Pleasant Mound United Methodist Church
Saturday, July 04, 2020
Partnering to Strengthen Our Community Through the Transformational Power of Jesus Christ
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Bus/Border Expedition

 Bus/Border Expedition by Bill Sanderson       

The fellowship hall of First Presbyterian McAllen suddenly fell silent when Erica Nelson told us that a pastor with a cleric collar had been stabbed while in Reynosa, Mexico. Our discussion leader said the pastor was assisting Central American asylees who wait in Mexico because of new U.S. border policy, called the Migrant Protection Protocol, that requires it.

We were on a similar mission to cross the border, but at least we had protection in numbers. Our ecumenical group of faith leaders, mostly pastors from the Dallas area, Waco and Austin, had arrived from a crowded charter bus ride to the Rio Grande Valley (McAllen and Brownsville) and were followed by others in automobiles.

We were Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and Lutherans who traveled Aug. 29-31 to observe the status of folks waiting in Matamoros, Mexico, and along the bridge. We sought to understand what’s happening at the border and pray for the asylees. The trip, dubbed Courts and Ports Advocacy Intensive and guided by the organization Texas Impact, was customized to educate faith leaders on public policy and prepare them for church, community and media advocacy.

The overarching goal was to reframe the asylees at the border as a moral, rather than political, discussion.

“It’s a false narrative going on about who the people are waiting for asylum,” said pastor Owen Ross, a leader in the North Texas Methodist Conference who coordinated the trip with Steve Miller, a Baptist pastor and founder of the organization U.S. Christian Leadership. They designed it so we could meet the asylees ourselves, then return home and tell their stories.

“I laid this out to equip Christian leaders to pray, preach and publicly engage on immigration and border issues," Ross said. "We believe that we have a God who cares about this issue and who hears the cries of his people."

Thursday night was a theological framing with Dr. Asante Todd of Austin Theological Seminary, followed by Joaquin Castro (via video) with his message, From Mercy to Policy. Friday we went to the First Presbyterian Church in McAllen for a panel discussion led by the San Antonio regional office of Justice for our Neighbors. Around noon we bused to Brownsville.

Our itinerary urged the clergy to “PLEASE WEAR YOUR COLLAR, or whatever symbolic attire you use.” To my surprise, given the recent violence along the border Erica Nelson had related in that pin-drop moment, the faith leaders did arm themselves in their vestments.

Walking over the bridge, down to our right we saw beige-colored tents for asylee court hearings that promised justice (but not representation). Arriving in Mexico, in the broiling heat hard by the bridge, we mingled with Central American refugees and their many children. We interviewed and prayed. We embraced.

“By the Rio Grande we sat and wept when we remembered their family members in Honduras,” one pastor said. “There on the mesquites they hung their clothes and the cloth diapers they washed in the river they were prohibited to cross. And we sang the songs of Zion.”

“The number one prayer petition, as one child so eloquently said, was, ‘Pray that God helps me finish this,’ " pastor Miller said. "The number two petition was, ‘Pray for my family.’ ”

Waco First Presbyterian pastor Leslie King was struck by the asylees' stoic, yet hopeful nature. “The most important thing for me was to walk into the tent camp and feel the effect of the people around us, at once trusting and suspicious, trying to present themselves with dignity. I think they successfully did that, but they were also feeling really desperate, and everyone was so incredibly respectful of us to allow someone to introduce us and then agree to our terms to talk about their lives.”

Martha Valencia of Christ Foundry UMC in Dallas translated for our group of 10 as we visited with these folks who are encamped without a stable source of food or water. Food and water comes from church and charity groups on both sides of the border. Originally enchilada dinners, the fare is now all too often peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I saw no bathrooms or water hydrants.

Valencia offered details.

Milson (no last names mentioned) was the father of a special needs child in Honduras. He left his wife and son with his brother and traveled with his teenage daughter. No questions were asked of them at the border. He has a sister in Missouri and has had some contact with her. The issue for him, he said, is his children's safety.

The drug gangs were after his 14-year-old daughter, who is coming of age. He could not afford to take care of his son. Milson also was kidnapped for several days in Nuevo Laredo, he said, but it was unclear how the daughter managed.

Pastor King met Edgar, who was 22, around the age of her son. Edgar has a 2-year-old daughter.

“He swam across the Rio Grande with her. He talked about the dangers of bathing in the river and not being willing to do it. His issue was that he was a taxi driver and he began to be extorted by the cartels. They (Edgar’s family) needed $5,000 for his wife to get thyroid treatment, and he refused (to work for the cartel). One night when he was working, the cartel came to his home, and she died of a heart attack, given the intensity of the break-in. So his daughter didn’t have a mother anymore. When I said I was sorry that he had to wait so long, he said he would wait a year. ‘It’s not too long if I don’t have to go back.’ ”

And there was Ana of El Salvador, the mother of four young children.

"She kept repeating that she couldn’t lie before God, but I think what she was saying was that she didn’t have any hardship beyond poverty. That was her ailment. She was following her daughter into the U.S. The 16-year-old girl was pregnant, and she was going to have the baby. I have been the mother of teenagers — they’re really hard to control. It’s not inconceivable that her daughter would leave and Ana by her own heartstrings would follow her. She talked about having to wash the children in the river, and there were infections and rashes and eventually a fever. So she impressed on me the difficulty of day-to-day living.”

It is these intensely personal stories that pastor Ross hopes take root in the consciousness of people of faith. 

“If we can help others through sharing our stories, sharing our photos, sharing our perspective on the news of the day, then other persons can have that and be concerned. It’s hard for someone to see these families and not be moved by compassion.”

Her experience at the border amid the story of dignity and despair, pastor King said, expanded her awareness. “I could recognize my own people in the crowd that was gathered there. I mean, I could see my son and my daughter. And within the grace of God, here we both are (she and Edgar, she and Ana), and how are we going to stay connected to one another? How are we going to do that?”

Regarding the political posturing that casts efforts for asylum as offered by U.S. law in a negative light, pastor Ross is clear and ringing in defense.

“It’s a false binary: that we either take care of our own, or we take care of them. It’s simply not true," he said. "They’re not coming here to be taken care of, they’re coming here to take care of our kids, our construction needs. They are coming here because they want to work, not coming here to be a burden on society. That’s not their American dream.”

The theology of who is our own is the key, Ross said. “Jesus talks about who is my mother, sister, brother: ‘Whosover does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.'

'We worship a God who changes the definition of who is our own.”