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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


Bishop Minerva Carcaño

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.

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 day.

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 children.

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.

Persevering together

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 churches.

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 immigration discussion.

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 justice.

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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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