A lot has happened since I began my YAV year of service in San Antonio, but there also has been so much love and support in my life this year. Now as my YAV year is about to end I am going to do one last very long post about my YAV year. One thing I have been able to really discover and understand this year is my desire and passion to serve cross-culturally, working with youth in education, and working with the church in community setting to relieve poverty and build relationships with other people. Living and working in San Antonio has shown me that these are some of my greatest gifts and they give me such fulfillment in life. I know in the future that God will provide many opportunities to share these gifts and passions with communities in U.S. and around the world.
While there have been many highs this year, but there has also been challenges. One struggle was understanding how I can best serve people as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) or missionary of the Presbyterian Church. I have found and confirmed this year that I want to work more in cross-culturally community focused settings and with kids. I discovered this as a result of my involvement at Divine Redeemer Presbyterian and working with refugees at Catholic Charities. Both have been eye opening and amazing experiences of how the church can play such a fundamental role in the life and bettering of a community. I also have discovered how I enjoy working and building relationships cross-culturally with refugees, but the difficult issues of poverty, language and culture that they face in the U.S. Thanks to my experiences in Catholic Charities I also found that one of the best ways I can serve in a community focused setting cross-culturally is working with kids in education. I found that I love to teach kids whether it be science, math or English, and this work has been one of the highlights of my year.
While working this year at an after-school program with low-income youth has been the most challenging work I have had because of serious behavioral issues caused by many complex factors, it is also has been some of my most rewarding work as I have built relationships with kids and influenced them and their education through these relationships. In many ways my volunteer work started as a struggle as I had to figure out what passions and skills I could offer to people and communities in San Antonio, but now that I have learned about the San Antonio community and how to apply my skills and passions it has been extremely rewarding to use them to positively impact refugees and the Westside community. It is through the opportunities to work cross-culturally and build relationships through teaching science that I now see myself serving others to address social issues like poverty. I have realized that through good education I can provide communities and youth the skills and passions to better their lives and prepare them to positively affect their communities.
The one thing that has always been the foundation for me in San Antonio this year is my church Devine Redeemer. Their consistent support and strong community has been a blessing for my integration into San Antonio and Mexican culture and enabling me to build beautiful relationships cross-culturally. It has been the foundation for so many other people as a sense of hope, belonging and place that cares for vulnerable populations. It has shown me the great impact that a church can have to care for individuals and communities. It has strengthened my faith and belief of the great potential of the church, and how God, church and Christian community is the source and foundation of my desire, ability and work to serve others. I hope to continue to partner with churches and other faith organizations to show God’s love for people and address issues of injustice and poverty.
This past week I was also fortunate to go on a border delegation and immersion program through Borderlinks and the Presbyterian ministry of Frontera de Cristo. This experience was truly eye-opening as I gained first hand experience of issues on the border, work being done to address these issues and strong communities in the amidst of difficult circumstances. It began with looking at issues along the U.S. side as heard from dreamers and families who have been separated as a result of immigration. Hearing though their personal stories and witnessing some of the fear, pain and hurt that people are suffering as their families are split apart gave me a much better perspective on the realities and hardships that undocumented immigrant families are now facing in Arizona. However, once again I saw how the church can work with other individuals and organizations to serve people and live out the love of God as Presbyterian Churches in Tuscon were working to keep families together who had a parent being deported. I also meet Dreamers in Arizona who have been improving themselves with education and supporting others who want gain a college education. Witnessing these things gave me a strong appreciation for just the many blessing I have such as a good education in the U.S. and grow up in a loving family that was always together.
After that then we headed towards Mexico where we spent a couple of nights in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico and then a few extra nights unintentionally in Douglass, AZ. The bi-national ministry called Frontera de Cristo between the Presbyterian Church of U.S. and Mexico lead and educated us on border issues while we were there. Just some background on these communities is that the only things that separate Douglass, AZ from Agua Prieta, Sonora is the large fence on the U.S.’s side. You could also say Douglass is wealthier, but Agua Prieta has significantly more amount of people. However, it is very apparent there is a close connection between the two communities and they share many similarities. While this area of the border is significantly calmer than other border cities because of its smaller size the two communities have to deal with difficult issues like a constant flow of drugs and immigrants coming through their communities and limited job opportunities.
The first night we were there Frontera de Cristo took us to a shelter for people who had just been deported to Mexico. Like many places we went, we heard many stories of crushed dreams of having a better life in the United States or finding themselves separated from their families. Many of these stories were of course difficult to hear, and most felt they were treated fairly by the U.S. government, but they still had dreams of going to the United States for a better life. Just a side note that most of the residents at the shelter I meet came from southern states in Mexico which tend to be the poorest and most indigenous states of Mexico. Being at the shelter though also began my experience of learning about immigration to the United States from the Mexican perspective, and thus gaining a better perspective on immigration.
The shelter provided them food and a place to sleep, and also advice from social workers of the next steps they could choose. They allowed them to contact their families to tell them that they were safe, healthy and alive. They also gave them advice on what the next steps they could take: look for a job around Agua Prieta, go back to their home or go to another city in Mexico. What was never their advice, was to try and cross the border again. I was actually a little bit surprised by this at first since that was their dream, but as the social worker began to explain it more it became obviously more apparent of why he was saying that.
Crossing the border is a very dangerous thing, not because the border patrol (they are people’s really only chance of survival when they become lost in the desert), but largely because of U.S. policy, thieves and horrible misinformation from smugglers on the Mexican side. Many immigrants who come up from more southern regions in Mexico and Central America have no idea of the realities of crossing the border in Arizona and Sonora. It was very apparent when we were driving through this region that the conditions in the desert on the Sonora and Arizona border are very harsh. It is hot, there is no water, tons of rattlesnakes and pretty much every plant has sharp thorns on it making them impossible to pass. That is not even the worst part as there are cartels and thieves on the migrant trails who require them to pay them money or they will steal their money. Then there are the smugglers who tell them to run from border patrol in the U.S., which are the only people who can actually save them in the desert. Because of these harsh realities, U.S. government does not heavily patrol these areas because they see desert as a barrier to crossing the border. Because there is less border patrol in these areas this is where most people cross because there is a less chance that they will be caught by border patrol. A combination of those factors though results in the high number of people dying on the border. Since the U.S. border patrol began counting from the year 2000 over 2,666 people have been found dead just on the Arizona border (that doesn’t include the high number of deaths that also occur on the Texas border where more immigrants from Central America cross). As of result of the high risks of crossing the border social workers at the shelter do whatever they can to discourage people from crossing the border. Unfortunately, for many people they still have dreams of gaining a better life in U.S., and so if they insist they tell them to bring lots of water, matches in case they get lost and to not run from the border patrol so they don’t get lost in the dessert. However, it was not until the next day that I realized what is being done in both Agua Prieta and Douglass to address the true root causes of immigration.
After being orientated more towards the two communities and the border we went to a multiple business, organizations and maquiladoras (factories) that were improving the life in Agua Prieta. What I was surprised most by was the powerful impact of business. I will fully admit that I have not always viewed the business world positively. But what I saw in Agua Prieta is that business can have a very large impact in relieving poverty and providing better incomes for people. Speaking with amazing leaders who had started successful and growing companies like a feather factory and a fair trade coffee, I saw the positive impact of these businesses as they provided farmers in Chiapas and people in Agua Prieta with stable and better wages. I now feel I have a better appreciation for the work that business can do for communities, and I also have a better appreciation for the work that good businesses do in the U.S., and the need to have more positive business in both improvised areas in Mexico, U.S. and around the world that improve the economy and work wages of these communities. While of course there are many other factors like strong healthcare and education that positively impact impoverished areas, I now see improving business as a way people can powerfully impact these communities.
As we continued exploring hard issues of poverty, drug abuse and immigration, the thing that most amazed me in Agua Prieta was the strong sense of community that people involved with Frontera de Cristo, other partner organizations and the church of El Lirio de los Valles had despite these difficult circumstances. While of course many of the individuals we meet were concerned with addressing social justice issues they also had another great purpose in creating a strong community throughout Agua Prieta. I felt very fortunate that so many people in Agua Prieta included us in this community by hosting us for dinner, and I think from my work in San Antonio and observing life in Agua Prieta that a focus of any type business, organization and religious group needs to be building a strong community and trying to spread that sense of community to other places. As I have worked with refugees in Burma, and been able to form strong relationships with many Rohingya Burmese Muslims. I have seen that one of their biggest needs in the U.S. is just having a sense of community. I truly believe that for most people God intended us to live in community, and to work to spread a sense of community to others. Many of my Rohingya brothers have taught me this lesson, and the hospitality and gratefulness towards me has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have experienced in San Antonio. Not only have I been able to understand new cultures, try new foods and make new friends in San Antonio, but I think I have a better understanding of what it means to be a human being and love people who are different than you. I think it is this sense of community and the beauty of forming relationships between cultures, languages, religions and socio-economic status that I found in working with immigrant groups in the United States and observed in Mexico that gives me the most fulfillment and where God is directed me to work.
Anyways, it was also finding this sense of community in Agua Prieta where there was a lot of pain and suffering that impacted me the most while I was there. We also did many other things in Agua Prieta from what I have talked about, and I would encourage anyone who gets the chance to do an experience like this. And while I would like people to consider how issues of immigration and poverty are affecting individuals and families in both the U.S. and Mexico, I think the most important thing is that we focus on building a stronger sense of community between our families, friends and people who are also different than us. I also think that immigration issues are weakening communities and our sense of community in both the U.S. and Latin America. This was very apparent to me in my experience in Arizona as families are being split up and in Mexico as the immigration of many males to the United States has resulted in many children growing up without fathers in their lives.
The last thing I want to say is that I want to thank everybody who I have meet in San Antonio who created such an enriching experience for me and taught me so much. Then I want to thank all the people who supported me over this year from back home in Washington. I feel I am leaving San Antonio having a better sense of who I am, what it means to show God’s love and how I want to apply that in the future through educating youth and community based work using God and the church as the foundation of my work. I now have the difficult of decision of continuing my work with the Presbyterian Church for another year in Agua Prieta or going to get my masters in teaching so I impact kids, build stronger communities and improve education through poverty and cross-cultural contexts. Either way I know that God will take care of me, and will continue opening doors for me to use my passions and skills to serve him.
“The most terrible poverty is loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”