The jury couldn’t decide at the trial of a geologist Scott Daniel Warren. He had been arrested in Arizona and charged with two felonies and faced a possible jail term of up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary. His crime was taking water to the desert.
Warren regularly supplies water to a small building called The Barn in Ajo, Arizona used by a group called “No More Deaths”. The building has been supplied by donations from churches and individuals who provide food, water, beds and clean clothes for people who are walking in the desert. Warren has been involved in supplying this place with water because in the desert heat, too many people have died. According to Pima Co. medical examiner 2,615 human remains were recovered in the region between 2001 and 2016. Mr Warren, himself, found 18 of those bodies in the 860,000 acre Cabreza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. It was there he encountered Kristen Perez-Villanueva and Jose Sacaria-Goday after the two had lost their backpacks with their food and water while they were chased by border agents. He guided the couple to The Barn and there, Warren himself, was arrested.
At his trial Warren testified that he believes that he was following his faith and the words of Jesus in Matthew 25,“For I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink, an alien and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you ministered to me.” Whenever he hikes through the Refuge bringing water to set it out for travelers, he is walking on sacred land. Leaving water, he believes is a religious act of remembrance and solidarity.
Warren's trial took place on May 29th and the jury could not decide whether to convict him of a crime. So Mr Warren is free, at least for now. Thousands of volunteers, many from UCC churches in Arizona, have made it their mission to hike through the desert to leave water at strategic places. Until now the quiet work of leaving water has been a lifesaver for many migrants. These days Border Patrol Agents have been ordered to be more aggressive and they regularly dump the water and vandalize the jugs.
In our country we are engaged in a serious debate about religious freedom. While some folks believe it is valid for bakers to refuse to make a cake for a gay couple on the basis of religious freedom. The same people will argue it is valid for pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription on the basis of religious freedom. But some of those same people find it unacceptable for Mr Warren to leave water as an act of faith.
The United Nations wrote a letter in support of Warren to be read at the trial. Amnesty International demanded that the Department of Justice drop all criminal charges against him. In early June people of faith from Arizona churches and synagogues held a prayer vigil and marched to the federal courthouse.
People of faith have fought for religious freedom for as long as we’ve had Bible stories. In the United States the freedom to practice your faith is a gift we often take for granted; a cherished tradition, maintaining it is a big responsibility.
Next week I won’t write a column because I’ll be at the Chautauqua Institute. I will be back leading worship on June 30.