Migration has been a part of my entire life and ministry. Perhaps it is because my father was an immigrant from Mexico who first came to the U.S. under the Bracero program in the 1940s.
In the absence of men to work in the agricultural fields of South Texas because of so many men from the region serving in World War II, the U.S. established a program that allowed men from Mexico to come to the U.S. to pick up the work left behind by men at war. Bracero is derived from the Spanish word brazos, which means arms. My father was a pair of arms for the fields.
When U.S. men began to return from the war, the Braceros like my father were summarily dismissed with no recognition that they had helped to save the economy of not only my home state but that of the country. They had been paid for their work, but just enough to feed their families while they were gone.
My father would later become a despised Wetback, called this because he had crossed the Rio Grande River from Mexico back into the U.S. looking for more work and thus had gotten his back wet; a derisive and hate-filled description of my beloved father and those like him who would do anything to care for their families.
It was through my illiterate father that I learned the history of two nation states living side by side like two brothers, one wealthy and one poor, one stealing from the other with the other responding to its inflicted poverty by becoming corrupt.
A popular saying in my father’s homeland of Mexico is, “So close to the U.S. and so far from God.” It is a lament of brokenness and the need for God. I cannot help but believe that God created us to abide together as stewards of God’s creation and of each other, not divided by man-made borders but rather bound together by the gentle cords of God’s own love.
Early on in my ministry, I was asked if I would take in a young woman who was escaping violent civil wars in her country. What I was not told until I met her was that she was coming with her 18-month-old baby. I welcomed them into my home. They became part of my family, and they transformed my life. Through them I came to know other dimensions of the suffering of migrants.
The young woman was a Christian who worked in an internal migration camp for people displaced by civil war. Because of her work, her life had been threatened and she had been forced to flee to save her life and that of her child.
I remember all her stories, but the one I remember most is the one of her crossing the same river my father had crossed many years before. She had crossed that river that had seen so many other migrants before her with her 18-month-old baby in her arms, the river waters reaching all the way to their necks, her heart beating fast, as she prayed fervently that her child would not cry so that they would not be detained and prevented from finding safety.
I heard her stories until they haunted my dreams and I was convicted of the need to be engaged in the work of standing with migrants, for them and for the sake of my own soul.
I once rather rhetorically asked a small gathering of migrant women whether they knew the Good Shepherd. I had just read the 23rd Psalm to them and the question was intended to be my launching pad for teaching these women what I assumed they did not know. But before I could delve into the Bible study I had prepared, one of the women responded with confidence and joy, “I know the Good Shepherd for He is my salvation.”
She proceeded to share with all of us how one day on her migration journey she had found herself all alone in a desert that seemed to have no end and no escape. She had run out of food and water and began to prepare to die. On the fourth day of her ordeal, she fainted on the desert floor. She did not know how long she had laid there unconscious. She remembered a nudge and thought it was surely a desert animal about to make her his dinner, but she opened her eyes and saw no threatening animal around. What she did see was something shining in the desert.
It took all her strength to crawl over to the shining object in the sand. As she began to push away that hot sand, lo and behold, she uncovered a glass container full of water. On her elbows, she opened it expecting that it would be foul and putrid. She paused as if she had returned to that very moment. We could all feel it. And then she broke out into a radiant smile, saying to us, “Sisters, it was cool delicious water from the very hand of my Good Shepherd, our mighty God who never abandons us.”
I was humbled by the experience and my faith was strengthened. I truly believe that as we walk with migrant sisters and brothers, our faith will be strengthened as we see God at work in their lives. God is walking with migrants and they come to us to share the good news that God is with us, actively present in our human suffering!
The story of a migrant child moves me the most. While I did not meet this child, I have met hundreds of children like him, and sometimes I have met their grieving mothers and fathers. This migrant child was 11 years old. One day, his mother sent him on the migrant journey to escape poverty, violence and the very real possibility of premature death.
I wonder whether as she sent her little boy down the road not knowing whether she would ever see him again, she felt what Moses’ mother must have felt when, under similar circumstances, she placed her own child in a basket and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile in the hope that someone would extend compassionate care to him.
This little boy traveled alone, starting on a bus packed with humanity, then walking across countries, and then joining the thousands who out of despair have embarked on a train so deadly it is called “The Beast.” Migrants travel not in this train but on top of it, holding on for dear life, many of them falling and losing limbs and life. But that little boy faced each horrendous struggle on his journey and conquered it, even “The Beast.”
One day, he got to the banks of a great river, but somehow got across that river winding up on the land of a family he did not know and who did not know him. From that moment on, however, he and that family would be eternally bound together. On the land of that unknown family, that child fell and died.
That innocent migrant child died of hunger, dehydration and exposure. I wonder if he also died of a broken heart having experienced the callous cruelty of our world. The family upon whose land he died did not know what to do with him, but assuming he was one of the thousands of unaccompanied children who are migrating in the world, they called border authorities. It is reported that when the border authorities came and saw the fragile, broken, dead body of that little boy, they fell on their knees by his side and wept. Eventually, someone called a local funeral home to come and retrieve the child’s body.
At the funeral home, someone began to examine that child’s body, carefully removing his clothes. When the examiner got to the boy’s belt and began to remove it, he discovered something of great significance. On the back side of the small belt buckle was a note that had been taped on. The note stated who the child belonged to and where he was going.
A note was not needed to know that this child belonged to God and was going to that safe place where God’s future for him waited. I worry that we people of faith have forgotten whose we are and where we are going. We are God’s people called to journey toward the land of God’s mercy, grace, justice and peace.
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