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Hearts of Hope; Tears of Grief

A Letter from Mark Adams and Miriam Maldonado Escobar, serving at the Mexican Border

August 2020

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“We smelled death before we saw her. We looked for buzzards but saw none. When John stepped into the arroyo, a whole flock of buzzards flew up from the desert floor and revealed the body of a sixteen-year-old girl from Oaxaca.”

As the U.S. was in the midst of the protests following George Floyd’s killing by police and because of the reality that black lives are not valued the same as white lives, Sister Judy, one of our partners from the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Douglas, shared more of her experience of a five-hour walk in the remote desert when they recovered the teenager’s remains. She had died just three days before, but most of her exposed flesh had already been eaten by the buzzards.

Sister Judy often joins the Tucson Samaritans in putting out water in remote places to save lives. On this occasion, she had joined a search and recovery mission of No More Deaths for two other persons that had crossed and had been missing for days. The Aguilas del Desierto, a group of predominantly Mexican-Americans who travel to the Sonoran Desert each month to search for migrants, reported lost or missing, found the bodies two days later.

When I first arrived at the border, many persons who had experienced the harshness of the desert and had been returned battered and bruised to Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol found their way to the Lirio de los Valles Presbyterian Church in Agua Prieta. They sought out a physical, emotional, and spiritual refuge.

Many gave thanks to God because God had saved their lives. Recently we received an email from Roberto, one of the thousands who have found refuge in the church in Agua Prieta.

“How are you, Brother Mark? I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus, my name is Roberto, and it is probable that you do not remember me, but I remember very well how you and your wife Sister Miriam opened up the doors of your home, and I don’t remember the name of the pastor [Pastor Rodolfo] but do remember all the kindness and mercy shared with me. Sixteen years ago, I was abandoned by the smugglers in the Arizona desert. With the help of God, I was able to make my way back to Douglas and cross back into Agua Prieta; I made my way to the church where I received welcome and help. I wanted to share that I am finishing writing some reflections on my journey, and I hope to send it to you. God bless you and continue blessing your ministry. I am grateful and love you in the Lord.”

We do remember Roberto. He arrived dehydrated with blistered feet and barely able to walk. He needed almost a week of rehydration, chicken soups, and mainly bed rest before he regained enough strength to begin walking and eating solid foods again.

But not all the stories ended with health and happiness. Some wept and prayed to be reunited with family. Two young men from Puebla came to me after worship one Sunday and broke down crying because their cousin had been missing in the desert for three weeks. As one of the cousins embraced me so close that could feel the beating of his heart and the heaving of his grief, he said to me, “if you could just return his body to us, we could have peace.”

I am so grateful for groups like Aguilas del Desierto, Los Armadillos, and No More Deaths who choose to spend their time, resources, and energy in Search and Rescue activities in the remote valleys and mountains of the Sonoran Desert. The public-private partnership of the Colibri Center and the Pima County Medical Examiners’ office work tirelessly to identify the remains of those found and reunite them with their families.

Over 7,000 women, men and children have lost their lives since the Clinton administration instituted a new border policy of “prevention through deterrence” using deserts and mountains as lethal deterrents to migration. We know that over 300 people a year will die because of an official policy that puts a knee on the neck of people fleeing extreme violence and poverty and seeking to breathe free in the United States. Brown lives are not valued the same as white lives.

Indigenous people originally inhabited this beautiful and harsh desert landscape that has become a killing field. Through force, deception, and violence, this part of God’s creation that had been home to the indigenous for centuries was occupied by the Spanish, the Mexican, and subsequently, the United States. In the midst of a pandemic that is devastating the Navajo nation here in Arizona and disproportionately impacting communities of color, we, as a nation, are spending billions of dollars to destroy large swaths of the creation and desecrating the burial grounds of the indigenous people by building a dividing wall of hostility. Tohono O’odham Nation Chair Ned Norris testified before Congress: “For us, this is no different than the DHS building a 30-foot wall through Arlington Cemetery.” Indigenous lives are not valued the same as white lives.

As we continue to lament this sin against God’s good creation in which all are created in the Divine image and beloved by God, we must repent of all the ways we participate in systems of injustice. One way in which Frontera de Cristo is seeking to repent is by resisting putting our trust in border policies guided by fear and division. Frontera de Cristo is advocating with our partners of the Southern Border Communities Coalition for a New Border Vision of hope, opportunity, and encounter.

It is a great honor, privilege, and responsibility for us to serve as PC(USA) Mission Co-workers. Even as we live and minister in the shadow of a thirty-foot steel dividing wall of hostility, we are grateful for your words of encouragement, prayers, and support that help sustain our ministry witnessing to the reality that “Jesus is our peace and has destroyed the dividing wall of hostility.”

Mark and Miriam


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