Naming the Unnamed: the Important Work of Dr. Lori Baker

Last week, I spent some time at Baylor University in Waco, TX. I admit, Mary and I went with great curiosity about seeing Magnolia Farms, the home of Chip and Joanna Gaines from the HGTV home-remodeling show Fixer Upper. Who would have believed that Fixer Upper-fever had over taken the town? Each month an estimated 33,000 tourists travel to Waco just to gawk at what the Gaines have created.

That was our first stop, but after that we spent time with Baylor students who are very interested in the link between faith and health. Their energy was so invigorating, and hopefully we’ll see some of them come to Memphis and work with us as Church Health Scholars during their a gap year between college and medical school.

What I was not expecting was to meet Dr. Lori Baker, a forensic pathologist based at Baylor. It turns out she has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Tennessee and spent seven years in Memphis. What she has followed as her life’s work is both inspiring and gut-wrenching.

Dr. Baker works to identify bodies that have died in areas of genocide or on the US/Mexican border. She then returns the bodies to their families. She has worked in Serbia and Honduras, but she mostly works in Texas.

Every year, 500 people die trying to come to America. Before the 1990s, our country did not even keep a record of the deaths of these unknown people. On the Texas border, people pay a “coyote” to help them cross the desert, and once across and into Texas, they’re told that Houston is “just a 30-minute walk away.” They are led into barren lands that are mostly privately owned ranches hundreds of square miles in size. There is no water, so the irony of calling these people “wet backs” is disturbing. They will die of dehydration. Most bodies are found about 70 miles from the border, often in the fall during hunting season. They are buried on the spot or in cemeteries with unmarked graves.

Dr. Baker, with a small group of students and volunteers, works to identify the people who never realized their American dream. She then tries to return the bodies to their families. It is heart-wrenching work, but surely the work of the Lord.

She is one of the only forensic pathologists in America trying to identify these tragic souls.

Two weeks ago, I saw a young man barely out of his teens from Honduras. While crossing the border into the US, he became dehydrated. He was admitted to a border hospital and told he had damaged his kidneys and that he would need dialysis. He then came to Memphis where he had family. Thankfully, he is young and his kidneys had recovered by the time I saw him. But he came within a hair’s breadth of being someone who met Lori in the desert.

When I last saw him, he was smiling, ready to go to work building houses with his uncle. But I can’t help but wonder what his smile masks. Did he see people along the way who Lori will examine later this year? Did he know where they came from? Did he know their mamas?

My talks with Lori educated me on a facet of immigrant life that I never considered, but I cannot get out of my head the profound sadness of it all. She gets regular hate mail for doing what she does.

The line between life and death is so very thin. My troubles seem of little consequence when I think of all those who set out on such a perilous journey. I don’t know if I will see Lori ever again, but I do know I will not talk to a recent immigrant to Memphis from the South without thinking about what could have been.

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Thoughts On Brexit

I spent a year going to school in London. At the University of London, I was surrounded by people from all over Europe and the world. The amazing diversity of London has always been one of its best assets, and I can’t reconcile my memory of London as a place of unity and diversity with the reality that is Brexit.

Turning in seems to be the majority sentiment for a county that once ruled much of the world. I am in no position to judge the British on how they rule themselves, but I am confident that focusing only on one’s own self-interest is never a good plan. Any time decisions are made based on how one party – whether that be a person, a group, or even an entire country – can get more for itself, the result is rarely a strategy that works well in the long term.
I believe that finding ways to be generous to neighbors and engaging with people who are different from ourselves has been the most effective business and social strategy for hundreds of years, and I hope that Britain will find a way to avoid isolating themselves while at the same time exercising their autonomy. Obviously, that’s a hard balance to strike.

Like many Americans, I pray that the British exit from the EU does not lead Americans to say we should follow the same path. We live in a complex world and it is critical that we find ways to better engage the rest of the world, not isolate ourselves from it. I am confident that the Christian path is to welcome strangers into our midst and to go into all the world. Anything short of that is not following the path Jesus set before us. Sadly, too many people who claim to follow Jesus would rather we circle the wagons and only share our abundant resources with those who look just like us.

My experience living in London opened my eyes to remarkable people and powerful ways that others around the world live out their lives of faith. None of us are able to love God fully by just following our own understanding of how God created the world. We truly need each other. If America is to be a great nation, we must open our hearts and arms to all who would want to be in relationship to us. It says it on the Statue of Liberty, but Jesus also says it in the Sermon on the Mount.

I pray we will listen closely to God’s desire for us to engage the whole world in acts of love, justice, and joy. Anything other than that is a path that no Christian should be willing to take.

Welcoming the Stranger Is Always the Right Thing to Do

I fell in love in Brussels. I was 20 years old and staying with friends for Christmas while I spent my junior year of college abroad in London. There was a second guest at our Christmas gathering –  a young Polish lady named Teresa who was working as a nanny in London. When I met her, I was immediately smitten.

Our romance didn’t last long. When we got back to London, we realized we had little in common, not the least of which was a language barrier. Still, my memories of Brussels are all good.

That is why I cannot imagine the brutality of the most recent bombings. Brussels is a city of love, not hate. But I realize that is how my romantic 20-year-old mind sees it. Today’s reality is so much different.

Or is it?

When horrible things like the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris, and all over the world happen, our immediate instinct is to pull back. To turn in. To close ourselves off to others. This kneejerk reaction is understandable because as humans, we often feel threatened by the “other,” the outsider.  We fear that people who aren’t like us might hurt us or threaten our safety.

I write this on Maundy Thursday and tomorrow is Good Friday.

After Jesus’ death, it seems clear the Disciples moved in to self-protection mode. They retreated to the Upper Room and were afraid. They had reason to be. Jesus had been executed as a political threat to Rome. Being associated with him put yourself at risk.

And yet, soon after the experience of the Resurrection and the arrival of the Holy Spirit, they moved from being turned in to reaching out. They embraced the stranger. They took risks. They may have still been fearful but you cannot see it in their actions. They invited people into their lives.

I think that is exactly what we need to do in this time of fear. I understand the desire to do just the opposite. Retreating to the safest place we can find seems the only rational decision. The problem with this is that building walls and shutting out others who are as scared as we are only breeds hostility. Most importantly for me, it is the exact opposite of what Jesus expected his Disciples to do. He commanded the Disciples to go into the streets and bring in any one they found to the banquet feast.

For Christians, welcoming the stranger is always the right thing to do.

It has been many years since I have been to Brussels. I live my life in Memphis where I don’t have to make hard decisions about how to interact with my Muslim neighbors who have immigrated from elsewhere. But I get to decide every day how I will care for and embrace the Muslims and the Latin Americans who I see all around me who now live in Memphis.

There is no escaping the opportunity to do what Jesus expects of me. The only question is, will I do it?

Our Already-Great America

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has said a great deal about making America great again. I had a conversation with one of our clinic interpreters who showed me why America is great now.

Our Already-Great America

Image credit: “Unity Amidst Diversity” by eddypau

Ambar was born in Mexico. When she was a young child, her father came on a visa to work in Los Angeles. Because he was worried about issues of gang violence in LA, he moved his family to Memphis, where Ambar and her sister grew up. Four years ago Ambar married a young man from Mississippi.

From here on, this story gets complicated. You may need to pull out your atlas.

Ambar’s husband grew up in Mississippi, but his parents did not. His father is from Morocco and his grandmother is from Spain. Ambar’s husband’s mother is from Korea. His mother’s sister married an African-American US soldier who moved the whole family from Korea to Mississippi.

Ambar’s Mexican-born sister recently married an Indian man who grew up in England. At their wedding, there was a traditional Indian service, the bride was painted in henna, and there was also a Mariachi band.

So to recap: Mexican, Moroccan, Korean, Spanish, Indian, and British heritages all mingled together to make up your average family living in north Mississippi and Memphis.

No matter how you look at it, surely that is what makes America great.

Religiously, we have mixed Catholic, Muslim, Hindi, Sikh, Protestant Christian, and Buddhist.
I am guessing that makes God smile. I am not so naive as to think this family does not have cultural challenges. Questions about how to raise their children are certain to abound. But the richness of their lives from the amazing diversity is certain to bring a fullness to life that is not easy to come by.

America truly is a country of immigrants. I know that my life is made richer by my experience of other points of view both culturally and when it comes to how God is made known.

America does not need to be made great again. It already is.

How Will You Say “Welcome”?

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.

These words from Emma Lazarus’s poem “New Colossus” appear on the plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’s words have inspired generations of people who have come to America seeking a new life, safety, the opportunity to flourish.

But I have to ask: How do these words jive with the position of the United States on the refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq today?

How Will You Say Welcome

Our government has made clear there will be no increase in our current quota for immigrants. While the US has said it will accept 10,000 Syrians in the next year, that number is part of a total of 75,000 immigrants slated to be accepted for the year—from the entire world. A few years ago, Antony Sheehan, the Church Health Center’s president, had to win a lottery to get a visa to enter the US from the UK, which is not a major source of terrorists the last time I checked.

In contrast, Germany just agreed to admit 500,000 Middle Eastern immigrants this year.

But the number of people fleeing ISIS brutalities is in the millions.

Last summer, the immigrants fleeing war and torture in Central America caught our attention because they were on our southern border. This summer, Syrian refugees have been pouring into Eastern Europe. That’s far enough away that since the refugees are no longer camped out at the Budapest train station, their story is not leading the news. And whatever happened to all of the children who came alone across the Texas border last year?

How can we turn our backs?

In the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph flee at night to Egypt because of their fear of a despotic ruler. As Christians, how do we not see the parallel in our own time? We worship Jesus, but would we turn him away at our borders if he wanted to be a part of our community? This cannot be what the adult Jesus would expect from us.

The #1 message of hope the New Testament offers us is to “Fear not.”

But what could be more fearful than leaving your home and all you know to become a stranger in a strange land—especially when a treacherous journey with your small children seems like the safest option, your best hope of keeping them alive?

It is clear that the followers of Jesus are expected to offer hospitality to strangers. I am betting that at the end of time, we will be judged not on how we responded to the issues we face in our very wealthy society, but on what we did when those who had nothing came knocking at our door.

When that day comes, may we all confidently know that we did all we could to say, “Welcome.”

Until then, keep the image of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in your mind. How will you welcome them?

No Impediments

No Impediments

I walked into the exam room to a familiar scene. Two men sat before me looking worn and tired. Their interpreter stood alert, ready to help me give them the care they needed.

One was 18, the other in his mid-30s. The younger man was clean-shaven and well-dressed. He complained of a persistent cough and a sprained ankle.

I asked as I always do to immigrants, “How long have you been in the U.S.?”

“Two days.”

Through their interpreter, a longtime patient of mine, I learned that both men had entered the U.S. from Mexico through Laredo. The 18-year-old was forthcoming with answers to all my questions.

“How much did you have to pay the coyote to get you here?”

“$3100.”

At that point, the interpreter broke in. “He is my nephew. His mother saved up the money for him to come be with me because he cannot find work in Mexico. He’s worried about the cough because someone else on the crossing was very sick. He’s worried it might be TB.”

The other man was in pain too. “He is my brother,” the woman said. His lower leg was red, swollen and very tender, and I was worried he might have a compartment syndrome which would require surgery. I took an x-ray and luckily one of the retired orthopedists was there to examine him with me. He thought it was just a very bad bruise, but I still scheduled a follow-up appointment for the next week.

While waiting for his x-ray, the patient began talking to Claudia, one of our other interpreters.

She told me, “There is more to his story than he told you.”

When it comes to these cases, there always is.

As he told me his story, tears began rolling down his cheeks. Married with four children, he had resorted to begging to pay his bills because he could not find work in Mexico. To pay the coyote to help him cross into the U.S. where he could most certainly find work, he made the decision to sell his car, the only thing of value he had. That got him $3100, but then the coyote demanded that he pay another $1000 for security. Obviously, he didn’t have it. The coyote threatened to leave him in the desert or turn him over to a drug cartel at the border. Miraculously, his sister found a way to wire him the money.

She said, “I had to do it. He is my brother.”

I assured him that I could help him with his leg. After all he had been through, I was glad to deliver him a sliver of good news. It would take some time for his leg to fully recover, but I knew he would be alright within a couple of weeks provided he stayed off his leg at work and rely on crutches to get around.

His face fell again.

“I cannot pay for the crutches.”

I assured him that we would give him the crutches.

As for not working, I knew there would be no way to stop him so I just tried to lay out some parameters so the problem wouldn’t worsen.

As they were leaving, everyone was smiling. I knew that both men would heal soon and that for a time they would find a bit of security knowing that as long as they worked, the Church Health Center would provide them with medical care.

Still, I just feel so sick to my stomach that this is what happens every day on the border of my own country, in order to come to my city, in order to become my patient. All this money and all this fear is put on the line just for the chance to have a better life.

A life where you can work freely and provide for your family.

A life where you do not have to beg to feed your children.

A life where you do not have to pay a bribe to a drug cartel in order to work honestly.

A life where you are willing to work hard and are not breaking a law when you step into the Rio Grande River.

It was in the Jordan River that Jesus felt God’s presence. On this issue of caring for immigrants is the one place where I’m clear as to God’s will for me.

Each month at the Church Health Center, we hold an All-Staff Meeting. New employees introduce themselves to the entire organization and share an interesting fact about themselves. At our last staff meeting, every single new employee said that they speak Spanish. Some even speak multiple languages.

I have no excuse for not learning Spanish myself, but there will never be a time that a person’s country of origin will be a barrier to our care. When it comes to caring for the working uninsured, we have no impediments, both literally and spiritually.