|Commentary: Finding despair and hope in the desert|
United Methodist Bishops Mary Ann Swenson (left) and
Beverly Shamana check out one of 70 water stations placed in the
Arizona desert, where at least 152 undocumented immigrants have died
this year in their efforts to come to the United States. UMNS photos
courtesy of Bishop Minerva Carcaño.
A UMNS Commentary
By Bishop Minerva Carcaño*
Aug. 31, 2007
During the last week of July, we the College of Bishops of the Western
Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church gathered along the border
between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.
Bishop Minerva Carcaño
We traveled to this area to immerse ourselves in the experience of the immigrant journeying into the United States.
What we saw was both disturbing and hopeful.
We walked in the 60-mile area between the southern border of Arizona
and the city of Tucson, a beautiful yet unforgiving desert where,
between Jan. 1 through July 25 of this year, 152 undocumented immigrants
have died in their efforts to come to the United States—16 percent more
than that period in 2005 and a 25 percent increase from 2006.
In spite of about 70 water stations placed in the desert by Humane
Borders, an organization committed to saving lives and reforming U.S.
immigration policy, men, women and children continue to die here.
While there are definitely drug runners and criminals who cross the
border through the desert, the majority who travel this way are the poor
who risk possible death in order to live.
These undocumented immigrants are coming for very basic reasons. They
seek work in order to feed, clothe and house their families and educate
their children. Some come so that they can be reunited with family
members already in the United States.
South of the border
Traveling to Altar, we saw how immigration has impacted communities south of the border.
Only a few years ago, Altar was a small Mexican town of 1,500
inhabitants. Today, its population is closer to 16,000. This growth has
been brought about by the movement of peoples to the border. People
seeking to immigrate gather in Altar to await guides who will transport
them to the border.
Houses of hospitality have gone up in this community to provide
lodging for these immigrants. For about $7 a day, an immigrant can
receive a bed and a bit of food as they wait patiently for their guide.
"Our hearts broke as we realized that fragile, tender babies are also making the arduous trip across the desert."
The local Roman Catholic Church has demonstrated great compassion
toward immigrants who arrive daily in Altar. Located in the heart of the
town’s central plaza, the immigrants literally arrive at the doorsteps
of the church. During the months of January to May, the peak season for
immigration, an estimated 4,000 immigrants arrive in the plaza every
The church has built a house of hospitality for immigrants but does
not charge for its services. It considers serving the immigrants a
fundamental part of the ministry that God calls them to be about.
When we visited this church’s house of hospitality, we were pleased
to see bundles of blankets from the United Methodist Committee on Relief
that we United Methodists have contributed to this ministry
One day we carried blankets through the border crossing at Nogales,
Ariz. The blankets were for humanitarian work being done at the border
to assist undocumented immigrants who have been repatriated to Mexico
after having been detained in the United States. There we saw Mexican
and U.S. volunteers collaborating to bring needed relief to immigrants,
many of whom had spent as many as three to four days in the desert
before being detained by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Two women were treating one young immigrant's badly blistered feet.
He looked exhausted, his skin showed the signs of severe sunburn and
dehydration and he seemed to be in shock. When we asked what he was
going to do, he said that he needed to call home but had no means to do
so. We gathered round him and prayed for him, assuring him that the
volunteers caring for him would help him and confirming what he himself
expressed —that God was with him.
We saw more immigrants at another center that also serves repatriated
immigrants detained in the United States and returned to Mexico. They
were from all over Mexico and Central America and were primarily young
men between the ages of 13 and 22, but we also saw older men, women and
At the food pantry, we saw the typical food supplies of such a
center: beans, rice, cookies and crackers. What surprised us was to see
cases of baby food. When we asked if the center received many babies, we
were told that an average of 30 immigrant babies and toddlers arrive
every day. Our hearts broke as we realized that fragile, tender babies
are also making the arduous trip across the desert.
During our immersion experience, we spent time with our sisters and
brothers from the Methodist Church of Mexico. We joined them in worship
at the Methodist Church of Magdalena, a Mexican town about a two-hour
drive south of the border.
We worshipped together, shared a meal and then entered into
conversation with Bishop Jaime Vasquez of the Methodist Church of Mexico
and his two district superintendents. Our conversation was about how we
can work together.
National borders cannot separate us, for we are together the people
of God whose greatest allegiance is to the reign of God that stands
sovereign above all nation states.
Bishops Minerva Carcaño and Robert Hoshibata visit in Altar, Mexico, with men waiting for the chance to cross the
border into the United States.
We left that table of fellowship and conversation having committed to
work cooperatively and collaboratively in service to God’s people who
live on both sides of the border.
As United Methodists, we committed to persevering in the work of
comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. Our colleagues
from the Methodist Church of Mexico pledged to share pastoral leaders
with us to fill the growing need for leadership in our Hispanic/Latino
Finally, we visited El Mesias United Methodist Church in Nogales,
Ariz., where the people were holding their Vacation Bible School. The
laughter and songs of children and young people filled the air just as
surely as did the aroma of tamales, menudo, rice and tortillas.
We met the oldest living member of the church, a woman in her late
90s, who had come to be part of this historic visit. Never had so many
bishops visited her church, she said to us with obvious joy. We also met
the newest member, who had just arrived. She lives in Mexico while the
oldest member is a native Arizonan.
El Mesias United Methodist Church is an international church with
members from both sides of the border. It has been a faithful church
from the time when there was no border to limit our Methodist work.
Today young people from Mexico lead El Mesias’ praise band. Many of
the children live and study in Mexico, but worship and are being
discipled in Arizona.
This congregation reminded us of the many Hispanic/Latino
congregations in United Methodism all across the United States that are
made up of immigrant children, young people and families. They are
congregations where the spirit of God is experienced through the eyes of
immigration, an experience not unlike that of the Christ Child who was
taken to Egypt to protect his life that he might bless us all.
An active witness
Through this both rich and disturbing life experience, we were moved
by the witness of immigrants, their love of family, their deep religious
faith and their trust in God who journeys with them.
"National borders cannot separate us, for
we are together the people of God whose greatest allegiance is to the
reign of God that stands sovereign above all nation states."
We were inspired by the many volunteers who give of their lives
through ministries of care and compassion to our immigrant brothers and
sisters. Immigrants and volunteers both gave us hope that if we confront
this situation with courage and love, we can bring resolution to a
deadly and dehumanizing situation.
Our experience in the desert led us to write to Gov. Janet Naplitano
of the state of Arizona asking her to open up Arizona state land trusts
so that volunteer organizations can place water stations in the desert
and thus help save lives in the desert.
We asked her to intervene in the deportation of women and children
during the night, a time when they are most susceptible to assault and
abuse. More importantly, we implored her to be a moral voice in the
We left the border convicted of the need to speak a prophetic and
urgent call to The United Methodist Church to live its commitment to
Now more than ever, The United Methodist Church needs to work for
comprehensive immigration reform in the United States that will bring
justice, God’s own justice.
*Carcaño is episcopal leader of the Desert Southwest Annual
(regional) Conference. She wrote this on behalf of the Western
Jurisdiction of the College of Bishops of The United Methodist Church.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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