When the four Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) unit participants in the Tucson, Arizona, unit started their service placements last fall, they soon ran into a bit of an existential crisis.
"The organizations we were working for should not have to exist," recalled participant Jessie Landis. Her placement was working with people seeking asylum in the United States. "In an ideal world, where things are going well, we should not need to have an emergency migrant shelter."
Her fellow participants had similar frustrations. Cade Fisher also worked with people seeking asylum, helping them to prepare to represent themselves in immigration court. Michaela Esau worked with the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, as well as an adult literacy program. Andrea Troyer worked with an organization to help restore the heritage flow of Tucson's creeks and rivers. Each of them were serving with organizations pushing against monumental injustices that spanned generations. None of the issues they engaged with on a day-to-day basis were going to be solved through their year of service. Some days, it didn't feel like they were making much of a difference at all. What was the point?
MVS Tucson unit participants Michaela Esau, Jessie Landis, Andrea Troyer and Cade Fisher show off Tucson, Arizona, stickers at the end of their MennoCon23 seminar, 'Rivers in the Desert.'
Over the course of the Tuesday morning MennoCon23 seminar, 'Rivers in the Desert,' the 2022-23 Tucson MVS unit walked a packed room through their individual journeys in redefining service during their term in the Sonoran Desert.
While the organizations they worked for should not have had to exist in a perfect world, Landis explained, the fact that they did exist at all was worth celebrating. The Tucson community had stepped up to help support those that the broader society had failed, and the unit's service placements were part of that expression of support.
When Fisher began his placement with the Florence Project, a nonprofit that works to provide legal orientation to people in two detention facilities in central Arizona, he was had no illusions that he'd be able to fix any part of the immigration system. Yet, he said, he held out hope that he'd be able to help assist people in being released from detention. "That did not end up being the case," he said.
Even with legal orientation, Fisher explained, most people seeking asylum will not be able to argue their case successfully. The U.S. immigration system keeps people seeking asylum out by design. Over the course of the year, this intentional complexity and difficulty "became very clear" to Fisher through the cases he worked with. "But what was important," he said, "was that I was there."
In speaking with people on the organization's legal hotline, Fisher would not be the first person to hear about their immigration experience. He would, however, be one of the first who would actually listen. His placement organization celebrated each hard-won legal win. When unaccompanied minors would turn 18, the office would bring cake and sing "Happy Birthday."
"When I arrived in Tucson, I thought that service would be solving people's individual problems," Fisher said. "But actually, it was about being present with people."