Emerson had been traveling from Honduras to Mexico City for 30 days, always holding a bright blue umbrella. He was fleeing violence, corruption, and threats against him and his family.
Over the the past few years, he has seen his sons murdered, cousins kidnapped, and house continually vandalized. After failing to continue to pay off gangs and the police, he and his brother left Honduras in pursuit of a safer life for their families. They joined the caravan headed north toward Mexico and, ultimately, the United States border.
However, his brother was killed along the way after being involved in a freak accident with an automobile. The blue umbrella was his brother’s, and Emerson was determined to take it to the border to find a new life and honor his brother’s dream.
Emerson’s story is not an uncommon one among those traveling in the migrant caravan. I have heard stories of male and female teenagers continually being raped by gangs, young men being stabbed and shot, and families being terrorized, all on top of a severe lack of jobs and money.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. often said the main ingredients for social and governmental injustice are racism, poverty, and militarization. Within the caravan, all three are at play.
On Nov. 9, I began meeting with members of the migrant caravan in Mexico City as they found respite in the shelter the local government provided at a large sports complex. I wanted to learn their stories and better understand the hopes and dreams of those traveling in the caravan. That night, I learned that this group of the caravan (mainly those traveling from Honduras) planned to leave the city the next morning to continue the journey toward the U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico. At 5 a.m., I joined the caravan and started to travel north with an estimated 4,000-6,000 men, women, and children.
During the next 24 hours, we walked for miles, hitchhiked in trailers, and slept at the next government-sponsored shelter. I continued to hear their stories about their hopes for a better future. The next day, as we were walking out of the town of Santiago de Querétaro around 6 a.m., we began to run out of luck hitchhiking. After hours of waiting, trucks traveling on their route allowed us to climb on top and head toward the next shelter in Irapuato. I jumped on a double-length flatbed semitruck carrying large steel beams, and around 200 people also climbed up and caught the ride. There I met a group of 10 young adults and teenagers from Choluteca, Honduras.
I went on my first mission trips to Choluteca after Hurricane Mitch destroyed the region in 1998. I began to wonder how many Hondurans on this caravan had been evangelized by Americans or other evangelical movements. As it turned out, many of those traveling in the caravan were influenced by American Christian missionaries through mission trips or church plants. I also wondered if they were seeking life in the U.S. because they have trusted so much of their faith in American missionaries.
“Gavino, get back on the truck. Just get back on the truck and come travel with us to Jalisco.”
That is what my new friends in the migrant caravan yelled at me as I climbed off the semitruck when it stopped at the next scheduled shelter, assuming we were all getting off to rest for the remainder of the day. But I was riding mainly with young adults who wanted to continue north and make it to the next stop so they could rest in the larger shelter in Guadalajara in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
I could not pass up this genuine act of hospitality and spontaneity. Throughout the rest of the day and night, we traveled on the truck and transferred six or so more times onto two dump trucks, various buses, and police trucks before arriving in Guadalajara to rest for 24 hours.
During that leg of the trip, I met some of the most kind, sincere, and loyal people I have ever met on a journey. People who welcomed a U.S. citizen onto their caravan. People who would wrap their arms and legs around me to keep me from falling off the truck and give me food and water when I ran out. They cared for me like I was part of their family – not just a close friend, but a member of their family.
The irony was clear. Was my country going to treat them as family when they become the strangers in a foreign land?
In the following 48 hours, I formed a deep friendship with the group from Choluteca and shot videos of them sharing their stories and reasons for joining the caravan: Anyi, a 21-year-old mother traveling to meet up with her son and aunt; Damaris, a 15-year-old trying to reconnect with her mother in Laredo who traveled alone before finding my friends; Cesar, a father who escaped violent gangs and is trying to find a safe life for his wife and child.
Never in my life have I grown so close to a group of people in a short amount of time. It was a radical dose of hospitality. All it took was some love, empathy, vulnerability, and being twisted into a human pretzel for hours on end while on top of a semi-truck.
You can listen to their unedited stories here. They are my heroes.
A few days after I left my friends in Guadalajara, they arrived in Tijuana, near the U.S. border in California, after being bused by the Mexican government for the remainder of the route. Since their arrival on the border, I have visited them on three separate trips.
One of those trips was over Thanksgiving where we ate together and shared more of our lives together. Through a San Antonio connection we were introduced to Fr. Jesse Esqueda, who has cared for my friends at his local Oblate mission and youth center. He attended seminary in San Antonio and has helped my friends with jobs, shelter, and legal aid.
Some of my friends are hoping to seek asylum in the U.S. and some will stay in Mexico to find a new life for their families. In the end, we want what is best and fair to all concerned.
The current situation with the caravan has many uncertainties and unknowns. The situation will be prone to chaos and disruptions as Mexico attempts to care for and manage the large number of people entering Tijuana looking for opportunity in the U.S. I don’t know all the solutions, but I believe we can find creative solutions to immigration and those seeking asylum by not allowing political division to dictate the conversation.
Some of those solutions will come from changing U.S. policy to better process asylum-seekers and creating work programs that can respect migrant rights and keep families together. Other solutions will need to come from other countries, including Mexico, Canada, and Central America. We all need to do our part. We are all in this challenge together, and we will all become better if we drop the fear, work together, and respect human rights.
However, if our laws fail us, I know the Scriptures still guide us in the right direction – Scriptures that don’t change depending on the country in which we reside.
Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
The term “native-born” could also be read as strong as the term “blood relative.” That’s fairly clear language for people of faith. As a Christian, I worship a savior born to an unwed teenage girl who was an ethnic minority and became a migrant to flee violence and genocide. Her son, Jesus, would teach us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
I know that if Christians, and all people, live up to this framework of hospitality, we can transform stereotypes and reform our language to embrace and find compassion for immigrants. All we have to remember is to follow God’s command to love those who are foreigners, because “for we ourselves were foreigners in a foreign land.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)