Church leaders explore ways to help migrants in Mexico

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Key points:

• A group of leaders from the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church traveled to southern Mexico in April to meet with groups working with immigrants crossing into the country.

• Though there is no Methodist presence in southern Mexico, the leaders are seeking ways to partner with other denominations and organizations in the area.

• Many of those same migrants will eventually find their way to northern Mexico or the U.S., where Methodist and United Methodist churches have ministries to help them.


A group of leaders from the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church traveled to southern Mexico April 16-23 to meet with groups working with immigrants crossing the country’s southern border.

Though there is no Methodist presence in southern Mexico, the leaders are seeking ways to partner with other denominations and organizations in the area.

Tens of thousands of migrants from different countries entered Mexico through its southern border last year. Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance reported that more than 100,000 asylum applications had been submitted in 2021 — the highest figure yet reported and more than twice the number submitted in 2020. That doesn’t take into account the numbers who enter without declaring asylum.

Rafters transport people and goods across the Suchiate River, which forms part of the border between Guatemala and Mexico, near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. The busy, informal crossing is just yards downstream from the formal border crossing at the Rodolfo Robles Bridge. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Rafters transport people and goods across the Suchiate River, which forms part of the border between Guatemala and Mexico, near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico. The busy, informal crossing is just yards downstream from the formal border crossing at the Rodolfo Robles Bridge.
The Rev. Uzi Castañeda Morales tours a well-worn path in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, that is used by migrants to cross the Suchiate River, which forms part of the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Morales, pastor of El Divino Salvador Methodist Church in Tlaxcala, Mexico, was part of a fact-finding mission to Mexico’s southern border for leaders of the Methodist Church in Mexico and The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Uzi Castañeda Morales tours a well-worn path in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, that is used by migrants to cross the Suchiate River, which forms part of the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Morales, pastor of El Divino Salvador Methodist Church in Tlaxcala, Mexico, was part of a fact-finding mission to Mexico’s southern border for leaders of the Methodist Church in Mexico and The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

Many of those same migrants will eventually find their way to northern Mexico or the U.S., where Methodist and United Methodist churches have ministries to help them.

“We would like for churches to work together to make the walk of the migrants as easy as possible, and pastoral support is so important,” said Bishop Raquel Balbuena Osorio of the Methodist Church of Mexico.

Haitian migrants celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Haitian migrants celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico.
Haitian families gather for worship on Easter Sunday at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.¬¬ 
Haitian families gather for worship on Easter Sunday at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico

The Methodist group’s trip began in Tapachula, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala — the route for a number of nationalities traveling through Central America. The team attended Easter Sunday services at Seventh Baptist Church and Second Church of the Nazarene. Both churches have formed faith communities with Haitian immigrants and host services in French and Creole.

Pastor María Marroquín of Second Church of the Nazarene said she doesn’t have enough words to express what the Haitian ministry has meant to her.

“Seeing the state of need in which they come, the difficulties and limitations that they live with here, but you can see them in the temple on Sundays, with overflowing joy and gratitude for what they have received,” she said. “They fill us with a lot of hope.”

The Rev. Joel Hortiales (front, left) and Bishop Felipe Ruiz Aguilar of the Methodist Church of Mexico join with Haitian migrants to celebrate Easter at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico. Hortiales is a United Methodist missionary and serves as director of Hispanic/Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Joel Hortiales (front, left) and Bishop Felipe Ruiz Aguilar of the Methodist Church of Mexico join with Haitian migrants to celebrate Easter at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico. Hortiales is a United Methodist missionary and serves as director of Hispanic/Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference.

They visited several shelters and institutions that provide support to migrant families in the south and center of the country, including the Catholic-run Bethlehem Diocesan shelter.

Father Cesar Augusto Cañaveral Pérez, the shelter’s general director, said that he welcomes the opportunity to partner with The Methodist Church.

“When we work together, you don’t talk about religious difference; we all work together for the same objective,” Pérez said. “We are fulfilling some of the commands of the gospel: to give food to the hungry and accept the foreigner.”

Haitian migrant children attend Sunday school at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Haitian migrant children attend Sunday school at Seventh Baptist Church in Tapachula, Mexico.

Claudia Berenice Cruz Mérida, director of Immigration and International Policy for the Tapachula City Council, told the group that her city — which she calls “the gateway to migration” — also welcomes potential partnerships with the church to promote safe, orderly and regular migration.

“The churches have … donated and provided food,” she said. “They have opened their temples; they have welcomed migrants in their own homes; they have helped them in the process of social integration.”

Leticia (right), from Honduras, and Felipé, from Haiti, clean trash from the gutters in Tapachula. The municipal government pays a small stipend to migrants in exchange for their work. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Leticia (right), from Honduras, and Felipé, from Haiti, clean trash from the gutters in Tapachula. The municipal government pays a small stipend to migrants in exchange for their work.

The city’s government offers a work program for migrants that provides them a stipend in exchange for working as street cleaners.

Leticia, a migrant from Honduras, said the stipend is enough to pay for shelter, but she still struggles for enough money for food. She’s looking for better economic opportunities and more stability than she was afforded in her home country, and said she will go anywhere she can live “a better life.”

“Honduras is a beautiful country but we have gangs and violence,” she said. “It’s very difficult to even have a business; the gangs would extort you for money.”

José,a migrant from Argentina, sits with his dog on the railroad tracks behind the Casa de la Sagrada Familia shelter in Apizaco, Mexico, some 600 miles northwest of the Guatemalan border. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
José,a migrant from Argentina, sits with his dog on the railroad tracks behind the Casa de la Sagrada Familia shelter in Apizaco, Mexico, some 600 miles northwest of the Guatemalan border.

About 600 miles northwest in the area around Puebla, the team observed shelters that tend more to the immediate needs of migrants who are on the move rather than looking for long-term facilities.

Casa de la Sagrada Familia, a shelter in Apizaco, sits next to railroad tracks where freight trains run several times a day. Hopping the trains is a popular but dangerous means of travel for migrants, who have bestowed them with an ominous nickname: “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.”

Pastor David Castro Fernández expresses his gratitude for the unexpected ministry he and his family developed by helping northbound migrants who were riding freight trains that stopped behind their home in Tlaltelulco, Mexico, and for a visit from leaders of the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church who came to hear their story. At left, the Rev. Toña Rios prays with Fernández’s mother-in-law, Heruelinda George Sanchez, 85, who spent many years helping care for the migrants. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Pastor David Castro Fernández expresses his gratitude for the unexpected ministry he and his family developed by helping northbound migrants who were riding freight trains that stopped behind their home in Tlaltelulco, Mexico, and for a visit from leaders of the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church who came to hear their story. At left, the Rev. Toña Rios prays with Fernández’s mother-in-law, Heruelinda George Sanchez, 85, who spent many years helping care for the migrants.
Virginia George-George shows the Rev. Arturo González Sandoval the railroad tracks behind her home in Tlaltelulco, Mexico, about 12 miles from Apizaco. She and her family found themselves with an unexpected ministry in caring for the migrants who rode freight trains headed north toward the United States. At rear is her pastor, the Rev. Uzi Castañeda Morales. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Virginia George-George shows the Rev. Arturo González Sandoval the railroad tracks behind her home in Tlaltelulco, Mexico, about 12 miles from Apizaco. She and her family found themselves with an unexpected ministry in caring for the migrants who rode freight trains headed north toward the United States. At rear is her pastor, the Rev. Uzi Castañeda Morales.

Sergio Luna, the shelter’s director, said that migrants following the train route likely don’t have money for other means of travel and are only looking for somewhere to rest a while, perhaps a meal and a shower or first aid.

“I consider our work to be humanitarian aid,” he said. “The flux of people is constant and this route is very dangerous. They suffer physical aggressions, kidnappings and extortion.”

Nearby in Tlaltelulco, the team met with a family who took it upon themselves to help migrants riding the trains that run by their house.

Learn more

Migrant children play in a treehouse at the Bethlehem Diocesan shelter in Tapachula, Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.
Migrant children play in a treehouse at the Bethlehem Diocesan shelter in Tapachula, Mexico.
View photo essay, Strangers and sojourners
Donate to the United Methodist Committee on Relief's Global Advance #982450 which includes support for displaced persons as well as refugees fleeing disasters with food, water, hygiene and temporary shelter.

Virginia George-George, a member of El Divino Salvador Methodist Church in Tlaxcala, began offering food, clothes and shoes to those who would briefly stop for a rest before hopping back on the train, and later opened rooms in her house for them to sleep. Her family also collects contact information to reach out to the migrants’ families and let them know how they are doing.

Another member of the family, Pastor David Castro Fernández, said that his son had migrated to the U.S. and told him about help he received on the difficult journey.

“If I help these people, I believe God is going to bless my son,” he said.

George-George said her family’s ministry of hospitality came about unexpectedly.

“We never imagined we would be doing this, ever,” she said. “Once you have the contact with the migrants, you just want to pray for them and we -ask God to protect them.”

The trip concluded with a visit to the Oasis en el Medio del Camino migrant shelter in Apaxco, operated by the Methodist Church of Mexico with support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The shelter offers food, sanitation facilities and a safe place to rest for migrants on their way north through Mexico.

Dagoberto, a 29-year-old migrant from Honduras, said he is trying to reach the U.S. to find better-paying jobs to help support his parents and his two children back home.

“I don’t want to leave; the economic situation forced me to leave,” he said.

Migration isn’t easy, he added, describing how much his feet hurt from constant walking, a lack of sleep and having to beg for money for food or water.

“There are moments I have felt so discouraged that I’ve wanted to give up and turn myself in for deportation, but God has been telling me to continue because he will be with me. When I need him the most, he’ll be there.”

A boy runs across the basketball court at the Hospitalidad y Solidaridad migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
A boy runs across the basketball court at the Hospitalidad y Solidaridad migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico.
The Rev. Joel Hortiales cradles 11-day-old Dina at the Hospitalidad y Solidaridad migrant shelter in Tapachula. Dina was born as her family made its way north from El Salvador. Hortiales, a United Methodist missionary who serves as director of Hispanic/Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference, was part of a group of leaders from the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church who traveled to southern and central Mexico to learn more about migration-related ministries there. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Joel Hortiales cradles 11-day-old Dina at the Hospitalidad y Solidaridad migrant shelter in Tapachula. Dina was born as her family made its way north from El Salvador. Hortiales, a United Methodist missionary who serves as director of Hispanic/Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference, was part of a group of leaders from the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church who traveled to southern and central Mexico to learn more about migration-related ministries there.

Darwin, also from Honduras, described recently being kidnapped in Mexico. He was being held with nine other captives, but his family didn’t have the money to pay his ransom.

“I thought I wasn’t going to survive. I prayed to God to take these people away from me and finally they let me go,” he said. “With this second chance, my dream is to go to the U.S. to get a better life.”

The Rev. Toña Rios cradles Dina during an impromptu baptism service at the Hospitalidad y Solidaridad migrant shelter in Tapachula. Dina was born while her family was fleeing El Salvador. Rios is a pastor at Baldwin Park (Calif.) United Methodist Church. Sharing in the service are Bishops Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and Raquel Balbuena Osorio of the Methodist Church in Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Toña Rios cradles Dina during an impromptu baptism service at the Hospitalidad y Solidaridad migrant shelter in Tapachula. Dina was born while her family was fleeing El Salvador. Rios is a pastor at Baldwin Park (Calif.) United Methodist Church. Sharing in the service are Bishops Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and Raquel Balbuena Osorio of the Methodist Church in Mexico.

Bishop Felipe Ruiz Aguilar of the Methodist Church of Mexico prayed with the group of migrants at the shelter and blessed them on their journey. Aguilar, who is returning to the local church in August after his second term as bishop ends (bishops in the Mexican church are term-limited), plans to work full time in immigrant ministry.

“The migrants deserve our consideration because they are worthy of having a dignified life,” he said.

Families rest in the covered patio area of the Bethlehem Diocesan shelter in Tapachula, Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
"Families rest in the covered patio area of the Bethlehem Diocesan shelter in Tapachula, Mexico
Leaders from the Methodist Church in Mexico pray with Olga Sánchez Martínez (center), founder of the Jesús el Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico. Bishop Raquel Balbuena (kneeling) led the prayer. She was joined by (from left) Bishop Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and the Revs. Uzi Castañeda Morales and Isidro Martínez Cortés. At right is the Rev. Arturo González Sandoval, president of the National Commission on Migration Issues, praying with two staff members of the shelter. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Leaders from the Methodist Church in Mexico pray with Olga Sánchez Martínez (center), founder of the Jesús el Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico. Bishop Raquel Balbuena (kneeling) led the prayer. She was joined by (from left) Bishop Felipe Ruiz Aguilar and the Revs. Uzi Castañeda Morales and Isidro Martínez Cortés. At right is the Rev. Arturo González Sandoval, president of the National Commission on Migration Issues, praying with two staff members of the shelter.

The Rev. Joel Hortiales, director of Hispanic/Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference, said, “The immigrant is a person, not a number. You feed them and treat them like a person.”

Hortiales described the trip as an educational one that highlighted the complexities of immigration and pointed out that migration “is not from Mexico only, not to the U.S. only, but is worldwide.”

Olga Sánchez Martínez (front) gives a tour of the Jesús el Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, to the Rev. Joel Hortiales. Hortiales, a United Methodist missionary who serves as director of Hispanic/Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference, was part of a group of leaders from the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church who traveled to southern and central Mexico to learn more about migration-related ministries there. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Olga Sánchez Martínez (front) gives a tour of the Jesús el Buen Pastor migrant shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, to the Rev. Joel Hortiales. Hortiales, a United Methodist missionary who serves as director of Hispanic/Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference, was part of a group of leaders from the Methodist Church of Mexico and The United Methodist Church who traveled to southern and central Mexico to learn more about migration-related ministries there.

The Rev. Toña Rios, a pastor at Baldwin Park United Methodist Church in Baldwin Park, California, and a native of El Salvador, said visiting with migrants in the shelters was “heartbreaking” for her.

“When I see them, I see me. I have seen their struggles to find housing and food,” she said. “I want my brothers and sisters from the U.S. to understand at least 1% of the reality we live when we come from the other side of the border.”

Santos, a migrant from Honduras, joins in prayer with fellow travelers before breakfast at the Oasis en el Medio del Camino migrant shelter in Apaxco, Mexico, a ministry of the Methodist Church in Mexico and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the relief agency of The United Methodist Church. Santos was injured recently when he fell from “The Beast,” a nickname used by migrants to describe the network of freight trains many use to make their way north through Mexico. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
Santos, a migrant from Honduras, joins in prayer with fellow travelers before breakfast at the Oasis en el Medio del Camino migrant shelter in Apaxco, Mexico, a ministry of the Methodist Church in Mexico and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the relief agency of The United Methodist Church. Santos was injured recently when he fell from “The Beast,” a nickname used by migrants to describe the network of freight trains many use to make their way north through Mexico.
The Rev. Toña Rios of Baldwin Park (Calif.) United Methodist Church visits with migrants while they enjoy breakfast at the Oasis en el Medio del Camino migrant shelter in Apaxco, Mexico, a ministry of the Methodist Church in Mexico and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Rios, once a migrant herself, offered prayers for the journey and advice about what to expect. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Toña Rios of Baldwin Park (Calif.) United Methodist Church visits with migrants while they enjoy breakfast at the Oasis en el Medio del Camino migrant shelter in Apaxco, Mexico, a ministry of the Methodist Church in Mexico and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Rios, once a migrant herself, offered prayers for the journey and advice about what to expect.

The Rev. Uzi Castañeda Morales, pastor of El Divino Salvador Methodist Church in Tlaxcala, Mexico, said he felt conflicted about the trip.

“I am happy because there is a vision but it hurts to see the situation of violence that children and families go through,” he said. “Why do we have to help those families to be safe here; why not help them to have a good life where they come from?”

Leaders from the Methodist Church in Mexico have continued dialogue with the shelters they visited, and those shelters have begun informing migrants about available support through the Methodist Church. Bishop Ruiz, who oversees the Northwest Conference in Tijuana, shared that a family of five recently arrived for the feeding program in Tijuana because they received information from a shelter in Tapachula. Another mother and her children also arrived in Tijuana from Tapachula and are being helped to find work and school placement.

The Rev. Joel Hortiales (center) prays with migrants Darwin (left) and Santiago as they wait for a southbound train to pass behind the Oasis en el Medio del Camino migrant shelter in Apaxco, Mexico. Hortiales, a United Methodist missionary and director of Hispanic-Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference of The United Methodist Church, was part of a fact-finding ministry that visited the shelter, which is operated by the Methodist Church of Mexico with support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News. 
The Rev. Joel Hortiales (center) prays with migrants Darwin (left) and Santiago as they wait for a southbound train to pass behind the Oasis en el Medio del Camino migrant shelter in Apaxco, Mexico. Hortiales, a United Methodist missionary and director of Hispanic-Latino ministries and border concerns for the California-Pacific Conference of The United Methodist Church, was part of a fact-finding ministry that visited the shelter, which is operated by the Methodist Church of Mexico with support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief. 

Butler is a multimedia producer/editor and DuBose is staff photographer for United Methodist News. The Rev. Gustavo Vasquez, director of United Methodist News for the Hispanic-Latino audience, contributed to this report. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

 


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