ERIC HUFFMANMayra, a mother of four from Honduras, has struggled with reading her whole life. But her father Jorge taught her Bible, verses like Psalm 91, when she was a child. She grew up in a city where gangs run everything. Her sister and two brothers were gunned down. Their pastor was murdered too. That's when her father became a volunteer preacher who preached his fiery sermons at local churches as well as a few local bars.
ERIC HUFFMAN"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood," he often quoted, "But against the spiritual forces of evil." While Mayra was pregnant with her fourth child, the baby's father was shot to death and in the weeks that followed, gang members started showing up at the fruit stand Mayra managed demanding to use it as a lookout. She said no, knowing very well that from that day on, she had a target on her back.
MAYRAI kept praying and telling God, "My Lord, how can I go and help my children?" One early morning, I started praying and I said, "My God, if it is your will, I will ask our Christian brother to help me and to lend me money to get out of here. Only if it is your will, and if it's not, I will stay and you will help me somehow." After I prayed, I went to speak with him and the brother said, "Yes. How much do you need?" He lent me small amount, around 4000 lempiras and with that, I left Honduras.
ERIC HUFFMANMayra barely slept for weeks on end as her family traveled through Guatemala into Mexico, knowing that she couldn't afford to take her eyes off her kids.
MAYRAWe had an encounter in Monterrey when I was intercepted by kidnappers. I was very afraid because the man had tattoos all over and they surrounded me. One of them wanted to interrogate me. That's when I said, "I am covered by the blood of Christ. I cover my children with the blood of Christ." One of the men said, "Go on, go on, stop bothering her. Let's leave."
ERIC HUFFMANTraffickers did eventually trap Mayra and her three children in a southern Mexican house alongside a crowd of other migrants. The traffickers stole her money and her phone. Traumatized, her wide-eyed six year old son began slurring his speech. Her slender preteen daughter was being groomed for sex slavery and Mayra's own pregnant belly continued to swell. She had come this far to save her children from the horrors of her hometown, but she found herself paralyzed in a place full of drugs and alcohol, violence and sexual abuse. She had tried so hard to provide for her children but felt that all she had given them was a dirty mattress at the gates of Hell.
MAYRAIt was the worst and the saddest, but I always prayed and the only thing I asked the Lord was to cover my kids and me with his precious blood. That was the only thing to do because God is the only one there for you.
ERIC HUFFMANMayra and her kids survived for months inside that filthy prison until one day, she found a forgotten pre-paid phone that had a few remaining minutes on it and called Jorge, her father, who was still back in Honduras. Jorge was relieved to hear his daughter's voice. Mayra tried to sound normal. She didn't want her dad to know how bad things really were. But every time she tried to speak, Jorge could hear her choking back tears, so he said, "Mayra, repeat after me. She who dwells in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the almighty." She kept silent so he continued. "I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust. Surely he will save you from the fouler snare and from the deadly pestilence." By the fourth verse of Psalm 91, Mayra was whispering along to her father's words.
MAYRAHe will cover you with his feathers and under his wings, you will find refuge. His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. He will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plight that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, 10000 at your right hand, but it will not come near you. You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked. If you say, "The Lord is my refuge," and you make the most high your dwelling, no harm will overtake you.
ERIC HUFFMANBy the end of Psalm 91, a wave of peace washed over Mayra. She took her kids by the hand and walked slowly through the noisy, crowded house. No one stopped them or asked where they were going. Mayra opened the front door, they all stepped outside, and together, they started walking north. Today on Maybe God, the chilling stories of Central American migrants who say God called them to leave behind the bloodshed, drugs, and poverty of their hometowns in search of safety and opportunity in the United States. We'll also hear from a San Antonio pastor who believes that God doesn't just send migrants here to save their lives, but also to save our souls. He says that witnessing the faith of immigrants has completely transformed how he thinks about God and how he prays. Whether or not you believe in God and no matter your politics, hearing these stories should challenge all of us to consider how we treat outsiders, outcasts, and so-called illegals. This might be the most important episode of Maybe God so far, so please listen closely to what you're about to hear.
RADIO(Maybe God Intro)
ERIC HUFFMANYou're listening to Maybe God. I'm Eric Huffman.
ERIC HUFFMANHey, Julie.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISHey, Eric.
ERIC HUFFMANAnd hello to our Maybe God listeners. We're back now with part two of "Can Loving Illegals Save Our Souls?"
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISYeah, Eric, can we just talk about that title for a second?
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThe word "illegals" has always sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. It feels wrong to call a person illegal.
ERIC HUFFMANI get it and I'm not even sure when "illegal" became the noun there. It used to be the adjective, the qualifier in the term "illegal immigrant", but at some point over the last 20 years I guess, some people started calling undocumented immigrants "illegals" as a noun which I think adds insult to injury.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISIt does and I think that's why we decided to include that word in quotes in the title of this episode as a little reminder that we're talking about human beings here. No matter how they got here, no human being is ever illegal.
ERIC HUFFMANAbsolutely. I hope that's the case because if breaking the law is what makes a person an illegal, then I guess we're all illegals and I guess that would make me an illegal too.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThat is absolutely true. I have seen you drive.
ERIC HUFFMANNot nice.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISIn all seriousness, I do think it's important to bring the humanity of this issue to light which is why we've been working so so hard to share the stories we're telling in these episodes.
ERIC HUFFMANExactly. We just shared the beginning of one of the most incredible stories that we're telling today. But back in early June, Julie, you went to San Antonio to meet a group of migrants who are seeking refuge there. Our guest today, Pastor John Garland, runs the hospitality house where they all live while they're waiting for their asylum cases to play out, and Julie, you haven't stopped talking about your experience in San Antonio for these past few months.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISGuilty. I've actually wanted to jump in my car and drive back out there more times than I can count. It's not because I feel bad for them or I'm worried about them, though I really am worried about them, but it's because it was just the most amazing experience to witness their faith and to spend time with them. It gave me the most incredible perspective on life and God and I wish I had more time with them, but sadly no one knows how much time they'll have in the US. Eric, you spent a lot of time helping the immigrant community in Kansas City when you were pastoring a church there. Did you ever feel the same way?
ERIC HUFFMANYeah, I definitely know that feeling that you're describing. My wife, Giovanna, came to the United States from Ecuador when she was 16 because she felt God calling her to be a pastor but in her church and in her culture, women weren't allowed to be pastors then. I met her when we were 18 and two years after we got married, we moved to Kansas City to go to seminary. We didn't know it then, but we were living in the roughest part of the city where we were surrounded by poverty and crime and all this suffering. I was one of only two white guys who lived in that whole neighborhood and the other white guy lives next door to me and he would drape the Confederate flag over his front porch everyday, which made for a few awkward situations for both of us probably.
ERIC HUFFMAN75% of that neighborhood spoke only Spanish and half of them were first generation immigrants to the US. Giovanna and I saw this immediate need for an ESL class, English as a second language, so we started one. That class slowly turned into a Bible study which slowly turned into a children's ministry which then turned into a new church eventually where all of our services were held completely in Spanish.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThat's amazing. This is really interesting to me because back in season two of Maybe God, you admitted that you weren't a Christian back then. What motivated you to do all that?
ERIC HUFFMANYeah, that's true. It's something we've talked about before and I've always said that I was a pastor before I was a Christian. I became a pastor mostly because I just wanted to make a difference, I wanted to help people. I believe in social justice and I knew just enough about the Bible to know how to use it as a vehicle for social justice but I didn't really believe in Jesus. I didn't believe in the truth of the Bible, I didn't think my soul needed saving. I just used the Bible and the church as constructs for my politics, which it wasn't all that bad. I look back and smile sometimes because I know we did some good in those days. We helped families find decent housing, we taught a bunch of kids how to read and how to speak English. Undocumented immigrants used to show up at our house unannounced, uninvited and say, "Hey, are you the American who helps people find work?" Then I would load them up in my 1994 Jeep Cherokee and we wouldn't come back from that trip until I had found that man a job. It was some of the most exhilarating work I've ever done.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThat's awesome. Why'd you stop?
ERIC HUFFMANBecause it was also exhausting. I got into it to change the world but I found that the harder I worked at changing the world, the more the world seemed hell bent on staying the same. Because I didn't have any real belief or faith in God, it all came down to my ability to make a difference in the world and I found myself unable to do that. Three years in, I burned out and I remember exactly when it happened, when that switch went off. It was one night after teaching an English class that Giovanna was dropping off a woman named Maria at her house. About that time, the police were chasing a suspect in his car, a high-speed chase. Just as Maria stepped out of the passenger side, the suspect's car slammed into the back of Giovanna's little car and the impact was so strong that it knocked her out cold, gave her a concussion and really messed her back up really bad.
ERIC HUFFMANThe guy, he got away. Later, the police told us that even if they were able to catch him, it wouldn't help us because he's here illegally, they said, and those guys never have insurance. I don't know. It was just the exhaustion, fatigue talking, maybe some entitlement talking, but I remember thinking, "My God, my wife could've been killed and for what?" Nothing that I'm doing here is making any difference. This immigrant community is just like any other community. There are good people and there are bad people and nothing will ever change. These unjust systems of oppression in our country will never really go away. I remember feeling utterly hopeless and cynical. In that exhaustion, in that moment, I decided that night to walk away, to walk away from those people and their kids that I had been committed to helping and to find a new, safer place to live and work. Looking back, I realize now that I allowed a few bad actors to rob me of the privilege of continuing to live and work among immigrants and refugees.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISWow, I think a lot of people feel that same sense of hopelessness about this issue, especially when they here the rhetoric coming out of Washington. Some immigrants are good people, but some are bad and we can't tell them apart, so let's keep them all out. That's a really hopeless, cynical way to live.
ERIC HUFFMANDefinitely, absolutely.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISOur guest today is going to show us another way to see this border crisis. He relies on faith to guard his heart against the same cynical thoughts that you struggled with, Eric, and that threaten to make so many of us numb and apathetic, myself included, when we hear all the nasty back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans. His faith is what gives him strength to do all that he does, day in and day out, with no end in sight.
JOHN GARLANDMy name is John Garland and I'm the pastor of the San Antonio Mennonite Church.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISJohn was raised in a Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was in college, he worked on a Mennonite farm along the border and when he graduated in 2003, he decided to become a Mennonite pastor.
JOHN GARLANDMennonites are anabaptist and anabaptists are very strictly committed to the separation of church and state and they're also committed to pacifism. There's a spectrum of anabaptists and some folks are living in isolated communities away from the world and then other churches like ours are in the middle of the city, trying to be peace builders where we see the most darkness. Jesus is the center of our faith and community is the center of our lives and reconciliation is our work. Everything we do with our building and with our time needs to tie back into that.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThe first church that Pastor John served was a small Mennonite community that gathered in a modest metal barn. Most of its members were Hispanic.
JOHN GARLANDThere on the border is where I learned Spanish and I learned Spanish from Central American refugees and from families who had come across the river from Mexico and had settled there. They were teaching me Spanish, but they were also teaching me how they read the Bible. I'd never read the Bible before from the perspective of a refugee or the perspective of an immigrant. And I was so stunned to find out that that is who the Bible was originally written to and written by. So many of our books and our letters are written to people who are displaced or who are fearing for their lives.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISIn all that time he spent shepherding that congregation of migrant Christians, John had no way of knowing that God was actually preparing him for the next chapter of his life and after a few years leading the church along the border, John moved with his wife and their children to San Antonio to be closer to their extended family. That was in 2014, the very same year record numbers of refugees were showing up at the Greyhound bus station just down the road from John's new church. When did it become this crisis in your mind? When did you start to notice this huge influx happening?
JOHN GARLANDThis has been a long-term humanitarian disaster. This has been going on for years. Honduras is one of the most violent places in the world, especially for women. Experts are calling what's happening in Honduras a femicide. We understand that the violence in Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador has surged, which has led to a surge in people leaving. People have always come in groups for safety. All of the families I've talked to have had zero preparation for their trip. The folks who are leaving Central America are some sort of leader in their community. Either they are a leader in their church or they own a small business or their farm is doing a little bit better. Because of that, they are targets of these very disorganized, extremely violent street gangs. Generally, all the people that we've talked to have had zero preparation for their trip. They were threatened that day or they were attacked that day and they had to leave that night. So, they are gathering everything they can on the fly and figuring out their way north. Then, once they get into Mexico, they are at risk of the authorities and they're also at risk of the traffickers and bandits in Mexico because everyone knows that they have all of their wealth and all their possessions on their person.
JOHN GARLANDThey are trying to get into protective groups and sometimes, they swell to the size of caravans. Some people who are the most desperate will hop on the freight trains that are coming north. They call it La Bestia because it's the beast, it's so extremely dangerous and people are gruesomely hurt by those trains and maimed. Other folks will try and sneak by authorities on the bus system and other people will just walk and walk. It generally takes about a month to get from Central America to the border of Texas. Then once they get to the border, they have to wait to cross at a port of entry. All of them want to seek asylum, but to cross at the port of entry, they have to get a number and oftentimes wait for weeks for their number to be drawn. To wait for weeks, you have to have a safe place to stay and a lot of these border towns are not very safe, so people will make that desperate decision after a couple of nights to just cross the river. Immediately, they try and find the border patrol and present themselves and ask for asylum. Then they'll go to a border patrol processing center which they call the "hielera", the ice box because they're extremely cold and terrifying. From there, they're either sent to a detention center or they're given a court date for their asylum and dropped off in the streets of some Texas border town.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISSan Antonio sits at the intersection of two major highways and it's the first major city you hit in South Texas when you're driving north from the border. That's why so many refugees end up at that bus station. They're either making a stop on the way to their final destination or after spending days, even weeks in ICE custody, they're dumped there by a government bus. Five years ago, when asylum seekers started trickling into San Antonio, local churches were quick to recognize the urgent needs of these refugees and joined forces to create the Interfaith Welcome Coalition. John's church was one of them.
JOHN GARLANDThat happened when a woman walked into the Greyhound bus station and she saw a young woman with a baby sitting in the corner of the Greyhound bus station. The woman didn't have any bags and obviously was in need. This woman walked over to her and she asked her if she needed anything. The woman cowered away and protected her child and said, "No, no, no, no, no." The woman was really struggling with this and she's watching this woman cowering there in the corner and she comes back to her a little time afterward and kneels down on that floor and tells her in her limited Spanish, "I'm part of a church and I'm wondering if there's anything I can do to help you." The woman at that moment breaks down into tears and says, "I've been praying to God, asking that someone would come because I have no one and I have nothing." The woman says, "Well, I'm here to help." The next day, this woman calls her pastor at the Presbyterian church down the street and they find out that there are half a dozen other mothers just like this. This was about five years ago. Over the course of these last five years, we've been adapting to the different populations that are coming through. It began as a trickle and that trickle became a surge and then it dwindled back down into a trickle and now it feels like waves and waves of need, of people who are fleeing this extreme violence in Central America.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISWhen the number of refugees arriving at that Greyhound bus station started exceeding two, three hundred people a day, the city responded by turning a vacant storefront, an old Quizno's, into a pit stop for migrant families where they could rest and eat and call their family back home and plan their next steps. Today, volunteers from that Interfaith Welcome Coalition provide families with resource backpacks and help them onto their next bus or plane.
JOHN GARLANDGoing into the resource center which is an old Quizno's underneath a parking garage that the city's taken over. It's overflowing out on the streets.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThe coalition also created an emergency shelter for anyone stranded overnight. Every night after sun down, volunteers escort refugees in groups of 30 from the resource center over to the third floor of an old Methodist church.
JOHN GARLANDHere we are in the emergency shelter. Maybe tonight 300 people.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISJohn spends two nights every week working at that overnight shelter and he also works around the clock running his church's hospitality house, a refuge for families stranded for more than a few nights. By keeping these families off the streets, John and hundreds of other volunteers in San Antonio are protecting their most vulnerable neighbors from predatory traffickers who never stop hunting for easy prey. You've seen this happen?
JOHN GARLANDYeah, yeah, yeah. A woman was staying in our hospitality house and she had a really early bus. She forgot to tell our volunteer who was there that night that her bus was leaving that early and she instead was knocking on her bedroom door at 3:00 in the morning, saying, "Hey, my bus is going to leave. Can you take me?" Our volunteer was, of course... Jumped out of bed, grabs a bathrobe, and drives her over to the bus station, rushes her there so she doesn't miss this early morning bus. The woman was really nervous when she got to the bus station and she asked this wonderful volunteer if she would walk her into the bus station. She said, "I'm just wearing my bathrobe." But she convinces her. She's like, "All right, I'll do it." She walks through that crowd at the door of the bus station wrapped in this little bathrobe and she shows the woman where she needs to be and the gate agent motions for her. She's like, "Come over here, come over here."
JOHN GARLANDNow this poor volunteer, embarrassed in her bathrobe, goes over to the gate agent and the woman says, "There's been this man who keeps coming in and is trying to convince this young woman and her little boy to come out of the bus station with him and I need you to help out." Our volunteer, wrapped in her bathrobe, goes over to this man and she says, "You need to get out of here and get out of here now. This is not going to happen here. You cannot take this woman with you."She goes over to this woman in the corner and she says, "Hey, I'm here from a church. We have a safe place for you if you want to come with us. We can provide you a warm breakfast and your own room for tonight." We joke about that story as sometimes all you need is a bathrobe to take on the human traffickers. Sadly though, there's a lot of stories like that and a lot of folks who have figured out what's going on. This population is extremely vulnerable. Generally by the time they've gotten here, they've exhausted all the resources. They have no money. A lot of the women have suffered sexual trauma in Central America and then also on their trip north. That trauma, horrifically, increases their vulnerability to more trauma.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISIt's interesting to me, I don't think people realize that crossing the border doesn't mean these people are safe all of the sudden. In fact, there's still a lot of really scary stuff coming their way. Are there Americans taking advantage of this and trafficking humans as well?
JOHN GARLANDOh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThat man at the bus station, was that an American man?
JOHN GARLANDYeah, oh yeah, for sure. I think we always have, from the conception of our country, we have been trafficking human beings. That is what happens in big cities and it's what happens in rural towns. There's modern day slavery in the form of indentured servants, extremely poorly paid labor. There's slavery in terms of these prostitution rings. All of this population, to be signed out of the border patrol processing centers, they have to have someone be their sponsor. To get out of south Texas, they have to have someone buy them a ticket which means that wherever they go, they're extremely indebted to somebody, which makes them so much more vulnerable.
JOHN GARLANDThe church was called to confront the gates of hell. In Matthew, as Jesus is blessing Peter and giving him the keys to this kingdom, Jesus describes how the church is going to confront the gates of hell, to go into those dark places where the children of God are being treated like property and confront them with the good news that no, they are beloved and they are beloved of God and share the good news that God still loves you through all of this trauma and God will always love you. This is the church's hospitality house, La Casa de Maria y Marta. This is where we offer a number of different rooms that are individual and safe for the families, create this sense of felt safety and their own bathroom and clean sheets and delicious food.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISHow many people stay here at a time?
JOHN GARLANDGenerally, we want each family to have their own room but we can get up to 20 or 25 people in this house.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThe hospitality house just a few blocks from the church in a residential neighborhood of the city used to serve as a stopping point for traveling Mennonites, but for the past six months, it's served as a safe haven for Santos and her family.
JOHN GARLANDSantos and Heidi, she is a mother and her teenage daughter and her little boy, came up from Honduras after surviving some really brutal attacks from the local gangs. They barely survived the last attack.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISIn her hometown, Santos was savagely beaten and raped multiple times by the same attacker. He also took all of the family's money. One night, Heidi came home to discover the man winding a cord around her mother's neck. She summoned the courage to rush at him, which distracted him just long enough for her mother to get away. They fled the house on foot, disappearing into a nearby forest and they never looked back.
SANTOSBecause life is extremely hard in Honduras and the last few years, it has become impossible to live here. It is hard to live there because the gangs bother the people. If you want to work, they won't let you because they charge a work tax and if you don't pay it, they take away your home or they murder you. It was really hard to leave our country because we love our land, but we had to leave. We suffered a lot on the journey, but we are here now.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISBecause they left home in such a panic, they weren't prepared for the long journey ahead. They had no money, no food, no medicine or clothes. For months, they just drifted from one church shelter to another. Sometimes a kind family would take them in or a family back home would send them a little money to get by. Slowly, they made their way north. In early 2019, after several grueling months, they crossed the border into the United States. They immediately turned themselves into border patrol but the agents claimed that Heidi's papers were forged. They insisted that she looked too grown up to be only 16, so they separated Heidi from her mom and her little brother and sent her to an adult detention center.
HEIDII had just turned 16. It was really hard because they transferred me to a detention facility where there were criminals and I was very young.
JOHN GARLANDWe came across this mama at the bus station and she was stranded with her little son. She stayed at our hospitality house but didn't quite get her bus tickets in time, so she was with us for a couple of days and during that process, she let it be known that she had not been able to find her daughter. So, we started helping her to locate her daughter and it took weeks just to figure out where her daughter was. And there's this terrible fear that they're going to deport her daughter and send her back to Honduras all by herself where she has absolutely nothing. I remember that being a really frantic time of searching and making calls. I think I called one particular office 80 times.
JOHN GARLANDWe were finally able to track her down and were finally able to figure out which detention center she was in. It was about three hours south of her, so I offered to take the mama with me but she was terrified. She was so afraid to go and see her daughter because... Well, for a number of reasons but one is she was going to have to leave her there. But the women in the house gathered around her that morning and they laid hands on her and prayed for her and asked for strength and she got into the car and she read the Bible all the way down. We got to the detention center and we have to wait. You have to go through the metal detectors and there's just two hours of visitation time, so we're sitting underneath the picture of the president and next to the metal detectors and these guards waiting. Then they call us in and we're sitting in this room where you have this one way mirror and you can see all these women being led into the visitation room in their prison garb and in comes her daughter in her prison jumper. Her mother sees her daughter for the first time in months and she is just trembling. As the door opens, she walks through that door and immediately she just has this mama bear strength where she is no longer trembling. She is standing up straight and she's like, "Mija", and her daughter just falls on the floor weeping.
HEIDIIt was a beautiful moment when they went to go visit me because I had no idea they were coming. Suddenly, I was told that I had a visit. When I saw them and saw my mother, I was joyful. I was sad. I hadn't heard anything from her in several days and I wanted to know about her.
JOHN GARLANDShe's saying, "Mama, I thought you had left me." This mother embraces her child and she says, "I will never, ever leave you and God will never leave you." The little girl is trying to be brave and she's like, "I'm working, they pay me a dollar a day to help in the kitchen," and the mother takes her hands and says, "Look at these pastor, look at these hands. This little girl started making tortillas with me when she was six years old and these are strong hands." She says, "Mija, you are so strong." You see this little girl, she's so scared and her mom is renaming her saying, "Do you remember the time when that man was killing me and you raised up like a lion," she said. It was so moving to see that because they're both just weeping, just big, fat tears and that sense of faith that God will always be with you and that you will have this strength that comes from beyond you and this faith that we will be together someday and we will never be separated. It was such a beautiful witness to me.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISIt was weeks later when John received a call from ICE.
JOHN GARLAND"We're releasing her. Would you be willing to take her?" I was like, "Absolutely, yes." It was late at night and I jumped in the car and drove down and they had dropped her off in the middle of the Laredo Bus Station.
ANTHONYThe last two weeks, you notice a pretty tremendous influx of people that are not from this area, let's just say that.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISAs I sat at the kitchen table listening to John and Santos and Heidi tell this next story, the voice of conservative Anthony popped into my mind.
ANTHONYI mean, whether they're illegals or asylum seekers, whatever, to me, they're still undocumented. To me, it's illegal. There's no way around it. You're not from here. These buses are about to take off with probably about 150 illegals.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISConservative Anthony is just his moniker on YouTube. In real life, he's anything but conservative. He's obscene. I honestly hate to give him any extra publicity here, but you may have seen his videos online. He's the guy who follows ICE and border patrol buses for hours at a time, belittling the people inside.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISHeidi was in a bus just like the ones Anthony likes to stalk the night ICE transferred her from the adult detention center to a bus station in Laredo.
JOHN GARLANDAnd there, she's with a group of seven or eight other 18 year old girls and you just see them in this crowded bus station and this dark, evil world surrounding them.
ANTHONYGuys, there's another one. A third bus is pulling up for these people. Wow.
JOHN GARLANDThey're young women and they're telling stories about their time in this lock up and they had lived together in this prison for months and they're laughing. They're telling these funny stories about the food and about how bad they looked in the jumpers. Then one of these young women sidles up to me and she says, "You know that we're laughing right now because we've cried so much. Could you take me with you?" One of the other girls overhears her and she says, "No, no, no, no, no, no. They don't have room to take all of us and it's going to be okay because tonight, we are all going to stay together. We are all going to support one another and one of us is going to stay up and we're going to take turns. We're going to protect one another here." You could see how scared they were.
ANTHONYLook at them sitting on the floor. There's so many of them. They're sitting on the floor. No rules, disregard all rules, all laws, all regulations, sit on the floor they told her. That's y'all's tax dollars right there.
JOHN GARLANDI wanted so badly just to be really rich at that moment and be like, "I got a bus and I've got a ton of rooms." But then you realize, no, no, no, this is God. This is God saying through them, "We are going to be church together and we're going to be one and even though it's a very dark world and this is a scary place and we do not know what our next steps are, we're going to stay up together and we're going to be one." That was an important moment for me, seeing that. Then it was really something else, driving through that night with a mama and a daughter and her little boy and they have a room in our hospitality house and they had two beds. All of them sleep in the same bed. You see that sense of we'll always be together.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISSpend just a few hours at the San Antonio Mennonite Church's hospitality house and you'll hear refugees praying together. Prayer is what keeps them strong on their long, impossible journeys and through the uncertainty of what tomorrow may bring. Back in their home countries, prayer and worship were a huge part of their lives. Every Sunday, they'd spend almost the entire day at church, worshiping God together. In fact, I heard them complaining to John on multiple occasions about how his Sunday service is only an hour long.
JOHN GARLANDThey say our worship service sucks.
JOHN GARLANDThat's a direct quote.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISIn addition to prayer and worship, Santos expresses her devotion to God by fasting.
SANTOSPrayer is very beautiful. You communicate with God. When you fast and truly ask God from your heart, God resolves your problems. I like to fast often to have better communication with God. When you enter into that communication, you can feel something divine, something beautiful to be talking to God.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISWhen Santos needed strength to see her daughter Heidi inside the adult detention center, she fasted for days prior to their visit. She said God gave her enough strength not only to survive seeing her daughter in those conditions but also for the devastating news that she just didn't see coming.
SANTOSTowards the end of that fast, I went to see her and was also hit with the news that my son was dead. God gave me strength to face what had happened.
JOHN GARLANDShe had to leave two kids behind. A lot of times these families have to make choices about the children they take and they'll generally take the girls, the ones who are most vulnerable, or the youngest. She, in this case, had to leave behind two sons and the night before she was released from detention, she got the news that her younger son had been killed. Dealing with that was really just awful.
JOHN GARLANDShe ends by saying, "But I give thanks to God." Faith is always a miracle. Faith is always a gift. It is astounding to see people continuing to cry out to God after they've been through such horrors. I oftentimes will get frustrated with God when just minor things go wrong in my life. This sense of privilege or this sense of entitlement or this sense that God I always going to give me what I want, what I need. Then to witness folks who have suffered horrifically and witnessed horrific suffering, who continue to cry out to God in faith. I really do believe that faith is a God-given gift. It's one of those gifts that we can bury or it's a gift that we can invest.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISDid she start by saying, "God is good"?
JOHN GARLANDAlways. Yeah.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISDoes she realize how incredible that is after everything she's been through?
JOHN GARLANDNo, she does not. I think that's just who she is, yeah.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISDo they know what's next on their journey?
JOHN GARLANDWe're not there yet. The way it works is you're given a certain number of months until your next ICE check-in. Their next one is in August. They are in the process of seeking asylum, so they're visiting the legal aid office that we host. Their asylum case is essentially like writing a dissertation. You have to write this story and you have to gather all this supportive documentation. (Spanish)
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISI've seen reports that only about 15% of refugees are granted asylum in the US. The chances are honestly pretty slim that Santos and her family will still be here even a year from now. When I asked Santos if there was anything else she wanted to say, she just asked that we pray for the other son that she had to leave back in Honduras.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISHow old is he?
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISSix weeks after that interview, her brother crossed the border with her 12-year-old son, but since the boy was with an uncle, not his legal guardian, he was sent to a child detention center. Today, John and Santos are working and praying to find the second child she's lost inside the US.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThe Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me besides quiet waters, he refreshes my soul, he guides me along the right path for his namesake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISHow many of the immigrants that you see passing through San Antonio would you say are Christians?
JOHN GARLANDJust over the thousands we've seen, I would say bout 80% of the refugees are part of some sort of evangelical church or tradition and then the others are generally Catholic.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThey sang the 23rd psalm?
JOHN GARLANDYes. It was crying out to God because what it does is it gives us voice when you cannot pray and they are extremely powerful psalms that are really mad at God and really in love with God and swinging back and forth just like we do emotionally. They're an incredible gift for traumatized people.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISI asked John what parts of the Bible make the case that American Christians should welcome these migrants entering our country.
JOHN GARLANDYou can't get through any of the old testament without coming across dozens of passages that say you need to take care of the widow and the orphan and the stranger in your midst. There are so many passages in the new testament and Jesus' teachings that give us this mandate to love our neighbor. Paul says, "The fulfillment of all law is love your neighbor as yourself." But I'm actually, to be completely candid with you, I'm much more motivated by the realization that this is the pilgrim church and the pilgrim church is being persecuted and they are coming through our city and many of them are stranded here in our city and we have the opportunity to go and bear witness to their faith and their self-sacrificial love and be a part of their church. So when we invite them into our hospitality house, before they go to bed, we all stand in a circle and we pray and I begin that prayer and as I begin prayer, everyone in that circle joins in and everyone is praying at the same time. This is a very traditional way to pray in evangelical churches in Central America and you can feel the presence of the holy spirit and you can feel this overwhelming sense of love and hope and desperation which is seeded by faith.
JOHN GARLAND(Spanish). I realize what I want to be able to do is not necessarily say I helped out a bunch of people but I want to be able to say I was able to bear witness to their beautiful faith and their faith in the midst of darkness and fear.
JOHN GARLAND(Spanish) In the same way that you'd want to go and show up when Jesus was healing that woman or going into the room with that little dead girl or walking down the road toward Jerusalem to heal the world, I want to be there witnessing this church, this body of Christ that's coming to us. (Spanish) Amen.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISJohn's views aren't always popular with other Christians. Some say people like John are just by their compassion and hospitality enticing more migrants to come here, just adding to this border crisis. Other people insist the Bible calls Christians to follow the law of the land, so those who cross the border illegally should pay the consequences and still others wonder why our country should take care of foreigners instead of looking after our own citizens first.
JOHN GARLANDThe first question is always something along the lines of how are we supposed to take care of all these people? Or why should we take care of all these people? That, quite frankly, is a great question. It's a very American question, it's a very good political question. It is definitely not a Christian question and as a Christian, I want to respond to that question by transforming it into a Christian question. In Mark, the disciples ask that question of Jesus twice. They say, "Jesus, how are we supposed to feed all these people?" They're in a desolate place and there's 5,000 of them in the first story and Jesus responds to them by saying, "You feed them." They flip out and as well they should because this is a really stressful situation, it's a dangerous situation, people could die. They're too far from any town and there's no place to eat.
JOHN GARLANDThe Christian question then is, "How is God providing for them? And how can we be a part of that?" Because in the story in Mark, when Jesus feeds the 5,000, Jesus is the one who multiplies the bread and it's the disciples who serve it. The second question, "Can't they just respect our law?" Oftentimes, people will in response be like, "Don't be all uppity up about saying you've got scripture on your side because Romans 13 says, 'You have to respect the leaders of your nation, you have to respect these laws, you have to respect the structure.' How dare you try and live outside of that?" Paul is clear, don't make waves in the politics in the cities in which you dwell. The Christian question though is which law are we upholding? Because the apex of Romans 13, in the very middle of that chapter, Paul says, "The fulfillment of all law is to love your neighbor as yourself."
JOHN GARLANDThe third question is some iteration of aren't these people going to change us? Aren't these people going to change our society? Again, it's a great American question, it's a very good political question. The Christian question though is always, how is God changing us? And, is God using this experience to change us? Is God using this experience to discipline us? Is God using this experience to deepen our communion with God and with our neighbors? I think as churches are getting involved in the response to this pilgrim church coming up from Central America, it's very, very obvious that yes, we will be changed and praise God for that and let that change come from God. Let's not be transformed by our fear. Let's not be transformed by our anger or our angst, but let's be transformed by God's movement.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISSome people that might hear that and wonder if you're just suggesting that we be comfortable letting everybody in.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISDo people push you on that?
JOHN GARLANDYes. Yeah.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISWhat's your response to it?
JOHN GARLANDI'm a part-time pastor getting paid a little over minimum wage, so answering that question is way above my pay grade. This is what we need to do as a church. We are not called to write the laws for nations. We are called to bear witness to who human beings are. We are called to say, "God has good news. God loves humanity." These human beings are made in the image of God. Our nation has been around for awhile but not nearly as long as the word of God and I think long after our nation has passed away, the word of God is going to remain. I'm going to breathe my last one day and as I breathe my last, I want it to be a prayer to God. I don't want it to be a pledge of allegiance to a nation.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISHow old's your daughter?
JOHN GARLANDA year and a half and then a nine year old and then a two month, premature baby.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISThe last refugee we met in San Antonio was Wilmer, a pastor from Honduras. In his hometown, he used his pulpit to challenge the mayor by speaking out against the corruption that was causing his church members to live in poverty and fear. On three separate occasions, assassins attempted to take his life.
JOHN GARLANDHe survived the first assassination attempt and didn't leave and continued to challenge the structure of the corruption in the town. A second assassin came and he tells this story being led in a dream to leave the house with his family and his house was ransacked and destroyed. Then a third assassin came and held a gun at his head and then he says that the assassin lost his nerve and couldn't pull the trigger. That night, he left with his family. When they got here, miraculously, his wife then went into pre-term labor and she was medivaced from the border to one of the hospitals here in San Antonio and gave birth two months premature. They were stranded here in this city while they waited for their little one to get out of the NICU, so we've been hosting them since that time.
JOHN GARLANDThe trauma they're dealing with is extremely intense. The trauma is extreme and the trauma is prolonged. I approach Christianity as a trauma healing religion. We are, as Christians, we're all about trauma. At the front of our church is a torture device. The cross is a torture tool of humiliation and communal traumatization and we have it at the center of every single worship service. We have at the center of all of our gatherings is this communion table and the communion table is nasty. The communion table is all about trauma. It's about a body that's ripped apart in front of everybody and it's about blood that's poured out in front of everybody and in our scriptures, are written to traumatize populations by people who are in jail or people who have survived torture.
JOHN GARLANDThe book of Mark is very clearly written to a population that is hurting and that is terrified and have witnessed their brother and sisters killed in public. Trauma is a trap. What trauma does is it traps the survivor, the victim. It traps someone in their stress response. This woman who has been sexually violated two years ago, she's still living her life and digesting and breathing and holding her muscles as if her attacker is right behind her. She's trapped in that experience. Christianity is all about liberation and pulling people out of that trap and that's what we do as a church. That's what we do at the communion table. We say, "This is horrific and this is you ripped apart, this is Jesus ripped apart, this is the world ripped apart and yet, we're going to come together and God is going to bring it back together and make us one." You are safe in God's love and you will be forever.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISJohn has been helping refugees like Mayra and Santos heal from their trauma, hoping that one day, they'll be empowered to heal others who are traumatized as well.
JOHN GARLANDWe're creating this organization called Semillas, it means seeds, based on the three parables that Jesus tells in Mark about how the kingdom of God is like a seed. The idea is to equip these families who have been through horrific trauma... As they go through their trauma healing, equip them to be the trauma healers for the communities to which they're going. If that is urban New York City or rural North Carolina or here in San Antonio or if they're going to be deported back to Central America, they are carrying with them the good news that, by God's grace, your trauma trap can be healed and you can be liberated from this trap.
JOHN GARLAND(Spanish) They're really good at making tortillas. I'm joking that I taught them how to make tortillas. Just saying-
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISWhat's your prayer for these refugees that cross your path?
JOHN GARLANDEvery time they leave the house, we stand in a circle and we pray with one another. (Spanish) There's always a prayer, we're always asking for provision and always asking that there will be light at their feet. They might not know what's down the road, but let there just be light at their feet, that they'll know their next step.
JOHN GARLAND(Spanish) But really, the prayer is always a prayer of thanksgiving. I always give thanks that God is loving their children through them. I give thanks that God has given them such rich and powerful faith. (Spanish) I give thanks that God has guided them thus far and I give thanks that God is with them now and will always be with them.
JOHN GARLANDAnd I always give thanks to God that I've had the opportunity to witness them and witness their love and witness their faith.
ERIC HUFFMANRemember Mayra? She's the pregnant mother of three who was trapped inside a human trafficking ring inside Mexico for several weeks. She eventually reached the US-Mexico border. This is how John and Mayra described the rest of her journey in an article that they co-wrote for Christianity Today. "At an ICE processing center with bright lights, harsh voices and meager food, Mayra's children begged her to leave. The floor was so cold. She cradled them in her arms and sang. After enrolling in a tracking system and receiving a date for an asylum hearing, Mayra walked with her children out onto the streets of a little Texas border town. A missionary found them that night on a sidewalk and put them on a bus to San Antonio with our church's phone number. When they arrived, they had nothing to unpack in their room. We welcomed them with fresh sheets for her children, a warm bath, eggs, tortillas, and some hand-me-down toys. We knelt to hear her story. As we prayed for her, her shoulders trembled and she wept. A month after Mayra arrived, her father Jorge decided that he'd had enough of the violence and set off north with his five remaining grandchildren like Moses walking Israel through the wilderness.
ERIC HUFFMANIn the United States, border patrol officials told him that he could not be the legal guardian of these children. "But their parents were killed," he protested. A week later, he dialed his daughter on a phone from a detention center. "They've taken the children," he said, "And I don't know what they've done with them." Mayra and I drove through the South Texas plains to the center where Jorge was being held. After half a day waiting by the metal detectors under framed photographs of smiling politicians, we met Jorge in a visitation room behind thick glass. His face was creased and gray. He put his hand on the glass, but he couldn't speak."
MAYRAPapa, repeat after me.
ERIC HUFFMANMayra spoke into the receiver.
MAYRAThe Lord is my shepherd. I will not want.
ERIC HUFFMANHis hand trembled while she kept her eyes closed.
MAYRAHe makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.
ERIC HUFFMANThe daughter he had taught to pray was now teaching him. Eventually, his voice came, raspy.
MAYRAI will fear no evil for you are with me.
ERIC HUFFMANTwo nights later at 3:00 AM, Jorge was shackled and put onto a transport plane to be deported. An immigration official told us the five grandchildren were moved to a facility in New York. When Mayra heard that her father was being deported and that her nieces and nephews were more than 1800 miles away, she called us around her and asked us to pray for her. She had experienced a new trauma and she knew that she needed Jesus to minister to this fresh wound. As we laid our hands on her shoulders and head, something she was now comfortable receiving, she shivered and wept. Then she went to her children as she does every morning, wrapped them in her arms and said, "Let's put on the armor of God." Today, Mayra's baby is a few months old and her older children attend public school with John's children in San Antonio.
ERIC HUFFMANHere, her son and daughter tell us what they want to be when they grow up.
ERIC HUFFMANA school teacher.
ERIC HUFFMANAnd a prophet. Mayra continues to pray for the armor of God every morning and every night with her children. Her dad often joins them for these prayers by phone from Honduras while he waits for news of his grandchildren. If you're not familiar with the armor of God, the Bible instructs Christians in the book of Ephesians, chapter six, to put on the full armor of God so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground. I hope you'll pray that same prayer for Mayra and her family. We called John this week for an update and he told us that Mayra and her kids had just received deportation orders. Their asylum request was denied. John is now searching for an immigration attorney to fight the ruling so that she's not sent back to Honduras where most of her family was murdered.
ERIC HUFFMANWe've never really made an ask like this on Maybe God before, but if any of our listeners happen to be immigration attorneys who can help, please send us an email today at [email protected] and tune in at the end of this episode for other ways that you can help make a difference. While this episode was still in production, the news cycle went into overdrive. Perhaps the most significant headline was the Trump administration's proposed policy that would prevent most migrants like Mayra, Santos, and Wilmer from claiming asylum in the US, requiring them instead to be granted asylum in neighboring countries like Guatemala and Mexico first before seeking asylum in the US.
ERIC HUFFMANIf this policy is upheld by the courts, it will signify a wholesale reversal from the way that our country has embraced asylum seekers for the last 70 plus years. I'm aware that President Trump is right when he says that mixed in every group of asylum seekers will likely be a few bad apples, but if you're a Christian, I feel compelled to remind you that when Jesus took the cross, he took it for all of us including the bad apples and he called his disciples to do the same for others. Let's make sure that our faith is always driving away our fear instead of letting our fear drive away our faith. If you're stuck on this issue because you love this country and you don't want to see it destroyed by letting too many non-Americans in, let me just say at the risk of over-generalizing, Central American asylum seekers tend to become the greatest Americans you'll ever meet.
ERIC HUFFMANWhat's more American than risking everything just to get here? What's more red, white, and blue than God-fearing families and people who are willing to work hard doing just about any job necessary to pay their own bills and put food on their tables? Some say that we become less American by welcoming more of these people and I promise you, the opposite is true. American values aren't being threatened by those who would die just to get here, but by those of us who were born here and take its privileges for granted. The night of the accident that knocked my wife out cold, that night I decided to throw up my hands and walk away from that immigrant community in Kansas City. I was totally burned out, hopeless, afraid for my wife's safety and my own and most of all, I just lacked faith that anything would ever really change. The day we got home from the hospital, there were three grocery bags hanging on our front door knob. Once I got Giovanna settled into bed per doctor's orders, I opened the front door not really sure what to expect. I slowly opened the bags and found three dozen fresh, homemade tamales inside. They were still warm.
ERIC HUFFMANSomebody stayed up all night making those tamales. Somebody with at least one job, maybe more, somebody with kids, somebody with no papers probably. Somebody with much bigger problems than we had made those tamales with their own two hands to bring my wife and me a little bit of comfort in our time of need. Looking back to that moment and hearing stories like the ones in this episode, I'm increasingly convinced that America needs migrants even more than migrants need America. Even though most of us aren't in positions of power to change our nation's policies, I hope these episodes have inspired you to look around your community for people like Mayra.
ERIC HUFFMANLook around for the outsiders, the refugees, and even if you don't speak their language, somehow find a way to let them know they're not invisible to you. Instead of wondering how they got here or if they have papers or whether they speak English, just look into their faces, look into their eyes and know that they have a story to tell, a story you wouldn't believe if you heard it, a story that brought them here. Choose mercy and compassion, not just for their sake but for yours because when you bear witness to their faith, your heart might be changed and I believe it's when hearts are changed that the world will finally change too.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISTo find out how you can help the refugees you met today and others like them in San Antonio, visit maybegodpod.com and click on the page for this episode, "Can Loving 'Illegals' Save Our Souls Part Two". In addition to legal aid for Mayra, Pastor John is trying to raise $60,000 to hire a full-time social worker for the church's hospitality house. This is the first time the Maybe God team has asked listeners to help. If these stories have moved you at all, please consider donating any amount to John's organization. We're so grateful for all your support.
JULIE MIRLICOURTOISMaybe God was produced by Eric Huffman and Julie Mirlicourtois. Our editors are Shannon Stefan, Brittany Holland, Justin Mayer, and Justin Michael. The sound engineers are Aubrey Snider and Nathan Bonnes and a very special thanks to the producer who introduced us to Pastor John, Kayla McCormick. Thanks for listening, everyone.
Can Loving “Illegals” Save Our Souls? (Part Two)
Inside This Episode
As the crisis intensifies along the southern border, scoring political points is easier than getting to the heart of the matter. Some people want a wall; others want open borders. Some say the US has a moral obligation to receive all refugees; many others, including 68% of white evangelicals, insist we have no responsibility to receive any refugees at all. But what if we're looking at this crisis from the wrong point of view? By giving migrants a platform to share their powerful stories of faith, this episode compels us all to walk a mile (or 2,000) in their shoes. When we take the time to listen, their faith will change our hearts, and when all our hearts are changed, we'll change the world together.
Please support Pastor John Garland’s work with the refugee community by visiting semillascommunity.org today. The Maybe God Team has a goal of raising $60,000 to allow John to hire a full-time social worker for the refugees stranded in San Antonio.
“I REALIZED WHAT I WANT TO BE ABLE TO DO IS NOT NECESSARILY SAY I HELPED OUT A BUNCH OF PEOPLE. I WANT TO BE ABLE TO SAY, I WAS ABLE TO BEAR WITNESS TO THEIR BEAUTIFUL FAITH AND THEIR FAITH IN THE MIDST OF DARKNESS AND FEAR.”
-PASTOR JOHN GARLAND