In the 10th-floor conference room of the Church Center for the United Nations, Romelia Tenezaca’s story entered the air line by line, first in Spanish and second in English. Ben Clark, family network director at the Colibri Center for Human Rights and Tenezaca’s interpreter, solemnly repeated her words to the non-Spanish speakers leaning forward in the room. As she waited for each translation, Tenezaca would sip her water and dab at her eyes with a tissue. After a gentle nod from Clark, she would offer the next line.
The story of her son Hugo’s disappearance in the southwestern U.S. desert came together in this way to an audience of students, advocates and faith leaders. It was soft and stilted, choked with emotion.
In June 2012, Hugo Patricio Tenezaca attempted to cross the border between Mexico and the U.S. to pursue his love of design. He called his mother just before he left. She has not heard from him since. The 19-year-old made his journey two decades after implementation of the U.S. Border Patrol’s “Prevention through Deterrence” security tactic, in which the environment was turned into a weapon against those trying to enter the U.S. These policies thwarted and even criminalized some attempts to provide humanitarian aid that could offset the brutal heat and terrain. The result was more suffering and death, disappearances and women like Tenezaca, a mother longing for her son.
Mennonite Central Committee’s office to the U.N. joined with the Colibri Center for Human Rights to bring stories like Tenezaca’s to faith-based advocates at the U.N. The Tucson, Ariz.-based Colibri Center works between forensic science and family connections to reunite family members with the remains of beloved ones, like Hugo Tenezaca, who have disappeared or died crossing the deserts of the Mexico-U.S. border.
The second speaker at the event was Elena Gonzalez. Colibri helped reunite her with the remains of her mother after 21 years of disappearance. An urn of ashes obviously could not compare with the physical presence of her mother, but her sense of closure was tangible.
“I have her with me again,” Gonzalez said.
Even in faith-based advocacy, it is too easy to separate our work from the people we claim to hold at its center. The human side of advocacy can feel too personal, especially in professional settings where practicality is encouraged and interventions are held to three minutes. We may feel more comfortable separating emotion from work, seeking a moral upper hand amid a polarized political climate or the satisfaction of a sleekly worded argument.
In Romans 12, a chapter about love in action, Paul instructs followers of Christ to practice hospitality and to weep with those who weep (12:13, 15). He lays out the importance of incorporating empathy into love. As people of faith, we cannot overlook stories of suffering simply because they don’t fit neatly into a data set or because they force us to face our own privilege and complacency. To engage in advocacy informed by love, we must hold humans at the center of our work and honor the individuals whose hearts break every time they share their stories.
We did not meet in the 10th-floor conference room to share prepared statements or discuss capacity building. We met to listen and sit in the silence between sobs, to feel the discomfort that builds empathy, to hear a story two times and see that heartbreak does not subside in translation.
Abby Hershberger is program assistant in the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office.