A Monograph by
David R Banta
© David R Banta – All Rights Reserved
“When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
–– The Holy Bible
With the decline of media objectivity and the advent of the first wave of thousands of migrants moving from Central America in toward the southern border of the U.S. in 2018, I was roused by the Holy Spirit to take an unknown path, a mission from God similar to the Bible’s Abram, to seek the truth of who these thousands of so-called “invaders” from Central America were.
Originally called the “Honduran Caravan”, the Migrant Caravan was made up of folks primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. I was to stand as the presence of Jesus alongside them, and to protect and encourage those folks I encountered along the way. I was to give a Jesus’-eye-view of this historic moment, and I was to deliver photographs that portrayed the migrants with the dignity and value that God’s perspective lends to a Jesus Christ follower’s viewpoint. This was my “mission from God”.
My viewpoint regarding our U.S.A. borders was obviously a spiritual one, rather than a political one. I sought God’s viewpoint (the Biblical viewpoint) about foreigners, aliens, refugees and immigrants. It became clear to me in my studies that God looks very favorably upon them.
*For related Biblical verses see footnote 1 below
In seeking a God’s-eye view, I found that my view of immigrants no longer matched the view of the majority of Christians I encountered. That was disturbing.
I am a white guy in his 60’s. As a child raised during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s, my Mother, Eloise (who at the time of this writing is 100 years old!) and my late Dad, Harold involved me in a week-long interracial exchange with a black student in high school. That student, Curt, and I attended each other’s school, lived with each other’s family and attended each other’s church for one week. That’s not a long time, but just long enough to change my life forever. Because of that growth, I never fail to see the signs of racism at work. I see it in our immigration policies and attitudes…and in our churches.
My wife, Rhoda and I wrestled with this prayerfully, tete-a-tete, in the fear of God. We decided mutually that, yes, this was indeed the call of our Lord Jesus to action!
I set up a way to fund the journey on GoFundMe.com and began to seek support for my expenses for this mission and began the extremely problematic logistics, both for adequate photographic supplies and for intersecting the first wave of migrants in the caravan.
My approach to this project was impressionistic, i.e., visual poetry blended with eyewitness information. My hope was that Jesus would be there in me, and that now, you would join us in what we saw, heard and experienced.
The cheapest way of travel for me was by bus so I had to strip down to the smallest amount of items necessary to carry. Fortunately, I had learned much regarding this process through family canoeing trips in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Canada, and long-distance truck driving, though at my age of 66, I needed to cut that amount of baggage in half. I planned on weeks… adequate time to get intimate photos of the migrants traveling to the border of the U.S. It was my hope to camp out and travel with the caravan to the border.
Reality, of course dictated otherwise. I was later told by a photojournalist friend I met in Mexico, that this kind of change in plans is ALWAYS the case, so BE FLEXIBLE!
Initially, before I went into Mexico, it looked like the intersection point for myself and the Migrant Caravan would be near Mexico City. I followed the latest news via wi-fi on buses. Associated Press was the most objective and up-to-date source. So I booked a couple nights via AirBnB and headed for Mexico City.
I then discovered that I had left my computer charging in the bus depot, I thought in Laredo, Texas. So I had to backtrack back across the border! Fortunately, the bus line in Mexico kindly paid for my trip to and from my computer. My first Mexican bus driver named Jose was the first of many angels interceding on my behalf. He got me across the border and then back across with a smile on his face, a wonder being…human or otherwise. A couple other angels, passengers on the bus, including a woman named Consuela acted as translators and answered my questions along the way as well.
I discovered that my computer was not in Laredo, but rather, in Monterray, Mexico! To my astonishment and the bus depot staff’s as well, my computer was still at the Monterray bus station! It had not been stolen (thank you Lord)! I DID however, end up leaving a camera battery and battery charger somewhere in Mexico that was never retrieved…small potatoes compared to the potential computer loss. I kept a close eye on that baby from then on. As my 100-year-old Mother said, “Growing old is not for sissies!” My poor memory was not helping me much and was getting worse the longer I traveled the 24 hour day-and-night bus schedule. I was getting delirious.
While heading to Mexico City, I learned on the Internet that the pace of the caravan had increased. They were no longer traveling on-foot now, but rather by buses. That spoiled my idea of intimate photos on foot, with rapport being established over time.
I need to insert some definitions here for your benefit. It was beneficial for me to learn this terminology: People who leave their country to go live in another country are migrants in the act of emigrating. When they arrive to their country of destination, they become immigrants and are immigrating into that country. Migrant workers are temporarily working in the country on a work visa for a pre-determined length of time.
Since the migrants left Mexico City and were headed towards Guadalajara, I cancelled my AirBnB housing reservations in Mexico City. I jumped on a bus to Guadalajara. There I would be sure to connect with the Caravan.
I arrived in Guadalajara, a sprawling metropolis of about one and and a half million people in the afternoon. It was an amazing, and extremely international city with people from nations all over the world living together; an urban environment full of life. I began to ask people if they spoke English. A woman named Lupita took me under her wing, another angel helping me search for the Migrant Caravan. She committed herself to accompanying me in my search through Guadalajara, as I could no longer utilize the Internet. There was no free Internet in the city or in public in general. McDonald’s and private businesses occasionally offered free Internet. She utilized her cell phone to search but to no avail. It was growing darker and at night the streets of Querétaro City could be dangerous. Night time was not a smart time to be wandering about. To that degree Mexico was very dangerous, but then so is Chicago or New York City.
Police in Mexico were not to be fully trusted. I put my trust on this journey in God alone and the angels He provided on my journey. I the police in general, from my time living in Chicago and, in Mexico specifically, from my most trusted news source, the Associated Press, otherwise known as AP. I was in the news trade for 5 years in the 1980’s as a chief photographer for a weekly newspaper in Jenison, Michigan. I had a BS degree in Arts and Media. After my stint with the paper, I worked as a corporate photographer in a hospital. I freelanced for AP, and the Detroit Free Press, drawn to them by their objectivity in the news trade at that time. AP and Agence-France-Presse as well were started in the 1800’s. They both retained their objectivity, considered today to be the most objective news sources.
In doing research for this story, I discovered a film released in 2012 called “Witness: A World Of Conflict Through A Lens” It was an HBO mini-series of four documentary films about three contemporary war photographers. Eros Hoaglund was one of the photographers. Hoaglund’s father, John Hoaglund was a photographer and war correspondent for Newsweek. He died covering the war in El Salvador in 1984. Eros inherited his dad’s cameras and took on his role as a freelance photojournalist for The New York Times. He photographed in Juarez, Mexico and in Rio, Brazil. In both places, he gave a clear view of law and order gone bad. Suspects in crimes were taken to the outskirts of these cities. They were obliterated by dismemberment and burning. Hoaglund believed, though he had no indisputable evidence, that the police in Juarez and Rio were murdering the criminals and destroying the bodies, the evidence. The police were judge, jury and executioners. The crime rate dropped but poverty was becoming criminalized by this corruption of the police systems.
In the film, Eros takes objectivity to the extreme, where we see him documenting and a group of police standing around a suspect they have been chasing. He was shot by them, apparently without gunplay on his part. For an excruciating length of time, the viewer, the cinematographer (Jared Moossy) and Eros Hoaglund witness the slow death of a suspect bleeding out…to death. No one lifts a finger.
I highly recommend the film if you have the stomach. It shows the struggle real news people have with objectivity. Get informed. Loss of objective news sources can lead to a police state. Mexico is becoming one; great for the tourists but not so great for the citizens, at least the low income folks in Mexico. It is a clash of classes. They cannot completely trust police and turn to drugs to make money or us. Neither can poor folks here in the U.S. Unfortunately, in both countries, it is foolish for them to do so completely.
I saw a police raid in Tijuana and armed jeeps with 50mm’s everywhere in Mexico. Many police wore black masks so they were unidentifiable. Was it to protect them as police or as murderers?
The immediate problem for me in G was my safety through the night.
I half-jokingly suggested that they should throw me in “cárcel” (Spanish for “jail”…remember this word, as it will show up later in my story). They actually seriously considered this for awhile, making phone calls and checking it out with their superiors . The final decision was made that I should go to the homeless shelter a number of blocks down the street. I thanked Lupita for her valiant efforts and reimbursed her expenses inspite of this angel’s (Lupita’s) refusals. I bid goodbye to and thanked the three officers as well.
I headed down the street. It got funkier and funkier as I got near the shelter. It also became darker and darker with fewer street lights. Empty storefronts gIared at me as I passed by. I was quite aware of my surroundings, having lived in Chicago, and considered myself street-savvy. But it was God who put me at ease. I was definitely in His hands and had a real sense of His presence throughout this journey.
I found the address and knocked on the large wooden doors. A little wooden window opened on the door and the face of a security guard appeared in the opening. He swung open the large doors and I found myself entering what looked like an old monastery with an inner court with large trees growing to open skies above. It was a wonderful sanctuary from the chaos of the city outside. There was a spirit of joy in this place.
A young man named Eduardo greeted me with a big grin and invited me into his office, speaking in English and asking “How can we help you?”
I told Eduardo that I was on a mission from God (a “Blues Brothers” film favorite quote), to take photographs of the Migrant Caravan that gave them dignity and value. I told him I needed a place to stay for the night. He told me that he would have to ask his boss about me staying for the night. As it turned out, the place was not a homeless shelter, but a hospital residency for low income families of patients. As we chatted, Eduardo and I developed an affinity for each other. We passed a laptop back and forth, using Google Translate to speak to each other clearly. As he filled out a questionnaire for me to stay at the facility, we talked about football favorites, his the Seahawks and mine, the Lions. He kept apologizing for his “poor” English as did many Mexicans on this trip. I told him his English was a whole lot better than my Spanish…which was nonexistent.
As I listened to Eduardo I was realizing that I was a stranger in a strange land on a shoestring budget…nearly a vagrant. I was an alien.
“Funny, having an American here,” he said, “Are you hungry? We have food.”
I WAS hungry, and followed Eduardo to the dining hall where the residents were busy eating…GREAT Mexican food basics were offered…beans, rice and chicken…a hearty meal. There were close to a hundred people eating. I sat with folks I couldn’t even converse with as I knew no Spanish. They grinned at me and tried their best to make me comfortable. They did. They were wonderful. They had welcomed me and I found an extraordinary warmth in this culture that drew me and frankly made me want to be a part of it. They welcomed me as they would have done with Jesus. And I, in Christ, became one with them in that moment. I had experienced something similar to this holistic sense of purpose in Kenya during the Somali crisis in 1992, when I had photographed the Somali refugees International Aid, a now defunct Christian NGO. I was right where God wanted me.
Eduardo said I could stay until the director of the Querétaro homeless shelter picked me up later that night. I could stay overnight there. So I sat, did a bit of photography and wandered some, but I mostly sat in a chaise lounge in the courtyard…I was totally exhausted already.
I sat and watched the residents chatting, sitting with each other, often in a circle talking for hours. There was a real sense of community here…shared sufferings between families of patients at the hospital. A couple young men approached me and asked me in English if I would like to attend a Bible study. I told them I did and followed them to a chapel where a priest read Scripture and the gathered people prayed with him…in Spanish. I did not speak Spanish so I just sat and absorbed the fellowship.
Afterwards, while sitting waiting for the director near the front door of the hospital residency, a young man asked me if he could practice his English with me. That was fine with me and we laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. A young lady took his place and she practiced her English as well. If I had it to do all over again, I would have learned Spanish long ago.
The director arrived with a big smile on his face. He said he was delighted and eager to hear the story of God’s call for me to go to Mexico. When I told him that my wife and I had struggled in the beginning, with conflict, Carlos said, “And you told her that you would go with or without her approval…” I laughed and said, “If Mama isn’t happy no one is! No, we prayed together and talked. I would not have gone without her approval. How long have you been married man?”
Carlos said that they were married for three years and I said that he had a lot to learn. Rhoda and I have been together almost 27 years now.
As we drove through the streets of Querétaro City, the director pointed out the homeless people on the street, telling me of the shelter’s role in the city. We stopped. He spoke with a group of street homeless men who seemed to know him personally. We drove on to the shelter. The place was very quiet as we entered at about 11:00 at night. Carlos asked me if I was hungry. I learned to eat when I could on this trip, so I said “Yes”. We sat down to rice, beans and tamales and a cake. They day-old cake was given to them by a bakery. It was delicious.
When we had finished, the director asked, “So what can we do for you David?” I told him that I wanted connect with the migrant caravan that was in town. We found out that they were at a stadium in town. The director worked a full-time job as well as running the shelter. He said he would try to borrow the same truck again from work. He would come and get me when he could the next day. Then the director left.
It was late enough and I was so exhausted that I went to bed. Many years of working in the darkroom made it somewhat easy to my bunk in the dark in a room with ten homeless men. I fell fast asleep about as soon as my head hit the pillow. I had traveled for three 24 hour days by bus prior to this and 12 hours that day.
In the middle of the night, a man whose name I never learned, in the bunk above me started coughing. It became obvious he was very ill and was having extreme trouble breathing. His lungs were bad. His breathing sounded like a death rattle I had heard coming from dying patients in a hospital that I worked in as a corporate photographer for ten years.
I began to pray for him. Then he and I went back to sleep.
In the morning I awoke with a start to bugled assembly of the troops ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nNOus0TPVE ) played from a recording. Everyone who was sleeping jumped up got dressed and made their beds. I did not. A man came in who spoke English and appeared to be in charge. He shook me saying, “David, wake up, you have to get out of bed.”
“No…no…the director said I could rest today until he came for me,” I groaned. I was still exhausted after a night’s rest and hadn’t even caught up with the migrant caravan yet
“No David, you have to get up!”
His command was very similar to my Mother’s when I was a child and had not risen after the alarm went off. I got up
All of the men had already gotten up and gone to clean up themselves and to eat breakfast.
The guy I had prayed for who had been coughing and sounding like death-warmed-over in the bunk above me approached me. He was okay now.
“This is how you make your bed,” he said He showed me as he folded the blanket into place. He had me follow him out to the breakfast area. There was some kind of kowtowing going on. He pulled out a chair like a waiter and said that I could join the people at that table. I saw the woman who was in charge during the day at the shelter looking at me with disgust in her eyes. I did not want between us. I shut it down saying “I can get that. Thank you.”
I have seen this class-response in myself, and throughout the church and in government in its dealings with poverty. It is often a reflex action especially in churches and government to “lord over” the recipients of charity, whether in their interactions with them, or in their internal thoughts, and eventually showing up in those interactions. Most folks have no idea that that is going on in themselves. In fact, they feel good about what they are doing. It becomes systemic. Rather than serving people, they tend to make the recipients grovel.
Frank McCourt, an Irish-American writer depicts this well in his Pulitzer-prize winning book “Angela’s Ashes”. In his eye-opening book, he tells how he and his family were on the receiving end of charity in Ireland. His family was “dirt poor” (as I write this I recognize that description is probably a systemically unjust one), living on the second floor of their two-level apartment because the bottom floor was flooded with rain water. They approached the St. Vincent de Paul Society for help, seeing a woman named Nora approaching the Society for boots for her children. Nora smokes, much to the disdain of Mr. Quinlivan in the Society. In her mustered pride Nora threatens to go to the Quakers for charity:
“Mr. Quinlivan steps towards Nora and points a finger. Do you know what we have here? We have a souper in our midst. We had the soupers in the Famine. The Protestants went round telling good Catholics that if they gave up their faith and turned Protestant they’d get more soup than their bellies could hold and, God help us, some Catholics took the soup, and were ever after known as the soupers and lost their immortal souls doomed to the deepest part of hell. And you, woman, if you go to the Quakers you’ll lose your immortal souls and the souls of your children.”
When Nora says, “Well then, Mr. Quinlivan, you’ll have to save us won’t you.”; she is of course rejected. His pride and her pride collide.
McCourt’s mother kowtows to Mr. Quinlivan and is approved for a week’s groceries with the disclaimer that “of course, you won’t be getting this every week missus.”
I stepped aside, actively discouraging this kind of hoop-jumping kowtowing, and kept my friend at the shelter and I on the same level as much as possible. I did this with everyone from this point on…lesson learned. It’s only by God’s grace that any of us has what we have, small or great, so no man or woman can boast.
I helped myself to the breakfast. I was very hungry. Breakfast was warm tamales and a hearty vegetable soup. It tasted good. We had a hot fruity beverage rather than coffee (dang I missed my coffee!).
There were about 100 homeless folks in this shelter…mostly men and a few women. My bunk partner told me that he had learned English while working in the United States for several years. His work visa expired and he had to return to Mexico. He could live in the homeless shelter for up to three months while he tried to find work in Querétaro City.
I waited for the director to come get me after we ate. I had to sit in the covered entryway while the residents mopped the floors and cleaned. I offered to help but they said no that I was a guest of the director.
As I waited, I wrote more notes and sat with the man who had befriended me. He had finished chores now. Morning was the time for residents to seek work so he and another resident changed into fresh clothes in the the entryway. Another resident joined us. He was decidedly dangerous, yet I had no real fear of him, though I trod lightly. The three residents were security guards at a company and departed for work together.
I asked if I could use the office computer. The woman in charge who had glowered at me earlier asked why? I told her that the director had said that I could post my story on Facebook. The woman became strangely suspicious and told me no, that I could not. She did not speak much English. I tried to explain to her, showing her my notebook. She waved me back to the entryway saying that I could not. I went back out to the entryway and resumed with my writing.
Residents of the shelter came and went. I held short conversations with those who could speak a little English. We enjoyed each other’s company.
Soon the lady and a security guard came out and spoke just enough English for me to understand that the director was not coming. He could not procure the truck he had hoped to borrow. She went on to say that they had contacted the police. They believed I was a reporter filing a story. They were turning me over to the police!
“What!?!” I exclaimed, “No no no…”
I was alarmed. I had already experienced intense spiritual warfare with many difficulties in preparing for the trip. I knew by the “smell of it”.
I prayed internally, “How ya gonna get me out of this one Lord?” I found myself clinging to Jesus, pretty stressed out. But I’m of the mind that anything that pushes you closer to Jesus is good…in this case for your survival.
I clammed up, giving short “yes” and “no” answers. The more I kept my mouth shut, the more suspicious they became. I repeatedly told them to call the director.
I knew the Lord would get me through this. I was on a mission from God.
They continued badgering me with “Oh, you don’t speak Spanish, but you know what we are talking about” in broken English. I was able to make out what they communicating by body language and similar-sounding Spanish words that I figured out in English; plus the little English they did speak.
I suddenly realized that they should read me notes. Because of their spiritual nature, the notes would show that I was not a “reporter” per se.
The two began to look over my notes. But they found the Spanish word “cárcel” (jail…did you remember?) in my notes. This simply became another point of suspicion.
“Ahhhh…cárcel eh?” She shot me a piercing glare as she spoke.
We waited for the police to arrive.
“…Gently encourage the stragglers, and reach out for the exhausted, pulling them to their feet. Be patient with each person, attentive to individual needs… “ (The Message – I Thessalonians 5:13-15)
The guard kept a close eye on me as I waited for the police.
Time was passing. Hours went by. One by one, the men and several homeless women left the entryway to catch their rides to work, or left to find work. As they left, they smiled and shook my hand. I had a wonderful sense of camaraderie. I was at the homeless shelter…a fox without a hole.
As the residents exited, I felt myself feeling somewhat helpless. In fact, I was downright panicky. Waiting on the Lord is not always easy. Hours passed and I still had no idea what His intentions were. The cops were coming and I still had not heard from the director of the homeless shelter about connecting with the migrant caravan.
Then an angel walked into the entryway. His name was Gustavo.
He sat down next to me, a cordial Mexican gentleman. He was in his 70’s (He later told me he was 76). He was a Mexican with a smile that put me at ease and a wry sense of humor that made laugh. It was difficult to discern when he was joking and when he was serious…a very engaging man. And nearly fearless, I was soon to discover.
“Hello, my name is David,” I said, “What’s your name?”
“Gustavo,” he told me with a grin on his face. I immediately liked him.
I was pretty much exhausted by this journey already; the lost and retrieved computer, my camera battery charger had been lost along the way somewhere so I had like 7 or 8 batteries to use with a camera that loved to eat batteries, and now the police were coming. I was ready to head home now. But I did not because I heard the Lord’s call.
Gustavo was a rejuvenating breath of fresh air on a spring day. We laughed and talked. He pulled out a photo of a beautiful Mexican woman that my eyes pop. I explained to him that I had already fallen like the snow back in Michigan for the most beautiful woman in the world, my wife so I appreciated beauty. I looked him straight in the eye.
“Is she a prostitute?” I asked because she was so young.
“No, no, no David” he explained, “She is my girlfriend…she lives in New York City.”
“Wow,” I said, “She’s a beauty!”
“I know…it’s been so long since I’ve seen her…” he pined.
“I think about her all the time,” he sighed.
“Why don’t you invite her down here? I’m sure she would appreciate the change in weather from fall in NYC. I know I do.”
He looked at me as an old man with great hope in his eyes. It was as if she was all that was left in his world.
“I have a house on the Pacific in Baja that my mother gave me when she passed away. We could go there…”
“She could come by bus…it’s cheap,” I responded from my own experience.
We looked at the bus rates on his smartphone. I never asked so I never found out why Gustavo was at the homeless shelter. I suspect that he stopped by there to encourage the folks who inhabited it. He did as we sat in the entryway. He was a joy.
As our conversation continued, I told Gustavo about the riff that had grown between the manager and security guard at the shelter, and myself. He stood up and tightened his belt as old men do and told me he would talk to them. He left the entryway to talk to the manager and the guard. I could could speedy Spanish being bantered back and forth. It went on for some time.
Then Gustavo emerged from the shelter speaking Spanish on his phone.
“It’s the director…he wants to talk to you, “ Gustavo said as he handed his phone to me.
“Hello, David? I’m sorry about the misunderstanding. I straightened it out. I was not able to get the truck to pick you up so Gustavo is going to accompany you to the stadium where the migrant caravan is staying, okay?”
“Yes, sure director, we will head out then. Thank you so much for the stay here and all of your help…God bless you my friend.” We bid each other goodbye and disconnected.
“You hungry?” Gustavo grinned at me, reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a baloney sandwich.
“Yes, of course,” I said. We both laughed…I was energized and filled with the Spirit.
After we had finished what was probably the most delightful sandwich I had ever tasted (I was very hungry from stress), or so it seemed, we ducked into the shelter to say our goodbyes. Gustavo spoke with the manager. I wandered off and found my bunk mate. I reached into my pocket and found a handful of peso coins and put them in the palm of his hand.
“Here man, you need these more than I do,” I said, praying internally for him as I handed him the money. Gustavo and I headed for the entryway, quickly grabbing our packs and throwing them on our backs. We set out through the doorway with Gustavo in the lead, and I with my camera tossing and dangling from my neck as we hoofed it down the street in search of the migrant caravan.
It was a long, long hike to the stadium. I didn’t want to spend money on buses to get there as I had been unable to access my GoFundMe donations yet and cash was getting tight. Gustavo and I were not young men. As we hiked, our ages began to take their toll. I was delighted that I did not hike with the migrant caravan when they were on foot. I probably would have become a burden to them in my exhaustion.
We made our way through the city. Gustavo stopped along the way to ask for directions to the stadium. After much huffing and puffing on our part, we came to a long street that led to the stadium. We could see it from our distance. As we traveled down the road, another angel came alongside us. She was from the neighborhood and asked us where we were going. When we told her, she encouraged both of us.
As she walked with us she spoke in English to us, “Many people from all over the world are showing up to help the migrants…where are you from?”
“I’m from the U.S.A. and Gustavo lives here. I’m on a mission from God,” I continued to huff and puff. I grinned at her.
As we looked ahead of us, it became apparent that the police had the arena area cordoned off with barricades and were masked and armed for confrontation. This really made this introvert nervous. I had not having experienced this sort of thing since the Viet Nam War days when I was a conscientious objector. Many of us worked in the streets to end that conflict and found ourselves confronted by police in the same riot gear.
Gustavo got very nervous as well.
“I don’t like the police David. They cannot be trusted.”
The woman replied, “I have the name of the woman in charge of the immigrants.”
We stopped and Gustavo got the information from the woman. Then that angel departed.
As we got closer, I could see a small opening that we had to pass through that was guarded by an armed guard in black tactical gear and masked. Gustavo spoke to him in Spanish using the name our angel had given us. We were in.
As we approached the arena, we could see a small group of reporters and camera men and women in front of a spokesperson at a mic. She was speaking in Spanish. There were lots of armed police surrounding the press conference.
The gathering was in front of a parked bus fully loaded with migrants. A little further away was a group of migrants who had given up traveling to the U.S. border. They were going to stay here in Mexico.
As I approached the bus, a reporter was standing in front of the door. I moved past her to try and board the bus, which was packed so full that people were spilling onto the steps leading from the doorway up into the bus. I had never seen a bus so full as this. It reminded me of the railroad cars packed to-the-gills with concentration camp inmates in WWII. There were people filling all the seats, standing in the aisle and sitting on the back of the seats. I could barely see window light it was so packed. With my backpack, it was going to be nearly impossible for me to fit.
“Hey, this bus is for them,” the reporter by the door said.
“I came a long way to get on this bus,” I replied.
“We all did…It’s for them,” she reponded, pointing at the migrants.
I wasn’t going fit with my backpack. A real photojournalist probably would have grabbed essentials and given the rest to Gustavo to hold on to, but hindsight is 20/20 vision. I threw up my hands and backed off.
I turned around and found Gustavo talking to the police. He was being quite brave, asking them where the bus was headed, but getting nowhere.
I watched helplessly as the last migrant caravan bus gunned it’s engine. The driver had the passengers suck their breath in…the reporter got on board, the door closed and the bus drove away. The reporter never looked back at me. I was reminded of why I quit the news biz. It could be pretty cutthroat and I was not.
“Now what?” I thought. Being wrapped up in figuring out logistics, I had taken no pictures.
Both Gustavo and I were decimated by this set back. I had little cash left. I would have to go back to the homeless shelter. I decided that I had failed in my mission to document the migrant caravan. I would return home.
Gustavo and I made our way back to the shelter. He was exhausted by the hike. He showed me that he was wearing a urostomy bag. I was shocked.
“You should have told me. I would never have allowed you to do this hike.”
We were both discouraged by our failure. Gustavo departed, saying he would come back in the morning and escort me to the bus depot across town. I was going home. I had failed.
The next morning we meandered through Querétaro City to the bus depot. My bus left later that evening. Gustavo and I had become friends. I bought a lunch for us. Though I quit smoking long ago, I smoked a cigarette with Gustavo. We enjoyed each other’s company. After several hours, Gustavo said his goodbyes and gave me his phone number. I watched him climb on a city bus. He was gone.
I got on a bus headed for the border to begin my journey home. I looked at my notes and tried to figure out what kind of story this had become. It was definitely a spiritual story, one focussing on my dependence on the Lord. There was a battle going on inside me…the spiritual versus the rational.
I called Rhoda at home.
“I want you to pray for me right now and tell me what you hear from the Lord because I’m not hearing Him in this,” I said.
After a moment, Rhoda’s voice said, “Go! He wants you to keep going!” So I did.
I consulted the Internet and found the migrant caravan was headed to Tijuana. I switched buses and made a very long journey through the night from Monterray to Tijuana. It was a blur of exhaustion…dusty back roads…beautiful mountain ranges in the distance…winding around narrow roadways with shear dropoffs…vendors climbing on the bus, selling their goods…movies in Spanish on the dvd players…police coming onboard to check for?…feeding my carry-ons through scanners in the middle of nowhere at some un-godly hour…
At last I reached Tijuana.
As I walked out of the bus depot into the city of Tijuana, a driver called out to me, “Need a lift?” I was delighted and hopped in his old Ford galaxy (circa 1985).
“Where are you headed,” he asked with a friendly smile.
“I want to go to the place where the migrant caravan is being housed.”
“No problem,” he replied.
As we drove along the Mexican side of the U.S. border, he pointed out areas of the city.
“Don’t go anywhere near this neighborhood…it’s dangerous,” he said, enjoying his ability to speak English. He seemed like a good guy.
We drove out to a point near the Pacific Ocean where he had heard the migrants were being kept. After making several inquires on foot, he returned to the vehicle.
“It looks like they have been moved to the Benito Juarez sports arena,” he said as he climbed into the car. It was fascinating to drive along the border. There was a wall with a concrete valley between the U.S. and Mexico. The neighborhood along the border was pretty rough looking. We made a right turn and headed south.
“See the stores up ahead, “ he said, “Don’t go any further south on this street than there. You’ll be in trouble there.”
As I looked ahead, I could see police decked out in tactical black on the street.
“Look’s like trouble ahead,” I said, pointing at a cordoned off street. We pulled up and the driver spoke to the police and returned to the car.
“This is it…they are over there,” he said, leaning into the open car window and pointing at the sports arena in the distance. I thanked him, grabbed my gear, settled his fee and headed out with my pack on my back.
The streets were filled with mostly male migrants. Only a few journalists were there taking pictures and talking to people. The entrance to the arena was barred with a single door that was opened and closed for people to get in and out. It was a chaotic scene. A pickup pulled in. The bed of the vehicle was loaded with bottled water. The couple got out and began unloading the water.
“Where are you folks from?” I asked with a smile.
“We’re from San Diego,” the woman replied, “How about you? Where are you from?”
“I came down from Michigan to document this,” I said.
“Thanks for doing that,” she said, Lots of people from all over have been coming here to help out.”
“Thanks for doing what you’re doing,” I said. I turned and looked around. A woman pulled her vehicle into the arena entrance area and stepped out of car with a tray of baked goods. She passed them out to the young men in the streets. I saw this everywhere I turned here. A family was down the street, pulling steamy bowls of chicken and rice for the migrants from huge pots in the back of a pickup. The people were lined up for a couple blocks waiting for food. The line was so long and there was not enough food.
A pleasant man exited the arena through the barred door. He helped haul water from the pickup. As they finished unloading, I walked over and asked him if I could take pictures of the migrants in the arena.
“What is this for?” he asked.
I grinned and said, “I’m on a mission from God.” This always made me chuckle.
The man disappeared through arena door. He emerged several minutes later.
“Media is allowed from 8:30 in the morning until noon…come back then,” he told me, “Just ask for Miguel.”
I departed the arena area and headed south away from the border. The warning from the taxi driver about not going too far south echoed in my mind. I made my way on a diagonal path through the streets. I stopped at a fresh food stand and bought some oranges and bananas to eat as it had been some time since I had eaten. I stopped in a somewhat seedy hotel…perfectly fine with that level of funk.
“No, you’d be better off at the Hotel Espana,” the manager told me, “It’s down the street and a couple of blocks over.” Nice that I was able to understand folks enough to function. I was gaining confidence in my travels. I checked into the Hotel Espana and flopped face down on my bed.
I awoke within a couple hours. I had a hard time making my way out the door. I watched Mexican TV and went through my gear. It was now evening and I needed get some food. Money was still quite tight as I did not have access to my GoFundMe account so I would have to by food wisely.
I walked out onto an open balcony to look down Revolution Avenue. The sun was warm on my face. I could hear the flapping of the international flags in the wind on the balcony. I looked down to see what I later discerned to be a “zonkey”, a hybrid from donkey and zebra parents. It was black and white striped.
I went down the street back towards the arena. I had seen a fresh food store and made that my goal. I had eaten lots of junk food on the way here just to fill my belly and that’s about all that was available in bus travel. I had developed a particular fondness for Mexican strawberry wafer cookies, but I was anxious to taste fresh food! I hurriedly made my way through a throng of merchants hawking their wares on both sides of the sidewalk like carnival barkers.
I entered a fresh food stand, enjoying the colors of the fruits and vegetables. The food was plentiful and there were stands like this throughout the city. I purchased some oranges and bananas as these could both be peeled. Returning to my hotel I spied a pizza place with wood stove pizzas for the equivalent of $5 U.S. I ate there every night of my stay in Tijuana as I could use my debit card and the food was great!
The following morning I awoke to the morning light feeling rested. I took my first shower in days. I had used wet wipes during the journey to keep fairly clean, but water was wonderful.
I got to the sports arena at about 8:00. Very few media people were there. News of the arrival of the first wave of migrants had apparently not reached media folks. I went past security and talked to the folks inside through the bars.
“Is Miguel here?”
They looked at me like I was from another planet.
“There is no one named Miguel here…Miguel who?”
I didn’t know his last name so I started all over…I’m on a mission from God…(laughs and smiles)…I want to take photos of the migrant caravan as a personal project of mine…pictures that give value and dignity…I liked them and they seemed to like me…it was good.
I was in.
Entering the arena was like entering another world. While border town Tijuana’s population spoke some English, here there was none. I was definitely from another planet, but they were kind and gracious as I walked down an aisle to my right. There was a “tent” made completely from branches. Young men walked past me. We smiled at each other but did not speak. I felt completely out of place, emboldened only by my camera and purpose. I had traveled very far with great difficulty and frankly had no energy left.
But there was a surge from my curiosity as I strolled past little vignettes of lives and hardship…people striving for better. I was allowed brief moments of candidness, to observe and capture in only a very brief moment before I was “discovered”, and the expressions changed to more intentional views…smiling for the camera and/or giving a thumbs up. But those who discovered me allowed me for the most part to explore their little turf in the arena. The only area I not allowed to remain in was the gymnasium where people who wanted more privacy stayed. I got as far as the balcony and did a shaky rendition of the 100+ sleeping areas in the gym…then someone called out “Oye, sal de aquí! ¡Nadie está permitido!”
I looked over the balcony down on a group of unhappy faces.
“No problem,” I smiled back to them and headed down the stairway and out the gym door.
The center of the outdoor arena was open when I was with the first wave of immigrants. There was a ring of tents and makeshift homes around the ball field. At the north end, a line of showers had people with discreet bits of clothing on making the best of the total lack of privacy. A white female photographer put her camera on the ground shooting video of the showers. The lack of privacy did not seem to offend the people in the showers. A total lack of real privacy is a way of life for migrants. That would be very hard on me.
I was completely exhausted. I had only been shooting for an hour and a half. The stress of my own intrusion into their lives was taking its toll. I had already been shot before entering the arena. I decided that was enough for today. I asked if I could come back the following day and was invited back.
I walked out the barred door to the arena.
I began to do individual portraits of the migrant men hanging out together outside the arena. They presented themselves to me in the way they wished to be seen. A tiny man emerged from the subject matter.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“El Salvador,” he said. He seemed very tired and sad.
“My name is David. What is your name?”
“Eduardo…I walked most of the way here.”
“Because a gang killed seven members of my family.”
Eduardo began to pull out ragged, well-worn bits of paper from his inside jacket pocket…news clips…he began to spread them out on the ground. My hand instinctively went for my camera as the story began to unfold before my eyes.
“Please don’t photograph me.” He was afraid of retaliation. Not sure what kind.
It took everything I had to respect his wishes.
As his story unfolded, I was touched by his vulnerability in sharing the dark story of the murders and the results.
“But nobody listen to me,” Eduardo said. His words sobbed. It was his sobbing that stayed with me…his voice dogging me. It was painful for both of us. Very painful. There was a holy union in Christ going on.
“Eduardo, can I pray for you?”…I did not know anything better to do.
“Yes David.” He was weeping.
I wanted to call my pastor. I wanted to shout across the border to a numb population in the U.S.
“THIS IS WRONG! This guy just walked over 2000 miles! Somebody do something!!!” The thought ran through my head.
We were unified in our turning to Jesus. Eduardo seemed relieved of his burden of deep sorrow. I was very sad. My heart was broken.
We gave each other man-hugs (shake with one hand while embracing with the other arm) and said our goodbyes.
I turned and saw a woman grinning in a growing crowd of media people, migrants and interested folks gathered around the entrance to the sports arena. I walked over to the Hispanic woman. We struck up a conversation. It’s always been easier for me to talk to women rather than men as an introvert. I was raised primarily by my Mother and sister, so it makes sense.
“¿Qué pasa?” I asked.
“I speak a little English,” she said.
“Oh good, “ I sighed, “What has brought you here?”
“God brought me and my son here,” she replied.
“What!?!” I exclaimed, “Wow! I’m on a mission from God too!”
We high-fived each other!
“God wanted me to come down here to come alongside these folks and to photograph them showing their value and dignity,” I chimed.
I forgot to ask her name…I’m like that…
She was very excited and told her story with great pauses to choose the correct English, sounding the Spanish and it’s English equivalencies. I had a hard time putting her story together but because we were both emissaries of the Lord, I tried very hard and would reply my understanding of what she had said:
“So the Lord brought you here to speak to these people? And you ran into trouble with the police…spent the night in jail!?!”
They saw her as a trouble-maker.
She gave a paranoid look at the police and motioned for her son to join us. He was a teenager, still at home and Mom had taken him on this crazy journey for God. He enjoyed me and I him. But he was clearly embarrassed by his mother’s obedience to God and the mysteries that lay therein.
After some time of this going back and forth translation, the son bowed out to go back to his friends saying, “You’re English is fine Mom…you’ve got this…” He returned to his friends.
She explained that God had told her to speak to the migrants, telling them that they must remain peaceful or they would not enter the United States.
As she spoke to me, I was marveling at the Lord’s goodness and care in the midst of madness. He had filled both of us through the Holy Spirit and moved us both out to serve Him. What kind of God is this who makes these things happen!?! My head was nearly spinning at the wonder of this mighty God! Later, I would see this woman in a story by my photojournalist friend, Ken Alexander. She was speaking to the migrants on a bullhorn in a photograph.
I had photos to take for Him, so the woman and I prayed together about our journeys and gave thanks. We looked at each other with amazement.
I glanced over and saw a woman in a vehicle stopped in the street just beyond the entrance to the sports arena. She stepped out of the car with a carefully-balanced baking sheet on her arm. She grinned at me as I approached with my camera, shooting all the way to her. She was almost hidden as I approached and a crowd of migrants began to surround her. By the time I and the baked goods were gone, the crowd dissolved into the street and surrounding migrant gatherings…a food line, an entry line for overnight shelter, the sports arena, a line for water, several small groups of brothers and sisters in Christ were there to share the Gospel. Miraculous little scenarios began to take place one person at a time…well-orchestrated by God and seen through my Jesus-eyes.
And I knew He was present. My heart was made whole again…my faith in Jesus Christ deepened.
It put a big smile on my face. Yes, I belonged here.
*footnote 1: The following passages from the Bible refer to immigrants and refugees. All quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version: Genesis 3:22-24 – Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden.Genesis 7 and 8 – Noah builds an ark and takes refuge from the food. Genesis 12:1 – The call of Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”Genesis 12:10 – “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.” Genesis 19 – Lot takes his family and flees Sodom. Genesis 23 – Abraham is a stranger and an alien in the land of Canaan. Genesis 46:1-7 – Jacob moves his family to Egypt to escape the famine and reunite with Joseph. Genesis 47: 1-6 – Joseph brings his brothers to Pharaoh and they are welcomed and given jobs.Exodus 1:8-14 – Joseph’s generation is gone, and the Egyptians oppress the Israelites. “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor.”Exodus 1:15-2:10 – Pharaoh orders all the Hebrew boy babies to be killed, but Moses is hidden and is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter. Exodus 12:37-39 – The Israelites were driven out of Egypt so fast they had no time to make provisions and had to bake unleavened cakes of bread. Exodus 12:49 and Leviticus 24:22 – “There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you.”Exodus 22:21 – Moses gives God’s law: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:9-10 and 23:22 – Moses gives God’s law: “You shall not strip your vineyards bare…leave them for the poor and the alien.”Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 – When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 24:23 – Moses receives God’s law: “With me you are but aliens and tenants.” Numbers 9:14 and 15:15-16 – “…you shall have one statute for both the resident alien and the native.” Numbers 35 and Joshua 20 – The Lord instructs Moses to give cities of refuge to the Levites so that when the Israelites must flee into Canaan they may have cities of refuge given to them. Deuteronomy 1:16 – “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien.” Deuteronomy 6:10-13 – The people of Israel are made aware that the land had come to them as a gift from God and they were to remember that they were once aliens. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and 26:12-13 – Tithing was begun, in part, for resident aliens. Deuteronomy 24:14 – “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land…”Deuteronomy 24:17-18 – “You shall not deprive a resident alien…of justice.” Deuteronomy 24:19-22 – Leave sheaf, olives, grapes for the alien. Deuteronomy 26:5 – A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice.” I Chronicles 22:1-2 – Aliens were important in building the temple. I Chronicles 29:14-15 – David praises God: “We are aliens and transients before you…” II Chronicles 2:17-18 – Solomon took a census of all the aliens and assigned them work. Psalm 105 – Remembering their sojourn: “When they were few in number, of little account, and strangers in it, wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people…” Psalm 137:1-6 – “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Psalm 146:9 – “The Lord watches over the strangers…” Ecclesiastes 4:1 – “Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them.”Isaiah 16:4 – Be a refuge to the outcasts of Moab. Jeremiah 7:5-7 – “If you do not oppress the alien…then I will dwell with you in this place…” Jeremiah 22:3-5 – Do no wrong or violence to the alien. Ezekiel 47:21-22 – The aliens shall be to you as citizens, and shall also be allotted an inheritance. Zechariah 7:8-10 – Do no oppress the alien. Malachi 3:5 – The messenger will bear witness against those who thrust aside the alien. Matthew 2:13-15 – Jesus and parents flee Herod’s search for the child. Matthew 5:10-11 – “Blessed are those who are persecuted.” Matthew 25:31-46 – “…I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Luke 3:11 – “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none…” Luke 4:16-21 – “…Bring good news to the poor…release to the captives…sight to the blind…let the oppressed go free.” Romans 12:13 – “Mark of the true Christian: “…Extend hospitality to strangers…” II Corinthians 8:13-15 – “It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need…” Ephesians 2:11-22 – “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Hebrews 11 – “By faith Abraham…set out for a place…not knowing where he was going.” Hebrews 13:1-2 – “…show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels…” James 2:5 – “Has not God chosen the poor in the world…” James 2:14-17 – “What good is it…if you say you have faith but do not have works?” I John 3:18 – “…Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” I John 4:7-21 – “ ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…’ We love because God first loved us.”