Things began to really hit home when I listened to and read the transcript of a recording of a phone call with a woman being held in the Otay Mesa Detention Center very close to the California-Mexico border. During my junior high and high school years in Chula Vista, California, I lived less than fifteen miles from where this facility now stands holding hundreds of ICE detainees, a cradle for Covid-19 cases now numbering more than 140—mostly detainees but also a significant number of medical staff, ICE agents, and guards. Something in the woman’s voice, her descriptions of life inside the facility, and the screams that interrupted the call got to me in a way that nothing else had during this pandemic. I had been social distancing, learning, protecting myself and doing my part to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. I’d been sending love and prayers to friends and others suffering with Covid-19, but even doing this—and watching television, seeing mass graves and devastated families—I had somehow pushed away any truly deep feelings about just how tragic the situation is for so many.
This woman’s voice and descriptions shattered that protective shell. I got hit hard. I crumpled and began to sob. At last, I began to feel some of the realities I’d been emotionally hiding from. Immigration detainees, those in other prisons, those without protective equipment, those without food security, owners of closed-down businesses, workers without their paychecks, those on the frontlines risking their health and lives combatting this disease, and more—each, as part of a huge wave—began to take their turns with me, churning me under, knocking me against the rocks, and ultimately burrowing into my soul. It was horrible. Who would want this? Let me go back to being distant from it all!
As difficult as it was to begin to make room inside for this heartbreak, however, I also sensed that this small opening to immense suffering was sacred. As I began to be able to hold more of this grief, distress, anger, and sense of helplessness, I found myself experiencing something at the same time sweet. Bittersweet. It began to allow me to better glimpse God’s ache, God’s longings, God’s minute-to-minute existence marked by willingness to be in intimate relationship with everyone and everything, wonderful as well as tragic.
I wasn’t able to hold these emotions so intensely for very long, but now two-plus weeks since I was first struck it is still with me, and I’m grateful for the chance to continue to bear what I can in this more intimate way.
I spoke on a recent podcast about how my Easter and Passover meditations this year, tinged with Jewish traditions about group atonement, had led me to glimpse something new about what it might mean for Jesus to have “taken on the sins of the whole world.” I think my slowly enlarging abilities to hold more closely to my core the tragedies of this pandemic might be a further step in coming to understand better his experiences as he prayed, was beaten, and walked toward the cross. I am also starting to know, in a new way, a bit more about a resurrection entailed in all of it.