On the final descent into Tucson International Airport, I look out the window to be welcomed home by the Catalina Mountains. I can feel my roots digging back down into the dry Arizona dirt, my shoulders relaxing into the spring heat. Recently, though, my sense of homecoming has been unsettled by a reminder of the violence and fear that also lives here. I look around this desert and have a hard time imagining a culture of peace — I see, instead, the Tohono O’odham Nation divided by a border created by an occupying society, forced to present documents as they enter and leave what remains of their traditional land. I see the prisons we fund and fill, the drones we build and fly, and the people, like me, who sometimes can’t see how it could be any different.
I recently returned home to Tucson from the 2014 Ecumenical Advocacy Days conference in Washington, D.C. Actually, let me rephrase: I recently returned to my home in a militarized zone on the border, leaving a conclave of passionate people speaking about peace in the seat of governance of this empire.
“One of the casualties of the culture of war is the imagination. We can no longer imagine a culture of peace.” — John Dear, Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2014
At Ecumenical Advocacy Days (EAD), I spent three days being challenged, inspired, and moved by people from around the world who are working toward a more peaceful world. My head was filled with ideas for living my own life more justly; my heart was nurtured with stories of reconciliation. But as I returned to “real life” in Tucson, I was overwhelmed again by all that is broken in just my little corner of the world.
“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a world without prisons.” — Five Mualimmak, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, EAD 2014
Florence, AZ, just 2 hours from my home, hosts four stuffed-to-the-brim prison complexes: two private prisons, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) processing and detention facility, and the Pinal County jail. Private prison corporations help draft laws that fill their cells; migrants are held indefinitely only to ensure they show up for their court dates. The brutal shapes of our prisons — monoliths built for retribution, not restoration — weigh down my search for peace. It seems foolish to try to fight them. Maybe this is just the way the world is.
“Cynicism is a buffer of commitment.” -Jim Wallis
It’s possible, I think, that imagination and creativity are the opposite of cynicism. Daring to dream that the world can be better is as far as I can get from resigning myself to the status quo and checking out of the global movement for peace. Many of the speakers at the EAD conference pointed to a lack of imagination as one part of what keeps us locked in an unjust world. It makes sense: If we can’t imagine how the world could be, we have nothing to work toward.
So when I’m beat down by the harsh voices and violence of this world, how do I find the courage to imagine again?
I see the courage of people who embody — who put their bodies into — a struggle for justice, a struggle for peace. People who get some skin in the game, not metaphorically. When I lose my hope to cynicism, when I forget how to imagine the world made new, I remember the fierce vision of creative activists. People like the DREAMers who cross the U.S./Mexico border without fear, demanding that our immigration system move toward compassion and grace. PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteers I get to work with, who are saying with their year of service that those on the margins matter. My housemate, who, with other passionate, informed people, chained herself to a bus to draw attention to a grossly unjust court process. My pastor, who took the vastness of God’s welcome to a protest against homophobic legislation. The members of a Tucson-based intentional community, who spend long nights at the Greyhound station, offering hospitality to recently-released ICE detainees.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” — Hebrews 11:1
There are lots of things I find it hard to imagine. A world of peace. Justice that works for reconciliation, without cages. People who live without violence, without fear. The vastness of God’s love. The abundance of God’s grace. All of these things are beyond what I can envision, beyond what I can comprehend. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t real, that they aren’t possible. God’s love is vast, bigger and deeper and stronger than anything I can touch. A world of peace is possible, however slow the construction and strong the opponents.
Faith is the belief, the assurance, that “unseen” does not equal “unreal” or “un-possible.” The Kingdom (a world of peace, reconciliation, nonviolence, and no fear) is built, I believe, by people who have skin in the game. People who put their principles in their bodies and live them out. People who bring themselves into the struggle, who don’t shrink away because they can’t imagine what the struggle might build.
I want to be one of those people.
Alison Wood serves on the MLP Editorial Board. Alison is a Presbyterian pastor’s kid who grew up in the suburbs of Richmond Virginia and studied whatever caught her fancy at a land-grant university in the Appalachian mountains. After graduating from Virginia Tech in 2010 with degrees in Spanish and Interdisciplinary Studies, she moved to Tucson, Arizona to spend a year as a Young Adult Volunteer in the PC(USA). Alison currently works at Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona, a local non-profit that provides critical home repair services to low-income homeowners. When not wielding a pipe wrench, Alison serves as moderator of the Tucson Borderlands YAV Program Steering Committee, is an active member of St Mark’s Presbyterian Church, and frequents the Pima County Public Library. She is passionate about intersectional activism, food justice, recognizing and interrogating privilege, and the radical, revolutionary nature of the Gospel.