U-C: What I See

Friday, October 14, 2005

From a migrant shelter in Altar, Mexico


June 26th, 2002 was the last time I spent the night here at the shelter for migrants in Altar, Sonora, Mexico. It seems hard to believe that it’s been almost three and a half years. That night, I was with a group of seminarians from Chicago, and a dozen or so migrants from southern Mexico and Central America. We North Americans heard their stories, and then after they had drifted off to the dormitory, the rest of us quietly opened our bedrolls, spread our sheets and blankets, and carried their stories to bed with us.

We had heard about their families and their harrowing tales of hiking in the desert. Their desperation became real to us as they shared that the two gallons of water each had carried with him had disappeared all too quickly – finally becoming a few precious swallows that nothing short of a miracle could make last through the miles that still lay ahead. They had stories of hiking hard for three and four days, getting picked up by a car arranged by their smuggler, and being apprehended by the Border Patrol a few miles short of the safe house in Tucson where they were headed. Their stories evidenced a grim determination, a resolve that nothing would stop them from trying again and again to reach for a steady wage to send money home to their families.

And then, everyone else slept that night while I sat on the floor in the dark and wondered what God would have me do. That was the night I first discerned a call to stand for the position of Moderator. I felt called to lift up these stories, and to implore Christ’s church to respond.

Now, forty months later and after serving the church as Moderator of the General Assembly for almost sixteen months, here I am again. This time I’m accompanied by a different group of people.

There’s Ben, a twelve-year old from Oak Ridge who has a heart for mission and who, I fully expect, will change the world. I met Ben last February when I spoke at Maryville College, and he agreed to give up television (that’s right – entirely give it up) if I worked a deal with his folks for him to come on a mission trip. He’s brought his parents with him. Peggy and Dan are my favorite kind of Presbyterians – the kind who are prepared to question everything in their lives and take real risks to live into what they believe and whom they believe God is calling them to be.

Jean Morris is the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. She’s accompanied by her husband Matthew, a physiotherapist with a thriving practice in Calgary. They have chosen to sleep on the floor of a migrant shelter in Altar, and to spend time trying to learn about the reality for migrants here in the borderlands, because they are trying to discern just how God might be speaking to people of faith, and to the Presbyterian Church in Canada. They will be remembered by everyone in the group for their gentle, wry senses of humor.

Carlos is a Catholic from the Los Angeles area. He has a huge heart and a quick smile, and he insists that he is here because God wouldn’t leave him alone. Migrants, and their difficult journey and lives here in the U.S., weigh heavily on him. He’s trying to learn more about how God might be calling him to respond.

Laura is a young, Mennonite from Chicago who works as a paralegal in an immigration attorney’s office. Her deep appreciation for the struggles that migrants confront is readily apparent, and she carries an open spirit.

Dave is a second or third career person whom God surprised with a call to become the Executive Director of a migrant ministry called “Bethel” near Sarasota, FL that I visited last spring. Dave has come to learn more about what his folks have experienced before they arrive in Florida. He is a large man with a big smile, and his spirit is infectious.

Mike is a retired government diplomat who worked for the State Department as well as the Commerce Department. He’s worked on difficult problems all over the world, and he is clearly here because he’s anxious to get a different perspective. His sensitivity and inquisitiveness have impressed the group from the start.

Luis is a former reporter turned – for my money – the best kind of Professor of Political Science. He insists that good teachers must be grounded in the world for their message to have meaning.

Then there’s Teo, my ten-year old son. He’s here, he says, because he wanted to have time with me during a year when there has been precious little time for us together. Like most ten-year olds, he drifts in and out of the conversation and often surprises me with his insight. His fluency in Spanish makes it easy for me to have him around, and fun for the kids in the neighborhoods we visit.

And of course, we’re accompanied by Lindsey, a new young adult volunteer with the PC(USA) who is working at BorderLinks this year, and who just completed a year in Guatemala as a YAV. And there is Madre Irene, one of the wonderful Catholic Sisters who works as a trip leader on our Mexican Staff.

And here we all are – sharing dinner with a group of men from all over Mexico and one from Honduras. One by one they stand to share a rough outline of their stories:

Gabino – painfully shy, he must be coaxed to tell us that he is from the state of Guerrero.

Carlos – from Colina

Antonio and Vicente – who came north with Gabino, hiked through the desert, got picked up by the Border Patrol, and who intend to try again. They appear to have only the vaguest idea of where they were hiking or how far they got before they were picked up.

Julio – The one I would call the “sleeper” in the group. He started out shy but then confessed that he is fluent in English. He’s from Tapachula, where he says the most he can make as a chauffer is about $25 per week (I know this to be true, and no exaggeration at all). He tells us he has worked as a cook for three years in Richmond, VA, where he made $400 per week plus room and board. He was able to send $1400 per month home to his wife and child.

Rudolfo says that he’s tried to cross four times, but he’s ready to give up because the risk is too great and he can’t bear the thought that something might happen to him and he would be prevented from seeing his family again.

Jorge – who was a month away from receiving Asylum in Canada when his father died and he felt compelled to go home. Now he’s trying to figure out how to get back to Canada without their knowing that he left (which would jeapordize his asylum claim.)

And finally, Juan Antonio is a tall, handsome Honduran with a narrow, distinguished face and a full head of wavy gray hair. There’s one in every group who touches my heart – and this time he is it. He is a father of three (24, 18 and 15 years old). He tells us there was no work in Tegucigalpa’s sinking economy. He has no idea where he is headed, though his resolve to find work in the U.S. is unshakable. He took a bus (two days) to the Guatemalan border, crossed the river into Mexico and walked for 27 hours in a driving rain as far as Tapachula. Then he caught a freight train (riding on top) and managed to hold on for seventeen days to arrive in Northern Mexico.

When Luis asks him where that kind of courage comes from, he answers by asking how many in our group have children. “If you have kids,” he says, “you know what gives you strength, and even after this journey I know I’ve still got the strength to cross this border. My family needs me to get a job – they don’t need me jobless and back home.”

This afternoon we were having lunch at a restaurant called “Pollo Feliz” (The Happy Chicken) in Sasabe, a dusty, little town on the border in the desert that looks like something out of an old John Wayne movie. This is the town where most people will begin their walk into the desert. As we finished our lunch, I spied a man with an infant strapped on his back who was carrying two plastic, one-gallon water jugs. A woman whom I assumed was his wife carried another infant with her. A second man, whom I took to be a relative, or perhaps their guide, was walking with them. I only saw them from behind as they walked down the street – most likely headed for a trip into the desert.

NO ONE should have to face these kinds of choices, or have to make this kind of journey.

You know, I typically tell stories and let folks draw their own conclusions. Generally, I try hard to understand the perspective of those with whom I disagree on matters of theology or public policy. But from a migrant shelter in Altar, here’s what I’m feeling tonight:

I am enraged by a world in which the vast majority of the population can’t fed itself, and I’m certain that Jesus would be equally enraged.

I’m out of patience with those who were born, by coincidence beyond their control, on the right side of the border – who insist that this is “just the way it is” and that nothing can be done about it.

I find it very difficult to constructively engage with “good Christians” who maintain that our first alliance is to “our own,” or to our nation state. Last time I checked, the Bible was crystal clear that we owe our allegiance only to our God, and that to love God means that we must love all of God’s people as well.

Finally, I’m worn out by those who insist that we who have all of the privileges of the “first world” can find our security by building bigger walls, or with higher paychecks, or at the point of a gun (whether that gun is employed in the “War on Terror” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia or right here where that family is trying to hike through the desert tonight).

As Christians, our security comes in one place only – and that is through the Jesus who compels us to give up everything and to take risks continuously as we share and live his Good News in the world.

It was good enough for Jesus’ Disciples. It should be good enough for us.

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll go back to gentle stories with deep meaning and my conviction that God can move us to become a new thing whenever our hearts are opened. My friend, Pancho, the former mayor of Altar who now directs the work of the human rights office here at the shelter, says that when we can no longer be touched by the people we meet, we lose our sensitivity. We lose our faith in other human beings to be who God calls them to be. That’s why God keeps touching us in personal encounters – so that we don’t lose faith, and we keep on working.

Keep the faith,