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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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.

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.

On Immigration

Immigration is one of the greatest moral challenges of our time. I am convinced that one of the main ways the New Testament teaches that God will judge us is on the issue of how we care for strangers in our midst.

Recently in our clinic, I saw José, a 53-year-old Mexican man who came to Memphis in 1999. Fifteen years ago, with his wife and four small children, he crossed a desert at night for the sole purpose of finding a better life for his family.

He was not looking to break any laws. He was prepared to work hard and be part of a community, which is exactly what he has done.

For years, the stress of being deported weighed on him. He turned to alcohol to relax, yet he was anxious every time he heard a knock at his door. He became paranoid.

Two years ago, he was stopped and arrested while driving under the influence. That set into motion a deportation hearing. A year ago, he had a psychotic break and was admitted to a local mental health facility. The medication he received there stopped the voices he heard. But then, the medication ran out. Now the voices are back, which was why his family brought him to see me.

José speaks little English, so his daughter-in-law translated for me. She is married to his oldest son, who was 12 when his parents lead the family across the border to the U.S. She met her husband in high school. She is a young, blonde Southern woman who has taught herself Spanish. She married José’s son five years ago, and together they have two (very cute) little girls.

The deportation has been put off until January 2015 because her husband – Jose’s son – developed Leukemia this March. He had been the sole breadwinner of the family until he got sick. Now, everyone is trying to scramble for a few dollars any way they can.

When the father is deported in January, his wife will go back to Mexico with him, even though she has not been ordered to leave. After all, she is his wife.

My thoughts kept returning to José’s son, who came to the U.S. as a child.

I asked the daughter-in-law, “Surely your husband is now legal since he is married to you? He was 12 when he came to the U.S., and he was following his parents.”

“No,” she said. “They have changed the law.”

She explained that since he came here illegally, he must return to Mexico and apply for readmission to the U.S. and pay a steep fine.

“But,” I said, “he is married to you, and you and your children are American. You are all dependent on him to support you, at least until he gets well.”

“The law has changed,” she insisted. “He must go back to Mexico and pay the fine.”

“How much?,” I asked. “

“Fifteen thousand dollars.”

I was speechless, but I returned to the issue at hand, José’s care. I arranged for him to see our Spanish-speaking counselor and wrote a prescription for his medication.

“We only need the medicine until January 21st,” his daughter-in-law said. Her words made me sick to my stomach then, and they still do.

How can any of this be right or just? It is wrong at every turn.

The troubles of this family extend to making fatherless and husbandless a woman from Memphis and her two children and will make them penniless as well if they want to see the man they love who also has Leukemia.

While the politics of immigration are above my pay grade, I trust our president is doing what is lawful and is motivated by what is morally right. I am sure that my position is driven by asking, “What would Jesus do?” and by reading the Bible that over and over tells us that we are to be hospitable to strangers. The Old Testament reminds us that the Jews were once strangers in a strange land in Egypt and that the children of God are to welcome the person who is without a home into our homes. We are told that when we care for strangers, we are welcoming angels unaware.

I am confident that our desire to provide care for those in our community who have crossed a desert at night and who are working and living in our community as our neighbors, has the full weight of the Gospel behind it. 

That’s why we at the Church Health Center will stand in harmony with this family.