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 There’s a scene in Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, where Stephen Kumalo and his guide Msimangu, both Black pastors in search of Kumalo’s lost son, Absalom, encounter something extraordinary. The setting is Johannesburg, South Africa, at the height of apartheid. A bus boycott has been declared, and so all Black residents—young, old, infirm—are walking along the streets of the city.  While in a taxi, Kumalo and Msimangu observe a white man in his car offer a ride to several black people. A white police officer confronts the driver, who says in reply, “I am asking no money.” When the officer challenges him again, he replies, “Then take me to court,” and drives off.

Kumalo, a simple country pastor, smiles at this with “the strange smile not known in other countries, of a black man when he sees one of his people helped in public by a white man,” but Msimangu, a savvy pastor of Johannesburg, reacts differently: “It beats me, my friend, it beats me.”

“What beats you, this kindness?” Kumalo asks.

“No, no. To tell you the truth I was not thinking of it.”

He sat up in the taxi, and hit himself a great blow across the chest.

“Take me to court,” he said. He glared fiercely at Kumalo and hit himself again across the chest. “Take me to court,” he said.

Kumalo looked at him bewildered.

“That’s what beats me,” Msimangu said.    

What Kumalo doesn’t get about Msimangu’s incredulity is that it’s caused by the white privilege he’s just witnessed: what would it be like to tell off a police officer and not be beaten for it? To know that the courts would protect you? I’ve thought of this scene and Paton’s novel often since visiting the southern border this past February to visit a church located just beyond “the wall” in Juarez, Mexico.

We landed in El Paso and took an Uber to the border. There, with my pastor and friend, Reverend Angel Lopez, as our guide, our small group walked the half-mile bridge that spans the border wall to Juarez. At this part of the border, “the wall” we northerners talk about is really a series of ten unbreachable barriers of one sort or another: several high, chain-link fences topped with razor wire; concrete block walls again topped with razor wire; the Rio Grande river forms two more, almost-natural barriers on either side of the main wall, running slowly through two man-made, cement canals. In Juarez, the massive “wall” itself stands at the middle of these lesser barriers, thick, vertical bars of rusted steel at least 25 feet high with horizontal steel plates at the top.

Looking down on this half-mile of inhuman obstacles, I felt what Robert Frost’s uneasy New England farmer feels: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” As I walked, I wondered how anyone, let alone the President of the United States, could call it a “big, beautiful wall.” I wondered what it does to a kid growing up with a horizon of wall, day after day. I wondered which country the massive white message in bold white letters embedded on the mountainside beyond Juarez was for: “la Biblia es la verdad, leela.” “The Bible is the truth. Read it.”

And today, I’m pretty sure that old farmer’s something “that doesn’t love a wall” was the Holy Spirit speaking.

Unlike El Paso, the streets of Juarez are peppered with potholes. Food wrappers and trash mark every patch of grass, overwhelming the ditches along every street.  Everywhere plastic bags sprout from bare trees and stick to chain-link fences. Dogs and feral cats roam almost every street. Homes are small condos, stucco sided, with a small, walled-in area in front and sometimes back.  Every window and door has metal bars and locked metal gates for safety; razor wire glistens atop all fences and walls like December Christmas lights. No matter how run-down the house or store, razor wire curls above any possible entrance.  It’s as if the ghastly monster wall had spawned thousands of hideous mini-walls throughout the city. A city of walls upon walls and trash and brokenness and razor-sharp edges—and fear.

Welcome to Ciudad Juarez, a border destination for thousands of migrants from the south who arrive with their dreams of making it into the United States.  Sadly, on Monday, March 27, it was the site of a tragedy at a migrant detention center, where 39 male migrants from Central and South America were killed in a fire while they were being held behind bars. Though it’s apparent the migrants themselves started the fire as a protest, they didn’t intend to die from it. Even more tragic, later reports indicate the guards at the center made no attempt to help the men.

 This isn’t the first tragedy in Juarez. It is known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, where drug cartels have been responsible for the second-highest homicide rate in Mexico and a primary cause of the institutional corruption in law enforcement and local and national government.  All of which is why when we were welcomed through the doors of Frontera de Gracia, I felt a bit like Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee arriving at Rivendell, safe at last from the nine riders of Mordor.  Throughout our stay we were welcomed with hugs and led to tables where we feasted on platters of tacos and fruit, and lots of laughter and joy, the elements of which, I soon found, were present at every meal we shared with our Juarez hosts.

The outside of the church suggests nothing of the aura of grace that permeates the inside. A blue stucco, windowless building crowds the broken sidewalk. Telephone poles and wires and a fence topped with razor wire almost obscure the florescent sign on the roof: “Iglesia Christiana, Frontera de Gracia.” Several migrants stand on the sidewalk, waiting with rags and buckets of water to wash any car that pulls up along the curb. Another sweeps the entryway. Inside, a young woman sweeps the floor, while another mops the bathroom. The church sanctuary is to our immediate left as we enter. Since it is a Thursday, the sanctuary is covered with mattresses, snug with assorted blankets on top. Backpacks are neatly placed by each one. Several migrants notice us looking in, smile and wave to us as Pastor Samuel tells them in Spanish where we are from. A wooden cross mounted on the far wall is all that distinguishes this room as a place of worship. For now, it’s a bare-bones dormitory packed full. Suddenly the word “sanctuary” makes sense to me: a place of worship, a place of refuge.  

Pastor Samuel, Angel’s oldest brother, is the founder and leader of Frontera de Gracia.  He has no office and likely wouldn’t use one if he did, since his work keeps him in motion all day—back and forth in his car helping the migrants at Frontera de Gracia, stopping to meet the migrants he sees walking along city streets, meeting up with local NGO’s for any available resources they can offer, and a host of other urgent tasks.

His wife teaches art and music at the same school their daughters attend. She is very involved in the ministry of Frontera de Gracia, serving as musician and worship leader on Sunday mornings. Their two middle-school daughters are student-athletes and help out with Sunday school each week. This family operation is filled with risk: each knows Dad’s life has been threatened more than once for the work he does with migrants. After all, the cartels see the migrants as desperate people easy to exploit: some are charged thousands of dollars for a dubious chance at crossing the border, others are enlisted to smuggle drugs into the States for a promise of safety, and still others are exploited sexually.  Pastor Samuel’s ministry challenges all this, offering shelter, food, spiritual nourishment, and a commitment to help each migrant cross the border legally, while asking nothing in return. It’s a border of grace—Frontera de Gracia.

The sanctuary / dormitory at Frontera de Gracia

Pastor Samuel exudes deep love for the migrants he seeks out and welcomes to Frontera de Gracia, and each is quick to say how grateful they are for that love. The power of his risky, tireless work reminded me of Paton’s main theme in Cry, the Beloved Country, captured in something Msimangu says to his friend Kumalo, who is overwhelmed by all the brokenness and immorality he’s witnessing in Johannesburg: “There is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power.” Somehow, all the walls and weapons and threats from cartels and border police that Pastor Samuel must contend with can’t overcome the power of God’s love that drives him, the only power he seeks.

As we got to know each migrant by name, we heard their stories. They had passed on foot through as many as six countries and were waiting at Frontera de Gracia for legal passage into the U.S.  Many left good jobs and family, fleeing extreme violence, exploitation, extortion. A young woman named Genesis touched us deeply: hearing impaired and eight-months pregnant, she’d walked, like the others, over hundreds of miles that included jungles, rivers, and predators of all kinds. In fact, just days before we arrived, Pastor Samuel had performed her wedding to another young migrant. Although my terrible Spanish made her lip reading especially difficult, her bashful smile translated perfectly, and I gained a new appreciation for a familiar Bible story, but with a twist: there was room at this inn.

I’ll never forget the story of Vicki and Windor, two young, gregarious migrants from Venezuela. After a morning English lesson Angel engaged us in a conversation with them about their journey to the shelter. What we heard was stunning. They had become friends during the journey with a larger group because, as Angel translated, “Necessity creates friendships.”  Throughout the jungle they had encountered poisonous snakes, jaguars, swelling rivers to be forded, and several corpses of migrants who hadn’t made it. They’d come upon the bodies of a husband and wife who had recently hanged themselves after their daughter died along the way. They showed us a photo on their phone of how the group worked together to get each member across a river, many hands holding fast to the rope on each side as a person pulled himself or herself across. Not all of them could hang on and some were drowned down river. They talked about the bravery of a Haitian man among them who, with a long staff, held a jaguar at bay while the group managed to hustle past. “Haitians have a reputation among migrants for being brave,” Windor added. Vicki told of Windor’s own heroism when, one dark night during their three-day journey through the jungle, they encountered an especially steep slope, on which previous migrants had rigged a rope to help other migrants climb. Vicky and Windor were among the last to try when an old woman, weary from days of walking, tried to climb but quickly fell backwards. Vicky recounted how Windor helped the old woman up and then put her in front of him, the last, so that he might break her fall if she slipped again. She did fall again, and nearly broke Windor’s leg in the process, but he held her firm, and all three got to the other side.

Each migrant’s reasons for journeying to the United States varied, but all were driven by necessity.  In Voices of the Border (Tobin Hansen and Maria Engracia Robles Robles, 2021, Georgetown University Press), the authors detail many reasons for migration north, supported by extensive testimonials from interviews with hundreds of migrants. The first reason cited is wealth inequality, and after a historical survey of such causes, they conclude, “A clear-eyed understanding of the economic and social contexts of migration—and the direct role that the US government and US capital interests have played historically in encouraging migration—would lead to the realization that responsibility for human movement extends beyond the discrete choices of individuals” (22). Violence caused by gangs and cartels is another reason why people feel compelled to migrate to the U.S.: “These are people who fear the possibility of being murdered, having their children recruited into a gang, or their young daughters being raped because they caught the eye of a gang leader” (33). Gendered violence as a big cause for migration, and this is especially true in Mexico, where “66 percent of Mexican girls and women fifteen and older had experienced at least one incident of emotional, physical, sexual, or economic violence, or discrimination” (46). At Frontera de Gracia I was struck by how especially vulnerable the young women must have felt on their journey. Abuses by government, especially through corrupt police officers and soldiers, is another reason for migration. As Pastor Angel made clear, migrants that arrive in American cities don’t trust police officers on either side of the border; they have been taken advantage of or abused too many times.

Several other reasons for migration were cited, each one supported by testimonios from migrants, asylum seekers, and deportees interviewed in Nogales, Mexico. The stories pose uncomfortable truths for U.S. readers, because our complicity as a nation is sometimes laid bare. However, as the authors say in the introduction, their purpose is more personal, seeking not just to measure the crisis with statistics but with names, stories, and families.

Migrants on the streets of Juarez

My purpose here is similar: by sharing a human story from the border, I want to raise the awareness of other privileged Christians in the hope we can challenge our churches to promote justice at the border in whatever ways we can. Is there a local migrant housing need to be helped by the church? Is there a local migrant-advocacy agency to support, such as Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates in Holland, Michigan, whose mission is “bringing stability to West Michigan families through legal services, education, and advocacy”? How about support for the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Sonora, whose mission is to “promote humane, just and workable migration”? Or supporting Angel Lopez, who grew up in Chiapas, and now is not only one of the pastors of Third Reformed Church in Holland but also an RCA missionary, taking groups to visit his brother’s ministry at Frontera de Gracia? Or supporting Frontera de Gracia through Angel? Or a host of other ways, big or small, to help mitigate the human crisis at the border and the needs of migrants from the south in our cities and neighborhoods. Sadly, it seems today as common for a U.S. Christian to be a build-the-wall nationalist as it is to be a Good Samaritan working for a place like Frontera de Gracia. Such a contradictory message in Christ’s name hurts the church at large and must grieve God mightily. After all, Jesus calls us to open our doors to strangers, not keep them out with razor wire.  He calls us to labor with the power of love in its myriad forms.

He calls us to a table, not a wall.

On Sunday morning we worshipped with the congregation of Frontera de Gracia. All the mattresses, blankets, pillows, and backpacks had been stacked in the adjoining room. Clean, straight rows of padded chairs were in their place.  An elder introduced our group of four. Then he announced that this service would be in both Spanish and English. I recognized several of the migrants scattered throughout the crowd. As the praise band led us through a rousing “Our God is an Awesome God,” it occurred to me that this “English” version was for the one English-only speaker in the sanctuary: me.

It was hard to sing after that. Since that moment Frontera de Gracia has come to define for me what every Christian church ought to be: a sanctuary without barriers where any among “the least of these” are welcomed in Christ’s love by what might be called “the most privileged of these.”

It’s the kind of church Alan Paton envisions at the end of Cry, the Beloved Country. Jarvis has returned from Johannesburg to his mountain, Kumalo to his valley below. Soul weary, each has lost an only son: one murdered, the other about to be hanged by the state. And yet something wonderful has happened between them that only the mysterious power of God’s love can accomplish. Jarvis rides on horseback into the valley one day to see Kumalo, and the rain they have been praying for forces him to take shelter in Kumalo’s dilapidated church, likely the first time a white man has entered it. The two men sit on rough-hewn church benches, and, unable to talk because of the rain pounding on the tin roof, they stare at each other as the rain pours through the myriad holes in the roof of the sanctuary, this place of worship and, now, refuge. The storm passes and, through this baptism of grace, something is healed in both men.

Days later, Jarvis meets Kumalo midway down the mountainside: so symbolic, because through their suffering one man has been brought low, the other raised up. Kind as Jarvis has now been to him and his people, Kumalo is still fearful, knowing that this privileged white man has both power over him and reason to hate the father of his son’s murderer.  Jarvis, however, has been transformed by the power of love, much of it brought to him through the kindness and humility of Kumalo. He has a proposal for the “Umfundisi”—a Zulu term of respect for “parson”—and hands him an envelope containing plans he’s had drawn up for a new church building for Kumalo’s congregation, as well as his promise to fund the whole project.

“Do you desire a new church, Umfundisi?” Jarvis asks, with profound simplicity.

Overwhelmed, Kumalo can only shake his head because “there were no words in him.”

Because it’s really Jesus asking, not the apartheid-weary Jarvis, and he’s asking all of us today, now, on either side of any border—physical, political, or imagined—the same question.

Mark Hiskes

Mark Hiskes is a retired high school English teacher from Holland, Michigan, who devotes his time to a number of things: two delightful grandchildren, Sylvie and Paige; his wonderful wife, Cindy, with whom he rebuilds and refurbishes old furniture for sale in her antique booth; reading ever more great books, ancient, old, and new; and doing his best to write poetry, stories, and essays that might, God willing, tell some manner of truth.


  • Taylor W Holbrook says:

    Thank you for the power of this reflection.

  • Barb Lavery says:

    Hi Mark, this is a beautiful and sad story of our migant situation. What an informative visit for you. One of my favorite books is Cry the Beloved Country. It reveals a lot about forgiveness and hope. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thanks for this vivid, heartbreaking story of what’s really going on in the lives of the Latino people who desperately seek refuge in the US. Thanks for making so clear that violence, more than poverty, is the main reason most people seeking refuge.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for sharing this. If only every “build the wall” believer would read it.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you, Mark, for so courageously , so plaintively leading us into the world of the overwhelming, could it be terminal why.

  • Don Tamminga says:

    Thanks so much Mark. We here in NM also seek ways we can help and serve. T

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    “He calls us to a table, not a wall.” Amen. We are brothers and sisters in Christ first, neighbors second, and just happen to have different passports, third.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Vivid, moving, convicting – thanks Mark!
    I appreciate the Paton, Frost, and Tolkien references too.

    • Mark S. Hiskes says:

      Thank you, Professor Baron–Henry. I want you to know that it was in your English class long ago, with your inspired teaching and genuine encouragement, that I discovered my voice as a writer. I can’t thank you enough for that gift.

  • Johannes Witte says:

    Thank you Mark for this powerful article. Each of the migrants you met and spoke with are God’s image bearers. God have mercy on us for our dismissive attitudes to the “least of these”.