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Coffee and Conversations on the border

Cultivating relationships and understanding across borders

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Pictured left to right are Katelyn Rediger, Elvia Llinas, Hannah Singerline and Bridich Saragos. (Photo by the Rev. Mark Adams)

LOUISVILLE — The impact of mission delegations is said to be like the rock that hits the water and ripples outward.

That’s what Gene Ryan of Western Theological Seminary said about a previous trip to the border with his seminary class to visit Frontera de Cristo (FDC), a Presbyterian border ministry located in the sister cities of Agua Prieta, Sonora and Douglas, Arizona.

Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) Hannah Singerline has been hosting mission delegations in 2019-2020 as part of her year of service. She hosted a webinar, a series called “Coffee and Conversations,” about cultivating relationships and understanding across borders.

The YAVs serve as part of the FDC’s binational internship ministry in which up to four interns — two from the United States and two from Mexico — live in community by sharing an apartment in Agua Prieta and serve with FDC’s different ministries.

This year the other U.S. intern came through the Serving and Learning Together volunteer program of the Mennonite Central Committee in Mexico. The two from Mexico came from the churches of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico — one from Chiapas and the other from Tijuana.

Singerline is a 22-year-old recent graduate of John Carroll University (JCU), just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, with a degree in cell and molecular biology. JCU is a Jesuit institution that instilled in her the love for service learning over her college years through participation in weekly service, international immersion trips and education on social injustices in the classroom.

“My desire to serve specifically in the borderlands began with my most recent immersion trip to El Salvador and the U.S.-Mexico border,” she said. “Through this experience I learned about the conditions that pushed individuals out of their home countries and saw the way they were welcomed upon arriving to our country. In the 10 days of that trip, I learned far more from the many first-hand accounts that were shared with me than I have through the media.”

The goal of ministry visits is to form relationships between U.S. and Mexican siblings and to:

  • Build understanding of spiritual, political and economic connections across borders
  • Challenge participants to understand the realities of life on the border
  • Provide participants the opportunity to share their talents or gifts and discover new abilities
  • Provide participants with enough knowledge of Frontera de Cristo to be able to interpret its mission and ministry and those of its partners.

Singerline told webinar guests she thought the best way to illustrate the impact of visiting delegations was to invite those who had participated to speak about their experiences. Ryan was one of those people.

“We went with the intent of learning how the church operates in a place other than where we live,” he said. “What I found most interesting was how many solid connections there were with my life here in Holland, Michigan and the border. When we went back to Holland, we could see the different borders in our community. We wanted to break the bubble to start to cross those borders in our ministry.”

Stuart Massey of Shandon Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, was also a past participant. He said he was inspired by the work at Frontera de Cristo to overcome borders.

“Our church put up a Black Lives Matter banner on the fence outside the church. As a result, we received some pushback from the community,” Massey said. “I realized this was a border in my own community and these attitudes were separating us.”

Laura Labrada, director of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation and Recuperation (CRREDA is the Spanish acronym), has joined participants for walks in the desert called “Water for Life.” The program was established 18 years ago to reduce the amount of deaths in the desert by providing water, food and some temporary shelter.

“We would see groups of all sizes, sometimes 40 or more. Some were injured or dehydrated. Seeing a little of what the migrants have gone through inspires us to keep going,” she said. “We go in a car with supplies, but this isn’t how it is for migrants. They can come into contact with border patrol or the cartel or get lost. We go to the (landmark) ‘Tree of Life’ because that’s where we can meet them to share time with them. It touches my heart.”

Karey Carbaugh has been coming to the border since 1992. His church, Central Presbyterian Church in Longmont, Colorado, has a 30-year partnership with border ministry. There have been many visits from Aqua Prieta church members to Colorado as well and even one marriage.

“The beautiful thing that happened over time was not the expectation to complete a project. The purpose of our trips has become very relational,” he said. “The real impacts have come through these relationships. The other beautiful thing that only comes through God is that we now have mission partners in Longmont. We have an organization called Recovery Café, very much like CRREDA. I had never thought about this similarity until one of the people who traveled there last year observed how similar they were.”

Mission co-worker the Rev. Mark Adams walks away from the migrant cross on the Mexico side of the U.S. border fence/wall. (Photo by Dan Abbott)

Mission co-worker and the director of Frontera de Cristo, the Rev. Mark Adams, has seen some amazing things in his 25-years-plus on the border.

“I distinctly remember a Tucson delegation from about 10 years ago of highly educated and successful people who were being led by young people in recovery (from CRREDA), many who had never finished high school. The folks in recovery became the educators to the group. They were being guided by people they would never have guessed could teach them,” he said.

Singerline wraps up her experience on the border in August. The next class of YAVs will face new challenges created by COVID-19, but the YAV program is committed to responding to the call to serve in creative ways.

In light of these new realities, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), instituted a travel ban for all national staff and volunteers through December 31, which will postpone the start of the 2020-2021 class. The new deadlines are:

  • National applications — September 30, 2020
  • International application — September 1, 2020
  • 2021-2022 applications open — October 1, 2020
  • Virtual orientation — December 1-18, 2020 (dates subject to change)

Learn more or apply here.

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