Good Life

Clergy Column: The Rev. Monica Dawkins-Smith

“I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” was Cain’s response to God’s question, “Where is your brother Abel?” (Genesis 4:9)

Honestly, I usually skip this kind of biblical story fraught with imperfect family values, even if it appears in the lectionary. But after a recent trip to the borderlands in Arizona and Mexico, accompanying seminarians from Lancaster Theological Seminary on a cross-cultural immersion trip, I have read and re-read this biblical passage several times over the past three weeks.

While in the borderlands, we listened to heartbreaking stories from migrants who survived desert trails but failed to reunite with loved ones in the U.S., even as close as 10 miles away. These stories, coupled with statistics about men, children and women who were raped or died trying to cross, provoked me to reflect more deeply about Cain, Abel and God’s response.

In the past five years, close to 6,000 people have died trying to cross the southern U.S. border, and more than 50 percent have died in the Sonoran Desert on land belonging to the Tohono O’odham Nation (which translates to “desert people”). These statistics were particularly troubling for Mike Wilson, a lay minister in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. He was concerned because many of the deaths occurred around the Baboquivari Peak, the “center of Creation” and sacred place for his American Indian people.

This craggy mountain peak, about 7,730 feet above sea level, is considered to be home to I’itoli, the Tohono O’odham people’s Creator and Elder Brother. The peak can be seen from Arizona and Mexico. My eyes were fixed on it as I traveled throughout the borderlands and walked the migrant desert trails, keenly attentive to echoes from the Genesis creation story and God’s sorrowful retort to Cain, “Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)

Heeding our brother’s cry, how do we respond to complicated issues surrounding immigration and undocumented migrants? Is there a clue in Cain’s story?

Ponder this. Rather than avenge Abel’s death, God showed compassionate justice to Cain and instead preserved his life. “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.” (Genesis 4:15) We, too, are implored to show compassionate justice to preserve life for all people marked and made in the image of God.

Wilson and many others in Arizona and Mexico have formed networks that help to preserve the lives of migrants through humanitarian outreach and immigration advocacy. Sanctuary churches have provided safe space and prayer support.

Pictures of Baboquivari Peak will remind me of encounters with our creator God from afar and God’s nearness in stories and lived experiences of migrants I met on our shared pilgrim journey toward home.

May we follow Jesus’ lead to cross borders, make brothers and sisters of all human beings (Ephesians 2:19-22), and in so doing, may we engage complicated issues in ways that “hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope” (The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.).