From Rhetoric to Reality: What I learned visiting border communities
*photo: Vicki (far left) and her border delegation visit the "Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd)" tutoring and scholarship program
With so much heated rhetoric and misinformation out there, it’s hard to have a clear picture about what’s really happening in the US/Mexico border region. That’s why we think it’s crucial to listen to the people who know best: border residents. One way to do that is to visit the border region in person.
Vicki Schmidt is from North Dakota and has been organizing immersion delegations for nearly 30 years. She first started with Sister Parish, Inc., working to develop long-term relationships with communities in Central America and Mexico based on solidarity and accompaniment. Sixteen years ago, she started taking delegations to the Texas/Mexico border.
This interview was conducted over email, and has been edited for clarity and length.
You’ve been organizing trips to the Columban Mission Center (CMC) for several years now. Why do you keep going back?
I return there for several reasons:
I want to raise awareness in people who honestly seek answers to what is really happening on the border.
I think it’s important to invite people who’ve learned new things and have had a change of heart to bring their experiences home with them and share them with others. I encourage people to share what they’ve personally seen, heard, and felt, rather than make opinionated judgements. They are experts in their experiences and that is what they’re called to share. No one can argue with their experience – they own it.
I also need to remind myself about what is happening there - how people are being treated, abused, denied their human rights, and how our government and society is treating people in an inhumane fashion. Being there reminds me in forceful and vivid ways to not give up on justice and to work as an advocate for change in our immigration system.
What have been some of the most impactful experiences from your trips to the CMC? How do those experiences inform your perspective on current and proposed border policies?
The most impactful experiences for me, and often for delegation participants, are the personal stories of migrants and their families.
Sometimes it’s the woman who cooks a meal for us at the CMC, who was shot five times in a drive by shooting that was intended for her son. Sometimes it’s been hugging and drying the tears of detainees at the El Paso Processing Center. It’s been serving meals to people just released by ICE and helping them on their way to families, or working in a shelter just sorting clothes and helping migrants find something better to wear than what they wore on their long journeys. There’s nothing better than these moments to inform my perspective on current and proposed border policies.
What have you learned from border communities over all the years you’ve been visiting them?
Border communities have taught me how to give true hospitality to the strangers in our midst. I have heard that there are 5,000 volunteers in the El Paso area who assist with the processing of migrants once they are released from ICE. I have worked alongside the generous souls who work long hours gathering and preparing food to provide good, nutritious meals for refugees, gently providing advice and care to assist them. I’ve seen the outpouring of clothing, food, toiletries, and much more. It’s a beautiful thing to witness. Churches have reached out with shelter and are providing bus fare and airfare. Even the Columban Mission Center provides shelter: during our last visit, we shared the space with 20 people looking for their families in other parts of the U.S., and we cooked meals for them.
How does your faith call you to do this work?
My rallying call is Micah 6:8: act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Next to that is the great commandment in the Gospel of Mark: love your neighbor as yourself.
There is so much scripture that calls me to provide hospitality to the stranger. I’ve followed this calling for years, working with refugees since the 1980s. In fact, my family helped resettle a displaced family from East Germany when I was 12 years old. I had a model for it as a very young person.
You live in a state that’s far away from the southern border - why do you think it’s important for people from North Dakota to care about what’s happening there?
North Dakota is the home of various Native American tribes, who’ve been historically persecuted and torn down as human beings. They’ve become invisible, unimportant nobodies to many people, which is very heart breaking. What our society does to them is similar to what we’re doing to migrants crossing the border.
Local churches ask, “why we must take so many refugees?” People of great integrity in so many ways have just determined we can’t care for any more people. (Despite North Dakota only having 750,000 people and plenty of wide-open spaces.)
We need to become more open, more accepting of those on the margins of life, and extend our hand of hospitality without question. Visiting border communities can help us learn that.
What can people do to stand in solidarity with border communities even if they don’t live on the border or can’t make a trip there?
There’s a lot people can do:
- We can educate ourselves on the reality.
- We can better understand the Bible’s mandate that the Good News is for all God’s people and how we can become part of spreading that by our love and compassion.
- We can share our resources with those who are on the front lines.
- We can invite more people to the border to see for themselves the reality there. If you're interested in going, you can join with Abriendo Fronteras - Opening Borders.
Here’s an example of this.
I posted on Facebook a few days before I left that I was going to El Paso with another border immersion group. I mentioned that some folks had asked me what they could do, so I said that probably money was the most needed now, as those on the ground would know what’s specifically needed the most.
The commitments started immediately, and while their checks wouldn’t reach me in time so I could take their contributions along with me, I promised I would cover everything that was committed until I got home. Over the next few days, and even while I was in El Paso, I received commitments totaling $3,720.
People are generous. Their hearts tell them to do what they can. These offerings are doing the good people hope to be part of.
Editor: Another way you can support border communities is to download the Columban’s “Border Solidarity Toolkit,” which includes a number of activities for prayer, education, and action.
For background information on the federal policies impacting border communities, please read "From the Hill: From Rhetoric to Reality at the Border."