Update on pastor’s envision overground railroad to help refugees
By Lindsay Peyton
To ensure their safety and protect the identities of those involved, some names in this story have been changed.
When mounting violence and lack of opportunity forced “Maria” to flee from her home in Central America to the U.S., she faced a decision no mother would welcome. Only one of her two children could accompany her on the arduous trip. She had to take her infant son, who was still nursing, while her daughter stayed behind with godparents. As Maria traveled to her destination, she was in tears, haunted with concern for her child. Pastors from the Texas Annual Conference, however, were there for her, walking beside Maria, at the beginning of her journey.
Senior Pastor Rob Spencer at FUMC Paris, was in Brownsville to learn what was happening at the border when he discovered a refugee who needed help. He remembers finding Maria at a bus station with a baby. All they had to eat were crackers and water.
Spencer introduced himself and bought her lunch. He asked if there was anything else he could do.
Maria pulled out a prescription, explaining that her 1-year old had just been released from the hospital and needed the medication.
“Just as she said that, they told her that her bus was ready,” Spencer recalled. “I walked away, just feeling sick,” he said.
On his own, Spencer knew he could not help her, but there was an ace up his sleeve – the connectional system of the UMC. He started making calls and connected with Nataly Negrete, associate pastor at St. Paul’s in Houston.
Spencer learned that Maria’s bus would stop in Houston at 11:30 p.m. that night, and Negrete offered to meet her there.
“She looked tired; the baby was sick and crying,” Negrete said. “I just hugged her.”
Negrete explained the plan to Maria — a network of clergy and volunteers, including nurses to provide care for the baby, would be waiting for her at future bus stops. Along the way to Maryland, Maria was greeted with a phone, medicine, clothes, money and food on each of her bus stops.
Negrete and Maria did not have long to talk. Still, Negrete learned that Maria was heading north to reunite with her 5-year old daughter and still had a daughter at home, waiting.
Once her bus stopped in Maryland, Maria connected with “Evelyn,” a pastor in the Baltimore-Washington Conference. The two have spent the past 17 months together. Evelyn also offered Maria a home in the parsonage.
In early March, Maria’s aunt and cousin attempted to bring her now 4-year-old daughter to the U.S., but customs officials separated the child from her family. She was brought into custody.
From Friday night, March 5 until early morning the following Monday, Maria did not know where her daughter was. Then, she received a call.
Mother and daughter spoke by phone. Then, the child began to cry uncontrollably. Despite her frantic questions, officials would not tell Maria where her child was located.
Only later would Maria discover that her daughter was flown by plane to Michigan and taken by car in the middle of the night to a foster home. The foster family allowed the child to telephone her mother.
Evelyn was with Maria when her phone rang. The pastor said the child was not able to speak, only to whimper. No details were given about when mother and daughter could reunite.
Evelyn contacted an attorney and U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s office to try to get help. Her church prayed.
Finally, on March 13, Maria and a small group of church members went to the airport. Maria was finally reunited with her daughter.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of the Baltimore-Washington Conference is a leader in the denomination’s immigration ministries. She told a reporter in the Conference, “Whether we draw from the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, our Scriptures remind us to love the immigrant in our midst, to welcome them, and to offer hospitality.”
The Book of Matthew specifically reminds us to welcome the stranger, as a measure of whether or not we have opened our arms to Christ, she added.
Maria’s journey, from the border of Mexico and Texas to the East Coast, exemplifies how Methodists can serve as the hands and feet of Jesus. As Pastor Spencer said, “The ripple, once it starts, keeps going.”
Negrete explained that she personally benefitted from the hospitality of others when she came to the U.S. “I would not be here if not for their care,” she said.