Buffalos, Butterflies & Borders
by Teri Daily
This summer my husband Dave and I chose South Dakota and Wyoming as our vacation destination. The two of us make such decisions together, but I confess to having a bucket list that influences my vote on where we go. Still remaining on my bucket list before this summer – see a herd of buffalos. (And, no, buffalos at the zoo do not count.) So, South Dakota and Wyoming it was!
While stopping at the Visitor’s Center in Badlands National Park, we watched an educational video that played continuously in the theater. I don’t recall the name of the Lakota tribe member who was part of the video, but his words struck me. He said that fences constructed by white settlers in the 1800s “prevented the buffalos from following the Great Spirit’s plan for them.” Simple words, yes, but they triggered, for me, a re-evaluation of my definition of sin. What if sin is not just causing active harm to others or falling short of a given mark myself? What if sin also includes anything that prevents someone else (or something else) from becoming all that they were created to be, anything that prevents them from living into the hopes God has for them?
I began to think of all the many ways I myself have been a fence or a wall, blocking others from living into their full potential. Times when I haven’t allowed someone to try something new, afraid that they might stumble and it would reflect poorly on me. Times when I have failed to see the many gifts that others possess. Times when I didn’t allow my children to do things for themselves because I was in a rush and we needed to do them quickly. Times when my insecurities have prevented me from sharing tasks with others, fearful that someone else might do those things much better than I. These admissions left me embarrassed and full of regret, but I didn’t stop there.
I began to think not only of my individual sin, but also of the social sin that manifests itself as metaphorical fences that block others from living fully into who they were created to be – lack of affordable higher education, prejudice based on gender or race or ability, heteronormativity, generational poverty with its origins buried cozily in the past, and so many other others.
And then there’s THE wall – the physical portions along our southern border being a sign of all the ways that our immigration system is broken. If sin is willfully and unnecessarily harming others, then repentance means correcting the subhuman conditions in our detention facilities (which should be done immediately!). But if we also understand sin to be that which prevents someone from enjoying the freedom necessary for their own becoming, then any action that seeks to return others to situations of oppression – be that due to extreme poverty, drug-related violence, or discrimination – is also sin and requires our repentance.
I can’t believe that a life spent working for a drug cartel is what God hopes for someone. I can’t believe that working from sun-up to sun-down and still not making enough to feed one’s family is what God hopes for someone (a situation all too real on this side of the border as well). And I can’t believe that being killed for one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is part of God’s plan for anyone!
These thoughts flooded my mind as we later drove through Wind Cave National Park, a place where very few fences control where buffalos graze. As happens to many tourists who visit Wind Cave, we were involved in a long-lasting traffic jam caused by a herd of buffalos crossing the street. We in the cars had to stop, suspend our own plans, and allow the buffalos time and space to cross the road – allow them to go where their instinct (embedded within them from their very creation) prompted them to go. What if repentance for our complicity in systemic, or social, sin involves much the same process? What if repentance means that we need to notice the fences (many of which we ourselves have helped to create) that block others, suspend our single-minded focus on our own well-being and plans, and cede some space for others to become? There are people, organizations, and institutions that are doing this very thing.
Mariposas sin Fronteras (Butterflies without Borders) is a group based in Tucson, Arizona; it supports many asylum-seeking, LGBTQ+ persons held in prisons and immigration detention centers, places where the very discrimination and violence this population is actively fleeing often continues to occur. Mariposas sin Fronteras helps these LGBTQ+ immigrants through visits, letters, advocacy, bond support, and post-release housing. I learned about Mariposas sin Fronteras last year while hearing an immigrant in Tucson tell her story of being released from a detention center; Mariposas sin Fronteras had raised $15,000 for her bail and then provided housing. Mariposas sin Fronteras is able to do such things because people (working as individuals or in groups such as churches) have noticed the unique situation of LGBTQ+ immigrants, stopped their own busyness for a moment, and given space in their lives (in the form of relationships, money, and time) in hopes that LGBTQ+ immigrants in prisons and detentions centers may one day be able to be fully and openly, without fear of violence, the people they are, the people they were created to be.
I’m not suggesting that the brokenness of our immigration system is easy to fix, but I do know that fences and walls (physical and metaphorical) can prevent people (as well as buffalos) from being able to live according to the deepest desires and promptings of the spirit. I still hope that one day our Congress and President will make decisions not out of fear, insecurity, or greed, but out of respect, compassion, and love. Whatever policies are in place, though, I know that it is incumbent upon me (as, I believe, it is upon all of us who experience more freedom than others) to make space in my life for those whose paths are blocked. As I honor the right of others to live into God’s hopes for them, I know that I will be living more fully into the hopes God has for me as well.
 I realize that to equate the “Great Spirit” with “God” risks cultural appropriation on my part. Given the mutual influence Christianity and Native American religions have had on one another, perhaps there is enough overlap in this Lakota man’s use of “Great Spirit” and my understanding of “God” to permit this borrowing of meaning.