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If it wasn’t for the churches…

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by Kurt Rietema

I sat across from Maribel as she flipped through the binder she had been using to coordinate the relief efforts of the migrant center in Ciudad Acuña. In the past three weeks, the Mexican border town scrambled to provide refuge for the 640 Haitian asylum-seekers who were left there after thousands more were processed for deportation just across the river. In the binder was a list of donation items followed by hundreds of names: Decoste waited for a tent. Wilbert, bed sheets. Fabida had received a tarp. Germina still awaited hers. A few pages had business cards of organizations that offered support, but the quantity seemed scant compared to the number of cable news channels that covered the unfolding crisis. When the camera crews finally yawned and packed up their things for juicier beats inside the beltway, the task of caring for the vulnerable people left behind was just beginning.

The migrant shelter was set up in an old event space that looked as if its hard times were far enough in the past not to be blamed on the pandemic. The property owner was delinquent on his taxes, so the city of Acuña didn’t so much ask permission as tell him the dance hall would be a refugee camp. The federal government washed its hands of the situation after setting up large canopies for the men, women and children to pitch sleeping bags under. The national guard patrolled the comings and goings. The politicians smiled for the cameras, but did little else. So when Maribel turned to the next page in her binder, there was little doubt who was doing the heavy lifting.

On the same kind of bright orange copy paper that you got your school’s weekly lunch menu on was the schedule of who was providing for the migrant camp’s kitchen. Monday’s breakfast: Pastor Hugo Garcia and Templo Palabra de Vida. Dinner: Cristo Viene would feed 200 people while another church, Mas Gracia, would feed 400. Wednesday: Principe de Paz. The list of churches kept going: Iglesia Sion Ministerio, Iglesia Emmanuel, Iglesia Gamez. She turned the page to the next week. Same story. Maribel pointed to an empty box. “Here, we don’t have anyone signed up. They won’t eat. If it wasn’t for the churches, no one would eat.” If it wasn’t for the churches, no one would eat.

It’s a long story of how a group of us with YF Neighborhood ended up at the Haitian migrant camp in Mexico. The short version is that it’s easy to watch the pain of others paraded on a global stage and think “they” should really do something about this, turn the channel and never once consider that “they” might be “us.. The book of James talks about this kind of well-wishing without action this way: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” We want to be the kind of people who refuse to turn away even when the news cycle does. So we stuffed a rented trailer like a Thanksgiving turkey with the generous donations from Kansas City churches and headed down without any illusions of how urgent or critical the relief might be. Yet this story isn’t about us. It’s about the Mexican churches.

Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a mass exodus from North American churches. In the face of culture wars, scandals, bait and switch evangelism or playing the pawn in partisan politics, the question of the departing seems to boil down to this question: “What good does the church do? Why bother?” Maybe that’s why I’m still hounded by Maribel’s statement. If it wasn’t for the churches, no one would eat.

The journey of the Haitian asylum-seekers is a master class in institutional failure. The Haitian government couldn’t protect them. The migrants then found temporary refuge in Chile and Argentina–until anti-immigrant sentiment and an ongoing pandemic made it no longer hospitable. The U.S. turned them away. The Mexican government set up tents and walked away. The camera crews departed. International relief organizations were nary to be found. With no legal way to work and no home to be found, as the dust settled across the Rio Grande, the only ones who didn’t turn their backs on them were the churches. For the Haitian migrants, “What good does the church do?” is a question whose answer was provided nearly three times a day.

At YF Neighborhood, we want to learn how to love our neighbors in the sacrificial way that these Mexican Christians are. On December 15-21, we’ll be taking another Missional Journey to Ciudad Acuña to show solidarity with our Haitian brothers and sisters. We’d love to have you join us on that trip or to donate towards the ongoing needs in the migrant camp. (Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn about future opportunities.)

Another way we want to invite you as we learn the art of neighboring together is through our newest local YF Neighborhood experiences: Nights in the Neighborhood and Service Saturdays. Twice a month on Wednesday nights (convenient for those whose church youth groups are already meeting, but open to individuals and families!), we’ll do hands-on help for a neighbor, do an interactive, learning experience, or hear stories of asylum-seekers here in Kansas City who fled their countries much like the Haitians we met at the border. Last week, our team led an interactive experience mapping out the hidden rules of school lunchrooms and imagined our city as a kind of similar, segregated lunchroom. Service Saturdays are kind of like a micro-Missional Journey where you’ll spend a day serving in your own city, learning about the challenges some neighbors face, and tasting food so delicious and authentic, you won’t find it in any restaurant!

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