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Religion and Service along the Southern Border

I set down my heavy box with a sigh. Next to it, sat rows and rows of other heaping crates, all full to the brim with shampoo, clothes, hair gel, deodorant, and other “essential items” waiting to be shipped to the ever-growing number of migrants camped just south of the Texas-Mexican border. I looked inside my most recent box, determining whether its contents would be necessary, or even helpful to those currently stuck in one of these encampments- a place one NPR foreign correspondent described as the “worst humanitarian crisis” she had ever seen. For the first time that day, I wasn’t sure whether my box, filled with small, pocket editions of the New Testament, belonged in the pile of toiletries, food and other essentials waiting to be distributed to migrants. A bit bemused, I asked one of our hosts, Sabas, whether he considered these bibles “essential items.” He looked at me incredulously, as though I’d asked him what color the sky was and then laughed. “Obviously these are essential!” he exclaimed, and then walked away shaking his head at my obvious foolishness.

This conversation was only one example of the many times I’ve been prompted to consider the role of religion, specifically Evangelical Christianity, in the numerous volunteer efforts our group has encountered along the southern border. Sabas and his family (the Moyas) run a Christian organization called “Border Perspectives” where we are currently staying. They are dedicated to providing humanitarian aid to migrants on either side of the border, and to connecting groups like ours to other volunteer organizations with the same mission. Any one of the family members will be the first to tell you that their mission is driven by a love of God- that is, if this sentiment wasn’t immediately obvious from the large stone carving stating “Jesus loves you” on their front lawn. Sabas’ father is a pastor, and his entire family is equally dedicated to their faith. While talking with the oldest of the brothers, Jonathan, I asked him what he thought the role of religion was at Border Perspectives. Like Sabas, his answer was simply that it was “essential.” “Faith gives people hope,” he said. “It allows them to unite around their belief in God.”

For the past several days, we have been volunteering with a handful of additional Christian organizations, also dedicated to providing food, clothing, and other essential supplies to migrants on the border. Unsurprisingly, I ’ve observed the exact same religious sentiments, and subsequent mission statements in these organizations. While working at an organization called “Border Missions,” I asked one man why he chose to work roughly 40 hours a week as a volunteer at this organization, rather than somewhere where he could earn a living. His answer was simply that “God had called him there.” He then walked away, displaying his blue volunteer shirt with the slogan “work hard pray hard” on the back.

During our time working with Border Perspectives and these other volunteer organizations, I’ve come to understand that religion is an essential component of the outreach that happens in this part of the country. Because of the humanitarian crisis on the border, there is a constant need for a supply of food, clothing, water, and hygiene products. Many of the migrants present on the border are fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico, and are  seeking asylum in the United States. Prior to the Trump administration, they would be allowed to wait for their asylum hearings in the (relative) safety of the United States. Now, thanks to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico policy” many people are forced to camp directly across the border, facing cartel violence, sexual assault, and kidnappings for ransom while they await an asylum hearing that is meticulously designed to send them home. In this way, these religiously motivated humanitarian organizations are a necessity in this part of the United States to say the least, especially as the governments of the U.S. and Mexico both refuse to acknowledge the severity of this humanitarian crisis. From my admittedly very limited perspective, the religion that drives these organizations seems to be an essential component to their success. The people I have spoken with are not alone in their belief that they have been sent to the border on a mission from God. Many of these organizations themselves have been built around that exact same belief, and I have begun to question if this gargantuan humanitarian need would be met as effectively, if the people doing it were not guided by an extremely powerful set of beliefs.

Anyone who has been foolish enough to begin a discussion with me about religion knows that one of my favorite scholars of religion, Émile Durkheim, has a core philosophy which I enjoy forcibly inflicting upon people’s ears. He believed that religion can be defined as a community of people united around common beliefs, who practice rituals (both in the ceremonial sense, and simple day-to-day actions) which constantly reinforce their shared beliefs. In this way, Durkheim argues, religion and even God, can be thought of as the community itself. Thinking back on it, I have seen Durkheim’s analysis play out every day while volunteering on the border. The presence of religion here has an incredibly strong unifying force, and is making it possible for essential work to be done, and for hungry people to be fed. Their “ritual” reinforcement of their religious beliefs- primarily, that their community must be helped- is simply the work they do every day. This work in turn reinforces, and strengthens their faith in both their cause, and in God. Thousands of people have come together as a community, forming entire conglomerates dedicated to meeting the need which has arisen in the wake of this crisis- all “in the name of Jesus.”

As someone who grew up in the Greek Orthodox faith and simultaneously almost never attended church, I have admittedly developed a rather sour view of organized religion. As I grew older and began to develop my own identity, I continuously saw religion -especially evangelical christianity- as nothing more than an oppressive force, dedicated to preserving the antiquated values that continue to oppress many people to this day. For me, evangelical christianity has always prompted images of white saviorism at best, and at worst, violent modern-day colonialism. Even after my time spent volunteering on the southern border, I still believe I am justified in this assessment. A religion that favors white men as the ideal archetypal human and has, in many historical instances, worked solely to oppress all others, has undoubtedly caused an incredible amount of violence in the past; however, I realized I was wrong in the assumption that this is all of which it is capable. Over the past week here, I have come to understand that religion itself is simply a powerful force which has, in the past, been harnessed many times by people seeking violence. During my time on the border, however, I have realized that it also has an incredible potential to be used for a great deal of good. For years, I have overlooked the immense power and capability of religion to be a positive force- specifically, its ability to unify us, as humans, around solutions for some of the greatest issues of our time. Put simply, I have come to the belief that religion, while undoubtedly problematic, simultaneously has a deeply unique power to provide humanity with hope.

 

Happy Belated Birthday, Gigi!!! Remember to avoid the feathered attack drones.

Photo: Caleb Minear