by the Rev. Charles Lane Cowen
The young man’s father was from one people in Eritrea, and his mother was from an enemy people and country. If his father went to his mother’s country, the military leaders would kill him. If his mother went to his father’s country, they would kill her. As their son, he was not welcome in either country. Fearing for his life, he was compelled to leave his home and extended family. He fled to South Africa, where he smuggled himself onto a boat and made the dangerous journey to Brazil. Perhaps the most perilous part of his journey was still ahead. From Brazil, he began to walk. He traveled on foot through treacherous jungles and war-torn regions all the way through Central America and Mexico to the American border. At the border, he did the legally correct thing — he approached the border guard and turned himself in, indicating that he wished to seek political asylum in the United States because his life was threatened in his home country.
I met this brave young man in January 2018, when I volunteered at Casa Marianella — an immigrant shelter in Austin, Texas — as part of a course I was taking in Ministry Across Cultures. When I asked him why he came to America, he responded, “I was taught that America is a free country where there is hope and opportunity. There is no racism in America, and everyone is treated equally.”
According to its website, “Casa Marianella welcomes displaced immigrants and promotes self-sufficiency by providing shelter and support services.” During my short but formative time there, I had the opportunity to hear stories from asylum seekers from Latin America, Eritrea, the Ukraine, and places all over the world. Journeying with these brave asylum seekers opened my eyes to the extraordinary circumstances that would lead someone to leave their home, family, culture, and familiar surroundings to seek a safer, better life in the United States of America — a land where they often do not understand the language, culture, or legal processes.
When I arrived at Casa, I had no idea how I could be helpful. My Spanish language skills at that time were minimal, and I had never worked in social services. The executive director assured me that just being a calm presence and talking with residents was very helpful. She also taught me that I already knew how to navigate any United States’ system because I spoke English and I knew how to use the internet and the phone. In other words, reach out for help, do the research, and relentlessly advocate.
Much of my work at Casa consisted of driving residents from Austin to San Antonio for check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as well as taking people for medical services, job interviews, potential housing, and other errands. During these car rides, I learned so much about our country’s broken immigration system.
When my new Eritrean friend arrived at our border seeking compassion and refuge, he was in for a shock. After months of hard work, terrifying travel, and a lifetime of horrors, border agents cuffed him and sent him to a for-profit prison where he was first placed in what they call the icebox. These bare rooms, kept at about 40 degrees, are meant to deter people who come from tropical climates from staying here. After a day or more in the icebox, he was put into the general population of the for-profit prison where he witnessed and experienced violence as well as psychological and sexual abuse.
His story is one of dozens I heard, from teenage boys being sold into human trafficking to young women fleeing kidnappings by violent drug cartels. All of these people came to the United States because they believed our national story of freedom and justice for all. They believed that we meant it when we declared that “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
When asylum seekers land in prisons, a very few are able to be released into the care of immigrant shelters like Casa Marianella. Casa receives letters every day from people incarcerated in immigrant prisons seeking a better life. Although they cannot take everyone who requests it, the staff at Casa takes who they can, provides a temporary place to live, and helps these immigrants find medical services, legal services, job opportunities, and support as they navigate the incredibly difficult, expensive, and inconsistent process to seek political asylum and/or a path to citizenship.
When I asked the director how people could help with this issue, she said that the biggest issue is a global one. No one should ever feel so afraid that they have to flee their home. As a rich, powerful nation, we should strive to make this world a safer, more loving place. As followers of Jesus, we have that same charge.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says to the people that every single member of the community has gifts from God and every single member of the community is necessary: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). In other words, the body of Christ, our knowledge of God, cannot exist unless everyone is part of it. Furthermore, no part of the body can cast out another part of the body without harming itself: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:21-22). When our hurt siblings in the body of Christ come here from other countries seeking a better life, it not only is unethical to send them away, but it cuts off one member of the body of Christ from another.
Perhaps one of the greatest fallacies of contemporary American Christianity is the notion that Christianity is about a personal relationship with Jesus. In God’s Kingdom, there is no “me” — there is only “we.” When we reject those in pain, we reject the fullness of the body of Christ. As Paul said to the church in Corinth, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:26).
When people arrive at our borders seeking a better life, yes, we should have processes that allow us to know who is here, and yes, we should show compassion and human decency in welcoming them.
All of the residents I met at Casa Marianella wanted to have a good job, support their families, and contribute to their community — isn’t that the American Dream? I heard people tell me, with their eyes sparkling, their dreams of becoming a truck driver, or a farmer, or a social worker. These were people with incredible gifts to share with the world, and our legal system did not allow them to share those gifts.
Because my time at Casa Marianella was short, I do not know where the Eritrean man I met is today. I do not know if he was granted asylum or sent back to a country where his life is in peril. For the asylum seekers at Casa Marianella, nothing is certain. I met people who came through the shelter and now have abundant lives here, and I met many others who continue to struggle and whose futures and safety are uncertain.
Today I serve at Trinity Parish (La Parroquia Trinidad) in Wilmington where we have a large Spanish-speaking congregation from many countries including some whose families have lived in the United States of America for generations. Out of respect for them, I will not share details of their stories, but I will say that many struggle to survive in a country where they do not understand the culture or language. All of them came here seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Some have been here for generations; some have just arrived. Whoever they are, however long they have been here, and whether or not they have papers (I never ask), when they approach the altar rail on Sunday afternoon and hold out their hands seeking the Body and Blood of Christ, I serve them. El Cuerpo de Cristo, pan del Cielo. La Sangre de Cristo, cáliz de salvación. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, American nor Mexican, Eritrean nor Guatemalan. There is only one great fellowship of humanity in the one Body of Christ.
The Reverend Charles Lane Cowen holds a Master of Divinity from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas where he also studied Latino ministries. He currently serves as associate rector of Trinity Parish in Wilmington, which includes Old Swedes and Trinity churches. Every Sunday at noon, Trinity celebrates the Holy Eucharist in Spanish.