I had problems finding a parking spot in the garage at Love Field Airport, so by the time I made it into the terminal, Olga Reyes was already there with her big black suitcase and a winter coat slung over a smaller bag. She was sitting in a chair, waiting patiently, but when she saw me, she broke into a big smile.
As I drove her to her hotel, we laughed and chatted the best we could in broken Spanish and English.
Later in the evening, I picked her up for a small dinner party at Cochran Chapel UMC, sponsored by the Board of Church and Society of the North Texas Conference. She was in a festive mood, even though she’d had very little sleep the night before and just arrived from Portland.
My experience of Olga to that point was simply that of a person of immense warmth and joy. She radiates optimism and happiness.
But then she told her story. In the last five years, Olga has lost six family members – brothers, sisters, niece – to the drug war in Mexico. She spoke about the loss with an even voice and tone, and was quick to point out that her story is not unusual, but commonplace throughout the land. She speaks about a country where over a hundred thousand people have been murdered or disappeared since the drug war was officially launched.
She narrated the origins and burgeoning of a peace movement in the country, and of a recent three-day march to Mexico City which included over 70,000 walkers.
As she spoke, her solemn tone was punctuated by sudden moments of levity, or remembered humorous anecdotes.
After her presentation, John Lindsay-Poland, a staff person from Fellowship of Reconciliation who is accompanying her, put Olga’s story into social and political perspective. He explained that the so-called “drug war” in Mexico (and Colombia) has been a humanitarian disaster. He patiently described how American policy has exacerbated the problem, by supplying both sides with weapons. He outlined specific things that we can do to address the problem – writing Senators, participating in delegations, signing petitions.
The evening was a powerful experience of what activists call “raising awareness.” The audience was made aware of a problem, or situation, that perhaps they had not fully understood before.
But, in truth, the real “awareness” of the evening is that Olga exists. Olga is a real person. Olga is suffering immense pain, is wounded, is being harmed.
Before this evening, I did not know this. I was not aware of Olga as a human being, as a fellow sojourner on this planet. I knew her name, because I had some obligations to welcome her to Dallas, but I did not know her as a person.
All consciousness raising, or awareness, begins with personal relationships. It doesn’t matter how many books you read, or how many times you read the news online or in a daily paper, or how many journals or policy briefings you peruse. Banners and bumper stickers are worthless. These things may lift up “issues” worthy of our attention, but as long as we are able to objectify certain things as “issues,” then we are removed from the urgency, the immediacy, the living, breathing reality of our fellow humans.
I care about the drug war, because I now care about Olga. I care about guns which are sold freely and lackadaisically in Texas, because I now care about Olga. I care about Mexicans who are waiting for political asylum in America, because I now care about Olga.
Olga kept her composure during most of her presentation, until she came to a story about a protest she’d participated in recently. She was a part of a drama presentation which involved her wrapping another protestor in a black string. Around and around, she went until the protestor was completely covered in black, head to foot, to represent someone who had disappeared.
“It was very difficult,” she said, “because so many people have been killed and vanished, that I felt like I was killing someone myself. It was very hard.”
At that moment, the joy briefly disappeared from Olga’s face and twisted into something indefinable.
But she recovered herself and went on. As I know she will for a long time. And I hope to go with her.
Olga Reyes will be speaking at First United Methodist Church, Plano, this morning, Nov. 11, at 9:45. She will also be present at Christ’s Foundry UMC, Dallas, for the church dedication service tonight at 6 pm. She will be in Fort Worth on Monday, and Denton on Tuesday. If you would like more information about her appearances, please contact me.