Border Crossing: Ursula and Sugar Cane

November 12th, 2018

Border Crossing is a series of stories and essays from people who are serving in ministry at the US-Mexico line. We hope these reflections help church people discuss boundaries, borders, and border crossings.

On June 23, 2018, in McAllen, Texas, a group from the League of United Latin American Citizens was protesting at the Ursula Avenue immigrant detention center. They saw a bus carrying children leaving the center, and they tried to physically block its departure. This was an extremely intense moment, as national media was descending on McAllen, and violence seemed likely. This occurred 6 miles from my home in Mission, Texas. The following day I drove to the Ursula detention center and began to pray walk and pray drive the area. The area was calm that morning, with one Border Patrol truck standing guard outside the entrance of the center. I know I must do more than pray, but I also share the frustration of many, in that I am not certain what to do. I am not interested in demonizing a particular group, talking or yelling past folks on a topic on which many have strong opinions. So right now, I’m listening, and learning, and speaking about what I am seeing.

I have walked in the immigrant detention centers in McAllen, Port Isabel, and Tornillo near El Paso. I have led worship and preached to teenagers. I have listened and prayed with adults. On August 23, I was able to tour the Ursula center with a group of folks from across the country and some local UM clergy. We saw a rather large warehouse-type facility where chain link fences separated different categories of persons, most of whom were Central American. The facility was cold inside (hot outside), and individuals lay on thin floor mats and covered themselves with silver Mylar emergency blankets. Some were sitting, some were on their mats, and some seemed just kind of there, almost like resting. The children if young enough were with mom or dad, and I looked and smiled and tried to portray a sense of “You are going to be ok,” but I also felt awkward, because I was not sure if that was really the case. Some members of our tour cried, some got angry, others shook their heads, and still others reached through the chain link fence to pray with people being held there.

One image that stood out to me was the location of the restrooms. They were in the middle of the facility and, it seemed to me, out in the open. I saw the heads of men standing as they used the restroom while we passed in front of them. The word dignity comes to mind, and these restrooms communicated a sense of indignity. The Border Patrol agent who was the director of the facility seemed to be a person of integrity. The tension between that integrity and what we were seeing was hard to reconcile.

On August 2, 2018, United Methodist News Service journalists and I rode along with Border Patrol along the McAllen/Mission sector. They are facing real and dangerous challenges, such as cartels, drugs, and human trafficking. I saw the apprehension of two coyotes, young men who bring folks across the border for money and usually have little interest in the well-being of those they bring. I saw a group of four immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala. As we sat on the dirt road, I was allowed to talk with and listen to a mom and her 15 year-old son, who cried as they shared about their 30-plus-day difficult journey through Mexico to Mission. When I began to tell her in Spanish that God had not abandoned her, she quickly and emphatically agreed. Her son remained silent, but as I tried to encourage her, her words somehow became inspirational to me in return.

I saw Border Patrol agents drenched in sweat as they maneuvered through the sugar cane fields, which are thick and disorienting. One agent felt fatigue and had to be pulled from the field to receive medical attention. This is dangerous work. It intertwines asylum seekers (who legitimately are refugees) with human and drug trafficking. I believe I saw ten to twelve folks apprehended that day, all about ten minutes from my home.

This ride-along was one of the most meaningful and impactful experiences I have had in ministry. I am still processing everything I saw, but I came away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the complex and multi-layered aspects of what is happening here. I saw the challenges the Border Patrol faces. I know some of the agents’ names; some are my neighbors and attend our churches. I also, however, know I am called to walk with and advocate for those most vulnerable in our midst.

El Valle District, where I serve, is engaged in a variety of efforts in response to the immigration crisis unfolding along our border. We provide funding and volunteers for La Posada Providencia in San Benito and the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, where some immigrants are released after processing by immigration officials. First United Methodist Church and our Good Neighbor Settlement House are working with Catholic Charities to create a new shelter in Brownsville. We are also developing border immersion trips, offering experiential learning for clergy and other church leaders built upon our relationships with key community members involved in the border crisis. 

I think this is an important moment for the church to provide safe places and spaces to process and engage what is before us — not speaking past each other, but listening and working together. This is an opportunity for us to offer our very best as the church, to offer civility and compassion not name-calling or demonizing of groups. This is a journey, and I am committed to engaging in authentic and meaningful conversations.

Paul writes in Romans 12:9-13, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

comments powered by Disqus