Visit to U.S./Mexico border encourages pastors to build bridges
By Myra Holmes
A Spanish-language version of this artice is available here.
Borders are intended to divide and separate, and the border between Mexico and the U.S. has been the subject of especially divisive rhetoric in recent months. But when a group of MB pastors visited that border together recently, it was an opportunity to connect and come together.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) invited nine MB pastors from the Pacific District Conference (PDC)–five Hispanic and four Anglo–on a border tour March 5-9, 2017. The purpose was not only to educate and inform but also to build relationships between Anglo and Hispanic MB leaders.
MCC regularly hosts similar border tours for schools, church groups and organizations. This tour was initiated by Dina Gonzalez-Pina, MCC’s ethnic and gender equity specialist, and Nate Yoder, executive director of MCC West Coast, who intentionally selected and invited a group of MB leaders representing different languages, cultures and generations.
Activities were designed to give a balanced view of the issues. Participants heard from border patrol officers as well as deportees, prayed at the wall and learned about the politics surrounding it, visited a ministry that aims to create solutions by providing work in Mexico and saw gravesites of those who lost their lives trying to cross the border.
But the bigger goal was to foster relationships. Twenty-nine of the PDC’s 119 congregations are Hispanic, and Gonzalez-Pina, who along with her husband leads a Hispanic MB congregation in Hanford, Calif., Iglesia La Gran Comision, sees firsthand the gap between Hispanic and Anglo Mennonite Brethren in California’s Central Valley. “There is an isolation from each other,” she says. “It saddens my heart.”
Tour participant Sam Resendez also sees that gap. Resendez has served as a church planter and pastor of Hispanic MB congregations for over 40 years, helped establish the Hispanic Assembly in the PDC, chaired the Hispanic Council for 10 years and has pastored Iglesia La Roca, Sanger, California, for the last 15 years.
“It seems like we [Hispanic and Anglo MBs] don’t relate,” he says, speculating that language, differences in programming and simply lack of opportunities to interact contribute to the disconnect.
The hope was that as MB leaders shared this experience, heard each other’s stories and wrestled with issues together, they would begin to bridge that gap.
Sharing accommodations and meals for five days was a simple first step. By way of example, tour participant James Bergen, pastor of North Fresno (Calif.) MB Church, talks about making the acquaintance of fellow tour participant Cristobal Aleman, pastor of Iglesia Hermanos Menonita West Park, Fresno. Although the two minister in the same community, they had never met. “We know each other now,” Bergen says.
When a shared experience includes wrestling with a complex issue such as immigration, like this MCC border tour did, it provides opportunity to go beyond acquaintance. Gonzalez-Pina says, “I think there’s nothing better as spiritual leaders than to hear each other, walk with each other, to lean into these issues together.”
Resendez was drawn to the tour out of “a real concern” for immigration issues. Not only does he have firsthand experience with immigration, having crossed the border himself as a young child, but he also serves a population for whom changing policies have deep impact. Hispanics make up more than 50 percent of the population in Fresno County, and Resendez estimates that about a third of his congregation is undocumented. Resendez describes the fear that for many complicates simple activities like a trip to Wal-Mart and how the church serves by helping parents form a plan to care of their children should they be deported. “They are scared to death,” he says.
It was helpful, he says, to wrestle with the issues alongside Anglo MB pastors. “Maybe by doing some of these activities, making people aware of the issues, maybe that way we can get closer,” Resendez says.
Bergen of North Fresno Church, says that he was likewise drawn to the tour by a desire to learn and be equipped, but what made it powerful was sharing the experience: “Who I went with was meaningful.” The group not only included Spanish and English speakers, but also those from various Latin American countries as well as first, second and third-generation immigrants. He, incidentally, is a first-generation immigrant from Canada, having become a naturalized citizen four years ago. Those different perspectives made for rich interactions, he says.
Bergen hopes to build upon new relationships both personally and with his congregation, perhaps by coming alongside a new acquaintance in distributing food to those in need. Or by developing a sister-church relationship with a Hispanic congregation in the Fresno area.
He recognizes that it’s especially tempting for those from the “dominant culture” to want to “fix things,” so he hopes to follow the lead of his Hispanic brothers and sisters. “How can we empower them and follow them?” Maybe, he suggests, a good starting point is to simply share a meal and hear each other’s stories.
Resendez, too, says that intentionally building relationships is the first step toward finding solutions. “When you know someone, you begin to care about that person,” he says. ““When you see misery, when you see need, if you see it from afar, maybe you don’t care. But when you see it next to you, when you are looking at the face of the person, it’s totally different.”
Border tour participants included:
- James Bergen, pastor, North Fresno (Calif.) Church
- Sam Resendez, pastor, Iglesia La Roca, Sanger, Calif.
- Carlos Gonzalez, pastor Los Hechos Manteca (Calif.)
- Rhonda Dueck, director, The Micah Project, Fresno, Calif.
- Jeff Herrington, adjunct faculty, Fresno Pacific University
- Hector Hernandez, graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, Fresno-area youth pastor
- Nancy Donat, adjunct faculty, Fresno Pacific University
- Cristobal Aleman, pastor, Iglesia Hermanos Menonita West Park, Fresno
- Alvaro Barrantes, pastor, Iglesia Los Hechos, San Jose, Calif.
- Dina Gonzalez-Pina, MCC ethnic and gender equity specialist
- Nate Yoder, executive director of MCC West Coast
PHOTOS by James Bergen
Photo 1: Border tour participants pray at the wall separating the U.S. and Mexico.
Photo 2: Sharing meals and accommodations helped tour participants develop friendships that tour organizers hope will continue to grow.
Photo 3: Tour participants visit with a border patrol officer.