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Razor wire in the water

There's what we can't see, writes Dartinia Hull, and there is what we don't see.

A storm with a rainbow on the Gulf of Mexico with a boat going by and the surf in the foreground.

Photo by Glen Richard

On my second morning at the Austin Theological Seminary, I’m visiting the labyrinth that’s beside the chapel. I’m here for a meeting; it’s my first time in Austin, though I’ve been to big-beautiful Texas many times.

I love this labyrinth. It’s second only (in my mind) to the labyrinth in the Musée Rodin in Paris, which is all-natural and is built of raked-up leaves. This labyrinth is lined with cut rock, but the path crunches with pebbles and fallen twigs.

The glow through the church windows pulls me, however, so I leave the labyrinth to tug on the door.

It’s locked. This makes me cranky, and I immediately feel two inches tall. What’s inside must be protected, like my family. It is loved, it is precious. Holy. At 6 a.m., the connotation of my presence is this: I’m either desperate for what’s inside in a spiritual way — or I am here to take your stuff, or murder whoever is occupying the space. In these days of mass shootings, a locked church at 6 a.m. makes total sense.

Which, to me – while logical and exactly the right thing to do – is also snort-inducingly ironic. I am in the South, a space stolen (a couple of times here in Texas) from its Indigenous inhabitants, many of whom were murdered, a land where people who were kidnapped and enslaved turned the ground into profit for kidnappers and enslavers. Austin honors those who were formerly enslaved and who celebrated their emancipation in its Eastwoods Park. I love many things about this state, having spent summers as a teen jumping into bayous in Clear Lake. There is immense beauty in its places of monochromatic starkness as well as in its blanket of the flowers with my favorite color: bluebonnets.

This expanse of opposites is in one of the places the PC(USA) has deemed inhospitable to people with brown skin, specifically people who “look” Hispanic. The state’s HB 4 allows law enforcement to ask pretty much anybody to produce their papers of citizenship or immigrant/visitor status.

To protect visitors who are on denominational business from danger, the PC(USA) asked for any meetings set for Texas to be moved to other states, or to be held in PC(USA) seminaries or churches.

I wonder about what about the people who fit the description – pick a description, you know the ones I’m talking about – who live here. Are they safe? Would they rather us not come, or would they rather us stand beside them, quite literally? Do they feel welcome in their own home, or do they feel – like many feel – unsure that the word “welcome” is intended for them?

Did nobody notice until they had to notice?

One of the exercises in our meeting was about diversity in perception. We were shown a photo of a river, with lush forests, a strip of sandy bank, the hint of desert in the background. What did we see? (Answers included forests, desert, blue sky, sandy bank … )

“I see razor wire,” I said. I mean – what else would I “see,” considering the state’s decision to hide razor wire beneath the water in an effort to stop people crossing — people who are risking their lives and their children’s lives, perhaps leaving parents behind, to flee to this country in hopes of better lives, and freedom? The razor wire: buried slivers of metal guaranteed to maim, if not outright kill. It’s certainly not intended to extend any sort of hospitality.

But you don’t see the razor wire until you’re forced to see it or you’re already getting cut. And you can’t understand the full implications until you feel that pain.

At the Matthew 25  Summit in January, Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, a historically Black seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, led a break-out seminar where he talked about a recent event that left him and his staff trembling in anger and frustration.

He and his staff members were gathered for a retreat in a room at a local, predominately White, church. During a stretch break, they went into an adjacent room, which had a piano, and one of the staffers began to play.

Someone from the church heard the piano. That someone came and asked for their proverbial “papers.” More than once, more than twice. Why were they here, and why were they playing this piano? It was not until the pastor of the church greeted Roberts with warmth that Roberts’ “papers” mattered.

Two of us (besides Roberts) in the room knew the direction of that story. The other 60 or so people did not. Roberts asked us all to sit in the knowledge. For about three minutes.

That’s where many of us sit: alongside the razor wire. People you see daily. Women losing control over their bodies, families forced out of their homes because of gentrification. The tenuous guarantee of voter rights. The generational fallout of slavery, Jim Crow laws and red-lined neighborhoods. The refusal to consider reparations to make the playing field a tiny bit more level. Anyone who “fits the description.” Questions about your presence on a road that’s built on stolen land, because you “fit the description.” How dare you drive? How dare you play a piano? Imagine the decision to come here – live here – in hope and extreme vulnerability, to be met with a device that’s meant to keep you away from the promise of freedom. This is an inhospitable land that’s got razor wire buried all around. That will be difficult to understand because it’s too difficult for many of us to sit, truly sit, in that truth.