The Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly was recently held in El Paso, Texas. Pastor Sara Wirth and Deacon Linda Bobbitt both attended, learning about and seeing first hand the challenges of migration issues at our southern border. Deacon Linda has shared her thoughts and observations in this reflection -
Reflection on Synod Assembly – By Deacon Linda Bobbitt 05-28-23 Last week I had the privilege of attending the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly in El Paso and then staying for 3 more days as part of the First Call Rostered Leaders training. During that time, I had a chance to visit two emergency shelters for migrants in El Paso, TX and two in Juarez, Mexico. There I got to meet several migrants and hear some of their stories. I was also able to learn from different legal experts about the nature of the crisis going on right now at our southern border. It is hard to sum up a week’s worth of experience in a newsletter article or a sermon, but below are some key points I learned. Throughout history humans have always migrated for a variety of reasons: to find safety in the wake of ethnic, political, or criminal violence, to find food in times of famine, to find work in times of economic collapse, etc. Most of our families came to America for the same reasons. My own mother’s family came to America with the initial Mayflower trips seeking new economic opportunities and religious freedom while father’s family immigrated years later in the wake of the potato famine in Ireland. Current migrants from Venezuela, Cuba and Afghanistan are no different. They flee war zones, famine, corrupt governments, and economic conditions making it impossible to earn a living. We heard stories of people standing in line all day to receive a single bag of cornmeal for tortillas only to watch the supply run out half-way through the line. Several people talked of being targeted by the government because they or a family member spoke out about corruption and violence. For these people, staying in their country was a death sentence, not only for them but often for their family too. When they chose to flee the country, they inevitably left people behind – older parents, spouses and/or children. This was a heart wrenching decision for everyone. Folks stayed in touch with families throughout their journey with their cell phones. Cell phones are also the only way asylum seekers can begin the process to enter the USA (using the app the US government announced). The two most difficult and dangerous parts of the journey included jungles and encounters with cartels in Mexico. In the jungle many people died and were left on the sides of the road. The stories I heard reminded me of hikers climbing Mt. Everest and seeing the bodies of climbers as they travel. Parents talked of shielding their children’s eyes so they wouldn’t see the rotting corpses. They also spoke of the dangers of the animals in the jungle – from snakes and spiders to larger predators. Sleeping in shifts and walking in fear was exhausting and terrifying, especially for people traveling with children. Some women who fled while pregnant had to give birth in the jungle and then keep moving to stay safe. But not everyone had to traverse the jungle. Many people paid for air, train, or bus trips to get as close as possible. One person we met shared her story of sitting on a commercial bus traveling through when they were pulled over and boarded by cartel personnel who were there to rob them. They demanded to be paid for passage and went through the bus collecting money, phones, jewelry, and anything else of value as “protection” money. Those who couldn’t pay were removed from the bus and stranded by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The person I we talked with had the money, but this extortion took the bulk of what they had saved to make the journey. With their life’s savings often gone, along with all their official papers and sometimes their phones many were stranded in a foreign country alone with no way to call for help. Obviously, the people we talked with were incredibly resilient. They had found ways to continue the journey. Often, they picked up odd jobs along the way earning enough to afford a new phone to contact family and have more money wired and sometimes new papers. Finally, they made it to the border and were ready to plea their case. And then the real trial begins. We spoke with multiple immigration attorneys who explained the process to us in depth. The very short version our immigration laws have changed over the years. Most recently restrictions have been put in place because of COVID lifted, but this does not actually make immigration easier. We reverted to an old broken system that provides preferential treatment to people from some countries and to those who already have immediate family who are citizens in the USA. For everyone else, particularly for people coming from Central and South America, there is a multi-stage process that requires lawyers to comprehend and years to adjudicate. For many people, they may be in legal limbo for most of the rest of their lives. While they wait for their day in court, they may be able to live in the USA, especially if they have an immediate family member with whom they can live, but often with limited opportunities to make a living. We toured two shelters in Juarez, Mexico and two in El Paso, Texas. Each was in a building converted for this purpose. Bunk beds were stacked into offices or Sunday school rooms. People congregated in fellowship halls or gymnasiums. At one church about 60 mattresses were laid on the floor side by side in the gymnasium. Round tables were set up on the other side. Outside those who could not fit in the shelter slept under tarps on the side of the street. Our group brought food for lunch that day. The photo below shows some of the volunteers getting ready to serve the many families present. When the line formed there were over 30 young children. It was fun to hand out bags of toys that had been donated along with hygiene items and other supplies gathered from congregations around the synod.
In addition to providing food and toys, we also spent time listening to people’s stories (through interpreters) and sharing prayers. In one shelter, people were invited to request prayers. I joined other pastors in offering prayers for several people including one young man traveling alone, missing his family and afraid of what he would face when his appointment time with the US officials came. The women holding children in the photo above (taken with permission) worried about the impact their journey and extended time spent living in a crowded shelter would have on their children’s development. Making the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead I also wondered about the life in front of her. Would she be safe? Would she find a home, go to school, and live the life her mother had risked so much to provide? I prayed with all my heart that God would bless them, keep them safe, strengthen, and guide them. I ask you to join my prayers for these people and all immigrants. Please take a moment to do so now… When we asked what else could be done, the lawyers and advocates were quick to point out that it doesn’t have to be this way. Immigration laws in this country are made by politicians whom we elect. We were encouraged to contact our congress people and ask them to take action to address this humanitarian crisis. They also encouraged us to vote for politicians interested in addressing the issue rather than those who stoke fear and resentment of immigrants. Yet this issue goes beyond immigration. Speakers challenged us to look more closely at the issues forcing people to leave their homes. The drug trade thrives because people (especially people in the USA) purchase drugs. Not only does the drug trade ruin the lives of those who are addicted, it also allows criminal organizations to thrive while corrupting police forces and creating economic instability in communities – forcing people to migrate. Climate change is another major reason for migration. When crops fail, economies fail along with fragile governments. All of these are the deeper issues that drive people from their homes. By the end of the assembly, many of us felt overwhelmed. Yet we were reminded that we do have a voice and that there are ways that we can help. Each speaker challenged us to bring back these stories to our communities and find ways to take action. This is not work any congregation can do alone. We were encouraged to join forces with other congregations to raise our voices. We were also called upon to assist new immigrants in our own communities. We were reminded by Bishop Jim Gonia that Lutherans are an immigrant people – many coming to this country after World Wars one and two. Lutheran Refugee and Immigration Services (LIRS.org) actively supports migrants navigate the system and Lutheran Family Services currently helps families settle in different parts of the country. These organizations can help us understand what is happening in our own communities so we can determine our best response. I hope these stories coupled with the stories from others in our congregation will inspire you to learn more and seek ways that our congregation might play a part in finding addressing this crisis for the sake of our neighbors near and far.
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