Response: December 2016 Issue

Building Community on the Border

United Methodist Women members journey to the U.S.-Mexico border to learn from migrants and those working to welcome.

Building Community on the Border

In all your ways acknowledge God and God will make paths straight.
— Proverbs 3:6 (NIV)

As I helped set a table for 72 at the refugee and immigration respite center at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas, placing a napkin-wrapped spoon at each place, I thought about the times I have routinely set tables for my family and church members. This was my first time to serve those who had survived crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. As instructed, our team stood in a line to welcome refugees as they entered. We clapped, and they tentatively smiled. The brave young mothers carrying their babies and navigating their toddlers into yet another strange place brought tears to my eyes.

These were the faces of very real people casually labeled as “issues” and “illegals” by many in the United States. One woman’s husband had been killed by gangs just two days before; she fled for her life with her infant son. The welcoming team with whom we worked told us to give newly arrived refugees time and space to settle — conversation could come later. After some soup (provided by the Salvation Army), a shower and clean clothes, families began to feel more comfortable in their new location.

I am because you are

Seven women traveled on this United Methodist Women Ubuntu Journey to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, lead by Becky Harrell, a mission advocate for the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. Our journey to Texas was much different than the path taken by the refugees with whom we served. United Methodist Women has sponsored 26 Ubuntu trips since 2006. This trip explored two countries: our own and Mexico. We came to explore the meaning of the Zulu word ubuntu: I am because you are.

The El Valle District United Methodist Women in the Rio Texas Conference initiated a memorable evening of “girl talk” community building. Each sister from Texas proclaimed, “I love United Methodist Women!” Many shared how they followed the same path as their grandmothers and mothers to Bible study, fellowship and service and advocacy opportunities through United Methodist Women. We shared the common goal of working to nurture younger women into participation in United Methodist Women so that they, too, can benefit in the ways we’ve benefitted and can continue the important work of United Methodist Women for women, children and youth.

Member Joann Smith called the Rio Grande River a crooked path dividing both countries and opinions. It was hard to imagine walls there, especially when we learned that our government spends two million dollars a mile to build them. As a result, park land has been destroyed, farmland divided and personal property dissected. Some families that live on the border show their dislike for this by posting protest signs that read, “No border wall.”

We met and spoke with Border Patrol officers as they docked their boat at Granjeno/Anzaldua Park. Mexico was beyond the river’s bend where our team formed a prayer circle on the dock. Kathy Knutsen led us in prayer for a better understanding of those who need to cross the border not only from Mexico but all points south and around the world.

Communities on both sides of the border are called colonias. Susan Hellums, border area mission coordinator for the Methodist Border Friendship Commission, described Texas colonias as neighborhoods of families with low incomes. When we visited a Texas border community, the members of La Mesa Mission Church welcomed us with singing and testimonies by faithful women. We sang “How Great Thou Art” simultaneously in English and Spanish. Following our meal of tostados, we experienced firsthand the living conditions of the locals. As we left at dusk, it was obvious that homes did not have electricity. They also did not have plumbing.

No one checked our passports as we crossed into Rio Bravo, Mexico. Maria Elena de Fuentes, wife of the bishop of the Eastern Conference of the Mexican Methodist Church, and others greeted us at Mission Manos Juntas Mexico. With translators in small groups, we talked about our families and church projects. Local women make and sell tamales to raise money for their churches. Iva Wenzel from North Dakota, which she described as “the other border,” passed out bookmarks. We also presented prayer shawls and left directions in Spanish for starting this ministry. Ms. Fuentes and our United Methodist Women representative, Alicia Pitterson, were our prayer warriors.

Manos Juntas offers a clinic, and the Methodist school Vamos Tamaulipas serves as an outreach to the families who live along the railroad tracks. Administrator Veronica Berman explained that the uniformed children were practicing for their national Mother’s Day program. We met these mothers, and they talked about the Zika virus, U.S. presidential candidates and job opportunities. Many of the women were second and third generation residents of this colonia and they were proud of it.

We also saw community building at the Project 92 Community Center. Director Yadira Ramirez meets with locals to listen to their needs. Classes are offered in English and for general educational development (GED) diploma, sewing, hair and nail technicians.

Ubuntu Journeys

Deb Vest blogged about our journey at Ubuntu Journeys are designed to develop cross-cultural relationships and partnerships of mutuality. And we cannot overlook the team members’ experiences with one another. When we acknowledge God, God leads us straight to the connections that enhance our relationships and our work in making the world better for women, children and youth. We hope to channel this energy into our own churches.

Will you journey with one of the 2017 Ubuntu teams to Colombia, Mozambique or Portugal? Because we have been on an Ubuntu Journey, we want you to experience one.

Kevin Schaner is United Methodist Volunteer in Mission and United Methodist Women member at Church of the Saviour United Methodist in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Posted or updated: 11/30/2016 11:00:00 PM