Members of the migrant caravan winding its way through Mexico voted Thursday night to continue toward the U.S. border, and President Trump has promised to meet them there with troops and stricter asylum rules.
But faith is also going to meet them – and well before the roughly 5,000 walkers make it to the border later this month.
Religious and secular groups are forming coalitions to deliver everything from basic necessities to spiritual and legal support to the thousands trying to escape violence and oppression in their Central American homelands.
Coalition members say they are driven by biblical imperatives to welcome refugees as well as by plain old compassion and empathy for people who are suffering immense hardship.
“How we treat the most vulnerable in any society is how we treat Jesus,” said Marv Knox, field coordinator of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Fellowship Southwest.
“Whatever you think of the politics of it, these are people who are at risk and we want to care for their spiritual and physical needs.”
The Fellowship is attempting to do that through a rapidly assembled and growing alliance of churches on the northern and southern sides of the border, Knox said.
Led by Jorge Zapata, associate coordinator of CBF Texas, its participants are working to funnel supplies and money raised in the U.S. to religious ministries already in Mexico.
Clergy and leaders with CBF Texas, Fellowship Southwest and CBF churches in the Texas cities of Alamo, Laredo and McAllen are working with organizations like the Assemblies of God, Children’s Hunger Fund, Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Pentecostal congregations and others.
It’s a big job with a lot of uncertainties, Knox said.
“We are trying to front-end supplies for shipping and get them there before the border closes,” he added.
Exodus, not caravan
The situation has been chaotic and uncertain all along, said Ryan Eller, executive director of Define American, a nonprofit that works with media and other influencers to promote positive, accurate narratives about immigrants and refugees.
While attention has focused on the largest caravan, there are actually three groups, said Eller, a Baptist minister and member of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
The group getting most of the attention is leaving Mexico City on a journey that will take it toward Juarez, Mexico, he said. Processions of approximately 2,000 and 800 are following.
What they have in common is a desire to escape oppression and high homicide rates in places like Honduras and Guatemala.
Define American is working with NGOs in Mexico supporting the walkers. It’s also telling the personal stories, many of whom are Christians.
“They are all fleeing horrifically violent situations in their home countries. They are desperate situations just like most refugees face globally,” he said. “They are coming to America to beg for asylum.”
It’s why Eller said he prefers to refer to the situation as an exodus instead of a caravan. “It’s people fleeing increasingly dire, incredibly dangerous situations in their own community and asking to be safe and free in another land.”
In addition to contributing money to such causes, Eller said, Americans can get directly involved wherever they are by reaching out to local organizations that assist refugees and immigrants.
“Just ask them how you can volunteer, tell them you want to build relationships. We can address this issue relationship by relationship.”
Eller said there are more than 90 passages in Scripture about the treatment of immigrants.
“Not one says we should meet them with military force or fear them.”
‘It shook the earth’
The idea of children being swept up in these issues is a powerful motivator for some in the U.S. headed to the border, said Rabbi Josh Whinston, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Whinston said he was drawn into the movement earlier this year when news broke about immigrant children being separated from parents and guardians.
“It shook the earth beneath my feet,” he said.
Since then he’s been involved in immigration and refugee issues in southern Michigan.
But now he’s involved with a coalition of organizations, such as Faith in Action, the Prophetic Resistance Project and a number of Christian and Jewish groups.
Together, they are staging a “Let Our Families Go” caravan aimed at supporting and freeing immigrant teenagers held by the federal government at an encampment in Tornillo, Texas.
Beginning Sunday, rallies will be held in Michigan, Indiana and Oklahoma. On Thursday in El Paso, participants will stage a border witness, a vigil and protest at the detention camp, various acts of service and a feast with asylum seekers at a border center.
Rabbinic tradition holds that welcoming the stranger takes precedence over honoring God, Whinston said.
“When a congregant emailed me and said what’s happening with the kids in Tornillo was tearing her apart, I said let’s go do something. Let’s not just write checks. We must bear witness.”
‘It’s all about relationships’
Participating in coalitions bears witness to the importance of relationships in meeting human needs, Knox said.
It’s a dynamic more commonly seen in faith-based disaster response work, he added. “In both, the cause is great and there are some theological roots to why people care about this very deeply. But it’s not a denominational issue.”
Instead, the issue is to undergird the ongoing efforts of churches and ministries on the ground in Mexico.
For Knox and other leaders, “It’s all about relationships.”
Contributions to the migrant caravan may be made online through CBF.
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