By Jessica Brodie
Three South Carolina United Methodists—two pastors and one youth minister—headed to the Mexican border recently to hear Pope Francis and to stand in solidarity with migrants.
The Rev. Elizabeth Murray, of Mount Hebron United Methodist Church, West Columbia, and the Rev. Keith Ray and Jad Taylor, of Clemson UMC, Clemson, journeyed to the Juarez-El Paso border Feb. 16-18. There they had the opportunity to witness Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America, celebrate Christ with a large outdoor Mass in Juarez and a prayer service at the border. Before a crowd of 200,000, Pope Francis prayed with undocumented migrants, activists and clergy, as well as those incarcerated.
“We went primarily as an act of solidarity with our Hispanic brothers and sisters,” Murray said, noting it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and especially timely given election-year rhetoric about a “border wall” and other immigration crackdowns. “This was a space for lament and justice, about praying for migrants. It’s important to recognize their deaths and the journeys they’ve taken to come the United States, and to recognize a lot of the injustice in the our immigration system. There’s a space to talk politics, but this wasn’t it.”
She called immigration “a Christian issue” and said she felt called to hear a man of God speak among the people in a historic moment.
“God calls us to welcome the immigrant,” Murray said. “To see the pope in showing such a radical solidarity with those who are migrating just gave me hope for way the church can continue to reach out to all types of immigrants and how the church can set the example for how to show hospitality to others. We should not be the ones dragging behind but the ones on the forefront.”
Ray was eager to make the trip because of Pope Francis’ work building bridges between the Roman Catholic Church and other churches and religions since he assumed the papacy.
“And because I have a strong interest in matters related to migration and immigration policy, I wanted to hear what this holy man had to say as he stood alongside a border where thousands of persons have died in recent years, fleeing their homelands in economic despair and under threat of violence,” Ray said. “Pope Francis did not disappoint.”
Ray said the trio from South Carolina watched as the pope walked to a cross that had been erected for the occasion at the border, stood before that cross and prayed. It was a powerful experience.
“Here we were, three white gringos, gathered with a community of Latino/a persons whose excitement was contagious, and we were welcomed into the celebration with open arms,” Ray said.
He said their trip was filled with friendly encounters and random acts of kindness among strangers, plus the opportunity to hear moving words about what the pope called the “humanitarian crisis” that is forced migration.
“Pope Francis reminded all of us that what we proclaim on Sunday should impact the ways we live with one another as neighbors and nations,” Ray said. “By recognizing the image of God in one another, we become more and more what God intends us to be as we learn to live in community and solidarity. I knew we were standing on holy ground that day.”
Murray said two major things have stayed with her after the trip. One was the rigid visual dichotomy of border patrol officers milling around behind the beautiful, ornate cross at the border. The other was the pure, powerful faith and Christian witness she saw in the Mexican jail where Pope Francis met with some of the prisoners.
“All these prisoners were sitting there, and I don’t know what they’ve done, but the pope is there with them and ultimately, at the end, they started worshipping, and then there was a band and guitars and singing,” Murray said.
And then out of nowhere, Murray said, they started playing the song “Color Esperanza,” which was the song she and others on the conference’s Hispanic/Latino Task Force sang at Annual Conference 2015. The song—and the singers—spoke to her heart.
She said the full experience underscored what it means to have forgiveness and restorative justice, even in a Mexican jail.
“Whatever you’ve done in your life, you are not far from God’s grace and God’s love and God’s mercy,” Murray said.