U-C: What I See

Monday, October 17, 2005

On Disaster Fatigue and our friends to the south


I imagine that you, like I, are feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the natural disasters of the last few months. Katrina, Rita, Stan, earthquakes in Peru and Pakistan: the need appears to be never-ending.

This reflection was written by my good friend and mission co-worker colleague, Mark Adams, who has just returned from leading a delegation to Chiapas, Mexico during Hurricane Stan. Thousands have lost their lives in Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and hundreds of thousands have lost their homes. Here also, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is responding.

Mark has been working for many years as the Co-Director of Frontera de Cristo, a wonderful ministry that is part of the Binational Border Ministry project of the Mexican and US churches. You can check out those programs at http://www.binationalministry.org/. Also, please go to www.justcoffee.org to learn how to support this marvelous project as well.

Thanks to Mark for his powerful reflections.


From September 30-October 10, 2005, Rosendo Sichler and I facilitated the Frontera de Cristo annual Border to Border Delegation: Coffee, Migration and Faith. After spending the weekend in the desert on the northern border, where lack of water combined with an economic crisis in the south and a broken immigration policy has led to the deaths of thousands of persons migrating to the US, we arrived in Tapachula, Chiapas, about an hour before Hurricane Stan. We and our hosts in the Just Coffee community of Salvador Urbina, Chiapas, near Tapachula, lived through more than 96 hours of non-stop rain.

The resulting floods and mudslides led to tens of thousands of families in Chiapas losing their homes and hundreds losing their lives. In Tapachula, whole communities and an estimated 8,000 homes have been completely destroyed. And most of the folk in Mexico felt as if the government estimates were too low.

As you look out over the Obrera community that is beside the river Cuatan, now that the river has gone down, you see that about a quarter of the community closest to the main part of Tapachula is still standing, while three-quarters is literally in rubble. The homes that remain standing are filled with mud almost to the ceiling.

A major problem was that all of the bridges in and out of Tapachula were washed out and no air traffic could get into the Tapachula airport because of the weather--Tapachula became an island. Salvador Urbina, is about 45 minutes up the mountain from Tapachula by car and did not experience flooding. However, the community was cut off from all other towns because of mudslides, one home in Urbina was washed away, and several families in Urbina have family members whose homes were washed away in Tapachula.

La Boquilla, a community above Salvador Urbina, had 20 homes washed away. The Just Coffee Cooperative is already providing assistance to them. I am afraid that Guatemala and El Salvador have been hit even worse than Chiapas.

On Thursday, I had to walk into Tapachula from Salvador Urbina to change our group’s airline tickets. I actually got a ride from some Jehovah’s Witnesses for part of the way after helping them extract their four-wheel drive vehicle from knee-deep mud. While in Tapachula, I was wandering literally lost after having been in the mud and rain for five hours. Several folks went out of their way to let me know where I could find shelter, food and dry, clean clothes.

I ended up near a shelter and a 10-year-old little boy named Manuel came up and asked me if I was from the United States. I asked him if he thought I was from the United States and he responded “yes.” I asked him, “why?” and he said: “Primero, Ud, es altotote y nosotros chaparitos. (You are really tall and we are short.)” “Segundo, Ud. es guero y nosotros morenos. (You are white and we are dark).”

We ended up talking for a long time and he told me that his house was (past tense) pink. He pointed toward the river and said that that was where he had lived and now he and his family were all in the shelter. He introduced me to his whole family and we talked for a good while. He asked me who my favorite soccer team was and I let him know that of course the Jaguares, the Chiapanecan team. As I was about to leave, he told me to wait and he went to the room in the shelter where his family was staying with about 20 others. He brought back an orange Jaguares jersey, just his size. I looked at it and smiled and handed it back. “No,” the little boy, whose house had disappeared along with almost all of his material belongings, said, “I want you to have it.”

To get back from Tapachula on Thursday I had to walk over three huge mudslides in the dark and driving rain-- led by two folks who were drunk, but insisted on not letting me go alone-- strange to encounter drunk angels of God. After maybe 7 to 10 miles of walking some folks from the Salvador Urbina community were able to pick me up in a car. They actually had to walk several miles to meet me after a mudslide cut their path off coming down the mountain.

The community of Salvador Urbina took care of all our physical needs while we were there. It reminds me of the Scripture where Jesus told the disciples not to take a lot with them into the villages and rely on the community’s hospitality. Needless to say, this was a difficult thing for our group of North Americans who are used to paying for their hospitality. So often, we US Christians do not think we can be in mission unless we take something material to share with those we are going to be with or unless we build something; and yet, in the Scripture Jesus and the disciples modeled a different kind of mission.

It was amazing to see how we were taken care of by families who had families in the flood areas and had no way of hearing from them, some knowing that their families had lost all their material belongings, including their houses, that were washed away into the Pacific.

The other amazing piece was to hear how our presence was a calming presence for the members of the community that gave them strength and hope in the midst of the despair. We were able to hold prayer services in homes that were housing folks who had lost their homes, and make pastoral visits to a family whose loved one was washed away in the current and to families separated from their loved ones in the affected areas without communication with them.

It is bitter-sweet to be back here on the border after such a profound spiritual/physical/emotional experience in Chiapas at the time of the flooding and destruction. To experience such generosity, joy and hope in the midst of such deep suffering is truly one of the mysterious Christian paradoxes.

To feel impotent in the face of such tragedy and yet to discover the importance and power of presence. . . In the midst of feeling powerless, I discovered the power of incarnational ministry.

It was a truly transformative experience.

peace, mark