One day can change a life. A one-day learning trip to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2013 made a big impact on the lives of youth from Walnut Hill Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., and extended to the rest of the congregation.
The border visit happened during Mennonite Church USA’s convention in Phoenix. Convention planners organized the learning trips, led by the BorderLinks organization, as part of a focus on immigration.
“It was the first time most of our youth had engaged immigrants firsthand,” said youth sponsor Jason Harrison.
The youth group and sponsors heard stories of divided families, detention and hardship. They watched the U.S. court system try 70 Spanish-speaking men in English, 10 at a time, in a confusing courtroom setting.
Three of the Walnut Hill youth spoke about their BorderLinks experiences to delegates who were considering an immigration resolution at the convention.
Since that day, they have visited America’s largest immigration detention center, traveled to Guatemala to meet U.S. immigrants’ families and started an intergenerational Sunday school class on immigration issues.
During a workshop later on at the convention, the youth met Anton Flores-Maisonet, cofounder of Alterna, a Christian cross-border outreach community in LaGrange, Ga. Alterna runs a hospitality house for people with family members living at Stewart Detention Center in nearby Lumpkin.
The Walnut Hill congregation chose a group of youth and adults to visit the center as their 2014 annual spring break Sharing and Learning Together trip.
At Stewart, they spoke by phone through heavy glass to imprisoned detainees. They learned about for-profit detention centers like Stewart that make money for the individual and corporate owners, and where extended detention instead of deportation means profit from government contracts.
The hospitality of immigrant families in Georgia impressed the group, who stayed in homes. In June, another group from Walnut Hill visited Guatemala, where they met and stayed with families of Georgia detainees.
Again the theme was hospitality, said Harrison: “Compared to the lack of hospitality most immigrants experience in the United States, it felt like a divide that was unfair and unjust.”
The youth led a worship service at their church after each trip. The congregation started a Sunday school class using MC USA’s Radical Hospitality curriculum. An immigrant couple from Mexico joined the class and now attend the church.
“It’s been quite a ride in just 18 months,” Harrison said. “A whole lot has come out of a decision to go on a one-day learning experience in Tucson.”
Welcoming the stranger
Other Mennonite congregations have responded to immigration issues, too, according to Tina Stoltzfus Schlabach, an MC USA pastor who is a member of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, Ariz. Schlabach visits women held in detention and offers spiritual direction.
Schlabach said thousands of women and young children have crossed the border since 2013, traveling by bus to family members across the country. Humanitarian groups have organized to offer food, hydration and orientation before they begin their long trips to their families.
Peace Mennonite Church of Dallas, Texas, and Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church put together hundreds of kits with drawing paper, crayons and small toys for the children.
“The children are so excited to receive these bags made just for them,” Schlabach said.
Release for prisoners
Members of Evanston (Ill.) Mennonite Church, where Mitchell Brown is the pastor, felt called to act as well.
“We sold our building over five years ago and had slowly been trying to figure out what to do with the money,” Brown said. The congregation chose to bond out two imprisoned detainees.
“It is often impossible for migrant families to raise bond,” Schlabach said.
Detainee bonds are often set from $5,000 to $15,000. When bond is granted and paid, immigrants can continue to fight deportation outside of detention.
Evanston Mennonite paid bond for two detainees whom Schlabach had been visiting during the prior year. Raúl (not his real name) is from Mexico. His wife and their two preschool daughters live in Tucson. He was imprisoned 10 months and is now reunited with his family.
Maricela (not her real name), the other detainee, was in detention 20 months. She had fled domestic violence in Honduras.
Schlabach said the bond money may be returned as detainees meet their court commitments and their cases are settled over time. If so, it may go into a revolving fund to help other detainees with their bond fees. She and the Evanston congregation are exploring this possibility.
Schlabach suggests people interested in helping begin by finding the newly arrived migrants from Central America in their communities.
She points to the Sanctuary Movement, which has experienced a resurgence in Tucson. Sanctuary churches allow an immigrant family member in danger of deportation to live in the church while the faith community advocates to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a stay of deportation. Other congregations, called supporting churches, commit to visiting the person seeking sanctuary and providing what is needed.
“We can support the new members of our communities wherever we live,” she said. “They don’t stay here [at the border]; they go elsewhere in the U.S.”