We, a group of 12 volunteers from Servant Church in Austin, stand in disbelief as the Mexican border patrol agent barks that the bags of donated jackets and sweaters we have carted across the bridge over the Rio Grande in Brownsville are apparently against the rules today. New clothes only, she says. With tags.
Less than 50 feet away, just across the road from our checkpoint, we see the edge of a sprawling encampment of multicolored tents, each a makeshift home for the estimated 2,000 migrants waiting for their day in court to seek asylum in the United States.
Our trip to Matamoros in October coincided with the first real cold snap of the year since this camp sprung up over the summer. As we stand in the chill in our jackets, holding bags of now-contraband jackets, we can see amongst the hundreds of people standing among the tents that few have long sleeves.
Getting asylum requires many steps, the first of which is a court hearing, the date for which often shifts. If you miss your court date, you miss your chance at a life in America, labeled for deportation in absentia. No second chances. Because you can’t receive mail at an address you’ve fled, and phones are a luxury, asylum-seekers cluster near the checkpoint for news of their hearing.
Matamoros is in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which has Level 4 security threat status with the U.S. State Department, joining Iraq and Syria. Many families fleeing violence in home countries find themselves jumping from frying pan into fire, at high risk of kidnapping, sexual assault, and extortion.
My understanding of faith has evolved in tandem with my understanding of my role as a white woman with an American passport and a wealthy-enough upbringing.
As I’ve come to count the ways that we humans have forced God into our own image instead of the other way around, I look back with a jaded eye on all those spring break mission trips. Constructing houses or wells, but doing nothing to deconstruct — or even seek to understand — the systemic forces that created a need for them, rings hollow against the resonant boom of God’s vision for justice. I’m also still learning when truly surrendering to that vision means stepping up with your voice and when it means stepping aside for other voices.
What compelled me about going to Matamoros was that our group leaders expressly acknowledged that our impact would be inherently limited. No saviors here, we’ve already got one of those, remember? But we could use the power we do have to learn about, pray about and speak out about what’s happening, and we can better support the organizations, so many of them faith-based, that are doing the day-to-day holy work of supporting our asylum-seeking neighbors.
Our calling as people of faith to welcome refugees compels us to advocate against policies endangering their lives. The crisis in Matamoros reflects a global crisis manifested locally, as asylum-seekers from Chiapas to the Congo wait.
It also reflects a theological crisis manifested politically. Our friends of all faiths know an action in bad faith when they see it. They also see the dignity and the divine in all faces. So this is an interfaith effort: A quick scan of the names on Team Brownsville’s volunteer calendar confirms as much, and this is but a sprinkle of the flood of people serving and advocating on behalf of those at the border.
As activist Ruth Nasrullah said in an interview, quoting the Prophet Muhammad, about the intersection of her Muslim faith and her advocacy in Matamoros: “Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest form of faith.”
The author David Finnegan-Hosey writes that the familiar phrase “there, but for the grace of God, go I” insidiously implies that the target of the phrase, inevitably someone facing hard times, is somehow without God’s grace. Yet if God’s grace is to be found anywhere in the Bible, it is to be found with the vulnerable, particularly with the refugee.
To our brothers and sisters of faith who hold the arbitrary and great privilege of American citizenship, there —and for the grace of God — must we go.
Sarah McKibben is a lifelong mostly-Methodist, an adult educator, and a member of the Servant Church community in Austin. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.