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Navigating ministry along the migration route

A look at Christian women leaders of Mesoamerica

by Dr. Teresita Matos-Post | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Barbara Zandoval via Unsplash

During the launch of the Mesoamerica Mission and Migration Network in El Salvador last March, delegates from churches and other institutions engaged in lively discussions on migration. The voices of women working in ministries and organizations along the migratory route resounded in my ears.

As a Mujerista theologian, I was intrigued by the unique perspective these female leaders from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico added to our discussions. They offered new narratives to address migration and responses to the migratory processes of people on mobility. Together, we dissected the Christian church’s challenges as it endeavors to transform the root causes that force people to migrate or prevent them from moving freely in search of a better quality of life.

Dr. Teresita Matos-Post

After our return from El Salvador, I got to dive deeper with these leaders individually. The context of their work is in countries with a rich history and experience as places from which migratory groups leave and where relatives remain behind with many questions, countries of transit, countries of destination, such as Mexico and the United States, and countries that receive returnees or deportees.

My personal experience is that as a ministry leader in a country of destination. My work at Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, located in central Florida, forces me to face day-to-day the struggle and injustices immigrants from these same countries face once they have arrived at what they expected to be the achievement of the American dream.

In listening to these leaders’ stories and perspectives, I quickly realized how narrow my perspective was, coming from my work in the last phase of the migration route. I wanted to learn more: What does ministry with people in mobility look like in their countries of origin and transit? What does life look like for those who are returned or deported to their countries of origin? This article seeks to share those stories and women’s work in those settings.

Who are these network leaders in Mesoamerica?

From Honduras

  • Selenia Ordoñez is a leader of the Presbyterian Women in the Presbyterian Evangelical Mission of Honduras. She volunteers her leadership skills at Centro Villa De Gracia, which accommodates groups from the United States.
  • The Rev. Dori Kay Hjalmarson identifies as an immigrant born in the United States and living in Honduras. She works as a theological educator and offers accompaniment and solidarity to Christian leaders in Honduras.

From El Salvador:

  • Tomasita Moran is a social worker and current director of Alfalit, a Christian education and development association where she has worked for over 30 years.
  • Carmen Diaz is a church leader of the Calvinist Reformed Church of El Salvador (IRCES, acronym in Spanish). She offers psychosocial support to migrants.

From Guatemala:

  • Nancy Carrera is a founding member of her local Presbyterian church for 28 years and coordinator of groups as part of the Protestant Center for Pastoral Studies in Central America (CEDEPCA, acronym in Spanish).
  • Delia Catú, an indigenous woman from the Maya people in Guatemala, assists the migrant program, primarily offering accompaniment to migrant children and youth who have returned and are in the process of reintegration at Pop No’j. This association facilitates and accompanies the organization, training, promotion, and participation of the Mayan people in Guatemala.

From Mexico:

  • Bridich Saragos, an indigenous Presbyterian leader from the region of Chiapas, is an auxiliary coordinator at the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta, at the border of Mexico and Arizona.
  • Perla de Angel is a lawyer defender of the rights of people in mobility, with over a decade of experience serving at the border of Agua Prieta, at the border of Mexico and Arizona, with CAME/Exodus Migrant Assistance Center, a ministry of the Catholic Church in Mexico and CRM/Migrant Resource Center, a ministry in partnership with the Presbyterian Church.

Their theological approaches to migration

During the network’s launch in El Salvador, it became evident that participants had distinct understandings of migration based on their context, news sources, and proximity to migrant populations. This also highlighted gaps between the actualities of migrant populations and our theological approaches to migration as church leaders.

The women from Mesoamerica emphasized that ministry with migrant populations is not just suggested but a mandated practice in Christianity. They cited Christian principles such as loving our neighbors, providing service, and treating the foreigner and sojourner well as values that need to be preached more often in the context of migration and put into action beyond mere words.

Carmen from El Salvador pointed to Matthew 25:35-46 as a clear indication of the Church’s responsibility towards migrants. “I remember the first boy we received here, a young man of 16 years old, when I opened the door for him. He was so young, and he only had a small bag; it was all he had, and I felt such great pain. I truly believe that Jesus is in that person,” recalled Carmen.

Perla, a lawyer serving in Mexico, firmly believes that migrating is a fundamental human right. At the network launch in El Salvador, Perla wore a T-shirt with images of butterflies flying and a phrase that read, “I am also a migrant.” She initiated this local campaign to cultivate empathy and promote acts of solidarity to counteract the hostile rhetoric against migrant caravan members. She stated, “Every individual should be free to migrate, or not. As an advocate for the human rights of this population and as a woman of faith, I am completely convinced that every person in this world is a migrant in some way.”

Perla draws inspiration from Pope Francis, who said, “It is not only about migrants but our humanity.” Perla solemnly reflects on the Pope’s teaching, saying, “The suffering that people on the move go through is a reflection of the deterioration of our humanity. There can’t be so many people causing so much harm.”

Migration: a topic the Church avoids

A common thread emerged in our conversations, not unfamiliar to the Church in the United States: the Church’s silence on migrations.

According to Selenia, a Christian leader in Honduras, migration is a sensitive topic within the church community. She explained, “Migrating for economic benefit is seen as good, but if someone is forced to leave due to a threat to their life, they may be judged unfairly by the church.”

The Rev. Dori Hjalmarson

Rev. Dori, a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Honduras, added that the shame associated with the reasons someone leaves, the feeling of betrayal for leaving their Church and family, and the perceived failure if they are returned or deported prevent migrants and their families from sharing their experiences with their church communities.

Every year on Good Friday, a vigil called Via Crucis of the Migrant is held in Cuidad, Guatemala. During the vigil, a woman shared with Nancy of CEDEPCA her experience with the potential migration of her son. Nancy noted that a public event like the vigil allows families to share migration stories, a topic the Church is silent about. Nancy adds, “We have been very indifferent to the issue as a church. We see it in the news, we know our neighbors, people from the Church [are impacted by migrations], but it is not a topic we address.”

Bridich, who coordinates services for migrants at the border, pointed out that churches often lack understanding about migration. “This is because they do not work, preach, or talk about it. As a result, the Church has no idea until it becomes involved and awakened towards this community that is moving through diverse situations.”

Editor’s note: The remainder of Dr. Teresita Matos-Post’s dispatch on Christian women leaders in Mesoamerica will run on Monday. Learn more here and here.

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