Updated: Mar 28
Editor's Note: Hill Kemp was ordained a Ruling Elder in Silsbee, Texas and has been a member of New Covenant Presbytery churches for over 50 years. He has served on COM, a Synod committee and has been a delegate to General Assembly. His current work assignment has him in Alamogordo, NM where he is a member of First Presbyterian. He is growing trees in the desert using solar desalinated water to stop global warming. Hill served as a member of the Texas Legislature representing south and west suburban Houston and he has two novels published on the inside world of that Legislature.
by Hill Kemp
As the sun sets over south Texas, Caly Fernandez looks out over the tent city holding 9,000 people and sighs knowing that the desert night temperature will soon dive and those people face another night of misery. This Matamoros tent city is but one of many she advocates for as Director of Puentes de Cristo (Bridges of Christ). She knows the lucky ones have a blanket to cover themselves and their kids to try to keep warm. But the unlucky ones might have only a towel or their threadbare clothes.
Just two decades ago there were dozens of churches and hundreds of volunteers to look after the hapless migrants on both sides of the border. Those were the days when volunteers traveled on mission trips to northern Mexico to help and serve those in dire need. But the drug cartels’ takeover of northern Mexico forced that volunteer force to withdraw. Now Caly is among the handful of dedicated Volunteer Coordinators scattered along the US side of the border trying to deal with a migrant crisis much bigger than all those volunteers handled at the start of this century. Today these remnant heroes like Rev. Abraham Barberi from Ministerio Una Mision, Rev. John Nelson and Rev. Matt Miles from Tres Rios Border Foundation, Alma Ruth from Practice Mercy, Felicia Rangel from the Sidewalk School, Andrea Rudnik and Team Brownsville manage to get a partial lifeline to a few of the needy. But it’s not enough. Not even close.
Unstable and/or authoritative governments, gang violence, poverty and war have sent a tsunami of disparate migrants streaming across the US southern border. Over recent years a long, narrow and winding community has emerged north of the border from Brownsville to Baja. Hundreds of thousands of people escaping to what they hoped was a better life – or at least life at all.
Unfortunately, the meandering and volatile US public policy has this community – as big as a mid-sized city – trapped in limbo. Government leaders have rendered this human tragedy into a political football and their focus on the resulting games provides cover for their inaction. While the Irish, Polish, Czech, Chinese, Cuban and Italian immigration waves endured troubles as well, nothing compares to the scale of the current southern border crisis in terms of mass human suffering.
Caly’s native Dominican Spanish serves her well with many of the people she works with. There is a need for more Spanish speaking volunteers. But lately there is a need for Russian, Ukrainian and other translators from all over to deal with new arrivals.
Angelina, a mother of three from Venezuela, walked hundreds of miles with her children maneuvering the maze north through Central America and Mexico. She is not an invader. She escaped and survived the journey through the two-way traffic – drugs going north and guns and money going south – in order that her children might not fall victim to gangs or worse. All along the way Angelina taught her children all about the 3 R’s of surviving migration: robbers, rapists and rip-off artists. Nino is a skilled electrician and Caly has him and his cohorts trying to establish some semblance of service in the tent city. There are trades people, accountants, artists, teachers and police officers bedding down in those tents.
For too long people in the Church have viewed mission work as something to be done in some other country by someone living “over there”. But this human tsunami has brought the needy from those other countries to America in one long, east-to-west community. Under the US system of law enforcement, it is mission work for which you don’t need a passport. Just passion for “the least of these”.
The overwhelming tasks Caly and the few others working this issue face means they can deal almost only with the Code 1 emergencies. No time for educating the children, helping with learning English, job training or the other important needs for living. Day after exhausting day she faces dealing with all the administrative matters like communications, budgets and recruiting at night before finally getting to fitful sleep. Caly and the other remnant heroes know the needs. She knows how to grapple with the immigration system. She knows how to get the migrants to the few lawyers who can get them through the byzantine procedures. Caly also knows how to bring a staffed organization into being to relieve her draconian overload. She just doesn’t have the resources and people to do it. It will require YAV supervisors, YAV volunteers, adult volunteers and money to get back up to the level needed. And it’s needed now.
It is only Caly’s faith that manages to keep stalking burnout from ending her lonely, vital journey. She spends her days sowing the Spirit according to Galatians 6:9. And it is her faith that has her up early every morning to face by herself a job that needs thousands.