Across the UCC
Written by Carol L. Pavlik
December 2008 - January 2009

Volunteers check the water level in one of Humane Borders' fresh water emergency stations in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson, Ariz. Gregg Brekke photo.
Arizona church humanizes border, aids migrants

The backdrop of this story begins in January of 1994, when President Clinton and the leaders of Mexico and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), creating a trilateral trade bloc between the three countries.

A side-effect of this treaty resulted in the rise in immigrants crossing the borders between these countries, a situation in which Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz., finds itself inextricably involved.

Situated just 45 miles north of the Mexican border, the Rev. Randy Mayer came to Good Shepherd in 1998, joining other churches in the area that were already in the midst of conversations about the border.

"In free trade economics, if you're going to let products and money cross without tariffs, then you have to let people cross, as well, to follow the work. That's just part of the fundamental rules of free trade economics," says Mayer.
But the United States has kept vigilant watch over the border with heightened Border Patrol security, trying to deter the number of undocumented migrants passing over the border. Those efforts were stepped up in a post-9/11 world, where suspicions ran high of undocumented persons entering the country.

The hot, barren desert at the border was seen as being a natural deterrent, but Mayer and his wife, Norma, were immediately concerned by the reports of people getting stranded in the desert, or even dying because of dehydration.

By 2000, Mayer was part of an ecumenical group of community members who gathered to discuss the problem. There was a resounding agreement at the end of that meeting, held on Pentecost Sunday: There needed to be a humanitarian response, and that response, they decided, would be water. "We wanted to take death out of the immigration equation," says Mayer.

Before long, the idea of Humane Borders was developed. Mayer remains active in the humanitarian group and was part of the group that put the very first water station in the desert at Rio Rico, Ariz.

Today, Humane Borders maintains over 90 water stations along the border. Some of these water barrels, says Mayer, distribute 250 gallons of water a week during the peak migration season.

Getting permits for these 90 stations happened gradually, as the U.S. Border Patrol initially discouraged the idea, calling the availability of water aiding and abetting. "There were lots of conversations with Border Patrol that more people would cross knowing there was water. But we've worked through all that," says Mayer in his calm voice. "It is not illegal to put water in the desert."

Still, the mission of providing water at the border remains controversial. The community of Sahuarita can often be divided on the issue of immigration, and Mayer admits that he's lost church members over the years because of this ministry.

"It's pretty intense," concedes Mayer. "There is a push-pull factor. People are forced out of one economy, pulled into another, and nobody addresses the root causes. Migrants are caught in the middle."

Mayer says that all Americans benefit from the work of migrants, "but we have no idea because the costs and benefits are hidden." He continues, "We have blinders on, thinking we deserve all this; we want our food and vegetables cheap and our houses cleaned. Every single American lives a better life because of the migrant."

In that context, says Mayer, offering a drink of lifesaving water is the least he can do.

Mayer and his army of volunteers who work for Humane Borders or for the Green Valley Samaritans — a spin-off group that attends to food, supplies and medical needs of those stranded in the desert — have to strike a delicate balance between doing what is right, and doing what is legal.

Four years ago, two Samaritan volunteers were picked up and detained by authorities for transporting three migrants who were in need of hospitalization.

Transporting undocumented migrants in the United States is against the law. Their vehicle was confiscated, and the volunteers faced receiving the maximum penalty allowed by law. Just before the federal trial was about to get under way, the judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the volunteers had notified authorities of their intent to transport the injured migrants for emergency medical aid only.

Mayer describes that experience as receiving a "get out of jail free card." Since then, the groups have been careful not to test the limits of the law.

In the Christmastime tradition of Las Posadas (Spanish for "the inns"), there is a re-enactment of the classic story of Mary and Joseph knocking on door after door and receiving the same answer: No room at the inn.

Each Christmas time, Mayer is reminded by Las Posadas that our faith sometimes has to lead our decisions. "In our system of law and order, we don't always know what the right thing to do is," he says. "But from a faith perspective, we know about hospitality, we know about the innkeeper who finally opened the door and said, 'You have a place here.' "

Ministry offers hope to migrant workers' children

Maggard Migrant Ministry has its roots in Plymouth Congregational UCC of Coconut Grove, Fla. In 1967, Alvin Maggard and members of the Triune club hosted their first Christmas dinner for a busload of migrant workers' children from South Dade County.

Forty-one years later, the ministry has grown into a full-blown 501(c)(3) organization that has branched out to educational endeavors as well. Even today, Alvin Maggard and his wife, Helen, remain active in the ministry. And the Christmas dinner is still held each year for a busload of children brought to the church for dinner, singing and gifts.

The Rev. Thomas Niblock, pastor at Plymouth, describes the Christmas party: "We bring 70 or 80 kids up from one of the migrant worker camps. They get a good meal and their teachers come with them," he says, adding that the teachers often remember coming to the party when they were children.

"The kids always get one toy to keep, then they get two to take back to the camps and give away. It was a good concept all those years ago," says Niblock. "It allows the kids the joy of giving." Niblock says the children received clothing, book bags and school supplies in addition to the toys.

Reaching beyond Christmas, the Maggard Migrant Ministry has been providing scholarships for migrant children attending college, another result of Alvin Maggard's passion and vision for the plight of the migrant family.

"Alvin Maggard is an unbelievably vigorous guy who still sits on the Mexican American Council, the only Anglo to do so," Niblock says. "He's helped the church be a financial presence, a mission presence, but also a political presence."

Each year, Niblock attends the local high school graduation and witnesses the proud look of the migrant workers and their children as they receive their diplomas. "In almost every case, the parents are a good foot or two shorter than the kids, because this is the first generation of kids who have grown up with decent nutrition," says Niblock.

"These parents have the weathered look of centuries of laborers," says Niblock. "You see the field workers of a century ago in their faces. Yet in their kids, you're seeing a hopeful, young American!"

This year, Maggard Migrant Ministries is sponsoring 16 students by paying all or part of their college tuition. "We work very cooperatively with the colleges in the area," says Niblock. "They stretch the money that we use for scholarships a long way."

Niblock has seen families ripped apart when the parents are forced to return to Mexico, but their children, who were born in the U.S., are allowed to stay. "Immigration law issues are so complicated and so threatening, and some of these people [at the migrant worker camps] are undocumented and some aren't. It is a real sword that hangs over the lives of families, ever-present and dangerous."

As long as there is a need, Niblock is confident his congregation has the desire and resources to continue their ministry to migrant families. "The only wonderful, blessed thing that might happen is if the need goes away," says Niblock. "I don't see that happening day after tomorrow, but I think there's a possibility we may get to a point where we don't do this to people any more."

"I know the law is clear," emphasizes Niblock, "but life isn't."

Border Lives — U.S./Mexico

View images by United Church News editor Gregg Brekke, collected during a 2006 educational trip of the US/Mexico border with BorderLinks, a non-profit organization that conducts travel and education seminars on U.S./Mexico border issues.