GIVE NOW to support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s response to the short and long-term impact of the winter storm in the northeast. Give now

Skip to main content

“Repent, and believe in the good news.” —Mark 1:15

Faithful Mission: Reflections from the border and beyond

a bimonthly online column by linda valentine

January 2015 (special edition)

Tucson Southside Church

First evening, January 22

Two young adultsWhere did we come from? A beginning question to introduce ourselves to each other was “where were you born?” A broad range of responses elicited family and ancestral roots from Latvia, Ethiopia to Guatemala. Even those whose birth certificates show U.S. states and cities reached back to roots in other countries. England and Scotland are well represented, of course – we are Presbyterians after all. And we are all immigrants, or some generation back was. Only one claimed a faint stream of Native American blood.

Sanctuary – now and then.  Pastor Alison Harrington and Rosa Robles, in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church.

Alison described how people are disappearing, and dying in the desert, because of our broken immigration system. “Sanctuary is Christian hospitality”. We are called to defend the orphan and the widow – and even more so, to act before they become orphans and widows.  

And so, Southside has declared sanctuary again, as it did over 30 years ago for refugees from violence in Central America. Today, Southside ministers to migrants in a variety of ways.

Rosa Robles has lived in Arizona for 15 years. A CPA in Mexico, as an undocumented migrant, here she cleans houses and takes care of other peoples’ children. (Oh, how we ignore human talent.) Her two children, age 7 and 10 are DREAMers, permitted to stay. In 2010 Rosa was stopped for a traffic violation. Discovering she was undocumented, the sheriff called Border Patrol, and she was taken right away to detention. Later released on bond, she is threatened with deportation while her case is pending. She asked for sanctuary. The church had recently offered sanctuary to Daniel, who after 28 days won his case, leaving his family intact. When we met, Rosa had been confined to the church premises for 169 days. Someone from the church is with her 24 hours a day. In the spirit of the persistent widow in Luke, praying always and not losing heart, a prayer service is held daily at 7 pm. [1]

Rosa is brave, but also distressed for her children who want their mother back. She doesn’t share with them her expectation that her case will be resolved soon, because they get their hopes up and don’t understand delay.

Alison spoke movingly about Rosa, and about herself. Alison is a mother, too, and her heart breaks at knowing that she can take her children to the zoo, and celebrate Christmas with them at home, while Rosa cannot. She speaks of the privilege of being born in the US, being blond and white. A police stops for her (and for any of us like her) is easily resolved, not something that will likely lead to forced deportation and separation from her children, husband and the life she knows.

What of privilege? Like money and power, it is not itself evil. It’s how they are gained, and how they are used, that make them good or evil. Systems that perpetuate privilege for some and not for others by accident of birth are wrong. Alison is inspiring in her dedication to confronting and righting injustice and caring and loving her sister in Christ. Alison is an activist for just immigration, and an advocate among other churches for offering sanctuary, especially when it can mean the difference between ultimate permission to stay and deportation.

The sanctuary movement began at Southside more than 30 years ago when John Fife and others brought migrants fleeing from violence and government brutality in El Salvador and Guatemala. The US refused to recognize them as refugees, dubbing them ‘just economic migrants’, and not as victims of death squads, repression and persecution as they were in fact.

John described how he first began, and how the movement grew and succeeded. He brought with him Patti, who told her first hand story. Patti spoke with deep emotion as she described events that happened to her two decades ago. As a young child, her father was detained and brutalized by officials. Her home was raided, and as she hid under a table covered by a lace tablecloth her grandmother had made, she looked face to face with a young man who had been thrown to the floor. She watched as he was shot and killed, inches from her.

She fled north with relatives, crossed the US border and was taken into sanctuary, as Rosa is now. She cries as she tells her story, still so raw and painful even 30 years later, safely and obviously very much in love with and supported by her professional baseball player husband sitting at her side. Patti’s story has a happy ending, but thousands have – and continue – to die trying to reach the US, while others struggle to make a basic living once they do and live in constant fear of deportation.

Monday January 26, 2015 

Albergue Jesús el Buen Pastor (Jesus the Good Shepherd Shelter)

We met an angel. Twenty five years ago, Olga Sánchez Martínez was dying. A priest invited her to visit people in a hospital. She was moved at the sight of lonely and invalid people, and started to take invalids into her home. She asked for money on the street to support her. She was given the use of a small home that quickly became overcrowded. Gradually over five years she collected enough money to buy land, and began building a shelter. The shelter consists of a yard and several buildings, rooms for men and women to stay, a chapel, kitchen, medical office, bakery. Migrants who are injured, most from falling off the train as they try to migrate north, are given medical care and hospitality. There is a serenity and acceptance to this place now populated by people whose lives have been shattered, some ruined. Some are missing limbs, others obvious serious head injuries. They are far from home, and here find comfort.

Olga exudes love and her ready broad smile lights up quickly. Dressed in white, she seems an angel. Yet she is also woman of action. Her shelter has gained recognition, by UNHCR and other agencies. She has traveled to San Francisco and received an award from the Dalai Lama. She hosted us for lunch with grace at a table spread out in the yard of the shelter. Migrant guests rested to the side, their lunch would be served next. Their calm bellied the devastation in their lives and evidenced the love and acceptance they experience here.[2] 

Crossing the River

We looked down and saw people wading from Guatemala to Mexico and from Mexico to Guatemala. Some carrying bundles. Some traveling from far, with far to go. Others, back and forth for a day of shopping. It seemed like a simpler time. Yes, there are immigration laws – we paid our 2 pesos to leave Mexico and cross the bridge, and waited at the other end for our passports to be stamped by Guatemala immigration. But the people whose lives are here moved freely back and with no one stopping them. The numbers are small? The people are not a threat? It’s just the way we live? The countries don’t have resources to stop it? Unclear, and when some Guatemalans were asked about it, I didn’t hear a clear answer. Seems like a simpler time, when people could move more freely.

Tuesday, January 28, 2015

Café R.E.D. - DESGUA

We saw a hopeful effort to address “root causes” of migration. Poverty and lack of opportunity, and the notion that one can make a better living in the US, compel people to take the high risk of migrating.

Willy lived in the US for a number of years, a refugee with permission to stay. He worked in restaurants but became discouraged by a lifestyle that had him working weekends and holidays. He also had worked for Whole Foods, helping to open stores, and so he had gained valuable experience he believed he could use to help others in Guatemala. He says he, ‘deported himself’ and started DESGUA, “a grassroots organization and network of community groups in Guatemala and the United States working towards economic and educational development with and for returned migrants and Mayan communities in Guatemala, see[ing] the promotion of cultural identity and historical memory as integral to sustainable development.” Willy describes it as a “house of return of the Guatemalan dream, a dream of autonomy and self-sustainability”. In the house is Café R.E.D.; and he explains that “red” means network. [Furthermore, the name R.E.D. encompasses all these activities: R= Restaurante, E= Escuela (School), and D=Despensa (Fair Trade Store).]

Willy describes some paradox of migration. Migration can be bad, as can globalization, but also good, as people are exposed to different cultures and cuisines. He was forced to learn English in the US, but now that is a tool for making friends. He believes in healing through art, food and music, all evident in the courtyard buildings with expressive murals where Café R.E.D. is housed.

Sixteen young people have just begun a chef training program. The vision is for them to become chefs, providing vocation, appreciating their culture and making a living so they are dissuaded from migrating. [3]

Several of the young people addressed us, confident, and earnest about what they will learn and their future prospects. Isabel was the first to speak. She dreams of becoming an internationally known chef. Another young woman, the oldest in the group, is a mother of two who wants to support and teach her children. A young man could not finish school because he lived far from the school and the bus from his village ran only at 6 am and noon. He, too, is enthusiastic about his aspiration to be a chef.

Among the instructors is a former guerilla who described his background. “My family was threatened and attacked by the military, accused of being communist. We had to flee and live in the mountains and I joined a guerilla group.” He is wants to teach these young people about their history and culture. Willy joins in, “now, they have traded bullets for coffee beans, and AK47’s for machetes to harvest crops.”

The leaders of Café R.E.D. want the young people to know the 5000-year history of the Mayan people, of which they are descendants. They want them to learn and promote Guatemalan cuisine. They want to give young people a reason not to migrate, but to build lives and communities here. They want to usher in ‘a return of the Guatemalan dream.’ 

Faith Stories by Guatemalan Presbyterian women

January 28, 2015

It’s a sunny cool morning in the western highlands of Guatemala. I am in a safe, comfortable retreat center with traveling companions from the PCUSA.

My heart is breaking. Guatemalan women from the Presbyterian Church here (IENPG) are acting out a story – a true story – Rosita’s story[4]. What happens to these mothers and their children is wrong. It should not happen.

Rosita is a member of a group of women called Faith Stories Project. They act out the story, although it was not until they finished, with not a dry eye among the actors or the audience that we learned it is in fact her story.

The story began with a husband, wife and three year old child. The husband has lost work. His prospects are poor and desperate. His mother and family urge him to migrate to the US. His wife and child beg him not to, but he goes. Three times he tries and fails to get into the US, returning beaten and forlorn, but each time he returns, his mother presses him to try again. Finally, he succeeds, and finds work in the US. For three years he sends money back for his wife and child. On his son’s sixth birthday he calls on the phone, demanding that his wife come join him and leave their son behind – or he will abandon her. Anguishing, praying and imploring him to return, she refuses to leave their home and child.  And so she becomes a single mother who struggles to support her child and keep him in school.

The drama continues when her son is 17 and has fallen into bad hands. Drug traffickers have enlisted him in their criminal enterprise, and he has new shoes and fine clothes to show for it. Unlike many young people, he is able to break free, through his mother’s urging and when the traffickers were arrested. So, this tragic story ends with a glimmer of hope. “By the grace of God they were captured and he was liberated”, a father watching with us said. “Usually, young people are trapped.” They are threatened with violence to join, and threated with death if they leave. One of the Faith Stories women said, “Young people are paying the consequences of migration. As families are torn apart and the parents left behind struggle to support them, children are failing at school and falling into bad hands.” The father in the audience added, “As conscious, aware Christians, there is a lot of work to be done.”

Rosita’s son is now 22. He has stabilized, she says somewhat tentatively. He never forgets his father, who he was so close to when he was 3. He is now a young adult leader in the church, and the Faith Stories women have found their voices. And there is more to be done, to create a just and more equitable society in Guatemala and a more just and humane immigration system in the US. The US has great influence on the former, and responsibility for the latter. As Christians, we are indeed called to act and advocate for both.   

The Faith Stories Project group of women have been dramatizing stories to tell and to teach for ten years. The group was started with then Young Adult Volunteer Jennifer Thalman Kepler, now a seminary student under care of National Capital Presbytery.

[1] Border patrol will not enter a church, or a hospital or a school, and so sanctuary protection can be offered when a final deportation order has been issued and is being appealed.


[2] In a reflection one night, one person expressed discomfort, wondering if this ministry was more a promotion of the founder Olga, and that injured people are being staged. A Guatemalan leader at CEDEPCA, Emerson, said this does happen and to be wary. Yes, it is important to be alert to things not being as they are presented, and of people taking advantage of others, so that is a good reminder. Balance that with cynicism or an attitude of mistrust (too prevalent in our times). Be alert, and look for the good.


[3] A dilemma for young people in finding work is that without experience, and without a title and recommendations, they will not be hired even if a job can be found. This program will provide them experience, references and they will have the title of “Chef in Guatemalan Cuisine”. 

[4] (not her real name) 


Faithful Mission Archives

January - Celebrate the Gifts of Women

January - Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations
March - The Confession of Belhar
May - On becoming a multicultural church
July - Go Disciple Live
September - Educate a Child, Transform the World
November - Frontera de Cristo

November - Haiti



  • I have read and understand the the vision and as Presbyterian,I want to be part of that programme.Am an administrator and and deacon ordained seven years pastor is Rev.Steven ssekatogo, Iganga Presbyterian church an administrator, i have found out that education has been for long a big challenge in our churches basically rural based i request to work together and see how we can alleviate poverty reduce illiteracy levels.I will be grateful to hear from you.yours in service Deacon Bogere paul by BOGERE PAUL on 10/07/2014 at 3:03 p.m.

  • Joining because of the Multicultural conversation. by Louella L Grayson on 06/16/2014 at 3:47 p.m.

  • James and New Covenant are most definitely about ushering in the reign of God. May their tribe increase! by Sallie Watson on 05/29/2014 at 11:00 a.m.

  • When I was serving churches, before I retired, we often used the Belhar Confession as part of our worship service on Sunday. Members of the church often requested it. by Rev. Ron Hooker (Yale Graduate) on 04/09/2014 at 9:11 a.m.

Join the Discussion

Post Comment

Resources for
Presbyterian Mission Agency

Upcoming Presbyterian Mission Agency Events

COTE Meeting

Feb. 24 - 26, 2015

The Committee on Theological Education (COTE) will meet February 24-26, 2015 at Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ

For more information on COTE:

COTE Meeting

Sept. 21 - 23, 2015

The Committee on Theological Education (COTE) will meet on September 21-23, 2015 at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL.

For more information on COTE: