Invisible People, Imaginary Lines

Children attend the Borderland Ministries Eucharist in the Rio Grande River. | Stewart Warren

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, people accustomed to being largely invisible are trying extra hard to be unnoticed these days. In a time of stepped-up border patrols, Hispanics reportedly dare not travel even 45 minutes to the nearest shopping area. Checkpoints to the north are seen as too risky.

“A number of the Hispanic families get really nervous, even the ones that are here legally,” said the Rev. Michael Wallens, vicar of St. Paul’s Church in Marfa, Texas. “It’s hard for them to be comfortable, so they’d rather stay south of the border checkpoints.”

This world of people trying to lay low along the border has become a mission field for Rio Grande Borderland Ministries, a five-year-old outreach of the Diocese of the Rio Grande. To keep pace with growing needs for everything from household goods to pastoral care, the ministry has recently expanded from one site in Columbus, New Mexico, to include two more based at St. Christopher’s Church in El Paso and St. Paul’s in Marfa.

But a challenging irony surrounds this Borderland work. An array of unjust and immoral conditions along the diocese’s 800-mile border with Mexico cry out for attention and action, said the Rev. Paul Moore, chair of Borderland Ministries’ board and rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Silver City, New Mexico. Yet raising awareness of a largely hidden people and their plights is no easy task.

Moore cites an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention facility that was located in Artesia, New Mexico. Borderland Ministries tried to spread the word about substandard conditions observed inside when local Episcopalians and Roman Catholics visited to provide pastoral care. INS took steps to reduce access, which made the flow of information impossible for a time, Moore said.

“In the detention center, they began to [say], Well, you need to meet these requirements before you can get in,” Moore said. “And then the big thing was that they moved the whole thing. INS moved the detention center to Dilley, Texas. So we’ve tried to push information over to the Diocese of West Texas about what’s going on.”

He also stresses the challenge of addressing poverty on both sides of the border. In Palomas, Mexico, Borderland Ministries’ project director, the Rev. Susan Hutchins, brings food and clothing to elders. She calls regularly on a family of seven (the only man is an elderly grandfather) that lives in a makeshift shack beside a cemetery.

“They have no electricity, no shower, no toilets,” Hutchins said. “We tried to get electricity to them. There’s a pole right there. But the electric company said they didn’t exist.”

In Terlingua, Texas, strong demand for food, clothing, housewares, and hygiene supplies brings the needy to Otra Vez, a Borderland Ministries-supported thrift store. Each patron pays little or nothing, depending on the level of need.

With anxiety high and needs deepening among the vulnerable, Borderland Ministries is now working to develop its diocesan ministry into a national network. The group will exhibit at General Convention.

“We’re taking it to General Convention because we want to branch out and raise funds across the Episcopal Church,” Moore said. He said he hopes Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will help raise the profile by identifying what’s wrong along the border, just as the church has done on other issues of discrimination.

To help boost visibility for border ministries, the Diocese of the Rio Grande will host a Border Ministries Summit Nov. 16-18 in El Paso. Participants will visit border communities, learn about Episcopal ministries along the 2,000-mile border and hear a keynote talk from former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Six dioceses on both sides of the border have been invited to make presentations about their ministries. Organizers hope people from other regions will feel a stake and want to attend.

“People are seeing the impact around the country,” Hutchins said, as migrants make their way to points north, including Canada. “It’s not just a border issue.”

Just as Borderland Ministries is ramping up visibility, however, hurdles for doing so are getting higher. Staying in contact with those in need is growing tougher. And championing the cause involves explaining, again and again, how this work is about doing what’s morally right. It’s not about encouraging or being indifferent toward lawlessness.

That crime is rife along the border surprises no one. The largest industry in the area is the drug trade, Hutchins said, most notably the importation of illegal marijuana from Mexico. Illegal border crossings are common too. A border wall near Columbus is routinely surmounted, she said, with a simple ladder and rope.

Those involved in Borderland Ministries say they understand why some potential donors might be leery of helping lawbreakers. But, they explain, the focus is on providing for basic human needs wherever they exist.

No one asks about citizenship status when young mothers, children, and elders line up for the monthly distribution of more than 10,000 pounds of food in Columbus. As more than 600 people are served, Hutchins said she sees the most vulnerable lining up, not able-bodied men, drug dealers, or violent criminals.

At regional detention centers, the focus is on ensuring basic needs are met and rights are upheld. Many are not in the United States illegally because they’ve come seeking asylum, which is not a crime. One common claim: we’ll be killed by gangs if we’re deported back to Central America.

Borderland Ministries plays the role of amplifying what other ministry groups observe when they make pastoral visits to detention centers. If basic needs or rights are visibly denied, Borderland Ministries helps spread the word among supportive Episcopal congregations in Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque.

Organizers hope Borderland Ministries can develop into a national network to support what has thus far been funded almost entirely by on the Diocese of the Rio Grande, which puts about $55,000 into the work each year. The vision, Moore said, is to expand the ministry to the point that it does advocacy on a scale seen in the Diocese of Arizona and Diocese of San Diego.

“What we’ve found is that if we know of a court date of a person seeking asylum and a bunch of people show up in support of the asylum seeker, the judge is more likely to grant it than if we don’t,” Moore said. “So the churches are gathering people to be in the courts, especially in San Diego and Arizona.”

Meanwhile in the general population, growing numbers of people have “gone underground,” Moore said, out of fear that run-ins with Border Patrol could lead to raids, which could cause problems for relatives or friends.

Adding to the sense of anxiety is an increased border security presence. In Columbus, where it used to be common to see three patrol vehicles, today’s count is closer to 12, Hutchins said. Other signs include more frequent patrols by helicopters and all-terrain vehicles.

Some of the challenges to keeping up with clientele have more to do with weather than politics. In the Terlingua area, temperatures can top 100 degrees around the clock at this time of year. Episcopal priests would normally celebrate the Eucharist at a local chapel that has no lights, no electricity, and no bathrooms, but blazing summer conditions prevent a congregation from gathering there.

“In the summer, it’s just too hot to have any sort of worship in that space,” Wallens said.

For all the challenges, however, Borderland Ministries has been finding ways to bring people together. Last year and again this year, the group seized an opportunity on the Saturday closest to May 10, Mother’s Day in Mexico, to join in a one-day hiatus when Border Patrol disappears around Lajitas, Mexico.

The hiatus allows communities, including families divided by the border, to come together for Voices from Both Sides, an event that includes speakers, music and a festival atmosphere. Two priests from Borderland Ministries celebrated a bilingual Eucharist in the middle of the Rio Grande River. It happened at a shallow spot where waders could easily transport elders in small boats. The Eucharist heightened visibility for the cause, Moore said, even if some beneficiaries might prefer to keep laying low.

“Political divisions do not divide the people of God,” Moore said. “Whether you’re on that side or this side, it doesn’t matter. We are one in Christ. The imaginary line down the middle of the river is exactly that — it has no meaning when it comes to faith.”


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