“Do not turn yourself in!” Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz told a crowd of Cubans in a town square in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He continued: “You will be arrested, detained and put on a plane back to Cuba. Do not believe everything you hear.”
Until January, Cuban refugees would be accepted into the United States if they could step onto United States land from land. The policy shift, which went into effect in the final few days of the Obama administration, was part of the process of normalizing relations with Cuba.
However, a sudden policy change in January left between 800 and 1,200 Cuban refugees stranded in Nuevo Laredo after making harrowing journeys across land and sea to wind up with the door to the freedom they dreamed of slammed in their faces.
Some braved the waters of the Atlantic Ocean on small rafts to Cancun. Many more traveled by plane to South America and crossed nine or 10 countries to make it to Nuevo Laredo. This journey can take nine months.
With Pastor Ortiz
Recently, I followed Pastor Ortiz as he made the rounds to five churches in Nuevo Laredo that house Cuban refugees.
A woman spread word to the Cubans about a story on Facebook of a plane with food and supplies coming to Laredo for the Cubans. This was a lie. The woman later recanted and admitted it was not true. But it was too late.
The story around Nuevo Laredo is that 300 Cubans, desperate to act on this good news, turned themselves in to U.S. border agents that weekend. They were put on a plane and deported to Cuba.
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How did these refugees respond to this woman who fed them false information? They shrugged. This is nothing new. They are used to lies.
They come from a country where the government cannot be trusted. Neighbors cannot be trusted. Even family is questionable.
Society of mistrust
Not very many of the Cubans in these churches are married. Many couples live together and function as spouses, but they do not see much of a point in the commitment intrinsic to marriage. Why? They are used to lies. They are used to a society built on mistrust.
Authoritarian dictatorships, like Communist Cuba, thrive on a lack of trust. In a society where your neighbor can turn you in because he thinks you make too much money or your coworker can get you thrown in jail for making remarks against the government, you are trained to distrust.
This lack of trust creates weak social connections. Weak social connections lead to underdeveloped social institutions. Underdeveloped social institutions create great instability. Instability leads to suspicion and fear. Philosopher James K.A. Smith says, “When suspicion is the water in which we swim, then power, might and tyranny start to look like lifeboats.”
But what is the appropriate Christian response to such a reality? How can the faithful of the 21st century breed trust? The faithful can be just that—faithful.
How does Pastor Ortiz build trust with his Cuban friends? He visits them regularly—sometimes daily. He brings rice, potatoes and 50-pound bags of sugar. Also, he tells them the truth. Sometimes in our desperation, we hear only what we want to hear. And in our yearning for acceptance, we speak only that which will be well received. This is dangerous.
As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.” We need each other; we are social creatures. Social creatures thrive on the currency of trust. After God created the first human, God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone.” But we need faith in each other to survive together. We must risk faith in each other so that we do not perish alone.
Network of trust
I rarely take time to consider the network of trust in which I live daily. I trust my community school to take care of my oldest daughter all day and my office assistant to answer the phone. I trust other drivers will stop at the red light. I have faith in the security of my online banking. I trust the water coming out of the kitchen sink is safe to drink.
Erosion of trust puts all of this at risk.
Rebuilding this fragile network of trust will be difficult. The decline of faithfulness puts us all at risk.
Faithful Christians are meeting this challenge of living out the sobering hope of Jesus Christ in the midst of the worst realities. Refugees raised in an environment of distrust are learning to trust a bivocational pastor from on the border. Churches are opening doors to these refugees and receiving great vitality from this hospitality.
There always will be liars. But the truth is that in the beginning, God said this world is “very good.” So underneath all that is wrong lies something to be uncovered. There is something very good deep within the heart of the world—and deep within each of us.
But it takes great trust to hope this goodness can emerge. Our faith in Jesus is trust that goodness, in the end, will overcome the darkness. That is the trust we build our lives upon as we wait for that goodness to emerge in us and in our neighbors.
Garrett Vickrey is pastor of Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio.