I lower myself down onto the dusty ground in the shade of a withering tree. Surrounded by nothing but rocks, shrubs, and long stretches of desert in every direction, I welcome the rest at this stopping point — the furthest we’ll go out into the desert on this trail before turning back.
We had already hiked for several hours, each of us carrying more than our share of non-perishable food items and gallon jugs of water, though we gradually lightened our load as we went along. We dropped food and water at specific points along migrant trails, and finished where I now find myself resting in this shady spot — hot, dirty, and weary.
To my right is a tired-looking barbed wire fence, where I had just hung my final bundle of food. With its highest stretch of wire barely three feet off the ground, this mangled fence marks the line through the dirt where the United States meets Mexico. The border line that has crossed and divided families, neighborhoods, nations. A line in the dirt in the desert that has meant life or death for those crossing through remote areas such as this one, and our group’s hope is that the food and water we’ve left means more life and less death.
I am suddenly struck by the holiness of this place. I realize I am seated on holy ground. I am resting in the shade where countless prayers have been uttered, where people have clung to God and one another for survival, where there has been hope against all hope for arrival to a place of provision and refuge. This is holy ground, where the desperate need for God is palpable and the presence of the Comforter to embrace the writhing sobs of suffering is unmistakable.
My breath catches in my chest, and I can do nothing but pray and wonder at the greatness of God and the smallness and total dependence of humanity; the moment-by-moment leaning into God’s strength that is required to put one foot in front of the other in the wilderness. In this unsuspecting corner of the desert, the air is thick with God’s presence to the sojourner.
We are instructed not to speak to the ‘residents,’ as the chaplain leading our facility tour called them. The ‘residents’ will be wearing jumpsuits, color-coded by their crimes, we’re told. This is not a prison, but a processing center, we’re told. Most of the ‘residents’ here will ultimately be deported. Here’s where the movie nights are, here are some board games, and here you’ll see they get a pretty decent dinner menu.
We are led into the women’s quarters, and no sooner do we turn the corner than we encounter half a dozen women in street clothes, standing along the wall, shackled at the ankles and from their waist to their wrists, their faces downcast and defeated. I can only assume they are about to be deported. The room is cramped and I have no choice but to stand within feet of these women, and I don’t know what to do with myself.
The chaplain does not acknowledge the women, and as he drones on about some documents posted on the wall, I look to the ground with shame and anger, and I take a deep breath. I tune him out. I decide I have the choice to listen to his script or be present to the women next to me that I cannot speak to.
In that moment, the presence of the Holy Spirit overwhelms me and I am made aware that I am standing on holy ground — like the earth had split open in that very room to expose every cry of anguish ever cried, every suffering groan ever let out by Jesus himself. I am overcome with the grief of it all.
Just like in the desert in Arizona, I am pulled by the gravity of the moment into prayer — there is no other task when occupying holy ground — and I look each woman in the eye, immensely aware of the heaviness of their prayers above them and their hearts within them. The ground that was intended to break their spirits and sense of self was made holy by a God who sees them, hears them, and goes with them.
I never considered myself a person particularly aware of the spiritual realm, and there are very few instances in which I have felt strongly the very presence of God physically around me. But among these few instances, I have noticed something: they were not during worship. They were not at church. They were not in my personal devotion time. They were in the place and presence of the suffering sojourner.
God’s presence is the strongest where humanity needs God the most; where the suffering is too great and the options for human efforts have run out; where the journey is too long and there are no guarantees of tomorrow’s survival. God’s presence is the strongest where humanity has begged — even simply let — God flood in, into being all that we needed God to be.
God is with the suffering. God is with the sojourner. When God is called to them, the ground they occupy becomes holy ground.