Wednesday Jan. 22 was a travel day for me, kicking off the last five months of this amazing experience serving as Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly. It’s been a whirlwind and I’ve loved just about every minute of it. This trip tooks me to four different places, including three Presbyteries, one national conference, and an international Synod visit, across exactly two weeks, and also including four very different climates. Packing was a challenge! First is the Presbyteries of Grand Canyon and de Cristo, who also have a shared Presbytery leader. They essentially cover Arizona, with a little bit of Utah thrown in. Their annual joint meeting is for two days every January, and I’m joining them as preacher and keynote speaker.
I came in a day early, though, so I could join their Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) and take a trip to visit the border ministries at Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Mexico, an intense and eye-opening experience. Thursday was a full day in many ways, full of meeting amazing people, full of hearing difficult stories, full of travel, full of conversation, and full of listening, and speaking a little bit, in Spanish. In setting up the meeting with de Cristo and Grand Canyon Presbyteries, one option was for me to arrive a day early and take a trip to the border, to interact with the ministry in Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Mexico, and to see first hand what is happening with people seeking asylum at the border. I was glad for the opportunity, and so the trip was planned.
It began with an 8 am pick-up in the Tucson Borderlands Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) van, where I met this year’s YAVs and three members of the Presbytery. It was a fun group to travel with, which was a good thing because we spent many hours in that van today! Our first stop was The Inn, a ministry started by a United Methodist Church in Tucson and one of the YAV sites.
The Inn started as an overflow space several years ago when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reached out to the church with a need to house families in transition. Now The Inn operates as a one or two night stop between being processed at the border and traveling to stay with family or friends in another part of the country. Volunteers help orient the new arrivals, make sure they have everything they need for the bus or plane, and pack a travel bag with food and items for children.
From The Inn, we hit the road, traveling south for a little over two hours to Douglas, Arizona. There, we met Mark Adams, the Mission Co-Worker anchoring the US side of Frontera de Cristo, a ministry that is intentionally equally partnered on the Mexico side of the border. This ministry has been in place for decades, working on advocacy, on issues of rights of migrants, on humanitarian needs, and on anything that arises because of policies impacting people at the border. With Mark, we traveled to the border wall, which has also been in place for decades, to meet with partners for a Bible study. As we gathered there, half on one side and half on the other, a Border Control truck parked just a few feet away monitoring our activity, we introduced ourselves and reflected on Ephesians 2:11-22, the passage that declares that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us. Jesus indeed has accomplished that work, but we build the wall back up as fast as we can, literally and metaphorically. And the literal wall, twined with concertina wire, was there as a witness to that fact.
Next we crossed the border, the work of a few seconds, and went to El Centro de Recursos para Migrantes, the Center for Resources for Migrants, to share lunch with a family who are next in line to be processed at the border. The particular family we ate with had traveled from Oaxaca, Mexico, and consisted of an uncle, aunt, and four nephews ranging in age from seventeen to about six. The parents are already in California, and so this part of the family is taking the journey to join them. The aunt and uncle didn’t speak Spanish because the family is from an indigenous people called the Ñuu Savi who speak Mixtec. The oldest nephew acted as translator.
After lunch, I joined the accompaniers to walk the family back to the “tent,” an area covered by heavy tarps right by the pedestrian access point at the border. Those who are next in line stay there so when they are called, one day, two days, seven days after they move to the top of the list, they are present and ready. Anti-migrant sentiment has been high, so these additional measures have been taken to provide safety to those who have already fled violence and persecution. Next we traveled to Café Justo to meet with members of the board of Frontera de Cristo and learn more about their efforts both to make migration more humane and to lessen the need for it in Mexico. Over coffee and coricos, which tasted like shortbread to me, we heard stories of success and heartbreak and plans for the future.
Our last stop was at CAME, el Centro de Atención al Migrante “Exodus,” a ministry started by the Roman Catholic church to originally work with migrant men waiting to cross the border. Now CAME is also working exclusively with families, some of who will stay at this center for months waiting for the opportunity to enter the United States and leave behind the danger they have fled. We shared dinner with the families staying there, and then began the long trip back to Tucson.
It was indeed a full day, and I’m just sharing the very basic details. What I saw, and what I will remember more than the numbers, statistics, and facts, are people who know what it is to love God with all of who they are and to truly love their neighbors as themselves. I saw volunteers who give sacrificially so that others may have the chance of abundant life. I saw families willing to risk everything, and leave everything familiar, in the hopes that their children will have a future without violence and persecution. I saw the effects of policies and procedures, on both sides of the border, that refuse to consider the actual humanity and value of the people caught in those policies and procedures. And I saw the best of the ecumenical church, united across theological differences and practical differences, clear that providing shelter, sustenance, and hospitality to “the least of these” is the highest good.
After Thursday’s whirlwind, I was grateful for a slower start to Friday. I had until 11:30 to enjoy the morning, so did a little work, ate breakfast, and then went for a walk/jog along the river walk just outside the hotel. One of the gifts of that, besides being outside and seeing the desert landscape, was a bright red, little bird that perched long enough for me to get a closer look. I think it was a tanager, but whatever it was, it was beautiful!
Josefina, incoming moderator for de Cristo Presbytery, picked me up and we headed to Casa Grande where the annual joint meeting of the two Presbyteries was being hosted by First Presbyterian. We grabbed a quick lunch and got to the church just ahead of the 2:00 pm call to order. For this first day of the meeting, I gave an hour presentation on the Hands & Feet Initiative, the Matthew 25 Invitation, and the work of Vision 2020, followed by a time of Q&A. After a lovely dinner in a beautifully decorated space (decorated just for this meeting!), I then preached on the parable of the judgment of the nations from Matthew 25 and had the honor of commissioning the new moderators for each Presbytery and General Assembly commissioners. How fun! I also was invited to co-preside at the table for communion with the host pastor.
I always enjoy sharing some of the amazing things our larger church is doing, and encouraging the Presbyteries and congregations that it is possible for us to make a difference. As I’ve said in more than one place, just imagine if 1.4 million Presbyterians took the lesson in Matthew 25 to heart and committed to loving our neighbors in tangible ways every day. We would change our communities. We would change our country. We would change our world. And I believe that is what God is calling us to do, here and now.
Sunday morning, I had some time to do my workout in the hotel gym before being picked up at 9:30 to travel to St. Mark’s Presbyterian, where Bart Smith is the pastor. The church has a fascinating history, that has largely revolved around loving neighbors through different lenses of social justice, depending on the current need. The founding pastor marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, which caused the congregation to split, but firmly cemented the identity of a church wanting to be present to those pushed to the margins.
A year or two before Bart was called, the church received a letter from someone in their neighborhood accusing them of being unfriendly. Many sessions would have shrugged such a thing off, or found a way to explain it away. St. Mark’s took it as an invitation to think about better and deeper ways to connect with their neighbors. They launched a series of weekly meals for three months, and then met with those who were coming to ask what would be most helpful. The feedback was that offering a meal on the fourth Wednesday, when many households’ finances are wearing thin and food pantries might be empty, would be a true gift. Those fourth Wednesday suppers have been going on since then.
When a need for a pop-up shelter to house people who had cleared the border but were waiting for transportation to their destination within the US became known, St. Mark’s threw their doors open. Fondly calling the ministry Hotel San Marcos, they organized to be able to receive families in transit. Now that the policies around immigration have shifted again, and the entry of people into the US to wait for their asylum hearings has been greatly reduced, the congregation is beginning to ask what the next invitation to love their neighbor might be.
What a joy to preach a word of encouragement and gratitude to the faithful saints gathered on Sunday morning, and then to share tacos and horchata on the patio after worship. It was a joy filled experience for me. Thank you, St. Mark’s, for your hospitality and for your amazing heart for mission and ministry. Thank you for shining a light in the darkness and continuing to ask about loving your neighbor in deep, tangible ways. Thank you for your witness to the love and justice of Jesus Christ.