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Travel Tips: Do’s and Don’t’s

Travel Tips: Do’s and Don’t’s for the Long Road

(names have been changed)

After speaking to our sojourners, I just want to leave you with a few tales of caution in case you get desperate for a better future for your children and need to take a long journey away from a dangerous place to a safer location.

First tip: when riding atop a train, among the things not to do is fall asleep or let your child fall asleep. When Marlin told me that she had taken two months to travel from Honduras to Laredo, I knew something was wrong. She related how Gael, her six year old, had fallen asleep and rolled off the top of the train. He rolled over three times, then he hit the ground and a stand of brush stopped him. She immediately climbed down and jumped from the moving train, fearing the worst. But the child barely knew what had happened so fast asleep had he been. A few superficial cuts and a few bruises were the worst of it. A longer delay had kept them in a small Mexican town while he ran a fever for six days. Having no money for medicine, she sat in a park holding him night and day.   To see them after clean clothes and a bath, you wouldn’t know that they had suffered through such dire circumstances. Gael begged to run to play on the slide and swings as soon as he had his hair brushed. By the way, I’m not sure how you’re supposed to get any rest on top of a train.

Second tip: do travel when pregnant and hope that the border patrol will call your name like they did for Samanta.   Twenty-year-old Samanta of El Salvador had not seen her mother for fifteen years. When she became pregnant, her mother asked her to come to the States, have the baby with her mom’s support. She discussed this with her partner, who agreed, with the idea of coming at a later time after more money had been raised. Samanta’s hopes were just about gone as she sat aboard a bus with single women bound for deportation from Laredo. Suddenly her name was called. She stood and walked forward. A Border Patrol official asked how far along her pregnancy had progressed. Tiny Samanta was very obviously pregnant. Called off the bus, she was given her notice to appear in immigration court and taken to the Laredo bus station. From there, we gave her clothes and other items for the next step of her journey. A phone call at the Catholic Social Services station assured her partner and her mother that she was doing fine.

Third tip: be sure that you hire an honest coyote. Alisa’s trip northward was a little expensive—about nine thousand dollars.   When she and Pablito and their group from Honduras made it to Mexico City and a safe house, their coyote abandoned them. He took the money that her family had lent for her trip. In a few days the owners of the house began demanding money for her to stay at the house while waiting for family to send more money. She had to stay on for two weeks until she could get enough money to hire another coyote. Was it worth it? Only time will tell.

The final tip for the adventurous traveler is this: don’t be born in a country like El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala where the society is falling apart, the government is impotent and the criminals, lower, middle and upper class, enjoy impunity for their crimes. Being a woman or a child or a teen or just about anyone without a weapon is dangerous to your health.


Monday Morning Quarterbacks

As I look back, I am surprised that we held that conversation last night.  We are all putting in lots of time and energy to help here at the Holding Institute Community Center in Laredo.  Blanca, a special education teacher, has been the main organizer of the crazy assortment of used clothes that people keep pulling out of their closets to give.  José is a consultant who comes over early evening after work every day and writes grants for things like new appliances for the center.  Viky is giving time from her campaign for city council by being here off and on to handle a variety of tasks and issues that pop up.  Mario is a Missions Minister with the Baptist church and starting his own “cowboy church.”   He plans to follow up his activities here with trips to evangelize in Mexico City and Venezuela.  And I am participating, too.

          All of these folks have been very involved in the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team for weeks, but we still don’t get it.

          Our sojourners are facing numerous bad choices in their lives and having to make the best of it, even thought “the best” may not be what we would choose.

          Elena* and five year old Teo* from Honduras seemed like any other folks when they came through the door on Tuesday.  After showers Elena went to use the phones provided by Catholic Social Services, while Teo went to play with the two Head Start teachers provided by Save the Children.  When the other three women and children left for  the bus station to await their buses,  Elena and Teo were still here.  Then we head that she didn’t have money for a bus ticket, so Mario took them to the home his supervising pastor to spend the night.  This doesn’t usually happen.  

        In the morning we were glad that Elena and Teo had gone to the pastor’s home rather than Mario’s church because the church was broken into on Tuesday night and many items stolen.  At any rate, Elena and Teo were back with us around noon and Teo seemed quite happy to play and get snacks again. But Elena was looking pretty frazzled.  She started calling to make connections in Virginia.  Then it came out.

       The person Elena was calling was not a relative, but a man she met on Facebook with whom she said she had been corresponding for over a year.  They had agreed that if she would come to the U.S. then they would get married. Each time she would call him in Virginia he would have some excuse as to why he couldn’t send the money for the bus ticket—he was working, the bank was closed, he didn’t have enough money yet, etc.  Well, when we learned this, quite the conversation ensued between those of us who are privileged and can manage our own destinies quite well.  

       Our remarks ranged from “How could she think that he would really pay $500 for a bus ticket?!”   to “Maybe she better just go back to Honduras.”   Or, “He might take her passport and threaten to harm Teo if she doesn’t do whatever he wants.”   Visions of human trafficking or domestic abuse came to our heads.  One person opined that we shouldn’t even let her go to Virginia until he talked on the phone with Facebook boyfriend.

      Reflecting on the conversation of a group of well-meaning volunteer helpers, I am embarrassed that we were not more sentient of the difficulty facing Elena.  Coming from Honduras, the country with the highest murder rate in the world and the poorest country (except for Haiti) in the Western Hemisphere, just how many good choices did Elena really have?  Who did we think that we were to tell an adult how to manage her life choices?  Suddenly, simply because we had the time, energy, motivation and money to be involved in this relief effort we had taken on the mantle of judging her actions.   

      How easy it is to have power and how easy to tell the powerless what to do.  

      Oh, yes, our motivations were certainly above reproach.  Oh, yes, we want the best for this mom and child.  But, we can give information and the needed immediate material aid without assuming that we know what is best for Elena and Teo.  She has received information on the national hotline numbers for domestic violence and human trafficking.  She knows where the Catholic Social Service office is in Virginia from the information given out by them.  

      Now we have to let go and let God work in Elena and Teo’s lives.  She has gotten herself and her little boy with a mop of curly red hair this far and I don’t think that happens without a lot of prayers on the way.  Her life experience is not ours.  Her choices are not ours.  Her dreams are not ours.  She has her own path that we can’t walk.  

      May we invest the time, energy, money and good intentions into pushing for changes that are our responsibility to make.  We are U.S. citizens in a democracy with free speech.  Our tasks are to advocate for social justice and comprehensive immigration reform, for foreign aid that actually contributes to making countries better places for their people and for a fresh and realistic look at our neighbors to the south. We can make the effort to find out more information about what life is really like for refugees who come to our nation.  As active Christians we can urge our denominations to be prophetic voices in the immigration debate.  These things we can do, but we can’t judge Elena and her life choices.  Our circumstances are not hers.  May we humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord so we may not assume that we can judge. 

       What are you doing to understand more fully the plight of the people of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala?   What are you doing to urge your church to speak out prophetically for new immigration policies? What are you doing to advocate with your congressional delegation?  Are you spending your time judging or are you being pro-active to do what is within your power to find justice in this situation?

No Basta Rezar

         Witness for Peace is an interdenominational peace with justice organization that led efforts in the U.S. to educate Americans on the issues involved in the U.S.  involvement in civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.  One of its strategies was to operate a practical program to impede the marauding by the U.S. government-supported Contras into the Nicaraguan territory  bringing Americans to the northern border of Nicaragua into conflictive zones, actually putting people at some risk if there were battles.   This proved to have some effectiveness and certainly woke up the participants to the reality of Nicaragua and the errors of the U.S. policy.

         A song that was sung by Witness for Peace long term team members and taught to the short termers who came for ten days to two weeks to learn about the reality of life in Nicaragua was “No Basta Rezar.”   The chorus is   “No,no, no basta rezar, hacen falta muchas cosas para conseguir la paz.”   “No, no, no it isn’t enough just to pray, many things are needed to secure peace.”

         I am reminded of this thought when I chat with my well-intentioned sisters and brothers about what is going on at the border and the individual dramas of our sojourners at the Holding Institute who come to our door for clean clothes, hot showers, a snack, a new pair of shoes, a time of rest while their children play.  It is good to pray for each one of them.  It is good to think of people praying for the volunteers involved in this humanitarian relief effort.  It is good to pray for the situation.

         However, that prayer should motivate us to act.  Perhaps it will sound more familiar if I remind you of these words from the Old Testament.   “And what does the Lord require of you, O mortal, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”  It is time to “do justice.”  Prayer can help us to discern the will of God.  Prayer can help us gather strength to do hard work.  Prayer can help us feel God’s power within us.  But without praxis, right action, we do not take advantage of all that prayer has to offer.   What can we do as a response to our concerns?

         Let us remind our elected officials that the events of this summer, including the rising numbers of children and teens coming as unaccompanied minors, are signals that there is a refugee crisis going on. These are red flags that there are failed states in Central America. This should provide impetus to get us involved in contacting our congressional delegations and reminding them that we want comprehensive immigration reform without any excuses.  We want to see DACA expanded.  We want to see the Central Americans with temporary protected status placed on a path toward legalization so that they can unite their families.  We don’t want to see changes in the Trafficking Victim’s Reauthorization Act that would strip away protections of unaccompanied minors to due process hearings. 

         Yes, by all means pray.  And pray that God will strengthen your resolve to act for justice.


The Ladder of Success

July 28, 2014

        Alicia* is here from El Salvador with her two daughters, five and ten years old. “Here” is the Holding Institute Community Center, a national mission institution of the United Methodist Women and a center for humanitarian relief for the Laredo (Texas) Humanitarian Relief Team, an ecumenical effort to help refugees who are coming across the Mexico-U.S. border.

          Alicia has not had an easy time of it in her life. Her mother died when she was three years old and her father did his best to raise Alicia and her siblings, but they very soon had to fend for themselves. She married young and the father of her oldest daughter left for the U.S. He was caught and deported to Mexico, where he met another woman and formed a new family, without telling Alicia. His mother kept contact with Alicia and her granddaughter. Then Alicia met another man who became the father of her younger daughter. He was abusive and tried to stab her to death, so they parted ways. In order to support her daughters Alicia decided the only alternative was to head to the U.S.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA          The first time Alicia tried traveling north, she was kidnapped in Mexico City and kept for two months. One of the kidnappers liked her and took her out, so she took advantage of the chance to escape. She started a second time for El Norte. She walked five nights in the desert with a group of some 30 people led by a coyote. At Nuevo Laredo, she crossed the river and was picked up by the Border Patrol and deported to El Salvador.

        At this point Alicia decided that she would bring her two daughters with her, because she didn’t feel she would ever want them to come to her alone if she were in the U.S. So, back in El Salvador the three of them prepared for the trip. An uncle accompanied them through Guatemala and Mexico and is now in custody of the Border Patrol.

          Alicia is here at the Holding Institute Community Center after four long weeks of travel. Gladly we gave this brave mother and her two girls clean clothing, showers, snacks for the rest of their journey, a Hello Kitty lunch box with toys, a pink gym bag with coloring books for the ten year old.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA They will be on the way to another Texas city when Alicia wakes after a rest in the air conditioning while the girls play with the Save the Children staff. There they will stay with the grandmother of Alicia’s oldest daughter. This woman helped the three sojourners by sending them money when they were stuck for two weeks in Chiapas, Mexico. They were staying with a friend of Alicia’s who gladly took them in, but was so poor that she had no food to share. In order to continue the trip the grandmother postponed needed surgery and sold her television and other items so she could send them money to eat and continue on by bus. Alicia is looking forward to caring for the grandmother while she recuperates from the surgery.

          Each refugee mother with children reminds me of my own ancestors who braved difficult conditions to come from European nations to our shores. In the late 1800’s immigrants decided to leave because of crop failure, land and job shortages, rising taxes and famine. Or people came seeking personal freedom or relief from religious persecution. Many immigrant ancestors spoke only German or Danish or Italian. Even the Irish who spoke English were vilified. Signs were posted “No dogs or Irish allowed.”

         These are brave, determined, strong women who are struggling heroically to provide a brighter future for their children. They have overcome many obstacles to arrive in the U.S. How ironic that we don’t remember that our ancestors were immigrants as well and that we should afford to new immigrants the same opportunities that previous generations were given.  When we climb the ladder of success, we must remember not to pull it up behind us. Other people will need it as well.

*not her real name

Home Sweet Home

In our recent meeting of the ecumenical group involved in the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team we received some sobering news from our friends at Catholic Social Services.

Remembering that for any immigrant there are push-pull factors, we realize that for the youth who are coming, the same dynamic exists.  Pulling many youth is the promise of a reunion with a parent or other family member who has promised to give him or her a place to call home.  Becky of CSS noted that as the children and youth are be united with these family members, the result is not always as felicitous as might be expected. She is receiving word through her contacts of children running away or getting in trouble.  Sometimes the families are poor themselves and are stretched even thinner economically with another mouth to feed. We are on the alert that we may need to share what we have been gathering for the immigrants.  

A long anticipated reunion can hold consequences for which no one has planned.  


So You Want to Talk About Faith


Someone has written requesting to come to Holding Institute to share Christ with the migrants who are passing through our doors for a brief time to receive some basic material aid and a bit of a time of rest. This person feels that he/she is qualified to introduce people to Christ.

 Well now, I wonder. From hearing various women talk about their experiences, I have come to the conclusion that they could not have come as far as they have without an absolutely iron-clad faith in God. Riding on top of a train for two days and nights straight with an 8 year old child is putting God to the test in a pretty big way. We are told that about 1000 people start in southern Mexico on the top of each train that goes out and there are around 20 trains per day. A fair share of them do not make it to the border. One person related seeing a child fall off the train after having fallen asleep. He tried to run and grab the ladder, but was sucked under as many people, including her, watched.

To undertake a journey from Honduras with a three year old and a six year old at 8 ½ months pregnant seems to me to be the most audacious statement of faith that a human being can make. This woman floated across the Rio Grande in an inner tube after her mother sent $1500 to pay a coyote (who couldn’t buy life jackets for the kids!) and then climbed a 30 foot embankment behind the Laredo McDonald’s, holding her three year old, only to be apprehended by Border Patrol and served a notice to appear in immigration court in 30 days.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt least we were able to offer her a shower, some different clothes and a stuffed animal for her little boy and a doll for the little girl. But faith, and hope for a better life— she has got more than I will ever have!



Got Spirit? Let’s Hear It

 Today is Sunday and I elected to visit a Mexican Methodist Church in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. I was a bit apprehensive about going as I have been told that the Zetas, a pretty blood-thirsty gang that is good at kidnapping, raping and killing, controls the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo in Spanish.


As I was planning to walk over, (wouldn’t dare drive!), I wondered if I would see the Zeta tourist booth with a handy map of places to avoid in the city. Luckily for me, with my sun glasses and white beach hat, they must have decided to avoid grandma-types. All I needed was to start snapping photos to convince anyone that I was a bona fide tourist. But I met the young fellow from the church who waited for me without incident and we were off to church.


My destination was one of ten Mexican Methodist churches in Nuevo Laredo. This one is called El Aposento Alto—the Upper Room. It is about 28 years old and in a very marginal barrio. Although the pastor called it middle class, I am pretty sure you and I would tend to classify it as lower class, especially after he told me that only 40% of his congregation have a steady job.


However, a high income is not necessary for showing the love of God. In the two hour plus worship service, this congregation exhibited a great enthusiasm for their church, each other and their faith. As is typical of the Latino churches in Iowa there was an electric guitar and a drum set. The pastor, Jaser, is 26 years old, a graduate of the Monterrey Methodist seminary and serving his first church.   He is a good drummer and he has a couple of older, but still very “with it” musicians as singer and guitarist. The “feminil,” or women’s group, presented a choir selection and an older woman stood to give her testimony in a heart-felt solo.


Not to be outdone, another older lady was moved to sing and invited her younger friend in for support. The pastor preached for over half an hour, ending with an altar call and no one complained. This is a church with a daunting schedule. Every day there is a Bible study, meeting of a group or a mission activity. They were planning their Vacation Bible School and solicited the food for the children during the service—planning for 80 some children of the barrio.


Special guests were eight migrants from Honduras or other parts of Mexico. They had been invited as a result of the feeding program of the church. In the evenings some of the men go with the pastor to take simple food to the areas of the city where these migrants are biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to try crossing the river, maybe for more than the first time.


A result of this feeding program has been invitations to church. Some of the used clothes that we have been receiving in Laredo at the Holding Institute have been given to the Mexican church, as have UMCOR hygiene kits. After the worship service, the migrant guests were invited to a simple lunch of rice and mole and each given a hygiene kit and the chance to find a set of used clothes.


It is amazing what can be done by dedicated Methodists full of the spirit when they decide to move forward to help others.