Border Thoughts 3 — Mission, Mutuality and Justice

My heart and head are full after a long day of visits on the border witnessing amazing ministries with migrant communities. We have seen how United Methodist churches, often working ecumenically and with the broader community, are responding to long-term needs as well as to the surge of Central American refugee families this past summer. It has been a broad collaborative effort, where National Mission Institutions and local churches were transformed into centers for refuge, distribution of food, clothing and other resources, relying on the generous support of churches across the country through UMCOR, National Mission Institutions, Conference offices, and directly.
We also heard about the long term work of building relationships and community in very poor neighborhoods of El Paso and Fabens, Texas, where wealthy churches are entering into partnership with churches in very poor communities to support both church and community programs.
I hope to talk more specifically about these efforts in further posts. But tonight I am reflecting on the many conversations our delegation has been having about the nature of these missional encounters. The conversations are about what it means to build mutual relationships across class, race and national status.
We have amazing churches and National Mission Institutions that are working on a shoestring to serve very poor communities. They are providing after school, day care, healthcare, education, Christian education, sports programs, ESL, GED, material resources, food pantries, computer centers and much, much more. And then they step up in times of crisis and open their doors wide to serve newcomers. They are filled with people with heart and the willingness to serve. Yet they are in great need of resources just to survive. In many cases (not always), these places are communities of color, reflecting a class hierarchy that parallels a race hierarchy in the US.
At the same time, we have predominantly white wealthy congregations that show their best selves in wanting to be in mission not only abroad but in their own communities. They seek to bridge divides by giving not only money and material resources, but their time and talents. We heard about their learning and growth as they, too, have been revitalized through their engagement with other communities. It is powerful and inspiring.
Why, then, did so many of us feel disquiet about our encounters today? It is because the very efforts to bring together those with resources and those needing resources, both of whom want to serve God and God’s people, has tended to re-enforce our positions of power or powerlessness. We have struggled, tonight, with how we recognize real needs and at the same time build genuine relationships of mutuality, when the tendency is for poor communities to come hat in hand and do what’s needed to get critical resources. A District Superintendent in a border District and a pastor in a Midwestern congregation both talked about efforts to put the relationship-building first. To share meals and lives and culture and vision before we enter into projects. To explore the needs and vulnerabilities of those with more privilege and resources—not only those seen as “poor.” To recognize the leadership, strength, resilience and power of poor communities and what they have to teach more privileged congregations. To consider how these encounters can transform all of us.
The Rev. Robert Pelfry of Western Hills UMC, a wealthy El Paso Congregation in partnership with a poor Fabens congregation commented, “Churches have a crisis of faith every time we set a budget. Are we going to be about institutional maintenance or following Jesus? Do we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, or just meeting our church needs? Our partnership with Fabens UMC is not a mission project. It is brothers and sisters partnering together with Jesus for the work he is doing in the world. Shalom is coming, if only we will participate in that.”
So we end today encouraged by the way the Holy Spirit is bringing us together across borders of many kinds. Yet we are also challenged to consider how creative and powerful efforts to meet urgent community needs can be linked to system change. Why are these border communities so poor? Why are people forced to leave their homes and cross the border? Why do we build fences to keep people out—across international borders and across town?
And we are challenged to deepen our exploration of what real mutuality and power-sharing would look like. Why are these amazing churches and institutions so underfunded? How can we honor the leadership of people of color within their own communities? Why must we showcase intense need and “deserving success stories” to justify the need for critical resources? How can the church be about meeting these urgent needs as an act of rights, of justice, of restitution, of mutuality, of genuine love?

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