By Alexander Swain
200 Episcopalians and other Christians from across the country and beyond attended the second annual Border Ministries Summit in Tucson, Arizona, on November 21-23. They convened at a time of increasing human migration globally, and rising tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border as the United States stands accused of mistreating migrants and refugees.
The conference, held at Saint Philip’s in the Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson, Arizona, featured presentations from several bishops along the border and from Central America.
Bishop Juan David Alvarado of the Anglican Diocese of El Salvador said there are three main drivers of migration from Central America and Mexico: violence, climate change, and lack of economic opportunity. He said that in 2017 alone more than 296,000 new displaced persons were forced to flee their homes. “There are some churches around the year 2000 where there were one-hundred people, today we have 15 individuals in these churches,” he said.
“I believe that God doesn’t see borders,” said Bishop Susan Snook of the Diocese of San Diego. “We are all citizens of the kingdom of God, and God calls us to act as citizens with our neighbors. God doesn’t see borders, but God sees suffering. We are called to see it too.”
Bishop Ricardo Gómez Osnaya of the Diocese of Western Mexico called on Christians to “make Christ present amidst a community,” and said, “what I see [at refugee camps] is a people with a need, and a legitimate aspiration for a better life.” He went on to say that the Church must honor “its prophetic duty and its call to walk with and alongside immigrants at this time. The Church needs to be that change agent.”
“Why is it so difficult,” asked Bishop Bill Lyons of the Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, to respond “with horror at the things we see?” He called for developing a united theology and actionable response throughout the Church.
“Our sensibilities are revealed in our actions,” said Bishop Francisco Moreno of the Diocese of Northern Mexico. “I would like to involve you in the work along the border that is so very close to us.”
The Church must “talk about immigration as a theological and pastoral challenge for the Episcopal church and the Anglican church,” Alvarado said. “No one is a migrant on earth, as we’ve all been created by God, and borders are artificial borders.”
Other bishops in attendance included host Bishop Jennifer Reddall of the Diocese of Arizona; Bishop Suffragan Jeff Fisher of the Eastern Region of the Diocese of Texas; Bishop John Taylor of Los Angeles; and Bishop Michael Hunn of the Diocese of the Rio Grande, which encompasses New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
Numerous organizations from Arizona and beyond were present to share their work and ministries for migrants.
Take up a Cross was founded by Alicia Baucom in response to “more than 3,000 migrant deaths in the Pima County area of Southern Arizona” since 2001, caused by “deadly heat, venomous reptiles, and rough desert terrain.” The organization can provide a cross with a unique identifier that marks the remains of someone who gave their life migrating for a new home.
The Tucson Samaritans works more directly with migrants, declaring: “When a government fails to respect and protect basic human rights… it is the responsibility of citizens to act in defense of these rights.” Their work involves volunteering to “place water on migrant trails, participate in search and rescue efforts, make presentations to advocate for a more realistic and humane border policy,” and more.
Other organizations advocating smarter, more efficient, more effective, more unifying, and more powerful modes of putting faith in Jesus into practice included: Episcopal Migration Ministries; Art and Healing – The Art of Asylum in the Monastery; Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project; Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church: Arizona Justice for our Neighbors; Saint Francis Ministries; and the Missing Migrant Program.
“The call to walk alongside one another is the call to be transformed,” said the Rev. David Chavez, missioner for border ministries for the Diocese of Arizona, at the conclusion of the conference. “Really it’s the call to recognize that everything we do as a Church is for the sake of the neighbor. Liturgy is just not for us. Liturgy is for the sake of the neighbor. We gather for the sake of the neighbor. We live lives connected and rooted in tradition not for our own sake, but for the sake of the neighbor.”