It is freezing cold in the open air shelter, El Comedor, a Jesuit run program on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexican border in Nogales, Sonora. It is a very small space with long tables for the “guests” to sit. A Jesuit novice explains that program. Two hot meals are served at 9AM and 4PM daily to migrants who either have just been deported or are waiting to cross. The “guests” come in, sit down and are served a meal by volunteers – No food lines here. It begins to rain hard outside – gusts of wind blow into the space through cracks in the heavy plastic walls. I move my feet to try to stay warm.
Volunteers from the Samaritans and No More Death groups come daily with cell phones for the migrants to call family members and provide health packets for the guests as well as engage in conversation. I ask our host if any of the Arizona Congressional delegation has visited this project. No, he replies. “Others who come to this place have their hearts broken wide open.” I think How do we help President Obama and others in Congress have their hearts broken open? When a heart breaks open, then something new can happen. How do I/we help others have these heart breaking open experiences?
I am working as a volunteer in service sponsored by the United Church of Christ (national office) and the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ. I am on this one- day visit to the border with a small delegation of international partners, national and local staff persons. The international partners are from Italy – the Protestant Federation of Churches in Italy and a professor from the Italian Waldensian Church, Massimo and Paolo. They recently opened a migrant program, Mediterrean Hope in Sicily and Lampadusca, a small island where migrants crossing the Meditarrean Sea are housed. http://www.globalministries.org/mediterranean_hope_newsletter_february_2015. Rev. Randy Mayer, pastor of Church of the Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Arizona and a long-time immigration activist has organized the trip. Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries from Cleveland, Rev. John Doerhauer of the SW Conference, Tyler Connolley, Immigrant Care Coordinator with the SW Conference of the UCC and myself are the other participants. http://www.ucc.org/immigration_immersion_italian_churches_03022015.
It is illegal to take photos of the wall and border crossing stations from the U.S. side so Randy pulls over the van on the Mexican side at a viewpoint where we look at the brand-new large border station. Randy explains that “it has 26 entry points but only about ten to twelve are open, because ICE does not have sufficient funding for customs agents, as the bulk of ICE dollars goes to the Border Patrol. It is really a shame. 85% of the trucks coming into the USA from Mexico are hauling agricultural products. Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona could be an economic engine for the region but instead Congress and the Border Patrol prioritize National Security over economic development.”
Next Stop: La Roca, a Central American migrant shelter run by a local FourSquare Gospel pastor and his church in Nogales, Arizona. It literally is built on a rock with cave-like separate dorm rooms for women and men. The Mexican government has a migrant relocation program for Mexicans who are deported, but nothing is provided for Central Americas. Thus, La Roca is trying to meet that need. They can house 30 men and 20 women for the night. They open their doors at 7AM and the guests must leave – some go to El Comedor for meals and then return to the shelter after 5PM for the evening until they make arrangements to return to their homes or to try to cross the border again.
The Wall dominates Nogales, Sonora and actually runs right through part of the town. We stop at a small altar in memory of Jose Antonio who was killed two years ago by a border agent who was situated at the top of the wall. The agent was never tried – his explanation was that this young man and others were throwing rocks at the Wall. Seven bullets were found in his back. His was not the only death attributed to the Border Patrol. There is no oversight of the Border Patrol or accountability to anyone or agency in the USA. I see lots of graffiti signs painted on the sign of rocks near the Wall basically cursing out the “migra”. Two signs near he altar state simply – Prohibido olvidar and Justicia para Juan Bosco (another Mexican killed by the Border Patrol). Is your heart broken open yet?
The drizzle turns into rain as we climb one of the hills in this city of 125,000 to HEPAC, Home of Hope and Peace, a border community center with ties to BorderLinks, a study immersion organization based in Tucson. Hepacnogales.weebly.com. Scott Nicholson, a UCC Global Missionary, works there. The presentation is impressive – feeding programs for children, adult education, artist’s cooperative making pendants saying No More Deaths/NoMas Muertes. The director Jeanette Pazos is eloquent and passionate about their work - "We are trying to create an alternative vision of the City of Nogales. We want to be known as the city of hope, of jobs, and of peace, not the border town with drug problems." She has organized vigils at the wall for Jose Antonio. She has also organized with the community zumba dances and peace walks along the wall. We leave feeling that there is hope for this community with a woman such as Jeanette and HEPAC's work in the community.
The Comedor is our last stop before we cross back over the border - five minutes and we are in the United States with McDonald's and DQ and all the signs of prosperity on this side of the border. Five minutes, a U.S. passport and a wall is all that separates us from our friends in Nogales, Sono
My life has been about crossing borders and cultures and building bridges across the boundaries that normally divide. Have you crossed any borders in your life?