A letter from the PC(USA) Regional Liaison for Mexico and Guatemala
February 13, 2017
EL PASO. As we move through traffic, I think how much we must seem like ants scrambling to find space as they rush through each other. I am back in City, and each time I come here I am struck by how dense and congested this city is. Just when I think not another person could fit in, more houses are built on precarious mountainsides or on the margins now gobbled up by urban sprawl. It sends me back to another image: Fathers sharing their first warm meal with their children in weeks.
I’m thinking about those first few families we welcomed into University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in El Paso, Texas: families who happened to be from Guatemala and El Salvador. They were hungry, thirsty, lacking clean clothes, and they had been held in a detention cell. This was the first place in the United States where they were greeted with care and mercy. In this Advent season I understand what it means to be able to love freely.
These families who walked into the church were from Central America—four families from Guatemala and one from El Salvador. They were weary from their travels and weary from worry and distrust as they carried their children with them. All of them were applying for refugee status in the United States and were released that night from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Had the church not opened its doors, they could have spent several nights on the street as they tried to make arrangements to reach their families and friends in the United States.
We offered them a safe place, we offered them hot meals, and we helped contact their families and help their families make the necessary travel arrangements. We provided clean clothing and a clean shower. We provided spiritual accompaniment. We played with their children. But most of all, we embraced them lovingly after a journey that was anything but loving. We welcomed strangers in and know they will never be strangers again. And during this season of Advent, what more can we do?
We could spend hours arguing over the United States’ complex and restrictive immigration laws. We could spend hours talking about governments that lack the will or ability to care, protect, or provide for their citizenry. We could spend hours talking about how sovereign governments have the right to protect their borders. We could spend hours arguing about why people cross without the proper documents into the United States. We could spend hours talking about how the economy of the United States is intensely dependent on cheap labor and cheap materials. However, as I ponder the miraculous birth of Jesus these questions are not the urgent ones.
As Christians we are called to reach out to those in need. In those moments of need we share in the suffering but also in the mercy, kindness, and love that God offers. This idea takes me to a scripture passage. In Matthew 25:37-39, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” His disciples respond by asking when they did these things to him. Jesus replies that when we do these things to the least of God’s children, we do them to God. These acts of mercy done in God’s name are done for God.
As only one church in El Paso, Texas, we know our assistance in welcoming guests into the church facilities is a small drop in the bucket of the immigration story between Central America and the United States. It’s a small glimpse of the story that happens each day worldwide. But no matter how small, the ministry is significant, and not only for our guests.
University Presbyterian Church has been working the past few years with the border ministry site Pasos de Fe, whose pastor is from Mexico. Pasos de Fe had historically facilitated north to south mission. As they worked with UPC, they realized they had an opportunity to start a south to north mission. They created a Spanish-language service that serves individuals on the western side of El Paso. It has been a slow trudge forward as both the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking congregations have been challenged with how to mingle and blend. Omar and I have been steadily encouraging more interaction and engagement. Miraculously, the ministry to Central American refugees provided the perfect platform.
This particular ministry requires Spanish. It requires an understanding of what these individuals have experienced. The Spanish-language congregation brought the language and the understanding. In ministering to these families, the members of this smaller Spanish congregation have found their voices and their power at the table. The English-language congregation understands their dependence on the gifts these individuals offer. These two congregations become equal partners at the table. Omar and I help facilitate the dialogue, but all of the members bring special gifts that are needed and welcome. We may be providing services to only a small number of individuals in need, but this ministry is creating swaths of change at University Presbyterian Church.
We also know that those who have passed through our doors are truly touched by the grace they are offered. Several still contact Omar to let him know how they are or how their legal case is going. They always ask that Omar let the congregation know how grateful they are for the kindness that was given. Their journeys have not yet ended, but we pray that during Advent they find safety, security, and enough to provide their families with a special holiday. We know we will be celebrating the season with both the Spanish- and English-language congregations at UPC, and we will be praying that these families are finding their way. And may God’s heart be filled with the joy that we can give so freely.
This ministry can only happen because you all support us, prayerfully and financially. Omar and I have found a special satisfaction as we watch these two worlds—of Guatemala and the United States—collide. We know how difficult and dangerous life can be in Guatemala. So, thank you for providing us with the strength and financial support to be able to extend ourselves in such a meaningful way. Please know that your gifts are being well used. And if you feel called to assist more, we thank you.
We have been honored to be a part of this unique and mercy-filled work. It allows us to witness the bright star that leads the way. We hope you find God working in similar ways in your life.
Amanda Craft, special to Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Ministry in Guatemala and the US
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers
Cathy Chang, Philippines
Juan Lopez, Philippines
Dong Ho Choi, Philippines
Sook Nim Choi, Philippines
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
God, we know your continued presence will enable us to work with our partners for the benefit of all. Teach us that those on the margins have something of value to share with us. Amen.