by Richard Propes
It was July 4th.
I was sitting alone soaking in a sunny day in Fort Harrison State Park here in Indy. My phone was on, though to be honest I was completely ignoring it despite the looming possibility of a potential family concern that is currently weighing heavily on my heart.
But, I heard the familiar buzzing sound from my phone and instinctively looked down. It was an unfamiliar number, yet local and my “should” got the best of me. I Picked it up.
I heard the voice on the other end. I instantly smiled.
Jesus is 7-years-old. He arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum alongside an uncle with the two hoping to join other family members, all permanent citizens, located in the Midwest.
Somehow, Jesus got separated from his uncle. The thought of this horrifies me, on a guttural level, because I can’t stop picturing a terrified little boy separated from the only family member he had.
I don’t know that this is how it unfolded. It’s how I picture it.
It’s unclear just how Jesus ended up in a Border Patrol “facility,” though it is clear that he’d been there well past the allowable 72-hour period. The reports were that he was “behaviorally disruptive” and causing chaos. In an already chaotic situation, Jesus was noted as exacerbating that chaos.
That would end up working to his advantage.
Like many of you who have been horrified by the reports in the news of children separated from families, which are true, and children being held in cages, which are also true, I have found myself asking over and over and over again “What is mine to do?”
I’m not a lawyer. I’m not bilingual. I can protest with the best of ’em and I’ve long been an advocate for children, but I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of immigration issues is far too limited to be anything resembling an effective advocate.
The weekend before last, after some particularly damning news articles came out, I began posting more fervently my desire to do something. It was a desire shared by Rev. Kayla as she and I posted back-and-forth on social media.
It wasn’t more than a few hours after our last exchange that a familiar face buzzed in on my Messenger. She’s an old friend, a former nurse turned lawyer who specializes in children’s issues and, yes, who has a special interest in immigration. We’d formerly worked together in an emergency room setting, my expertise in crisis intervention a perfect complement to her skilled, knowledgeable physical care and committed presence.
“So, how serious are you about wanting to do something?”
She’d asked me before for simple things – tips on shelters and referrals for community resources. These kinds of things come naturally for me and I’m incredibly familiar with systems, how they work, and how to make them work.
She quickly explained the situation. The arrangements had been made for a child to be united with family here in Indiana, though it meant picking up the child from his current location in a south Texas “facility” and transporting the child to Indiana.
“They’ve been having lots of problems with the child,” she said. “That’s where you come in. We need to get the child before they change their minds and we need to get him back to Indiana without causing a scene.”
This was a Saturday afternoon. The plan was to leave early Sunday afternoon, fly to Texas, pick up the child, spend some time with the child to assess the situation, and “hopefully” fly back to Indy for unification with his family.
I optimistically planned to be at work by Monday morning.
My part in all of this? Minimal. I was there as a companion to the process and as someone to provide support to the child, whose name I would finally learn was Jesus, in hopes that all of this would happen smoothly.
I’ve been an activist for a long time. I’ve long had a history of acting spontaneously. While I wanted to ask more questions, I also knew it was in my best interest to not necessarily know the “details” of how everything would unfold. This was a friend who’d had my back more than once in an emergency room setting. I knew she’d have my back. I also knew she wouldn’t ask me to get into something I truly couldn’t handle, though, as she pointed out “There’s always a risk.”
When I was asking “What is mine to do?,” this is not what I had in mind. I pictured a donation or a petition or maybe even a protest. I pictured maybe making some phone calls or doing some telephone work. All of these things are valuable, in case you’re wondering. They’re necessary. They’re part of what helps the organizations do such impeccable work and stay so incredibly organized. With immigration, everything has to follow every law and every policy…and even then, I was told, promises get broken and “laws” don’t get followed. I was told that we could do everything right and still not come back with Jesus.
I have to be honest, as much as I wanted to help I was kind of freaking out. I had a hard time believing I was a best option. I hate flying. I hate flying in bad weather. To be honest, I think I even used the “I’m in a wheelchair” line. “You’re one of the nicest, most disarming people I know. You know as well as I do that you make that wheelchair work to your advantage,” she said.
I couldn’t deny she was right.
Sometimes, my activism comes out of “What am I most afraid of?” and then doing it. This was one of those times.
Unsurprisingly, my friend had everything planned out perfectly.
The flight to Texas was uneventful, though I’ll confess my own sense of paranoia as we went through the gates. “I wonder if they know what we’re doing,” I said to myself not completely certain that someone, somewhere wasn’t hearing me.
We arrived in Texas. It was still light outside, though the late afternoon/ early evening hour hinted at the coming dark. My friend, who gave me the green light to write this post yet requested anonymity to protect ongoing efforts, wanted us to have Jesus outside the facility well before dark.
We arrived at the facility. It seems very matter-of-fact now. I recall thinking “I wonder if this is one of those facilities.” You know the ones, right? The ones being reported about in the news. I’d done some research and I knew there were way more facilities than simply those being reported. I didn’t assume I would recognize it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to recognize it. I think, deep down, part of me still hoped to find that things weren’t nearly as bad as was being reported.
I knew they were detention facilities. I understood that intellectually, but part of me still wanted to believe that people were being fairly and humanely and respectfully.
I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared intellectually or emotionally or spiritually or any other way.
While we weren’t granted access to those areas where people were being housed, you couldn’t help but see them. My heart sunk. In fact, more than my heart sunk. I think my entire being sunk. Is it possible for a soul to sink? I think my soul sunk. However, we were instead led to a room where we were to meet with and, again “hopefully,” be able to pick up Jesus.
The “problem child.”
Have you ever just fallen in love with someone the minute you met them? There are certain people you meet in life that you just feel this instant spark emanating from and you immediately think “I was meant to cross paths with this person.”
That’s how I felt the minute I laid eyes on Jesus, a 7-year-old wonder child who was self-stimming like crazy and whose likely Autism was obviously being triggered and triggered and triggered in this environment where nothing was stable and everything was loud and overwhelming and no one understood him or the hesitant, almost painfully quiet way in which he tried but often failed to communicate.
Kids typically respond to me in one of three ways. They either are terrified of my wheelchair, guarded and distant, or completely enamored of the wheelchair.
Jesus LOVED my wheelchair. I mean, seriously. He absolutely loved it.
If you know me, you know that I’m not exactly a hugger. In fact, due to my own background, I tend to have my hesitation (Okay, fear!) with most forms of touch. But, Jesus didn’t seem to know that. Without a word, he crawled up on my lap and just sat there with one hand constantly holding the wheel of my wheelchair.
It was adorable.
My friend? She did this sort of placid smile that said “I told you so.”
While she did all the work behind the scenes, I sat there with Jesus in my lap for a good 30 minutes. It was probably longer. I didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a word. He was documented as possibly non-verbal, though that means different things to different people and it certainly never, and I mean never, means that communication doesn’t happen.
Trust me, Jesus was communicating.
I wish I could tell you everything that unfolded, but the truth is that most of it occurred outside of my sight and, to be even more honest, my entire being was focused on ensuring that Jesus felt safe enough with me that we could safely travel home. Eventually, well after dark, we were free to go. I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure my friend was speeding on the way out.
I am embarrassed to admit that I never did ask my friend which agency she worked for, though I’ve since learned that she has worked with several different ones with a primary focus on uniting families from the Midwest. She had arranged a brief stop so that Jesus could eat, bathe, and have time outside an enclosed environment before we attempted to board a plane. She had even arranged a local volunteer to assist Jesus, a volunteer who was bilingual and whom Jesus seemed to understand even though his communication continued to be minimal.
It was an opportunity for my friend and I to debrief. She was calm, cool, yet obviously emotional. You could feel her sense of relief that so far everything had worked.
Me? I recall saying very little and mostly crying. The cages, and they are cages, are what bothered me the most. That may not be true, though. I think it was the sound. I tend to be very vulnerable to sensory overload and I recall what felt like a wall of sound that just enveloped me and felt like it was smothering me. I hated the feeling and I haven’t completely shaken it since I returned.
The border agents we encountered? They ranged from mean-spirited authoritarians to kind-hearted people trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation. I found it weird how they co-existed and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were friends.
After a brief period of rest, we boarded a flight and returned to Indiana. Jesus, the “problem child,” was instead a delightful child who was quiet and warm and considerate. He was more than a little concerned when he noticed some blood on my pant leg, something I’d not even noticed and something that appears to have occurred from holding his frightened little body in an awkward position for probably a little too long.
Of course, I didn’t tell him that. I can’t actually remember what I said. I made some excuse and let him know that I was perfectly fine. Instead, we began singing round after round after round of “Baby Shark,” a song which I’ve now learned how to sing in a wide range of voices ranging from Donald Duck to Winnie the Pooh to Beavis & Butthead. For the record, he didn’t know Beavis & Butthead but he loved the voices.
Then, he was home and surrounded by an open-armed aunt and uncle who spoke a language I wish I’d studied in high school or college or somewhere along the way. He’d met them before and they clearly, clearly loved him.
I arrived home about 4am or so on Monday morning. I arrived at work an hour later than usual, unsure if I was supposed to feel relieved or overwhelmed or grateful or all of the above.
I’ve struggled with how to share this story, partly because I want to protect Jesus and the integrity of this work and partly because, to be honest, it’s just so emotionally overwhelming that I can barely write a paragraph without being overcome by the emotion of it all again.
I don’t know that this type of work is truly what is mine to do, but clearly this case was mine to do. This left me feeling so inadequate in so many ways. I wanted to know more about the law. I wanted to be bilingual. I wanted to not just take Jesus out…I wanted to take them all and it literally pains me to know that I couldn’t.
I came back wanting to learn more and do more and act more even if this type of act is not something I ever do again. As someone who has spent my entire life working on behalf of children, it’s like my eyes have been opened to this entire population of children I somehow didn’t realize were out there and needing help.
Now, I need to do more.
But, let’s go back briefly to yesterday. It was July 4th. I was hanging out at Fort Harrison State Park on a quiet Independence Day. I was troubled by certain events in the world, yet I was also grateful for so incredibly much. I’d been struggling with a lot of anger, even hatred, since my return from Texas. I was having trouble letting go of the cruelty, which I’d truly only seen in glimpses, that I’d witnessed.
Then, my phone rang. I heard the tiny voice on the other end of the line.
“Sus,” he said.
“Hey, Jesus. How are you?,” I said.
“You okay? No more bud?”,” he asked. It took me a minute.
“I’m fine. No more blood,” I responded.
“K. Bye,” he said before quickly departing.
His aunt quickly got on the phone and I immediately responded “I guess we know he’s not non-verbal, eh?” “He’s definitely not non-verbal,” she responded. She apologized for bothering me, but said “He’s been really worried about your leg and wanted to make sure you were okay.”
I lost it. The tears flowed enough that I’m pretty sure the lake at Fort Harrison overflowed.
I’ve been sitting around angry and grumpy and even a little hateful and obsessed with the cruelty in the world. I’ve been frustrated and hopeless and overwhelmed and forgetting about all the amazing people in my life including this incredibly gifted attorney friend of mine who invited me to be part of this journey.
Then, I get a call from this 7-year-old boy with limited communication skills and every reason in the world to be angry who somehow managed to remind me that love is stronger than hate.
Whatever is mine to do from here on out, let it be done with love.
Richard Propes is a new member of All Souls and a longtime activist and child advocate who has traveled over 6,000 miles in his wheelchair while raising over $1 million for children’s organizations worldwide since 1989. You can read about his efforts on his website at The Tenderness Tour. He’s also a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and publisher of The Independent Critic.
Note from the editor: if you’d like to do a small thing for migrant justice with us at All Souls, you’re welcome to join us a vigil to end migrant detention centers on Friday, July 12th. If you’d like to carpool with other All Souls folks, we’ll be departing from our parking lot at 6:30pm.