by Rachel Johnson
As a human, an American and a Christian, I will settle for nothing less than full welcome for the migrant caravan at our border.
Regardless of what certain pundits and politicians say, the Central Americans waiting at our border are fleeing, not invading. The situations we’ve heard describe unbelievable violence: children and elderly murdered, homes and markets burned to the ground, young and old men with targets on their backs because they refuse to join a gang, even gang members who know that just the thought of leaving could cost them their lives. The people who joined this caravan across Mexico did so because they felt they had to, not because they wanted to.
This issue is not only moral for me, it is personal. After college, I moved to Mexico City and worked at a shelter for Central American migrants and refugees. The guests at our shelter often stayed with us for months at a time as they went through the process of applying for asylum and refugee status in Mexico. They became my friends. The migrants I know are dynamic, compassionate, funny and talented – not “stone cold criminals.”
In the months we spent together, we shared meals, stories, dreams, laughter and tears. They took unbelievable pride in their homes – the culture, food, nature, music and most importantly their people – and they would have given anything to be able to stay. But they couldn’t. Because of the realities of gang violence and military corruption, returning to their homelands would mean putting not only their lives but those of their loved ones at risk. Out of selflessness, they would not take that chance.
Most of the people who stayed at that shelter were denied refuge in Mexico, forcing them northward in their continued search for safety. Several decided to join other migrants who passed through Mexico in caravans just like the one that has been making our news recently.
The current migrant caravan is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last. Journeying across Mexico is extremely dangerous due to cartels that specifically target Central Americans to kidnap, extort and murder them. The path of La Bestia, the train that many migrants ride on top of to reach the U.S.-Mexico border, is littered with mass graves that Mexican advocacy groups continue to discover.
Traveling together is strategic: a migrant caravan of hundreds or thousands is noticed, as would be its disappearance. There is safety in numbers. There is accountability in visibility.
In April of 2014, I helped to receive a caravan of 1200 Central Americans as they entered Mexico City. As they entered the auditorium where we waited with plates of hot food and bottles of water, the first thing I saw was an enormous, white cross. For me, it was an instant reminder that God was there, journeying alongside these people, leading them as they fled oppression and searched for the promise of a better life.
This was not an invasion, it was an Exodus.
Watching that caravan approach, I could not help but think of the biblical Exodus story. A pivotal story of my faith is one of a people who were suffering unbelievable violence, who were persecuted, tortured and killed, whose children were murdered. It is the story of how God responded to that violence: by hearing their cries, by sending one who could speak truth to power and do God’s liberating work, by leading the entire Israelite people out of danger and into the promise of a better life.
I believe in a God who organized a migrant caravan.
Ever since that moment, I have known that God is on the side of the immigrant, and I believe it is our duty to welcome the people of this latest caravan. Not only am I told to love my neighbor, welcome the stranger and treat the alien in my land as I would any citizen, I believe in a God who parted the sea to take an entire nation from slavery to freedom!
Really, how different are the cries of the Israelites to those of the Central Americans waiting at our border? Honduras and El Salvador have the highest rates of homicide in the world, insidious political corruption and a third of families living below the poverty line. The migrants who just completed their journey across Mexico are searching for safety, not comfort.
In response to the Exodus happening today, we have to ask ourselves who we want to emulate – Pharaoh or Moses?
As a human, I believe that all people deserve safety. As an American, I believe that this nation ought to stand for justice. And as a Christian, I believe that the only faithful response to the migrant caravan is compassionate welcome.
So Trump may close the border, but remember, God parted the sea.
Rachel Johnson is a seminarian at United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or read more about her experience at the shelter in Mexico City at racheltheyagm.blogspot.com