ARIZONA/SONORA REFLECTION: Desert waiting, desert prayer

27 September 2005

ARIZONA/SONORA REFLECTION: Desert waiting, desert prayer

by Sarah MacDonald

Contemplative prayer makes you wait. So I learned last year in a course on
"Theology of Reconciliation." Our professor, emphasizing that
reconciliation arises from divine initiative, urged all of us aspiring
peacemakers to ground our ministries in daily practices of prayer. Only
regular contemplation readies us to see the subtle movements of God's grace
in the painstakingly slow work of reconciliation.

These words echoed during my four days camped in the Sonoran desert. With
Christian Peacemaker Teams in Arizona, I joined the "No More Deaths"
campsite fifteen miles north of the border. We offered food, water and
emergency medical care to migrants suffering dehydration, illness or injury.
The camp is an "ark of the covenant"--a sign of God's presence in the midst
of this wilderness that steals so many migrant lives.

One afternoon I waited at camp with no company but the flies. The sun
marched across the sky as I inched my chair deeper into shade. No migrants
came. Most days I participated in daily patrols looking for migrants in
distress. We drove as far as we could on back-country dirt roads, then
hiked the stony ravines.

I began each day in love with the vast beauty of the desert: the wide skies
and craggy mountains, the cacti and blond grasses, long-fingered ocotillo
plants, squat mesquite and acacia trees. But after a couple hours of
hiking, my shoulders would ache from the weight of my pack, and blisters
would form on my toes. The heat and dust parched me; I felt swallowed by
this huge harsh land. And my hikes were brief compared to the miles
migrants trek. How do any of them make it through alive? I wondered.

I spent about twenty hours on patrol. Yet only once did I encounter
migrants. One day as we headed home, we saw a handful of migrants being
processed by Border Patrol agents. We stopped to offer food and water, but
the agents turned us back. "They'll get water on the bus," they told us.
"Besides, this group isn't even in distress."

Being present in the desert isn't "feel good" work. More often than not,
patrols encounter no migrants--and even when we do, the help we can offer
feels frustratingly small. Sometimes I ask, "What am I doing here? Is all
this effort worthwhile?" Yet how little seems to happen in a single session
of meditation. Only as we practice the discipline daily does grace move our

Desert presence is a discipline like this. Day after day, we go out and
look. We go out because lost migrants still frantically seek water. We go
out because our south-of-the-border neighbors still come north in a
desperate search for better jobs and sustainable lives. We go out because
daily practice readies us to glimpse the face of God in the migrant brothers
and sisters we meet--and even in those we wait for who never appear.