Migrant Trail walkers imitate Jesus

David Bonilla (left), a former Mennonite Brethren pastor from Colombia, walks the Migrant Trail in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona, USA, bearing a cross to bring attention to the deaths of migrants traversing the U.S./Mexico border. Photo: Saulo Padilla.

“Our Anabaptist history is intrinsically tied to migration, and so is our Christian story,” says Saulo Padilla, immigration education coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. “We must keep challenging the narratives that separate us, build borders and invite us to dehumanize others.”

Several Anabaptist-Mennonites participated in the 14th Migrant Trail Walk May 29–June 4, 2017, a 121-kilometre (75-mile) solidarity hike from Sasabe, Sonora, Mexico, to Tucson, Arizona, USA, that mirrors the paths migrants travel to cross the border.

Respect for people

Some 7,000 people have died en route, 1,000 of whom have not been identified. “[This pilgrimage] allows us to honour those lives and to accompany the families that were not able to give a proper burial to their loved ones,” says Padilla.

“As Anabaptists and Christians, we believe that every person is created in the image of God and deserves to be respected,” he says.

For seven days, some 50 participants walk 20–25 kilometres each day, eating meals provided by volunteer supporters and sleeping outside. Support vehicles provide water and logistical support, and carry supplies.

Why they walk

“As Mennonite Brethren, we work for justice,” says David Bonilla who works with MCC partner Cafe Justo’s migration programs in Mexico. He joined the walk to support vulnerable people. “Jesus taught us this. We are imitators of Jesus.”

Seven-time participant Padilla’s commitment to the walk comes in part from personal experience as an immigrant. Born in Guatemala, Padilla lived as a political refugee in Mexico before immigrating to Canada in 1986.

Jonathan Ziegler, a member of Circle of Hope, a Brethren in Christ congregation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, was drawn to walk the Migrant Trail because as an Anabaptist, he believes nation-states and borders are “inherently violent. I believe in radical peace that undoes the oppression they cause.”

For MCC Connecting Peoples Coordinator in Guatemala Sara Ritchie-Helmuth, the walk was part of a larger journey, from learning about “the American Dream” as history to meeting people who chase the dream today.

“I understood why migrants leave their country and what they experience once they reach the so-called Promised Land, but I wanted to understand what happens in between,” she says.

“However, I will never fully understand those struggles because I will never be able to abandon the privilege that has been assigned to me.” Participants have the security of a passport, the comradery of a group and confidence in decent treatment from border guards.

Lessons on the road

“The waste of money on the border patrol” frustrated Ziegler, but by maintaining a friendly and respectful relationship with them, he began to consider police in his city. “How do we stand up to the powers while loving our enemies [at home] in a way that might just transform them?”

“God was present in glimpses and grandiose moments,” says Ritchie-Helmuth, through her fellow walkers and the landscape. Like a simple flower she discovered growing in the desert, “God’s goodness extends to unlikely, desolate and harsh places; sometimes. it’s just a little harder to find.”

Padilla invokes Hebrews 13:1’s invitation to entertain strangers. “This kind of hospitality has slowly been blurred by the narratives in society about how dangerous it is to welcome strangers,” he says. “Yet, we should continue to welcome strangers as if God was always knocking at the door.

“Wouldn’t we treat each other very different if anyone could be God?”

[a Mennonite World Conference release by Danielle Gonzales and Karla Braun

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