On August 22-24, the Rio Texas Conference and El Valle District hosted church leaders in a tour focused on immigration issues in the Rio Grande Valley. The visiting group included Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the Board of Church and Society; Bishops Hope Morgan Ward, Peggy Johnson, and Sally Dyck; and Rebecca Cole and Tricia Bruckbauer, staff of the Board. They were accompanied by local conference and district representatives. Bishop Robert Schnase and Susan Hellums, El Valle District Border Area Mission Coordinator, facilitated the tour and times of learning and conversation. Sites visited included the border wall, Anzalduas Park, La Posada Providencia, the Border Patrol Central Processing Center (also known as "Ursula"), the office of federal immigration public defenders, the Humanitarian Respite Center, and Proyecto Azteca.
One of the group members, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, wrote the following reflection on her journey home from the Valley. We are grateful for our connection and for the prayers and presence of these leaders.
A Meditation on Psalm 84:
In light of 48 Hours in McAllen with Rio Texas friends
and Sunday morning with Mt Sylvan UMC, Durham, NC
Approaching my aisle seat on row 17, I saw a beautiful boyish face and smiled. He smiled back with eager shyness. We were both departing McAllen. It was 104 degrees outside, yet he wore a new sweatshirt, bright blue. I remembered that color, that sweatshirt. With a glance to his feet, I recognized his shoes as well.
We had seen those sweatshirts and those shoes in Ursula, the immigration processing center in McAllen. Four large wire “pods” were created in the 55,000 square feet of quickly erected human warehouse on Ursula Street. The detainees were sorted by gender and age and family status: boys 10-17, girls 10-17, mothers with small children, and men with small children. Strongly air-conditioned, the space was cold. Girls and boys, women and men wrapped in mylar “space” blankets, thin but effective for warmth. On shelves were sweatshirts, mostly bright blue. On a cart were new canvas shoes, slip-ons and lace-ups. My traveling neighbor was wearing slip-ons.
My heart ached. This beautiful child beside me, no longer in Ursula, remained in the cold, siloed frightening maze of the immigration system of the United States.
I longed for greater facility in Spanish, but seeing that he welcomed my attempts with a smile, I ventured as far as my vocabulary would take me. I learned that he was 12, from Honduras, a first- flier but not fearful of being in the air, alone but with a group of 4 on the plane, headed to New York. I glanced forward to scan for other sweatshirts and immediately saw two more, about eight rows forward.
We had been told that when the children are moved, they are given new shoes and sweatshirts. Accustomed to desert heat, they experience the chill of air-conditioning. The shoes and clothing help them blend in and not draw attention.
The beautiful boy pulled his hood up, glancing over from time to time with a grin. I turned to work more on my sermon for Sunday. The appointed text was Psalm 84, a personal favorite, made more so by the use of the Psalm as our conference theme for a quadrennium. “Strength to Strength.”
I fought back tears as I meditated upon the lovely image nestled in the Psalm: Even a sparrow finds a home, a swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young.
In McAllen, we met with people on all sides of the ongoing crisis: Customs and Border Patrol, Ursula staff, organizations offering comfort and help. Custom and Border Patrol staff told us that there was one constant in every arrest. Whether younger or older, alone or with others, all who was apprehended had the same first words: “Tienes agua?” “Do you have water?”
Psalm 84 describes the desert wilderness. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs, the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength. . .
Jesus described the welcome and blessing of God as giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.
We blessed 190 backpacks for children at nearby public schools this morning at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church. They were beautifully arranged around the altar. Each backpack has a laminted tag. On one side of the tag: You are Strong. You are Protected. You are Loved. On the other side of the tag: This backpack belong to__________ and has been blessed by Mt Sylvan Church. A backpack, a cup of cold water – tangible means of grace.
A baby girl at Mt Sylvan is named Sparrow. How lovely! I asked her mom and dad about the name. They replied that they chose it from the Bible, so that she would always know that she is safe.
I suppose I was not meant to know the name of my traveling companion on the flight from McAllen to Dallas. It occurred to me to have him write it down because I could not understand it as he pronounced it, trying several times with repeated laughter at my attempts to say it. For some reason I let it be, even after glancing at his boarding pass where it was spelled out.
Named and loved by God, blessing my journey and touching my heart, he becomes every child for me. Real, incarnate, beautiful – even more than himself. In his honor, this morning we pray for him, and for every child, to be as safe as the sparrows in the Bible. God who cares for the birds will also care for us. But will we care for each other, for all in the human family, young and old, near and far?
Psalm 84, with poetry of sparrows and swallows, of desert heat and refreshing water, of doors and doorkeepers, of weakness and strength, of humility and confidence, is alive with invitation. Let us be strong to receive it, love it, live it, dream it, create it for all God’s children.