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Young immigrants use their art to tell stories of faith and fear on their journey north


Texas couple shares the moving ‘Art of Tears’ ministry with borderlands conference attendees

June 13, 2021

Nohemi Cuéllar and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, began Arte de Lágrimas six years ago. (Photo courtesy of Arte de Lágrimas)

Six years ago, Nohemi Cuéllar and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Gregory Cuéllar, used a tried-and-true method to launch a ministry that helps young immigrants entering the U.S. through South Texas to express their stories, their fears and even the faith that’s sustained them.

With the permission of their parents, who are waiting with their children to board a bus that will take them, for example, to the city where their sponsor or support group awaits them, the Cuéllars or a team of volunteers hand crayons or markers and paper to young immigrants and gently ask them to draw their journey north, or the home they’ve left behind — or whatever other way they choose to express themselves.

The result has been Arte de Lágrimas, or Art of Tears, a series of first in-person and now online exhibitions in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries and churches that have been acclaimed for the truth the art tells and the way children can express themselves, often bringing adult viewers to tears.

The Cuéllers were featured Saturday during “Gospel Hospitality and the Kingdom of God,” this year’s conference put on by Presbyterian Border Region Outreach, a binational organization with five ministry sites along the U.S.-Mexico border stretching from Arizona to Texas.

Nohemi Cuéllar recalled the ministry started when the Cuéllars’ oldest daughters were away at church summer camp. She and her husband, who teaches Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, began to experience “a bit of separation anxiety, which compelled us to be prayerful about engaging, and God sent us the right people,” including Caly Fernández, a conference participant and ruling elder in Mission Presbytery “who has networks and is good person to have on your side if you’re looking to engage the community.”

Volunteers for the fledgling organization helped with meals and child care at a McAllen, Texas respite center, soon finding their way to the bus station.

“It was hard at first for parents to trust us,” she said. “But we would sit with them through the waiting process.”

Children had just completed a difficult journey of up to a month long, “and being a child had not been part of that journey,” she said. When volunteers handed them art supplies, “they could get on the floor, draw and color and be a child again.”

As the children drew, often their parents would talk to volunteers, who would take notes of what was being shared — especially by the artists themselves, if the child decided to give the drawing to the volunteer for use later in an exhibit.

“Their smiles would encourage our faith after their long, treacherous journey,” she said. “To have a strong faith and a happiness, a joy about them, was invigorating as a mother, a human being and as a believer. They were craving a moment to be human and to have peace, and oftentimes we would just sit with them. That presence meant a lot to them.”

“We would receive art pieces from the artist. They were gestures of appreciation,” Gregory Cuéllar said. “We had to think about how we wanted to steward this art, knowing they wanted to share it with us. They had in mind we would remember them in our prayers and share their experiences with people who could pray for them.” “The art,” he said, “was a way into their story.”

In the years to come, McCormick Theological Seminary, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the University of Texas at Austin, Austin Seminary and Union Theological Seminary would all host Art of Tears exhibits.

“It’s a small snippet from (the artist’s) perspective, but it’s so crucial when the dominant media narrative criminalizes border crossers. It’s counter narrative,” he said.

“Our hope,” Nohemi Cuéllar said, “is that message from their hearts on paper will bring awareness to our communities of faith.” Exhibiting the art virtually for the past several months “has opened new doors to us. We are grateful it has allowed us to further expand our exposure and the awareness to these stories.”

View the online gallery here. Hear the “Teaching Borderlands” podcasts here. Learn more about Arte de Lágrimas here.

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Sunday, June 13, 2021, the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

First Reading 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
Second Reading 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13) 14-17
Gospel Mark 4:26-34

Today’s Focus: Art of Tears Ministry

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Myles Markham, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Michael Marrone, Board of Pensions

Let us pray:

Gracious God, we thank you for your transforming power through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. We pray for those who know you through our witness. Amen.

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