Reflections after visiting the Tornillo Facility in El Paso
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The light seemed brighter than normal here. It stung our eyes when we walked outside. It could have been the fact that we had been in a dimly lit tent for a couple of hours, and the transition into any sunlight would have been extreme. It could have been that we were in the desert where everything—everything—around us was white or beige. The sand, the tents, the vehicles, the paved roads. It was plain, flat, and dusty. There was a barrier surrounding the facility, and they were careful to check each of us in when we arrived. After a briefing by the group that runs the facility, we walked into a large tent to prepare for our first activity with the kids.
Almost all of the kids in this camp are unaccompanied minors, between the ages of 12-17. At the time of our visit, there were around 340 boys and about 35 girls.
The boys and girls at the camp are kept separated at all times, to nullify the risk of any sort of inappropriate interaction. We weren’t allowed to play soccer with the kids, the risk of adults and kids engaging in a contact sport being obviously too high. We weren’t allowed to take many pictures and none at all of the kids themselves.
We collected prayer requests, but if the kids put their names on them, we had to remove them. Their identity, as well as their person, is under constant protection.
Meanwhile, the kids are simply waiting. Day in and day out, throughout the various activities and their routines. They are just waiting. They wait to be taken to their next activity, they wait to talk to their families, they wait to hear if they will finally be released to their sponsors, they wait to know what their future holds.
We moved from tent to tent throughout the day, as we went from activity to activity ourselves. A worship service with the 340 boys, then lunch, then craft time with 36 girls, then craft time with 20 boys (the others had chosen to play soccer), and finally, another worship service, this time with the girls.
They loved it all. They loved making the prayer bead necklaces and bracelets, especially spelling their names and the names of their family members with the alphabet beads. They loved receiving the little paper notepads, pens, and pencils, removing them from the gift bags we brought and immediately writing or drawing pictures. And then the worship—the worship! As piercingly bright as it was outside, nothing was as bright as the light in these children’s faces as we worshipped together.
They sang the songs loudly, with abandon. They knelt, stood, bowed their heads, prayed out loud, eyes squeezed closed, tears streaming down their faces. They worshipped their God as if their lives depended on it.
It felt like their lives did depend on it.
Their worship, their adoration, their praise, in that time and place, reminded me that my life depended on it, as well.
My theology professor in undergrad once told me that what makes us human is our ability to transcend our current physical reality and connect to that which is greater than ourselves, the divine. It’s our ability to transcend that makes us human.
All of us need to have literal and metaphorical space where we stop, where we look up and look beyond what’s around us. Where we can let go of the mundane, every day, physical reality, and can even transcend our own pain or suffering or fear. We all need to remember that there is something bigger than all of it to which we can connect.
Our humanity depends on it. Our lives depend on it.
The kids needed that space desperately. Their emotional and spiritual outpouring was evidence of that. And I did, too. Tears poured down my own cheeks as I remembered that my own darkness would not stand up to the light of God, that I was not alone, and that no matter what I saw around me, God was still with me, and with these children.
The other faith leaders and I, we proclaimed God’s strength and victory over darkness and fear. We proclaimed that even though they may have literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death, God did have a plan for them, to give them a future with hope. And the kids were the very images of that hope. They reminded us that God is actually with us and that we are created with the ability to call upon and be with our God, no matter what our situation.
We prayed over the children and collected their prayer requests. We will continue to pray that they have the emotional and spiritual space they need while they remain in custody. This is not the end of their journey. Neither is it ours. I pray that these children are quickly released to their sponsors, and wherever they may be, that there will always be people of faith, hope, and love, to surround them and help them connect to a God who loves them.
God bless us all.