Bishops and spouses visit U.S.-Mexico border
Organizers show complexity of immigration issues, urge advocacy[Episcopal News Service – Douglas, Arizona] The names of those who died trying to cross the desert rang out against the hum of rush hour traffic Sept. 14 as a procession of 60 bishops of the Episcopal Church, their spouses and others moved along the Pan American Highway here toward the Mexican border.
"Marta Yolanda Gonzalez Piñeada."
"Juan Eduardo Gomez Lopez."
"Maria Esther Cruz Alarcón."
"No Identificado eight," called out Bishop Suffragan Mary D. Glasspool of Los Angeles, and the procession responded: "Presente," as a witness, answering for those who can no longer speak for themselves.
Glasspool placed the 12x18-inch white wooden cross, dedicated to the unknown person on the curbside. By the procession's end, 300 crosses lined the curb along a quarter-mile stretch leading to the border.
"Holding it was a different kind of feeling than holding the cross of a person who was named," Glasspool said after the vigil, which typically happens each Tuesday, sponsored by Frontera de Cristo, a bi-national Presbyterian Church border ministry.
Glasspool was among a group of about 40 bishops and spouses who participated in a three-day border immersion experience hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona.
The gathering was planned prior to the regular Sept. 16-21 House of Bishops meeting in Phoenix, which is expected to issue a statement about immigration.
"I began asking the question who this person was and if there's a comforting thing in it at all, it is we were saying about each of these people that they are known to God and beloved by God and created in the image of God and brought home to God," she said.
The 300 crosses represented the number of bodies discovered in the desert in Cochise County since 1994; bodies of people who died while trying to cross in search of a better life, said the Rev. Seth Polley, Arizona diocesan border missioner, who helped to coordinate the vigil, and the border trip.
Polley, who also serves as vicar of two border congregations, St. John's in Bisbee and St. Stephen's in Douglas, said he hoped participants could have "an eye-opening experience and a deeper sense of appreciation for the complexity of the issues" involving immigration reform.
He, along with the Rev. Mark Adams, the U.S. coordinator for Frontera de Cristo, and others are expected to address the bishops Sept. 17.
Adams participated in a Sept. 14 panel discussion along with representatives from the Douglas police department, the border patrol, the Border Action Network, as well as a local rancher, and an emergency room physician who treats migrants.
On the second day of the gathering, participants visited churches, shelters, migrant resource centers, medical clinics and other agencies that offer support to the impoverished and migrants in the Mexican state of Sonora.
In Agua Prieta, a mid-sized industrial city of about 150,000, the group visited a migrant shelter operated by La Sagrada Familia Catholic Church, which provides a safe place for migrants and houses men in need.
Near Naco, a small town with a permanent population of about 6,000 and at peak times, a migrant population of up to 2,000, participants visited a water station in the desert, maintained by volunteers form Humanitarian Border Solutions, a bi-national human rights group that fills the water tanks twice weekly so that migrants – who face severe dehydration – have access to water. HBS also distributes survival food packs, which are donated by southern Arizona churches.
Also in Naco, Manuel, whose last name was withheld to protect his identity, described his experience of being abandoned in the desert while trying to return to the United States after attending a family funeral in Mexico.
"My wife fell and hurt her ankle," he told the group through an interpreter. "We were trying to cross into the country because this is where our children are. We want a better life for them because our country is so poor. We want them to have an education, to have better than what we had. But the coyote was just taking our money; he did nothing for us. We tried to reason with him but all he wanted was more money."
Manuel was ultimately detained and deported, separated from his children who are 11, 19 and 21. "That's our life as migrants," he said. "We suffer though we were not doing anything bad."
Meeting Manuel and taking a trip to the wall erected by the U.S. government put a human face on the immigration issue for Carol Garrison of Western New York. "I can't even put into words how I feel," she said. "His pain breaks my heart."
For her spouse, Bishop Michael Garrison of Western New York, the trip was an eye-opening experience, and he said he appreciated knowing "our church is involved in this work."
The Rev. Hector Rodriguez, Latino missioner for the Diocese of Maryland and rector of the Church of the Resurrection in southeast Baltimore, said he came to be supportive of the ministry.
"I'm the other border missioner, except my border reaches all the way to the Mason-Dixon line. The people we see here are the ones we will see in my parish if they make it through the desert."
Most bishops said the immersion experience accomplished what organizers had hoped for: to put a human face on the issue.
Bishop Clifton Daniel of East Carolina added "that it has shown the complexity of what it means to live on the border. The church is called to speak with clarity to the human condition of that. To justice, to human dignity, to minister to human need -- that we can do with clarity."
Others, like Bishop Prince Singh of Rochester, say they want the House of Bishops to do more than talk.
"We as a church have an opportunity to recommit or even commit ourselves to being a part of humanizing our world," he said. "We cannot do it as bishops, but we can do it as saints of the Episcopal Church. "We need to empower our disciples to be disciples so one of the takeaways for me is how am I going to serve as a bishop to enable each and every person who worships in an Episcopal Church to take this charge, to be vigilant, to be a moral agent and to do something."
Bishop Suffragan Gayle Harris of Massachusetts said the story of the migrant is not new, but is the story of virtually every group who "sought a better life for themselves" yet has failed to honor others who have attempted to make the same journey. "It's the story of too many people around the world … these people are my people because they're God's people," she said.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the experience gave her a sense of the complexity of the situation, and that she thinks "it will help us to reduce both our own caricatures and prejudices and maybe do the same for others." She added that she hoped the experience would inform the bishops' conversation and "help to shape the final teaching, the pastoral letter we hope to produce out of this meeting."
Bishop Assistant Carol Gallagher of North Dakota said: "I'm aware that this was Mexican territory. The people haven't changed, the border changed. The politics changed. They deserve to have their families thrive. I was touched in many ways by the generosity and hospitality of the men and women who fed us, and cried and shared their hearts with us. This isn't about politics, it's about people."
Eastern Oregon provisional bishop Edna Bavi "Nedi" Rivera said there's no excuse, "no reason for anyone to die. I want to say that to our country."