Faith Floods the Courtroom

by Liza Neal


6/13/2019

Jesus said, “I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.”  Matthew 25:35a
 

Dr. Warren receives a blessing from clergy.
Photo by Liza Neal.
“If you live in a place where people are dying, how can you not respond?”
This is the answer Dr. Scott Warren gave when asked under oath to the District Court of Arizona why he volunteers his time leaving food and water in the Sonoran Desert, a place where more than 3,000 people have died in the last 10 years, 88 in the last four months.  He called it “choiceless.”  He had to respond to the call deep within his soul to alleviate the suffering of others, to treat people with human dignity.  After deliberating for three days, the jury could not agree as to whether this kindness was a crime. 
 
Dr. Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths, spends his free time leaving water and food, giving blankets and medical care, and training other volunteers.  He was arrested by Border Patrol on January 17th and charged with one count of conspiracy and two counts of harboring, felony charges which could mean spending 20 years in prison. 
 
On June 5th, Rev Alison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church organized “faith floods the courtroom.”  I joined clergy from all over, answering a call to gather and bear witness.  We held an interfaith prayer vigil. An Indigenous Elder, a Rabbi, a Buddhist Monk, a Unitarian Universalist, and Christian ministers offered prayers.  We laid our hands on Dr. Warren in blessing, remembering ‘water is sacred, water is life.’  Rev. Shockley from Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad CA reminded us that, “If the judge rules that giving humanitarian aid is a crime, our judge says ‘overruled.’”
 
The courtroom was filled with clergy, and people of faith. It was filled with volunteers from No More Death, teachers from Arizona State University where Dr. Warren teaches, social workers from Ajo where his partner is a social worker, volunteers from the Samaritans, another humanitarian organization in Arizona.  One of those volunteers was a 70-year-old woman who has been doing this very same thing every day for decades. We met last August when the Southwest Conference of the UCC invited folks to a week-long Witness at the Border. As she leaned forward listening anxiously, I couldn’t help but wonder – if he is found guilty, who will they come for next? 
 
The courtroom was particularly hushed when Dr. Warren took the stand.  His words were soft-spoken and profound. He is a geologist, of land and culture. He went to Ajo just to finish his dissertation in a place that was beautiful and quiet. He had only planned to stay three months. But he loved the land, and he loved the people, and he began to witness the suffering.
 
Migrants have been stumbling out of the desert into Ajo for generations, asking for food, water, medical care. He saw them in town, at the grocery store, at his neighbors’ doors. He decided to go to a Samaritans meeting one day, and a pair of folks who were not part of the group came in upset. They had found a dead body.  They had gone to the Sheriff but it was clear that Sheriff was not going to go look for it. So the Samaritans went. Seeing that dead body changed Scott Warren’s life forever.
 
Dr. Warren has been living in Ajo for six years now.  He has served on the Town Council for two years. This is an elected position though, Dr. Warren said with a laugh, “everyone runs unopposed.” He believes that no one should die in the desert alone, that until a death is witnessed that person’s essence remains. When he spoke, hesitantly, of the ritual he engages in when he finds someone who has died, a sacred hush filled the court.   
 
The EMTs who testified called the migrants patients.  Every time, the prosecutor stepped in to say with heightened volume and a tone of derision, “illegal aliens.”  The prosecutor said that Dr. Warren was “furthering the goals of the organization”, as if this were a terrible thing, even though their goal is that there will be no more deaths. The prosecutors claimed that they were “thwarting Border Patrol at every turn.”  I wondered, how does a 36-year-old professor and a group of high school and college age volunteers thwart a military unit with drones, helicopters, and guns?
 
The jury could not answer these questions, and so a mistrial has been declared. This is a precedent setting case. The government cannot be allowed to define who is worthy of life and who is worthy of care.  Rev. Shockley said, “The question is not whether migrants are human. The question is whether we are human.”  
 
On July 2nd, they will meet to either drop the charges, agree to a plea, or set a date for a new trial.  Pray, protest, pay attention.  And may God have mercy on our souls. 

Rev. Liza Neal is a UCC minister and manager of Seala ag Canadh: Beyond Binaries & Borders  

Liza Neal



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