoluted as it was passionate. Her partner/husband (they weren’t legally married) had worked for cartel. He had been selling gasoline that was stolen from Pemex to local ranchers. He actually mentioned his activities with the cartel in an affidavit. He spent his time selling stolen fuel, and then he spent his earnings on booze and loose women, as testified by this young woman. At one point the husband ran afoul of the local gang leader, who apparently wanted to kill the husband. The young woman, her man, and their kids left that location abruptly. They wandered from place to place in Mexico for a couple years, and then, when the young woman failed to hear from her partner for fifteen days, she fled to the United states.

That’s a very short version of the tale.

The judge often stopped the young woman in order to get clarification. She liked to talk about how “they said this” or “they did that”. The judge finally asked, “So who are ‘they’?”

At another time the judge halted the proceedings and said, “I’m confused”, and he asked her to go over the whole timeline of events because he couldn’t understand what had all happened. It’s not good to confuse the judge.

The young woman was not ready to testify. Her lawyer had not adequately prepped her. She needed to have a clear, convincing story, and she didn’t have one. I think that she was honest and sincere, but some things she said just did not make sense.

The lawyer from DHS questioned her. He harped on the fact that her partner was a criminal. The husband had admitted that he had worked with the cartel, but he wasn’t exactly El Chapo. The guy was a bottom feeder who got himself and his family into a lot of trouble. In any case, he wasn’t the person applying for asylum. This young woman was, and she didn’t commit any crimes.

To digress for a moment, the current administration likes to complain that immigrants are now often criminals. Maybe they are, but isn’t necessarily something new. For hundreds of years people have been fleeing to America to escape their pasts. My great-grandfather was an Austrian draft dodger, and he later became a bootlegger here during Prohibition. As a friend told me once, “Don’t look too close at your family tree, or you might find someone hanging from it.”

After all the testimony was done, the judge had everybody take a half hour break while he composed his oral decision. Nobody felt good about this.

When we all returned to the court room, the judge proceeded to systematically dismember the young woman’s arguments.

She struck out.

The application for asylum was denied because she couldn’t prove that she was covered under one of the five protected grounds. She tried to say that she was part of a particular social group (her family), but that didn’t cut it. She also could not prove that she herself had been persecuted or was likely to be persecuted. Her husband had been threatened, but maybe not her.

The judge did not agree to grant her relief of removal because she didn’t show that would be in danger in all of Mexico. She may have been danger from the cartels in certain places, but not everywhere. She had in fact lived in locations where she had received no threats.

The judge denied her request for relief under the Convention Against Torture, because she never showed that the Mexican government would be involved with the torture, either actively or passively. Even when threatened by the cartel, her family had never gone to the police. They feared that the police would tell the gangs, and there would be reprisals. She believed that the cops were cooperating with the cartels, but she couldn’t prove that. I guess the only way that she could have proven that the police were in league with the cartels is if they had tortured and killed her. However, then she would never have been in that court room.

The judge ordered that she and her children be deported.

She wept.

Legally, the judge did what he had to do.

Morally, there is a problem.

Even if this young woman failed to meet the stringent standards of the U.S. government in order to remain in the country, she still needs help. She is terrified to return to Mexico, and the judge acknowledged that. She just wants her kids to be safe, and they won’t be safe if she goes back to Mexico. So, what does she do now?

Yeah, this sucks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Darkness Comes

December 14, 2019

“Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again” – Paul Simon

“What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.”
― Rumi

It is now 1:57 AM, and I am up and awake. The neighborhood sleeps fitfully. The moon is only two days past full, and it illuminates our bedroom through the skylight. Shocky is lying on the couch behind me. If I’m up, she’s up. Dogs are loyal like that.

This is a dark time of year, and it is getting darker. I look forward to the winter solstice. Then the light will grow again. I used to work nights. I did that for many years. I remember waiting for the sunrise in wintertime. The world didn’t get any warmer once the sun peeked over the horizon, but somehow I felt better.

Christmas is coming too. I read that “the Romans first linked Christmas with the solstice. They pegged the event to December 25th because, since 43 BC, this date was the winter solstice in the Julian calendar.” (Sarah Woodbury)

Christmas is a profoundly pagan festival, despite what some Christians might say. I don’t have a problem with that. The pagans were (and are) deeply concerned with the winter solstice. Their practices and rituals always pertain to light and warmth. Our customs at Christmas do the same. For the most part, we have just Christianized traditions that were already ancient when Jesus was born. What are Christmas lights for, if not to keep the darkness at bay?

My wife, being from Germany, insists our putting real candles on a real Christmas tree. We turn off all of the lights in the house, and then we light the candles, and we hope that the house doesn’t burn down. The fact is that those flickering candles on the tree shine brightly in the darkness, and they are comforting in a way that is warm and gentle.

The story of the Christ Child is essentially a story about divine warmth and love penetrating our human world. It is about God coming into our lives at the moment of greatest darkness. God doesn’t come to curse the darkness. God comes to change it.

I worked with a man who told me that Christmas should be called “Commerce Day.” He may have been right. I find it difficult to get into the holiday spirit when the biggest news is that consumers spent 7.4 billion dollars online on Black Friday. That means that Christmas is mostly about materialism and greed. That is a darkness lodged in the human heart, and it is deeper than the physical darkness of the season.

Jesus didn’t come into the world to encourage retail sales and to promote a heroic sort of capitalism. He came to enable us to see and feel the good that is our world. He came to transform the darkness and the cold that lies within us.