calendar February 13, 2007 in News

Building Bridges to Mexico

After spending two weeks immersed in the culture and poverty of rural Mexico, three women from our synod are figuring out how to serve as bridges across this contentious border.

“The real frontier between Mexico and the U.S. is the culture, the history, the economics,” in the view of Karin Alexanderson, youth worker at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Doylestown.

“Having had this experience I am somewhere on the bridge. I belong here, but I don’t belong here,” she said. “Now all of us who went are faced with the struggle of figuring out what living on the bridge is all about.”

Leanne Elliott, Cindy Hane and Karin Alexanderson.

Alexanderson, along with Synod Lutheran Youth Organization Vice President Leanne Elliott and Cindy Hane, youth worker at St. James Lutheran Church in Limerick, were among the 24 youth and adults who took part in Ubuntu University 2 in January. UU2 was an extension of the last ELCA National Youth Gathering, themed “Cruzando: Journey with Jesus,” designed to help young people experience the realities of the developing world.

“I have never experienced poverty the way I did in Mexico,” said Elliott, a member of Holy Trinity, Wallingford. “I was very surprised to see homes made out of sticks and tarps. The most striking image for me was seeing families of small children and their mother, homeless, sitting on the side of the road begging for money and food.”

To help translate the economic differences, the groups did a market basket comparison, fanning out to markets to purchase several items to contribute toward a group meal.

“My team purchased a small bag of beans, a couple of tomatoes, and a newspaper in order to look for a job,” Hane said. “And that would have taken a half a day’s pay if you were making minimum wage in Mexico.” Other groups had similar experiences, meaning that a day’s food would cost more than a day’s pay for workers at the minimum, she said.

Shopping in a local market.

The people’s faith and generosity in the midst of overwhelming poverty opened theological perspectives for the women.

“The everyday theology of the people that we met is more about Christ’s suffering and the understanding that he is walking in their suffering with them,” Alexanderson said. “We as fairly well off Americans focus on the resurrected Christ; we go for the happy ending immediately. So it was a very different theological view. It was the suffering Christ that we encountered and that now we carry through our experiences there.”

“Sometimes as little as they had, they had their priorities,” Hane said. “Their priorities were basic: they were family, they were children, they were faith. I think we could learn a lot from that perspective.” She was especially impressed by the way families stuck together and cared for each other, as they did in the Bible.

Vilma and grandson

The women were inspired by meeting a church worker named Vilma, herself a refugee from El Salvador. The daughter and sister of Lutheran pastors, the family was targeted during that country’s civil war in the 1980s because their work with the poor was equated with communism. One of her brothers was assassinated, and she fled under threat of death. In Mexico City she continues to work with the poor in her neighborhood and build a faith community even though the church will not send a pastor.

“It was such a testament that she lived every day with the blessing and burden of her faith,” Alexanderson said. “She asked us to pray for her and her community, that they would have the strength and the will to continue their work, and we in response asked her to pray for us, so that we would have the strength just to live a little bit like her.”

Hear Karin tell Vilma’s story in this brief audio diary. [mp3 format, 860 KB]

In many communities the women found that most families have or recently had a member working in the U.S. Most crossed illegally, because getting a visa is difficult and very expensive.

“The people that we encountered live in such poverty and such lack of opportunity to change that, that they don’t have any other choice,” Alexanderson said.

“They go through a life-threatening experience to come to the U.S. to work in dirty jobs that are ten times better than the jobs they have in Mexico,” Elliott added. “Something is clearly not working that they have to cross illegally” to survive.

The UU2 experience has left each of the women looking at their lives back home in Southeastern Pennsylvania a bit differently.

“I think that I will be different because I am more willing to show my faith in daily situations,” Elliott said. “I have more understanding of what happens in Mexico, and the ways the U.S. influences Mexico. I’m more willing to go out and help the people who have immigrated to the United States because I know where they come from, and I know why they come here.”

“We decided as a team that we need to be uncomfortable. We’re too comfortable in our way of life and not looking outside of ourselves,” Hane said. “We need to remain uncomfortable, in a good way, and continue to learn and continue to pray and help those who need help.”

“By the end of the trip we came to the realization that we traveled through Christ’s life, we followed the way of the cross, we saw the suffering, and the last step, the resurrection, the continued life, had to be in us as we came home and took this journey home with us, taking it one step farther,” Alexanderson said.