More than 1,000 miles separate the work of Chris McReynolds and Rachel Anderson, but they share a common commitment to serving people in Christ’s name at the United States/Mexico border.
McReynolds and Anderson are two of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission workers who serve with Presbyterian Border Ministry (PBM), an organization jointly sponsored by the PC(USA) and the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico.
In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which is across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, McReynolds works among people who have been besieged by the drug cartels. It’s a town where children grow up hearing the sounds of gunshots outside their bedroom windows. Carjackings are not uncommon and ricocheting bullets have struck innocent pedestrians as they walk the streets.
While not ignoring present needs, McReynolds and his Mexican colleagues are setting their sights on the future of Nuevo Laredo. They have started clubs to help children grow spiritually, make wise moral choices, and develop leadership skills. On Saturdays children gather at churches to participate in Christian education classes, sports, games and art.
“Our vision of Christian education is not just to teach principles but to nourish the children’s minds, imaginations and reasoning abilities to learn God’s wisdom and apply it to their lives,” McReynolds says.
More than 120 children are participating in clubs held at three Presbyterian churches, and clubs are planned for two more congregations.
In Tijuana, Mexico, where Anderson serves, one of her primary ministries is with people who come to the city from all over Mexico to work in its tourism industry.
Because of this migration, Tijuana reflects much of the cultural and linguistic diversity of Mexico. People come to Tijuana looking to improve their financial plight, but life is not easy there, particularly during a time of economic downturn. The newcomers miss their home communities and struggle to make a living in Tijuana, which is just across the border from San Diego, California.
“Tijuana is hugely multicultural and full of squatter communities,” Anderson says. “Spanish is a second language for some and they are separated from everything that is familiar. Many put together cardboard homes that will be washed away when the rainy season comes. There are whole communities that are like this.”
Amid trying circumstances, both McReynolds and Anderson can point to signs of transformation.
The difficult life in Nuevo Laredo causes some to make bad decisions, McReynolds says. That was the case with Jorge who committed a crime that sent him to prison for a year.
While in prison, Jorge worried that his wife and family could not cope with the challenges of life in Nuevo Laredo. Yet McReynolds notes that Jorge returned from prison to find his family had been cared for by local Presbyterians.
His two sons, Carlos, 10, and Alejandro, 7, attended one of the children’s clubs that McReynolds and his Mexican partners started. The congregation sponsoring the club, Victoria en Jesucristo Presbyterian Church, began reaching out to Jorge’s wife and two younger children, and they also became part of the congregation.
“Instead of these children suffering without their father to the point of regressing in their development, the club filled in the gaps, enabling them to learn more of God, who cares for them and loves them in every circumstance and provides for their needs,” Chris says.
When Jorge saw the care his family received, his life began to change. He now joins his wife and children for worship every Sunday at Victoria en Jesucristo, a new church development started with the help of PBM. During the rest of the week, he is working hard to build an auto glass and tire repair business.
In Tijuana, Pedro, 9, handed one of Anderson’s Mexican colleagues, Marta, a handmade thank-you card one day at the end of his English class. The card was expressing thanks to Marta for helping his family. The boy’s mother had attended one of Marta’s 12-week parenting classes.
“The father had gotten into drugs and was lost to the streets,” Anderson says. “The mother’s means of discipline was screaming, and this boy was thanking Marta because his mother didn’t scream at him anymore.”
McReynolds and Anderson work to connect Presbyterians on both sides of the border, and they both stress the need for long-term relationships.
“I think there are Presbyterians on both sides of the border who realize there is a great need for our churches to work together and to be the light and truth that God is calling us to be,” Chris says. “It’s no time to back away. It is difficult, but we have a calling to be here.”
“The model of groups coming to visit and the relationship beginning and ending there is not what God has us doing these days,” Anderson says. “The focus now is on building relationships that will endure.”
The relationship might include a mission trip by U.S. churches to the border, but it can also involve U.S. churches receiving Mexican guests from the border region. Some individuals and congregations exchange emails and letters to keep communication open all year long.
Many U.S. congregations worry that it’s unsafe to visit the border and that’s a concern that should be taken seriously, according to Maria Arroyo, the PC(USA)’s coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Yet the level of threat varies depending on where the group intends to visit and when the trip is set to occur, Arroyo says. She advises groups planning a border visit to work closely with mission personnel as they assess the situation.
In addition to the two PBM sites where McReynolds and Anderson serve, there are four other sites and PC(USA) mission personnel currently work at two of the four. They include Mark Adams and Miriam Maldonado Escobar in Agua Prieta, Mexico, and Douglas, Arizona and Andres and Gloria Garcia in Reynosa, Mexico, and McAllen, Texas.