Anyone involved in U.S.-Mexico border issues, will tell you that there are no easy answers. But that does not negate the need to continue raising the questions.
The April 15-17 "Crossing Borders, Encountering God" conference here — co-sponsored by the Synods of the Sun and Southwest of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Presbyteries of Noroeste and Israel of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico — brought together close to 200 participants from both churches for worship, workshops, teaching and learning from one another about the complex border relations between the two countries and churches.
Among the questions that were raised: What should be done about the more than 10 million undocumented people who are already living and working in the United States? How can we provide for future economic immigration for those wishing to cross the border to find work? How can we facilitate reunification for those families who have been separated due to deportation or migration? How can there be a de-escalation of the quasi-military border build-up?
But perhaps fundamental to them all, as people of faith: What does it mean to love our neighbors who might be undocumented and who are often stigmatized, marginalized, or at best invisible?
The Rev. Bernabe V. Bautista Reyes, vice-moderator of the General Assembly of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, brought greetings to the conference, along with a recognition of the challenges in addressing issues of borders and immigration.
Acknowledging the many deaths in the desert of those who seek to cross into the United States he asked, "Do we say this cannot be changed? Surely it can." Quoting from Ephesians 2, he said, "For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation."
Bautista Reyes called on leaders in both the United States and Mexico to address the current labor needs in the U.S. as well as the economic needs of Mexicans, and to create a program of mutual help between the two nations.
Mark Adams, director of Frontera de Cristo, a PC(USA) border ministry based along the border between Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Ariz., said: "Before arriving at the border I never asked myself whether or not it was legal to be Christian."
But after living and working along the border for the past 12 years, Adams added, it’s a question he’s been forced to ponder.
"We are reminded that we are to welcome the stranger and that in doing so we welcome Christ," Adams said. "We need to base who we are in our faith stories as we seek to respond and help churches respond to the real, serious, conflictive realities. How do we help them respond out of faith and not fear?"
The Rev. Frank Alton, one of the conference preachers, suggested that humane immigration policy is central to our country as a whole. "It gives me hope that all of you, all of us, are gathered here around an issue that is absolutely critical to the soul of our country."
But this conversation, these questions, and this issue are not just issues in the United States or the PC(USA) — they call for deep involvement on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, participants agreed.
"It is important that we are in partnership between the border synods in the U.S. and in Mexico," said the Rev. Judy Fletcher, Synod of the Sun Executive and one of the conference organizers.
Fletcher also noted that issues of immigration do not simply affect border regions. "[Immigration] is everyone’s issue — not just those of us who live along the border," suggested Fletcher. "Often people think the issue of immigration is so huge that I can’t possibly make a difference — a conference like this shows that we can all do something."
Not only can we all do something, participants agreed — but as people of faith, we are called to do something.
"The God of the Bible explicitly identifies himself as defending the poor sojourner, the immigrant who has no one to defend him," reminded Ramon Garcia, president of Presbyterian Border Ministries, one of he conference’s participating organizations. "The immigrant should not be mistreated nor discriminated against. On the contrary, he should be received as a guest, since all of us at one or another time have been migrants."
Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary, encouraged those gathered to see the hope as well as the challenge in the issues discussed and the questions raised.
"Christianity has always grown from the margins," he said. "When the margins become the center, Christianity declines, but because the gospel is always moving, there is a new margin and something new emerges."