Border Reflections from Our Synod Assembly

Last month Jean S, Regina R, and I attended the Big, Annual, Regional Lutheran Meeting and Reunion,that we call “the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly.”This year it was hosted by the Border Conference of our Synod,in El Paso, TX just across the Rio Grande from Mexico.Some of us got to go across the border into Mexico to visit Juarez City.Others of us got to meet refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekershere who crossed the border into the US and brought with them the gifts of their stories, faith, hope, professional skills and incredible work ethic. To me it was like we were all monarch butterflies forthose three days, crossing the border and back again, because I feel that’s what the rhythm of life has always been there.

I was among the groups who remained on this side of the border.I got to hear the personal stories of refugees from Venezuela who talked about what has happened to their country; who now could no longer provide for themselves or their families because the money in their country has become worthless,and a day’s wages is just a kilo of rice.  Onlyrice to eat, three times a day in a country with the world’s largest oil reserves. Venezuela needs the global community’s help.

We allheard from US citizens who have lived their whole lives in El Paso/Juarez.One was a man named Reuben Garcia. He was born in El Paso and for decades, has answered God’s calling to dedicate himselfto meeting the needs he sees every day with Christ’s compassion and advocacy.He is the director of a non-profit in TX, called Annunciation House that helps migrants and refugees.President Biden visited with Reuben Garciaon a recent fact-finding trip to the border.

I asked Reuben what it’s been like, what’s changedover the decades he’s lived in El Paso/Juarez.He said, “I was born in the 1940’s in El Pasoafter my mother and family immigrated from Mexico. And I remember every day, my mother and my abuelawalking over the bridge from our neighborhood into Juarez Cityto buy fresh produce for dinner. They would walk back home the same way, with their baskets loaded with the very best vegetables. Especially avocados!  Back then, the most difficult thing aboutcrossing the border and returning home was this:when they came to the US Customs and Border agents on the way back,they would have to make sure that the avocado pit did not come with them.The avocado could come in, but the pit could not!If the pit was not removed from the avocado, the avocado belonged to the agent.  That’s how simple it was.”

“But through the decades,” Reuben told us, “the story being told in the US about the border started changing from one of peacefulcultural, economic, and social exchange to one of fear.  The story being told became, ‘they’re coming to be a burden on US taxpayers; they’re coming to get us; they’re coming to do us harm.’That new Story, that Single Narrative, was told over and over again in the interior of our country until we are where we are today with walls in someplaces 30 feet high, concertina wire that cuts like knives, and even military troops deployed sometimes, with guns pointed South.”

Jean, Regina, and I along with our Lutheran siblings throughout the region,were there to listen to “The Rest of the Story”, as Paul Harvey used to say.The story we had been hearing in the days before we arrived last week was that because Title 42 expired we would find mobs of people in the streets; danger, and chaos. That’s not what we experienced.  That’s not the stories we heard from the people themselves. We heard many other stories from people like Reuben Garcia, and refugees from Venezuela and all over the world.Stories that were as unique as the stories we can tell each other over coffee after church, because I believe it takes so very many stories to describe what life is truly like.But when we listen to them together, as we listened at the border, they begin to paint a very different picture of what’s happening than what we are being told in the interior of our country.

The story of Christ Jesus and his resurrection was so big it took four different books in the Bible to tell it! Each author with their own experience of Jesus’ story to share.I believe to “be one as We are one” as Jesus prayed for us to be, as united a world as God is in the Trinity, we need all the stories to be heard.  Not just one.

So I’ve invited Jean and Regina to share their stories too, of what it was like for them to be on the border.What they heard, and saw, and witnessedabout the unity God’s love in Christhas come to share with the world.     Pastor David


Jean:  "Cruzando Fronteras" (Crossing Borders)

Our synod is in a unique position being on the border in Texas and New Mexico.
One of the purposes of our gathering this year was to confront the gifts and challenges of ministry and mission on the southern border. The mission of the Rocky Mountain Synod is that together we proclaim and embody God’s unconditional love for the sake of the world. 
Prior to the assembly, I have to admit that I was a little nervous because of all the news coverage on the border. Things are not always as they are portrayed in the media, however. We did receive lists of resources to prepare for our time in El Paso.
One suggested video is A 3 Minute Hug (a 28 minute Netflix documentary.) (Get your handkerchiefs ready)
Reading suggestions include Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario. (I looked it up and it is available at the Salt Lake City Library). See me if you are interested—there are many more resources available.
For my immersion experience, I went with a group to St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Immigrants are welcomed there once every 2 weeks for a 24 hour stay where they receive showers, clothing as needed, assist with contacting US sponsors and transportation to get there. They especially need underwear and socks just like the homeless here in Salt Lake. This site is entirely run by volunteers and donations. We were welcomed so generously by these volunteers, and I’m sure it is even more so when their actual guests arrive.
Highlights of the assembly for me were the opening and closing worship services. Songs were sung one verse in Spanish and one in English. We all said the Lord’s Prayer in both languages at the same time (powerful). The closing worship was held at Sacred Heart Catholic Church with Bishop Jim Gonia presiding. Catholics and Lutherans all communed together. 
We were treated to a 3 part Bible study by Rev. David Levy about the book of Exodus. People on the move then and now. There is an online Bible study resource through Lutheran Immigrant and Resource services. We will be looking at doing that study here later this year.
Pastor David received recognition for 35 years of service. Of course, there were business meetings. I have a copy of the synod budget. See me or the synod website for more information.
Thank you very much, everyone, for the opportunity to attend this 2023 synod assembly. I am so honored to be a member of Mt. Tabor, Rocky Mountain synod and the entire ELCA.
Jean Stephenson
Being asked to serve as a lay representative for Mount Tabor at the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly was an incredible blessing for me. I treasure the opportunities I had to meet with my sisters and brothers from CO, WY, NM, UT, and TX congregations in our Synod. Together we sang and prayed, listened and learned, shared and served, conducted business, and dined, wined, and celebrated Mexican style. True to their purpose, the RMS definitely nurtured us in the Word of God so we would grow in faith, hope and love to use the gifts of the Spirit for our life together and our calling in the world. God’s presence was clearly felt everywhere I went.
On immersion day, the busload of Lutherans I went with experienced an incredible tour of the Border Servant Corp in Las Cruces, NM. It’s the largest high volume 24-hour hospitality center for asylum seekers in the region. Everyday they receive 1-2 buses with documented individuals making their first stop in the U.S.A. They’ve served over 50,000 people from 60 different countries. We saw families eating together in the dining hall, some who were only recently reunited after months of separation. Above them hung rows of national flags for all the countries where people had come from including Russia, Guatemala, Tunisia, Peru, Turkey, and more. BSC is funded by FEMA and supported by the ELCA plus many other agencies. With 45-60 dedicated staff members along with 270 volunteers, they work together in specific teams striving to make each asylum seeker feel welcomed from the start. Guest Services provides food, clothing, toiletries, and even toys for kids; Travel Team works to determine the most cost effective mode of transportation to get them to their next destination (the person who will assist them through the court process to determine if they will ultimately be granted asylum); and the Medical Team provides ‘urgent care’ level services as needed, all without fees.
As a result of the racist rhetoric and unfounded fears perpetuated by the previous administration and sensationalized, one-sided media reports, many people see the Southern Border as unsafe and view immigrants as potential threats. It turns out that El Paso is actually one of the top five safest cities in America and the Southern Border is now referred to as ‘the Ellis Island of our time’. Clearly “Cruzando Fronteras” was the perfect theme for our RMS Assembly because at this time we have 70-100M refugees displaced worldwide - more than ever before! Furthermore, most of scripture is about people on the move…crossing borders. In fact, the derogatory ethnic slur “wetback” (originally coined and applied only to Mexicans who illegally entered the U.S. through Texas by wadding or swimming across the Rio Grande) could actually have first been applied to Moses! As the bible says, he crossed the Nile in a basket to get away from death and poverty and go to wealth and opportunity on the other side with Pharaoh's daughter. The danger of stereotypes is not that they’re untrue, it is that they are incomplete. [For more on the importance of this statement, I highly recommend going on YouTube to check out “Ted Talk: The Dangers of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie].
It was our time to bare witness, to observe, and to experience what it means to be the people of God crossing borders. Living in the Love of Christ, we owe it to the refugees, asylum seekers and migrants of the world to listen to their true stories and then to help retell those stories. 
Peace be with you, Regina Reed