This last week, 17 of us from the Chapel had the opportunity to spend some time along the border in El Paso, Texas, my hometown. El Paso is part of my soul as are the people of Mexico and their magnificent culture. My family has lived in that region since the late 1800’s. It was an eye-opening experience for many as was the intention, including the fact that it is one of the safest cities in the US, despite the deadly conditions in neighboring Ciudad Juarez.
Our time was spent walking along the border wall, meeting with the Mayor, as well as with the Director of a bi-national health care operation and an Art Director. We also served at a food bank distribution center, and visited with local people from both the US and Mexico, many of whom I have known for years. Our discussions in Spanish, broken English, and Spanglish were enlightening and honest. In addition, we spent three nights in an area of El Paso called the Segundo Barrio, one of the poorest places in the US. Despite the poverty, there is much pride among the residents of the area and I had zero concern for our safety, even though we were five blocks from the border.
The house in which we stayed is owned by a school named Lydia Patterson Institute. It was formed in the early 1900’s as a Methodist Church outreach to boys from Mexico and South El Paso. The purpose was to teach English and train the boys for future ministry. In fact, Lydia Patterson Institute is where ESL programs were created and started.
Today, Lydia Patterson is a day school for boys and girls, grades 7-12. Three-hundred of the 350 students live in Juarez, Mexico, a stone’s throw from the school campus. The students, some of whom live in cardboard shacks with pallets, rise early and walk to one of the international bridges close to the school. On the bridge they wait between one and four hours to cross on foot, legally. We met the students at the bridge early one morning and walked with them to the campus.
The vast majority of the students are on scholarship as their family members at home, if they are employed, have little to nothing. Scholarships come for the Methodist church and private donors and tuition is $500 per month.
The children were respectful, kind, loving, full of life and motivated. Ninety-nine percent of the kids graduate from 12th grade at Lydia Patterson and 98 percent go on to college in the US and Mexico. Many graduates of the school accomplish extraordinary things upon completion of college.
All of us visiting were deeply impressed by their character, strength, integrity, motivation, courage, and commitment. We reflected how much children in the US have to learn from these kids who have to go through so much just to get to class each day. Sure, kids are kids, but these students respect their teachers, don’t complain, have no sense of entitlement, and drugs and alcohol are a zero problem.
One morning we spent time in the school Chapel with about 50 students hearing their stories in English. What we heard was deeply moving and awe-inspiring. In the midst of this time, the students became aware of the fact that one woman traveling with us was celebrating her birthday. She is a parishioner at the Chapel and is from Guadalajara. Spontaneously the students stood and began to sing “Las Mananitas,” a traditional song in Spanish. When the song ended, without any prompt, all 50 children surrounded our parishioner and gave her a group hug to celebrate her life. All were moved to tears by this expression of selfless love.
Near the end of the trip, one person said to me, “It is impossible to know what we have experienced living so far from the border. You must experience it to even begin to have a glimpse about what those living on the border are like.”
I believe that regardless of where one is politically or philosophically on concerns that divide us on border issues, one thing is very clear to me. The rubber meets the road as we follow Jesus precisely in those places in which there is the most pain, dissension, division, misunderstanding, and heartache. It is in such places we encounter a mirror that shows us where each of us is in our walk with the Risen One who is love.