The call came on a Saturday morning in mid-December. Something was horribly wrong at the migrant shelter in Mexicali, just across the Mexican border from Calexico, a border town very familiar to some of our Episcopal congregations. There was talk of an “orphan tragedy.” To many of those from the congregations of St. Margaret’s Episcopal (Palm Desert), St. Paul in the Desert (Palm Springs), and St. Philip The Apostle (Lemon Grove), who had for some time been planning December pilgrimages in the “posada” tradition – Christmas parties that reenact the drama of the Holy Family, seeking shelter in Bethlehem – the news came as a shock. Funds had been raised for food; Christmas gifts for children had been purchased; liturgies had been written. What was happening?
La Posada Cobina migrant shelter, in Mexicali’s rough-and-tumble red light district, houses some 240 mostly Central American migrants in about 20 motel rooms. For the better part of two years, Episcopal congregations, along with other Southern California faith partners, have accompanied shelter residents—most fleeing persecution, violence, and environmental catastrophes in Central America – as they have endured the vicissitudes of changing border policies. But that morning, the news was as unprecedented as it was unwelcome. One of the shelter’s residents, a young Honduran mother, had been hospitalized with COVID-19. She had not survived. Her four young children, between 8 and 12 years old, were now alone in the shelter. There were scant funds for anything: transport, food, or funeral or cremation expenses. Perhaps worst of all, the Mexican government seemed poised to return the children to Honduras, where they had no family, and where they would face the same conditions that had compelled their mother to bring them north just a short time before.
The morning of December 16 dawned, chilly, dry, and sunny, as clergy, laity, and diocesan staff gathered in the parking lot of St. Margaret’s. The complexion of the day would surely be different than planned. Bags of gifts filled the trunks of the cars in our modest convoy, but the luster seemed to have faded from the counted-on joy of the festivities. How might we bring some Christmas happiness to the shelter under such circumstances? And to these four children who had just lost their mother? Prayers rose.
When we arrived at the shelter (after visiting a migrant soup kitchen where our clergy performed a baptism, bestowed blessings, and broke bread with many families), we met the four children. Understandably in shock (or perhaps denial), the kids mixed in with the rest of the children, who had been their playmates (and in some sense, bunkmates) for several months. The families had decorated the modest motel courtyard in splendid Christmas decorations. We were treated to an amazing pozole (Mexican stew). Songs were sung. Costumes were donned, and the traditional posada was enacted – children role-playing the Holy Family, knocking, knocking, knocking, at the (motel room) doors.
And then came the goodbyes. The four children, having packed their tiny, colorful mochilas (backpacks), said farewell to their de facto families in the shelter. We prepared them to accompany us back across the border: Because the border remains closed to all humanitarian migrants except unaccompanied children, their family tragedy had, somewhat perversely, opened up a legal pathway to the United States, where extended family awaited them. So, amid many tears, in two taxis, we brought the children to the Calexico port of entry, where lines extended for hours. A border guard, initially surly, seemed to have a change of heart (following much prayer). And finally, after many days of drama, the children were taken into a children’s shelter in the United States, where they await reunification with family in Los Angeles.
Our Diocesan Migration Missioner, Troy Elder, can be reached at email@example.com.
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