In January 2019 thirteen folks from Pres House traveled to San Antonio, Texas for a week-long Break With A Purpose. They met migrants seeking asylum and learned about immigration at the southern border. Seven participants shared reflections in worship on Sunday 1/27 and on this blog. You can link to all their reflections via this post. Samuel’s reflection is here below. You can also listen to this same reflection here.
See Something. Do Something.
By Samuel Acuna
Hello everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Samuel Acuña. I’m am a graduate student here at UW–Madison, and in a few months I will be (finally) finishing my PhD in Mechanical Engineering. I’ve been coming to Pres House for nearly six(!) years now, but this the first time I took the opportunity to do the Break With A Purpose trip. It was a powerful and transformational experience, and I really, really wish I had made it a priority to do at least one other BWAP during my time here in Madison. So for those of you that aren’t graduating soon, I highly recommend you keep this trip in mind for next year.
Today I want to talk to everyone about my experience at La Casa, which is the welcoming house that Erik and Emily talked about earlier. We first visited La Casa at the start of the week, and I was very excited to speak with some families and do what I could to help.
But I have to admit, going into this I did have a bit of an alternative agenda. As I mentioned, I am finishing my PhD soon, and so naturally I am looking towards the future. My goal is to be a professor, where I will continue my research in biomechanics as well as pass on all the engineering that I’ve learned to my students. As for my immediate next step I am very seriously considering a post-doctoral position down in Texas. Down there I will have opportunities to teach students very different than Wisconsin students, and I really want to be able to understand and connect to these future students. I went on this trip to understand immigration, and some of the issues that face Hispanic/Latino students in Texas. Further, as a Latino myself, and as a son of immigrants, I especially felt that I needed to learn more about these complex issues. Because, how else could I really help others? Without a deeper understanding of the problems near the border, how could even start to help?
So… as we were getting ready to start our first full day of learning and service, I was ready to learn all I could and just be an open book. We met in the morning for our training, where I was under the impression we would sit down to learn, and the local pastor would teach us about the immigration issues. So, we enter the church, we sit down, and immediately the pastor says “well, here’s the deal. I know you were supposed to spend some time getting trained, but we have families that need help now. So you are just going to jump in and go for it.” A bit of surprise to be sure, but helping is what we came to do. I figured we’d get the necessary instruction once we started working.
We divided into groups, and I volunteered to be part of the crew to help out at La Casa. We were led there by Jackie, who, we were told, would tell us all we need to know once we get there. Great!, I thought, She will provide us the all the training we need!. So, we entered the house, and gathered around the kitchen table, eager for the training. She tells us: “Families come in and out of this house every day, and the priority is to give them a good night sleep, some food, and some supplies to keep going. All of our time is spent focusing on this priority, so unfortunately, we haven’t had time to work on other aspects of the house. So this is your assignment: walk around the house, if you see something that needs to be done, do it. You don’t need permission, you don’t need to check in, just think of how you would do it better and just do it.”
Bing bang boom. Training over. I was rather surprised. The opportunities were endless. Rearrange furniture? Sure. Clean something? Okay. Fix something? Go for it! Talk with the family staying there? Of course! What if you don’t speak fluent Spanish? Figure it out! (Body language goes a long way). We were just let loose on a house we had never been in to solve problems that were not defined. This was not the training I had expected.
So we jumped in. I started doing dishes, while others took down Christmas decorations. We cleaned blinds, swept, rearranged, organized toys. We talked with the family staying there. We played with their kids. All up to us. And it was awesome. And at this point, we really didn’t know much about the complex border-crossing issues. We were just helping.
Before going into La Casa, we were told to reflect on Jesus’ miracle of feeding thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and some fish. This was a miracle of creating something from nothing. And as we were working to help lift up La Casa, we basically had nothing to work with, yet I was amazed at how much of a something we were able to create. We created a home. For example, there was a room upstairs at La Casa where they stored piles of donations—mostly clothing and toiletries. The current practice was to have the incoming families dig through this giant pile to find clothes and supplies they needed, and this was clearly not efficient. We attempted to organize this and create a little Tienda for the families to sort of go shopping in. And as we tackled this ambitious project, it was amazing how many somethings popped up. Our initial strategy was to organize things in cardboard boxes, and just as we were about to do it, someone would walk in saying “hey we found this cabinet, would this help?” and once we finished filling the cabinet, a table would magically appear. And then plastic bins, and then shelves. Very quickly, through our collective hard work and without spending any money, we created quite an impressive little Tienda that organized most of the clothes and supplies. A highlight of my trip took place that night, after three more families arrived at La Casa I was invited upstairs to witness the families “shopping” for clothes. When they showed up at the house, they quite literally only had the clothes on their back. To see their excitement as they meandered through our little setup was very precious.
As we worked at La Casa, I found the theme of “if you see something that needs to be done, do it” to be very powerful. Here, I thought we would need to be instructed a little more before we were let loose. But as it turns out, we were already qualified, and knew everything we needed to know to start helping out. We didn’t need special training, we’ve been trained our entire lives how to be a good human and how to make a home. How do we interact with people we don’t know and don’t understand? We already know the answer: we try. We didn’t need to understand all the details of immigration issues to start making a difference. We don’t need to take a class on Latino culture, or even a Spanish class, to be welcoming and to show love. We don’t need to quibble about what is the best way to start engaging we others, we just need to start and it comes naturally.
So my take away is this: I don’t need to worry so much about starting to connect with my future students. I shouldn’t hold back until I’ve learned about all the issues, because I already know how to start. And so do you. Everyone in this room is enormously qualified to start making a difference with big, impossibly complex issues. We don’t need to master all the information before jumping in and going for it, we can learn along the way. So, in conclusion, please let me practice being a professor for one moment and give you some homework. This is your assignment: as you go through life there is a lot of broken things out there, and if you see something that needs to be done, do it. You don’t need permission, you don’t need to check in, just think of how you could start to make it better and just do it.
To get you started, I’ll mention that there is plenty to do with immigration right here in Madison. You don’t have to go all the way to Texas to assist immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Right now, there are 28,000 non-citizens living in Madison at risk of deportation, and over 155,000 in Wisconsin alone. And not just near the border, there are detention centers in Wisconsin as well. There is much to do. For example, I invite you to get involved helping with Madison’s free Community Immigration Law Center, or even simply writing a letter to families in our detention centers.