Early last year, the media was swirling with pictures of kids in chain-linked enclosures, separated from their parents and coverage of the migration crisis occurring at the US-Mexico border. From the images that flashed on the screen, it seemed as if our country saw people more like animals than those made in the image of God. This dissonance between the treatment of people seeking safety at our southern border and the command of Jesus to love our neighbor felt grating and heavy. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do with the sorrow and frustration of it all. All that I knew was a step had to be made towards the pain even though I was unsure what that looked like.
That step led me to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico with a group of compassionate women of Welcome. (a digital community cultivating Christ-like welcome). Over the course of two days, we listened to the stories of asylum seekers, heard from Border Patrol about the stresses of their job, saw the faithfulness of the staff at Abara Frontiers, and visited the El Paso Shooting Memorial. The trip to the US-Mexico border changed how I see the world around me and hear the stories of people. It was simultaneously encouraging and enraging to behold it all. The hope of the Kingdom of God was deeply intertwined with the pain of the present reality in a way that mirrored the paradox of the gospel itself. Nancy* a 22-year-old who is fleeing the threats against her life in her home country of Guatemala was one of the people I met whose story embodied the complexity of faith and suffering that we find in God’s Kingdom.
Nancy shared her story with us through tears at a migrant shelter in Juarez and we all leaned into this sacred and holy space. Over the past year, she lost both of her grandparents and was attacked by people in her community who wanted to take her inheritance. It was hard to believe that the young and vibrant woman in front of me had been attacked multiple times in her own home, once resulting in her being in a coma for months and the other ripping through the safety she thought she had with gunfire. It was at this point she fled the violence in Guatemala to seek safety in the United States, but the journey to El Paso was fraught with many miles of intense terrain and evading assault multiple times. After completing this harrowing journey she shared that “the end of that nightmare began a new nightmare”, but this time inside the walls of a US detention center.
As she shared about her experiences in the detention center her eyes were heavy with intensity and mine with shock at how she was treated. Her gaze met mine and she nodded as if to beg me to please believe her. After three days at the detention center, she was released into Juarez with nothing but a court date and the clothes on her back to await her first asylum hearing three months later due to the “Remain in Mexico” policy. The wait process can be up to 18 months and almost all of the people seeking asylum in El Paso are denied (only .2 percent are granted). The guards may have tried to erode her identity by treating her like an animal and calling her vulgar names, but sitting across from me I saw a woman determined to find hope in the midst of a system build against her.
Her strength and bravery left me in awe of her faith. She trusted in the goodness God in preserving her life thus far and gave thanks that she had found shelter in Juarez. At the end of our time together we gathered around her metal chair and prayed for her. As we were praying I found myself wishing she was a bird. Hoping and praying that God would give her wings to fly beyond the pain, over walls, above rivers, and into the arms of her mother.
Nancy’s story is one of over 16,000 asylum seeker in El Paso during 2019 and each one of these people have names, a story, and a purpose. These are the first steps on the journey of learning how to walk in love of our neighbor – there are many more stories to be heard and much more work to be done. May we have ears to hear and eyes to see people as Jesus sees people. May we bring light into darkness and hold onto the enduring hope we have in Christ.