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Tres Rios Border Foundation connects Presbyterians to the border and beyond


‘Reflect on what the border can teach us’ during a border encounter

May 19, 2023

The Rev. Dr. John Nelsen

The headquarters for the Tres Rios Presbytery Border Ministry Foundation is located in El Paso, Texas — about 50 feet, through an imposing iron “fence” — from Juarez, Mexico.

Created as a descendant of the historic Presbyterian Borderlands Ministries, Tres Rios Foundation seeks to become a “Presbyterian portal to all things border” in the words of longtime border ministry advocate the Rev. Dr. John Nelsen. Nelsen retired in 2022 as pastor of University Presbyterian Church in El Paso.

“We feel that this location is important because proximity makes a difference — when we say we’re at the border, we mean that literally,” Nelsen said.

Nate Ledbetter is the border coordinator for Tres Rios. Ledbetter grew up on the northern border, in the greater Detroit metro area. “As I look back on my life as a bridge builder, that theme has been carried through like a thread throughout my journey — bridging worlds, resources, and communities at the margins,” he said.

As part of the journey that brought him to the border, Ledbetter spent a decade in Grand Rapids, Michigan, living in a multi-ethnic area with a public park at the center. That park joining the different communities provided a space to come together, to interact and to listen.

“That time in Grand Rapids was the beginning of my quest for seeing how listening connects with justice and imagination,” he said. It is that quest for listening connected with justice and imagination that has brought him to the border to continue the learning. “Our hope is to come alongside individuals and meet them where they are on their journey,” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter and Nelsen work together to bring the stories from the border to congregations around the United States and to bring those congregations and individuals to the border to listen and see for themselves. The mission of the Tres Rios Foundation is to inform PC(USA) congregations about immigration issues and processes and connect them to real ministry and ways to help on the border and beyond.

Tres Rios Border Ministry Foundation invites Presbyterians to visit the U.S.-Mexico border for a three-day encounter. (Contributed photo)

 “What we are trying to accomplish — an encounter — is really the best way to experience the border,” Nelsen said. Groups often comment that what they learn while they are on the border is very different from the information they receive via the news back home. Tres Rios is hoping to change that narrative. “We want people to be able to see and hear and experience what is really going on,” he said.

The Tres Rios Foundation is also working toward system change. In the midst of debates on immigration and the migrant situation, there is one thing that most everyone agrees upon: The system is broken.

The foundation’s desire is that these Border Encounters will have a lasting impact on those who participate. “I don’t know anyone who has gone through this experience who has not been changed personally as well,” Nelsen said.

The Border Encounter is a three-day immersion experience into the issues of the border, on the border.

A fundamental question to consider when trying to understand the border is, “How do people arrive at the border and why?” There are three main misconceptions.

The first is that most migrants choose to leave their homes for a better life. “Many people, due to violence, economic collapse, and natural disasters don’t have a choice,” Ledbetter said.

The second misconception is that El Paso is a dangerous and chaotic city. Statistically El Paso is actually one of the safest cities in the U.S. “This city of immigrants is the kindest I’ve ever lived in,” Ledbetter said.

The third misconception is that there exists a fair and reasonable process for immigration. The reality is that legal avenues have not been updated in decades and that all available avenues are difficult and lengthy. Many people will never qualify.

Ledbetter is quick to point out that the Border Encounter is not “border tourism.” “This experience is at the invitation of local leaders to amplify what the border can teach us,” he said. The distinction is an important one for the Tres Rios Foundation. “We are trying to move away from the old mission trip mentality of going and doing for and toward a mutuality and doing with,” he said.

Erin Dunigan is an ordained evangelist and teaching elder in the PC(USA). She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. She serves as a photographer, writer and communications consultant and lives near the border in Baja California, Mexico. In her free time, she is an avid gardener and leads horseback riding tours along one of the most pristine stretches of beach in Northern Baja.

Today’s Focus: Tres Rios Border Foundation

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Anita Clemons, Vice President, Managing Director of Investments, Presbyterian Foundation
DeAmber Clopton, Associate Director, Finance Administration, Office of the General Assembly

Let us pray

Gracious God, we praise you, and also wonder at the great need we see around us. Forgive us for our failure to love our neighbors as ourselves. Strengthen us to work for a world where all are fed. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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