Christ at the Border

World Mission

People_walking_535x401As I mentioned downstream here on the blog, my family and I spent the weekend in Naco AZ so that we could participate in the yearly Procession to the Border organized there by our diocesan border missioner and the people that he works with in the larger community.

It was, in short, a sobering yet holy experience. It was an important reminder that there’s more to the Church than the controversy that we’re experiencing between the Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion right now.

I was there with people for whom the biggest issue is how to respond to the unfolding tragedy of our southern US border and for whom communiqués of Primate’s meeting are just a distraction. Others have lamented the amount of time and energy we in the Episcopal Church are investing in the current unpleasantness. I’ve not agreed as I think we are struggling with real issues in a situation that need to be addressed. But this weekend was a reminder that there are folks in the Church who are working on doing the really foundational work of christian praxis that those of us living in the realm of press releases and position papers are often in danger of forgetting about.

We drove down from Phoenix on Saturday morning and caught up with folks from the Naco community and from our Cathedral up here who were staffing a free screening clinic for the community on the USA side of the border. There were a total of about 10 folks who came to be screened. Contrast this with the 200+ folks who show up when the clinic is held about 2 miles south on the Mexican side of the border.

We left the clinic at about noon and crossed the border to the Mexican side. There we – we being my family and I and a number of college students from the Flynn Program who were taking part in a public policy seminar on the impact that illegal immigration is having on communities on both sides of the US/Mexican border – visited the Mexican clinic site and then traveled down the dirt roads of Naco (in Mexico) to an orphanage for which the clinic provided health care.

I was reminded while there of my visit to orphanage programs in Swaziland. The terrain and the town looked surprisingly similar to the communities that I visited in the southern part of that country. The orphanage however was in much better shape. Certainly it was nothing like we might see on the US side of the border, but it had clean water, a fully functioning indoor kitchen, bunk beds for the children, electricity in all the rooms and fully equipped play area. Most of this “luxury” was due to the generosity of a Baptist church in Tucson who have adopted this home as one of their primary ministries. I’m told by people from the community that this is often the case in Mexico. Social service programs near the border are much much better off than those further south because American church groups will often get more connected to the ones that they can more easily visit.

We spent the rest of the afternoon driving back and forth along the border on the Mexican side with a group of men who have been tasked with keeping the watering stations in the desert filled with drinking water for the migrants who stop there before they attempt to cross north. The Mexican government treats the whole migrant situation with a sort of laissez-faire attitude. Mexico needs the dollars that the migrant workers send home to their communities, yet most of the migrants are crossing illegally and Mexico is attempting to avoid spoiling her relationship with the government of the USA. The result is that migrants are given water and information that will help them avoid the greatest dangers of the desert as they attempt to cross – but they are not given any other material aid. The folks who take care of that task are called the “Coyotes” – a lawless group of people who work to smuggle people across the border, often robbing and leaving for dead the people they are hired to help.

The day we spent on the border was overcast and happened during the new moon so it promised to be exceptionally dark that night. As we drove in our convoy of four vehicles we saw the “coyotes” positioning migrants along the border where they would cross that night. There were US border-patrol vehicles watching on the US side as well (and we saw a couple of fly-overs, a stationary monitoring blimp and the men with us pointed out the surveillance cameras in the desert) which highlights the cat-and-mouse aspect of the situation down on the border.

I think the most striking image for me from the afternoon was the huge field on the Mexican side which had plastic shopping bags hanging in almost all the scrub bushes. Apparently the migrants stop here to have a meal while waiting for dark and discard what they no longer need. The tens of thousands of plastic bags flapping in the wind within sight of the border wall were a striking visual testimony to the size of the problem.

We travelled from Naco to the city of Agua Prieta or A.P. as it’s called by the locals. We drove to the International headquarters of “Just Coffee” a small economic initiative that attempts to provide a number of families with a fair price for the coffee they grow and good value for the consumers on the US side by connecting the farmers directly with the consumers. (We sell this particular brand of coffee at our Cathedral on Sunday mornings as do a number of other congregations and churches.) The headquarters is on a dirt road in the industrial section of AP. Its three rooms, filled with plastic chairs and a coffee roaster, are about the same size as the townhouse that I live in here in Phoenix. But size not withstanding, this was the only thing I saw on the trip this weekend that gave me hope that there might be a solution to the problem of illegal immigration into the US. The coffee initiatives allow the farmers to make a good living on their own land by selling their product directly to US consumers at a significantly higher price than they get selling to a multi-national distribution company. The success of the coffee brand has already generated enough income to allow the community to reopen it’s schools, purchase water purification equipment for drinking water and purchase a second, larger and more energy efficient coffee roaster. It’s a small start but important as it helps everyone remember that any solution to the situation is going to require cooperation by all the parties involved – and new economic models that provide good livings for people on both sides of the border.

We finished the evening by having dinner in a migrant shelter at a Roman Catholic parish in A.P. While there we met with people who had lost legs being thrown from trains during the journey north through Mexico and heard stories of the economic desperation in their home villages that are the root cause of their decision to try to cross into the US and take their chances with the Border Patrol and the INS. It was a sobering reminder that any discussion of the immigration issues needs to remember that these are real people trying to make a living for their families which they can’t make in their home communities. Clearly there needs to be some sort of immigration reform in the US – though frankly I haven’t spent sufficient time to know or understand enough of the issues involved to be able to say anything more than that… But there are plenty of resources out there discussing the public policy issues involved.

Sunday morning, following breakfast and worship at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bisbee, we met again in the mid-afternoon on the US side of border to begin a procession to the border behind crosses and the Cathedral banner. We walked along the US built wall back to the place where we had stopped the day before while we had been tagging along with the water delivery. After a walk of about a mile or so, we met members of the RC parish on the Mexican side of Naco who were accompanied by their priest, parish musicians and a number of young people from the parish. We read the weekend’s gospel, sang songs, prayed and took part in an agape meal together. The final act was to form the worshipers into a large circle, Americans on our side of the barrier, Mexicans on theirs, joining hands in a continuous chain across and then back again. It was a reminder that God has no borders and that in Christ we are all united into one body.

The biggest result of the trip for me was a much more visceral sense of what is happening down at our border. It’s one thing to hear people in Phoenix discussing the issue of illegal immigration, it’s another thing to see the people involved first hand. There are very few villains in this tragedy other than the Coyotes. The Border Patrol agents are doing a difficult job trying to manage a very complicated situation. In large part they are doing so professionally and responsibly. The Mexicans are being being forced north in an attempt to find the money they need to feed their wives and children back home. They are not coming the US to live “high-on-the-hog” but rather struggle to save every penny possible to send home in an attempt to make sure that their children will have a better life and be able to stay in the community in which they were born.

Is there a solution? I believe so. I just don’t know what it looks like exactly. I do think it’s going to be found in projects like Just Coffee though which seek to change the economic disparity that is so stunningly evident as one steps across the border. If American consumers will use their economic might to buy responsibly produced goods directly from the communities on the southern side of the border, they will slowly change the situation by relaxing the economic tensions that exist. Removing the middle-man in the distribution chain seems to allow the money we earn to have the largest effect when it is spent on the southern side of the line in the desert.

If you want to help now, go buy some coffee and buy a couple more bags to give as gifts. There’s a waiting list of hundreds of families in Salvador Urbina in Chiapas Mexico who are impatiently waiting for the demand for the coffee produced by Just Coffee to increase enough so that they will be allowed to join the cooperative. (The Robusto is might good…)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Thanks Jim – it was. I’m still waiting to hear my daughter’s impressions from the trip. It was the first time she’s ever done anything like this with us. Do check out the pictures linked above in another post.

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