Presbyterian group explores the experiences of migration in Central American journey


Peacemaking Program travel study seminar spends 10 days in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala

May 27, 2020

A memorial on Guatemala City’s Constitutional Plaza honors the 41 girls who were burned to death on March 8, 2017 in a “safe home” outside of Guatemala City. Photo by Carl Horton.

The journey from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to the Mexico-United States border is a brutal, dangerous undertaking even once.

The Rev. Terri Thomas of Indianapolis was surprised to learn that many people in the trio of countries known as the Northern Triangle endure that journey over and over in what is regarded as a “cycle of migration,” trying to make new lives for themselves in the United States.

“If you undertake that journey and get sent back, to go try it again says something,” she said. “And we found that almost everyone knows someone who has tried multiple times to migrate to the United States.”

Thomas was part of a group of 24 Presbyterians and guests who traveled to Central America in the past two weeks with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to learn more about the conditions in Latin American countries that make people choose to travel, usually on foot, to the United States border for the faint hope of a better life in the U.S. They also heard from migrants who had been returned to their home countries and the perils they faced after they returned.

Ten group members continued on to Los Angeles and joined others for a weekend-long travel study seminar to see what life is like for refugees just below the U.S. southern border in Tijuana, Mexico, and how the Presbytery of the Pacific is working to help people who have crossed into the United States.

For Larry Hjalmarson, a member of the United Methodist Church from Salt Lake City, the journey was a chance to see his daughter Dori Hjalmarson, a mission co-worker in Honduras for Presbyterian World Mission. But, even having worked before in Central America, he was surprised by many of the things he heard, particularly about the journey many people take.

“I will remember how these very vulnerable people are preyed on every step of the way,” Larry Hjalmarson said. “The extortion by the gangs, the government working against them, and then if they make it to the border, they suffer even more abuse.”

The trip’s participants also noted that they saw barriers to economic advancement, from government and business forces. Larry Hjalmarson said that in coffee production, farmers do the bulk of the work but see the smallest slice of the profits after distributors and governments take their shares.

Several trip participants said they were sad to learn some of the ways in which the U.S. government and businesses have contributed to the citizens’ plight, from propping up oppressive regimes to companies coming in to take advantage of cheap resources.

While the group did find that dire economic conditions led most people to immigrate, violence and gangs were also a major factor for a lot of people.

Thomas said they learned there were two ways to get out of a gang: die or go to church.

“A gang will let you go if you go to church and you are an active Christian,” she said. “Somewhere in there seems to be the message that there are answers in faith.”

A consistent message they heard, Thomas said, “is that God and faith keep them going.”

For her part, Dori Hjalmarson said that she appreciates Presbyterians taking the time and effort to travel to see the situation where she works.

“It can be frustrating telling people that this is a problem here and seeing people shut down, that they’re not listening,” Dori Hjalmarson said.

Larry Hjalmarson said he would go home ready to call out myths about immigration when he hears them.

And even with the rough days, participants said the travel study seminar was well worthwhile.

Thomas said, “I would absolutely recommend it. I don’t think there’s anything like hearing a person’s story face to face and crying with them.

“It opens your mind and your heart.”

 Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Peacemaking Program Travel Study Seminar

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
David Dobson, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
Simon Doong, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

For those who open to us the words of Scripture, we give you thanks, great God. As Scripture is opened, as hearts are transformed, may the church of Jesus Christ thrive and bloom for this and all generations. Amen.

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