Photo: Members of Pueblos Creyentes – grassroots faith communities from Salto de Agua, Mexico – leave on a 25-day pilgrimage to San Cristobal de las Casa, Mexico, to demonstrate their opposition to a planned mega dam project. –MCC photo/Anna Vogt
For more stories on the theme “Love Across Borders,” see the May issue of The Mennonite, available here.
A family story is sketched inside my head. Details have blurred and faded over the years, yet when I close my eyes, I see a young man walking on railroad tracks, the bright blue prairie sky shining overheard.
His name, in my mind, is Henry, and he is stepping forward tie by tie, looking for his family. In a moment of forgetfulness or misplaced urgency, he has missed the train that is carrying the rest of my Mennonite ancestors across the Canadian prairies to their new home.
He is only on foot until he reaches the next station where everyone is waiting; yet this is still part of a journey across the unknown. Perhaps he is thinking of Russia, of the way the golden wheat reminds him of life on the Ukrainian steppes before the violence of the communist revolution. Maybe he is simply enjoying the breeze as he steadily follows the tracks into the future.
In November 2016, I went on my own journey, one of choice and of vocation, through northern Guatemala and southern Mexico, as part of an international observation mission of human rights between borders. We, a group of 24 international human rights organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), were exploring themes of gender, territory and migration.
In between meetings, however, I participated in awkward bus conversations and late-night dinners, where I tried to respond to questions about Mennonites and the Reformation. I attempted to explain the concept of adult baptism, revolution in the 16th century and the desire to live apart – concepts that eventually bore fruit in both the work I am currently doing in Latin America, with MCC, an organization founded on Anabaptist beliefs, and in the lives of colony Mennonites, a familiar sight in Mexico.
I asked myself questions too: Am I a descendant of this movement that believes in peace, traveling across the world to protect their rights to nonviolence? Or do I descend from a group of people who often prefer to live separately, where pacifism sometimes results in isolation? Is it possible, over a history of 500 years, to be a nuanced combination of both? All I knew for sure then was that I was unexpectedly being asked, perhaps fittingly, to carry my ancestors with me across borders.
Two hours across the Mexican border, La 72, a shelter for migrants, was bustling with life. Groups of families huddled together, talking and feeding babies as they leaned against the shelter walls. Children clung to the legs of volunteers and shrieked with laughter, refusing to be shaken loose. People ate together at long tables beneath vibrantly painted murals and lined up patiently to wash their dishes in the buckets by the kitchen. As evening neared, we sat in the center of a circle of hundreds of migrants and listened to those who wished to share their journey.
“The only education we have in Honduras is learning on the street. When the government doesn’t help to take care of its people, what can we do?” said one young man of his search to find possibilities of work somewhere else.
We heard of kidnapping, rape, extortion, threats and death all along the journey to the United States, one that is only beginning as all of Mexico stretches out ahead. We heard of increased militarization and deterrence leading to death. According to current reports and conversations with partners, migrants continue to face these threats at home and along the way today.
All the migrants’ stories were intense, but I found myself sitting up a little straighter when a young woman, not more than 26, stood up and gripped the microphone. “I am a single mother, sharing a home with another mother. Between us, we have 11 children. When gang members approached us and demanded that we give them our teenage daughters, we refused and turned to the police. The next day, the police arrived at our home and gave us 24 hours to hand our children over to the maras (gangs). So we left. And here we are.”
At one point there was a muffled commotion from the women’s dorm, but our attention was focused on the courage around us, not the background. As he closed the space, Fray Tomas, director of La 72, told us the source of the contained weeping we heard earlier: one of the migrants had received a phone call from Honduras. Gang members killed her daughter.
“You are now baptized with memory and by these voices,” Tomas said. “You cannot leave the same.”
It seemed to me that none of us – migrant, refugee, human rights defender or an uncertain Mennonite – would leave this journey the same. Even now, these are the voices, of hope and courage, that propel me forward in my own advocacy work and understandings of Latin America.
As we prepared to leave for our hotel, music for an evening dance began. We got back in the van to the rhythms of cumbia music and the dance of resistance, of ordinary people living their lives in extraordinary ways.
Carlos was waiting for the train to leave as we pulled up beside the tracks in Palenque. He stood near the boxcar he had picked as the most probable option to carry him north, through the Tabasco jungle to central Mexico. The Honduran smiled with bravado, while his friend beside him was visibly nervous about “jumping on the famous bestia (beast).” Both young men were aware of the high-risk travel options and chose to leave home anyway, trying to earn a living to support their families.
We followed the railroad tracks to a tiny church in Salto de Agua. Sister Kati, short and determined, welcomed us inside and led us past the mattresses in the foyer into the sanctuary. When we asked her about threats she had faced for her work, she brushed off accusations of being a human trafficker and instead focused on the practical details of her hospitality, telling us about the thousand migrants the church tended to each month and the support provided by the local community: donations of food and time, when they could.
The priest beamed with pride as he passed around a photo of the second Mass he held within the church, honoring the Catholic Church’s year-long focus on prayer for mercy between December 2015 and November 2016.
One moment, we were inside the church; the next moment, as we stepped out the door, we were in a march. The verdant humidity of jungle and the smoke of incense clouded my camera lenses and filtered everything with a sense of unreality. There was so much I did not understand; yet, there I was, invited to be in that sacred space.
None of us knew the marchers’ chants. Organizers handed out photocopied scripts so we could join in, calling for hospitals and respect for Mother Earth. As we walked alongside members of the Pueblos Creyentes, a grassroots local organizations made up of communities of faith on a pilgrimage to defend their land from mega dams and four-lane highways, we shared stories among ourselves of others marches, in other places: Colombia, Mexico City, Guatemala.
We arrived at the first stop on the march – a giant auditorium. One of our trip organizers asked me if I would give the saludos (greetings) from our entire group of human rights observers to the marchers and other community members who were demanding their right not to be displaced. They also were the same people who were feeding and sheltering the migrants passing through their land. I stood before the pilgrims and said the only words I knew at that moment:
“As we have traveled, we have observed and heard worrying and concerning testimonies of pain, of violence, of displacement and of mega projects. But we also have observed and heard many, many stories of resistance and of lucha (struggle). That has been a privilege, as well as the great honor to walk with you this afternoon and to stand with you today. This is our commitment, to continue to walk with you and to carry these stories and testimonies with us, to our communities and wherever we go.”
As we walked down the hill to the van, my friend and fellow observer Patricia Zamudio, president of the Citizen’s Council of the Mexican National Institute for Migration, put her arm around my shoulders and squeezed gently. “Now I know what a Mennonite greeting sounds like,” she said.
On the second to last night, we were all on the brink of weeping exhaustion. Irritable and cranky, we gathered around a fire for an endless reflection session, complete with clay, notecards, small groups and hug circles. We sought inspiration for guidance, healing and action.
As I watched the flames circle higher and higher, I thought about my ancestors: of Henry, walking the train tracks; of stories about my great-grandmother and her refusal to talk about the trauma she suffered in Russia; of courageous aunts; of my own parents, farming in the Yukon; of endless church services and faspa, the traditional Russian Mennonite Sunday night dinner of bread and jam; of the good work of my own organization; and of myself, roaming the Americas.
What if we considered every year a year of mercy, a year when we commit to look at one another, love one another and learn from one another? In a tiny church on the edge of a jungle and train tracks, mercy means a mattress, a plate of beans, if there are any that day, and an invitation to be human together before the God of our own understanding.
Anna Vogt is a context analyst and advocacy support worker for Mennonite Central Committee. She is based in Bogotá, Colombia, and is from Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada.
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