The Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly, was eager to visit the U.S./Mexico border before her presentation at the joint meeting of the presbyteries of Grand Canyon and de Cristo.
Early one morning last week, a group including Kohlmann began its journey. In many ways, group members were a likely group of companions, all serving with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in one capacity or another. Represented were four Tucson Borderlands Young Adult Volunteers, a YAV site coordinator, an incoming presbytery moderator, a local pastor and, of course, the co-moderator. Naturally, there was a lot of “Presbyterian talk” as the team traveled the two hours from Tucson to Douglas, Arizona, but that wasn’t all that bonded or defined them.
At the border wall that divides Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora, the group reflected on Ephesians 2:11-22. With the group gathered on the northern side with mission co-worker Mark Adams, and other friends of Frontera de Cristo on the southern side, it was hard to hear one another’s voices. The words had to rise above the hum of the idling engine of the nearby Border Patrol truck.
“The passage declares that Jesus has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between us. Jesus indeed has accomplished that work, but we build the wall back up as fast as we can, literally and metaphorically. And the literal wall, twined with concertina wire, [is] there as a witness to that fact,” Kohlmann said. Standing in the shadow of the wall, it can feel easy to simply blame the barrier and those who allowed it to be built. “But what is our real border?” one participant asked. “This wall — or the walls we erect in our hearts?”
When our hearts are full of barriers, we are less likely to see potential partners in the work to which God calls us. We can overlook those already in our midst shouting about the same injustices or quietly working for peace. When our hearts are full of barriers, it can be tempting to claim success as our own, and ours alone. But we are always better together, she said.
Over and over during our afternoon and evening in Agua Prieta, we were reminded of this truth. “We want this to be a place of peace,” Mennonite Central Committee mission co-worker David Bonilla said when referring to Café Justo y Más, a coffee shop that strives to give those in recovery a fresh start while simultaneously serving as a safe space for people of all ages to gather and flourish. Peace is the shared goal and people from many different backgrounds and faith traditions are working for it.
“The life of service is ecumenical,” the director of CAME (Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus), a shelter serving families seeking asylum, told us when explaining their mission. “[Our guests] are people and they need our help, and we collaborate with everyone.” Given the increased numbers of guests at the shelter in 2019, it was clear that the desire to expand beyond its Roman Catholic roots was as theological as it was practical. More hands make for lighter work and the gift of true ecumenical accompaniment has buoyed heavy hearts.
We had also seen the benefits of collaboration earlier in the day at The Inn in Tucson (where one of the YAVs is serving) and again at the Migrant Resource Center in Agua Prieta. These ministries also support families seeking asylum as they continue their journeys and, like CAME, are grateful for volunteers who share the common goal of loving one’s neighbor. It is evident that through collaboration, these ministries are all loving and serving well.
“What I saw,” Kohlmann said, “and what I will remember more than the numbers, statistics and facts, are people who know what it is to love God with all of who they are and to truly love their neighbors as themselves. I saw volunteers who give sacrificially so that others may have the chance of abundant life. I saw families willing to risk everything and leave everything familiar in the hope that their children will have a future without violence and persecution. I saw the effects of policies and procedures on both sides of the border that refuse to consider the actual humanity and value of the people caught in those policies and procedures.
“And I saw the best of the ecumenical church united across theological differences and practical differences, clear that providing shelter, sustenance and hospitality to ‘the least of these’ is the highest good.”