WACO—John Garland considers himself blessed to witness the agonized prayers of separated immigrant families. He feels fortunate to have heard a mother’s lullaby in the middle of the night far from home.
For the past three years, Garland has provided aid and comfort in Jesus’ name to asylum seekers eking through the U.S. immigration system. San Antonio Mennonite Church, where he is pastor, offers respite care to thousands of people, mostly Latin Americans who have fled north to save their children.
Speaking at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, Garland described the immigration crisis in human terms.
Because of its location in downtown San Antonio, not far from the bus terminal, Garland’s congregation ministers to thousands of immigrants who pass through the city. Typically, they are detained when they cross the Rio Grande, seeking asylum. After being separated from family for weeks, they are reunited, manacled with GPS devices around their ankles, then released to join sponsors somewhere in the United States.
Although often vilified and labeled as “illegals,” they represent the best and brightest of Latin America, Garland said. They’re fleeing violence and extortion in their homelands. They’re leaving to prevent their sons from being murdered or forced into gangs and to protect their daughters from being raped, as well as to stop being shaken down by cartels.
Eighty percent of the immigrants are evangelical Christians, he reported, noting they wouldn’t risk the deprivation and danger of immigration across Mexican deserts unless life depended upon it. Their journey is an act of faith.
Prayers of sacrifice and desperation
Garland has heard them pray with fervency and passion seldom replicated by U.S. Christians.
“They are prayers of sacrifice,” he said, noting they remind him how the mother of biblical hero Moses must have felt. Since the Egyptian pharaoh declared all Hebrew boys were to be slaughtered, she placed him in a tiny basket in a river, sacrificing her joy in hopes of saving her son.
Immigrant parents sacrifice all their possessions, their safety and their futures in the hopes of saving their children—if they can just get asylum in the United States, he said.
“They are prayers of desperation,” he added. While the United States’ most punitive measure—separation of children from parents—is intended to deter immigration, most immigrants never know separation awaits them, he said.
“Deterrence doesn’t work if you don’t know what is going to happen,” he explained. “Besides, ‘deterrence’ doesn’t compare to watching a son killed or a daughter raped.”
Garland recounted prayers he has heard.
“‘God, please help my parents find me,’ a little boy prayed one night,” he said. “That’s a prayer of desperation.”
A young woman described without emotion being raped more times than she can remember, as well as being forced to watch her father tortured, he remembered. Then she summed it up: “That is what life is like.”
“That’s a prayer of desperation,” he lamented. “How do we preach good news to this young woman? How do I say, ‘Talitha kum’ (‘My child, arise’), to this girl who is emotionally dead? … We need to follow Jesus” in ministry to hurting and badly damaged immigrants.
A mother’s lullaby
One night at 3 a.m., when his church already was filled with 400 asylum seekers and their children—GPS ankle bracelets chirping every-other second—Garland heard the distinct low rumble of yet another bus, arriving to deposit even more immigrant parents and children,
“That’s when I lost it,” he said. “I began to weep.”
Almost simultaneously, he heard a mother begin to sing a lullaby to her child—or maybe to the young pastor trying to serve her child.
“I realized we are not the center of the story; I am not the center of the story,” he said. “The center of the story is the collective sacrifice of these parents who seek to save their children. We are just the witnesses. …
“I listened to that woman, and I realized this is her song, and I get, by the grace of God, to hear it.”
Garland hopes to be the catalyst to launch a ministry to asylum seekers who stay in San Antonio as they await their day in court. Given the U.S. position on immigration, he does not expect they will prevail in their quest. But he believes U.S. Christians can and should invest in them while they’re nearby.
“They are the future of Latin America,” he said, noting they can be leaders when they return home and should be equipped for leadership.
He’s asked the city of San Antonio for a parcel of land on which the asylum seekers can reconnect with the land and their spirits. And as they await their fate, they would be trained in trauma-informed care, so they can heal themselves and help other victims of violence heal. They also would be trained in peacemaking and reconciliation, as well as community development and missions.
This is a nonpolitical solution to a highly politicized problem, he observed: “Some people tell me, ‘These people need to fix their own countries.’ Yes, they do. And other people say, ‘We need to help them.’ Yes, we do.”
For more information about the ministry of San Antonio Mennonite Church and its partner, the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, click here.