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Gospel and Empire: “To Leave Our Land Is To Suffer”

Coordinator of Frontera de Cristo

The US/Mexico borderlands have been a transit point for two large and distinct migrations of displaced persons in the last two decades. Dr. Townes poetically and powerfully captures the challenge to the faith community of bearing witness and “striving for a discipleship of depth and breadth” amid displacement and the ensuing trauma, including along these borderlands. The borderlands provide a lens in which to see the responses of both empire (as embodied in this case by the United States government) and gospel, as embodied by the church when we are faithfully responding to the realities of displacement and trauma.

Displacement of Mexican Campesinos

In 1998 after graduating from CTS, I migrated to Douglas/Agua Prieta on the US/Mexico border to serve with the bi-national ministry Frontera de Cristo. I did not realize before leaving my home that political and economic forces had converted these high-desert towns and the isolated surrounding areas into the primary crossing point for persons entering the United States without authorization.

While I had chosen displacement by following a sense of call and desire to be a part of a dynamic ministry that builds relationships and understanding across borders, the thousands of persons in transit in Agua Prieta had been displaced by economic forces beyond their control and were experiencing trauma I may never understand. Making a living on the land had never been easy but had become impossible for many families during the 1990s.

The displaced men and women were headed north with the hope that journeying to a wealthier country—one that welcomed their unauthorized labor (if they passed the too-often deadly test of crossing through the deserts and mountain) did not welcome them as full human beings—provided more hope for them and their families than malnourishment and possible slow starvation.

Hanging A “No Room at The Inn” Sign on the Statue of Liberty

The response of the most powerful nation on earth to this mass displacement of Mexican farmers was impressive for its enormous fiscal investment seeking to “secure” our southern border to protect our nation from “the tired, poor and the huddled masses that were yearning to breathe free.” There were no legal avenues for these poor displaced farmers to travel as they arrived at the hotels, construction sites, meat packing plants, landscaping firms, orange groves and golf courses that were hungry for their labor. And so hundreds of thousands crossed without authorization, seeking to avoid Border Patrol capture.

At the same time as there was a tremendous economic push from the south and pull from the north of the border, our nation began an unprecedented effort to “secure our border.”

The Clinton Administration devised a new border strategy of “prevention through deterrence” that sought to seal off the traditional crossings of undocumented persons in populated areas. We, as a nation, chose to use mountains and deserts as lethal deterrents to migration.

Over the last 25 years we have increased by tenfold the budget for our Border Patrol from $400 million in 1994 to $4.686 billion in 2019.1 We have increased the number of Border Patrol Agents almost five-fold from 4,297 in 1994 to 19,565 in 2018 (peaking at 21,444 in 2011).2 We have built almost 800 miles of steel barriers. During this period, the number of persons living without authorization in the United States has almost tripled from 4 million in 1994 to 11.5 million now.3 Our policy has not been much of a deterrent, but it has been lethal.

The Lethal Consequences of Empire’s Response

Worn out and left without hope of finding his cousins alive, Jesus broke down in the sanctuary of the Lirio de los Valles Church in Agua Prieta and, with tears streaming down his face, he hugged me and cried out, “Hermano, if you could only return the bodies of our cousins we would be happy.” No longer able to keep their children in school and busy cultivating corn, Jesus’ cousins had crossed the border in a remote area east of Agua Prieta/Douglas headed for construction jobs in Atlanta. The family had not heard from them for weeks and sent Jesus to look for them.

Since the inception of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, more than three times more people have died in the deserts of the southwest while seeking to reach the “American Dream” than the number of persons who died in the attacks of 9/11. More people have died crossing the US/Mexico border trying to provide a livelihood for their families than the combined number of US soldiers who have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Since 1994, over 7,000 bodies have been found. That doesn’t include the deaths of persons whose bodies have never been found. To our knowledge, the bodies of Jesus’s cousins were never found.

Family Separation and a Place of Welcome

The Migrant Resource Center4 is the first non-governmental building that you arrive at when you enter Agua Prieta by foot. In June, we celebrated its 16th Anniversary of providing a safe place for men, women and children who have been returned to Mexico by our Border Patrol. In that time, we have welcomed over 90,000 men, women and children. The volunteers can testify about the physical and emotional trauma of displaced persons who are confronted with empire’s violent rejection.

I met Guillermina in the Migrant Resource Center.

“Hey Marcos, she’s from South Carolina!”

Adrian Gonzalez, one of the volunteers, pulled on my shoulder and announced excitedly the news that another one of my paisanos was less than seven feet away from me. We were both in the Migrant Resource Center, yet we were miles apart in the reasons for finding ourselves in the center.

I turned and saw a woman not much younger than me standing in dark clothes and a baseball cap shading a hint of deep sadness in her face. Sixty percent of the skin on her hands had been scraped off as she slid down the posts of our 20-foot border barrier.

“Buenos dias! Me llamo Marcos, como se llama Ud?”, I asked, assuming that this fellow Sandlapper’s first language was Spanish.

“My name is Guillermina,” she responded in perfect English. Guillermina had moved to South Carolina about the time I moved to Agua Prieta. She had been living in Myrtle Beach for 10 years, working in hotels and restaurants. The irony of her working in the hospitality industry is a painful reality. She loves living in South Carolina despite not always feeling welcome. Up until recently, she had been living with Jose, her husband, and Kevin, her six-year-old son.

She had not seen her dad in more than sixteen years and had crossed back to Mexico because her dad had had a heart attack. Tears welled up in her eyes and in the eyes of most of us gathered in that humbled building.

With her voice trembling, she said, “When I left, he said, ‘Hija this will probably be the last time we see each other. Be a good mother to my grandson. I love you.’ My world is torn in two—my dad is on this side of the border and my son and husband are over on the other side.”

Pastor Brandi Casto Waters of First PC Greer, SC, who was visiting us that day led us all in prayer with and for Guillermina and we joined together in the hope for the day when the border would be a place of encounter and peace and not a place of division and conflict.

As I left, I let Guillermina know that I and the ministry with whom I serve are committed to continue the hard work of changing laws that tear worlds apart. I asked her if she would like me to share her story; she replied, “please ask them to pray for us.”

Empire’s response to displacement has been to augment the trauma of families—increasing vulnerability, suffering, separation and death.

A Prayer Vigil

Araceli Estrada y Nino

A daughter

A sister

A spouse

A mother

Created in the Divine Image


The “Healing Our Borders” prayer vigil is held every Tuesday at 5:15 pm by persons of faith and conscience. It is an act of lament and a call to repentance. We remember the 313 persons by name who are known to have died in Cochise County while crossing. Persons who have not been identified have crosses with “No identificado” on them. We pray for their families, we pray for an end to deaths

in the desert, we pray for our government and the government of Mexico and we recommit ourselves to work for healthier relationships among our peoples and countries.

One Tuesday, a woman came to us holding one of the crosses that we had laid down. “Araceli was my cousin.” She went on to tell us that she was pregnant and was heading north to be reunited with her husband. “We did not think anybody cared. Muchas gracias!”

Displacement of Families from the Northern Triangle Countries

Beginning in 2008, the economic migration of displaced persons from Mexico had slowed and by 2018 had largely subsided, with Border Patrol apprehensions falling to levels not seen in four decades. In the fall of 2018, the news media picked up the story of a mass exodus of thousands of people—families from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras–who had joined together for safety and were journeying north to seek asylum in the United States.

Unlike the economic migration of Mexican campesinos in the 1990s and 2000s, this migration of displaced persons was one of entire families who were not just fleeing extreme poverty but also extreme violence. Also unlike the previous migration, the great majority of these families are seeking to go through legal processes by presenting themselves at ports of entry and applying for asylum.

Instead of providing resources to process these legal petitions, our government sent the military to put up concertina wire along large stretches of the border where the persons had no intention of crossing. In October 2018, we sent 5,200 active military to join the almost 20,000 Border Patrol agents and the National Guard that had been deployed in April to respond to approximately 6,000 persons who were coming to seek legal asylum at ports of entry. In addition, the legal processing has been slowed down by “capacity issues.”

These delays have led to weeks-to-months-long backlogs, which, in turn, have led some (according to government reports and confirmed by reality) to enter the US without proper documentation and then ask for asylum. Recently, the Border Patrol has reported sharp increase in the number of apprehensions, with numbers approaching ten-year highs. The difference is that over sixty percent of the apprehensions are of people who are not trying to avoid the border patrol but rather turn themselves in, asking for asylum.

A Place of Refuge and Acceptance5

“Mataron a mi papá y mis tíos, y no quiero que me matan a mí.” (“They killed my father and my uncles, and I don’t want them to kill me.”)

Joel, a young man from Honduras, shared these words with me during the fellowship time after our annual Posada Sin Fronteras. Joel, an evangelical Christian with fear and hope in his eyes, had found refuge at the CAME (Exodus Migrant Attention Center), one of our partners run by the Sagrada Familia Catholic Church. CAME is a shelter that provides a welcoming and safe place for men, women and children who are far from home. Volunteers provide more than meals and a comfortable place to sleep; they provide love and compassion.

He had come to join people from south and north, from east and west, to remember the Scandal of Christmas, the danger and risk God took in becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Each December, we gather on both sides of the US/Mexico border for a liturgical procession, re-enacting Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem through reading Scripture, singing, praying, and displaying symbols. We remember Mary and Joseph seeking room in the inn and fleeing with Jesus to Egypt as refugees. We remember that even in the face of rejection and violence, they were building bridges of peace between God and humanity.

“Me dijeron que mi hija tenía que ir con ellos para ser su ‘esposa.’” (“They told me my daughter had to go with them to be their ‘wife.’”)

At our annual Christmas day potluck at the Migrant Resource Center, Yoribeth, the young Honduran mother of thirteen-year-old Alison, told us of her fear that her daughter was going to be kidnapped and gang raped over and over again until she either died or lost her soul. She, too, had found refuge with our partners at the CAME.

Despite the fear that we have heard in the news media and from our government officials, we have been encouraged by the concern and love shown by so many people of faith and of conscience. While our government has sent the military to greet Joel, Yoribeth, Alison, and the thousands of other men, women and children fleeing violence and extreme poverty with razor wire and rejection, our bi-national faith community has joined with countless other communities of faith and conscience throughout Mexico and the US to provide welcome, acceptance and inclusion.

Opportunity, Encounter and Hope

The border has been a place of rejection and welcome for displaced persons. Viewed through the lenses of empire, borders are places to fear and to secure. Through gospel lenses, though, borders are places of opportunity and hope; not just places to welcome strangers, but rather places to discover our neighbors and encounter our siblings. The church of the US/Mexico borderlands has been in a unique position to witness to the growing division, fear, and death occurring on our shared border not to mention in the interiors of our nations). It is in this context of tension and suffering that people of faith are called to be present to the reality of displacement and the trauma that accompanies it and to bear witness and seek to live into the good news of Jesus.


1 Source American Immigration Council, https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/the-cost-of-immigration-enforcement-and-border-security

2 Source United States Border Patrol, https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2019-Mar/Staffing%20FY1992-FY2018.pdf

3 Source ProCon, https://immigration.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=000844

4 The roots of the Migrant Resource Center come from the work of a displaced woman who had found refuge in the Lirio de los Valles Church and organized people to go down to the border on cold nights to provide welcome to persons being returned to Mexico by the US Border Patrol.

5 Adapted from PCUSA Mission Connections Letter “Welcome and Rejection” by Mark Adams and Miriam Maldonado, March 2019.