God in Prison

“I Hollered at God”

“I hollered at God,” Maria Elena told me as we began to drive my rental car towards the immigration office. Maria Elena continued, “Dear God, Where are you! If there is a God, where are you?”

It was the winter of 1988, and I had visited Maria Elena Lucas again. At that time she was a migrant worker and organizer for the United Farm Workers. Maria Elena lived in Brownsville, Texas, along the Texas-Mexico border. We were working on a book about her life.

Born in 1941 and the oldest of seventeen migrant working children, she had a total of three years of education before she was pulled out of school to work full time. As an adult, she carried her seven children to work with her in the fields, then campaigned for Cesar Chavez.

Homeless Refugees

At the time I visited Maria Elena, violence in U.S. backed wars in Central America intensified, and waves of refugees flooded the United States. Suddenly, U.S. immigration policy changed. Previously, Central Americans could apply for refugee status, then disperse throughout the United States. Now those fleeing the violence in their home countries were held back at the port of entry. Within days, the Border Patrol Agency in Maria Elena’s town trapped thousands of homeless refugees.

Distraught by the suffering she witnessed, Maria Elena picked me up at the airplane and drove me out to where the refugees camped. My tape recorder ran between us in the front seat. Countless Central Americans spread out in front of us.

Mesquite Grove

They crowded into a mesquite grove, clustered in long lines in front of the Immigration building, and waited by a fast food stand. Toilet paper and cardboard littered the ground. A group of children wearing light sweaters and jackets rushed up to our car, stretching out their hands in supplication.

A barefoot woman with long dark hair and a flower in her sweater, pushed a baby to us. “Porfavor, Senora,” she begged at our window. Other people, wrapped in blankets, watched us from where they sat on pieces of cardboard. A blond woman handed out sandwiches from the back door of an old station wagon, and a group of Central American men climbed into the back of a truck. We drove slowly through the crowd.

“It makes my skin shiver,” Maria Elena said. “How do you call it? I want to choke, like I’m suffocating when I see this. I’m so helpless, and I want to kick the government in the back end.”

I asked if most of the people were Nicaraguan.

“They’re all kinds, hondurenos, nicaraguences, guatamaltecos, salvadorenos. Some people bring food, and I come and fill out their applications because a lot of people exploit them so terribly. Some of these cars are people that transport them out of kindness, but a lot are coyotes. They charge them enormous amounts of money.

“Look at the kids. You just feel like spitting at these cruel laws. Imagine when it’s raining and it’s cold. They’ve got nobody to turn to, nobody. Some people from here even opened an office that charges the refugees maybe five dollars for making copies or two dollars for translating a couple of lines. That’s cruel. The people sleep in the woods, on card boards, blankets, rags. Some of them sleep in ditches, no blankets.

Corn on the Cob

“Some ladies from a church brought big pans of food in a pickup. All the food I could bring was corn on the cob. Pablo [Maria Elena’s partner at that time] bought a field of old corn, real cheap. It was late in the season and going to waste. So we cooked whatever we could in big tubs on a bonfire outside. Then we brought it to these people, fed them, and went back and cooked another batch.”

I looked at two little girls. Their noses ran, and the older girl twisted the sleeves of her sweater as she stared at us. A group of school-age children sat in the ditch.

“The people here have no place to wash their face or go to the restroom, and they are just like little animals on the ground. It haunts me,” Maria Elena continued.“For days and nights I kept seeing their hands like that, and I thought, I have so little, not even a house. What can I give, my God, what can I give?

“Where are you, God?”

“Like I said, I hollered at God. I cried, ‘Dear God! Where are you?’ I get so angry, I say, ‘If there’s a God, where are you?’ I wonder many times, Fran, if it’s true that there’s a glory. If there’s a glory, maybe it’s another kind of prison also, a prison because God doesn’t come out of it. Where is he? Maybe he’s also a prisoner.”

Everything is Wrong

I did not know what to say. Maria Elena continued, “I don’t believe that God puts us to a test or punishes us. And I believe that God puts a lot of himself into us. But there’s also that evil part that is destroying ourselves. It’s some kind of very powerful evilness that we have around us, and it’s too sad because we live in a paradise, not just here, but the whole world. God gave us so much knowledge and all those people with good hearts, but everything is wrong. And I wonder if there is a God, where is he?”

Maybe God Divided Himself into Us

She stopped speaking for a few moments, then continued, “The first day I saw this, I went home and thought, Maybe I was meant to represent God. Maybe God divided himself into so many little pieces and gave each one of us a little piece of himself so that we could carry on with something good.

Maybe that’s where he’s at; in me, in you, in the people that he thought might be able to do something about it. I said to myself, Go back there and keep on filling out applications and keep on crying and keep raising hell. Maybe when all those particles of God come together, we can form one strong force of God and put him together again.’”


That night I lay awake in Maria Elena’s tiny trailer and stared at the ceiling, thinking of the people we saw and Maria Elena’s idea about God. I wondered if God could be imprisoned in me. Maria Elena had given so much. How could I not give a little?

The next morning I transported two Salvadoran women from the mesquite woods north to a meeting place where they would get a ride. Two blocks after they climbed into the back seat, Border Patrol began to follow us. I stopped at a stop sign, and Border Patrol pulled up next to me. I thought, I’m going to be arrested. I don’t have my medicine with me. I know no lawyer or support group in Brownsville. What will happen to the refugees?

The agents looked over at me, then the driver listened to his radio and spoke into the microphone. They laughed, waved at me, and pulled away. I turned back to the women sitting in my car. “It’s OK,” I said in English. The blood flowed back into my face.

God Radically Imprisoned in the World

Through these years, I have thought of Maria Elena’s idea of God as radically imprisoned in the world. It seems close to the belief she had when she was a child that God dwells in nature and that nature represents God.

Her further insight, that God needs us to bring God together, speaks to me every day. In some ways, many of us are imprisoned by Covid-19, but I need to believe that we will find ways to serve as God’s hands and heart and mind in this world. The world needs us even more than it did before.

This entry was posted in hunger, Inequality, Injustice, Latino, Poverty, religion, Social Justice, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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