Congregations across the country have stepped up to respond to, and learn from, the families fleeing violence in Central America. In July, Folabi Olagbaju, LIRS National Grassroots Director, and Alexia Salvatierra of the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America led a Welcoming Congregations Network Training in California.
Joseph Castañeda, a member of the Welcoming Congregations Network shares the heartbreaking story of one migrant family present at the training:
“Because of the crime and violence,” Mari tearfully explains when asked why she made the long, dangerous journey from El Salvador to the United States. Her voice cracks and her eyes swell with tears as she looks upon her 8-year old daughter, Alejandra, who has two small ponytails and wears brightly colored clothing. “Really, moms have to do this to keep our children safe and protected; we have to do this for their futures.” Mari understands why the journey of many families and children is one of survival.
We sit in the echoing hall of Pueblo de Dios Lutheran Church in Compton, California, where the Welcoming Congregations Network of the Southwest California Synod (ELCA) meets. More than twenty community leaders and church pastors from throughout California have gathered to discuss our vision for how we want to welcome and protect the children and families who are arriving at our border. The warm humidity of the afternoon encircles the tables where everyone sits face-to-face, videoconferencing with leaders in El Salvador, praying that God’s children receive the kindness Jesus promises, and hearing from a representative of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Mari shakes her head in disbelief when recalling the details of her passage to the United States. She pauses, unable to speak, and turns her eyes to the floor. She is strong, and breaks the silence.
“One month, we have only been here for one month.” She struggles, but continues. “We left El Salvador on a bus. The bus stopped often, and the police would force us off the bus. The driver would give my daughter and me money to give to the police.
We arrived at a house in Mexico, where we had to leave everything we had. We could only keep the clothing that we were wearing. We crossed the border in a boat and walked for a long time, and then we had to run. They caught us.”
Alejandra, her daughter, begins to hum to herself and gets up to play at the back of the room. Mari continues with a tissue clutched in her hand, “We were first put into an enormous room that housed hundreds of other people who were also caught. They kept men with women, even children in the same room. There were hundreds of us in one room.
Then they moved us to the prison, where we stayed in large cells with about 60 other mothers and children. For eight days we stayed there without enough places for everyone to sit or lie down. It was freezing and we didn’t have blankets; we were only given sheets that looked like aluminum foil, but we were still cold. We had to use the bathroom in front over everyone. I held the aluminum sheet for my daughter when she had to use the restroom, and she held it for me. The worst part of the experience is that the guards yelled at us through the cells; they were always yelling at us.”
When Mari finished sharing her story, others shared stories about their family members that did not leave the violence of El Salvador- family members who either had to close their businesses because of organized crime extorting money or who were killed trying to protect their children from being kidnapped to join the gangs. The network prayed together to close the meeting.
There are countless others with similar experiences, and we feel called to remember and care for those like Mari and Alejandra. We feel called to ask our Members of Congress and Administration to protect these families and children.
You, too, can advocate on behalf of families like Mari’s. Check out our August Congressional Recess Advocacy Guide to learn how to advocate for alternatives to family detention and for the safety and human rights of migrants.
* Names have been changed to protect mother and daughter’s identity