This winter, I am fortunate to be enjoying 60 and 70-degree days in a tiny Arizona town 30 miles from the Mexican border. Nights turn chilly, but the region is beautiful, marked by isolated mountain ridges poetically called “sky islands,” and bedecked with unique vegetation of the Sonoran desert: agaves, ocotillo, and the Joshua-treelike century plant.
This is the region where the notorious “Glanton gang” killed untold numbers of mestizo and indigenous people — including, reportedly, many children — under the Apache extermination policy of the 1840s. As if to defy tragic history, this is also a biodiversity hotspot where wildlife has ranged for millennia, blissfully unaware of international boundaries.
And, of course, it is the borderland currently causing our government great headaches, as President Trump frightens our citizens into supporting his plan for a “big beautiful wall” to thwart human invaders.
I was reminded of these conflicts at Sunday service in my town’s tiny, picturesque church a few weeks ago. It was surprising to find many pews full of young people — not a common sight in a place largely populated by retired Baby Boomers from northern climes.
It seems our congregation was hosting a youth group from a church in the Phoenix area, come to view the border for themselves. With local and visiting clergy, these young people had toured the international city of Nogales. They saw church-run shelters on the Mexican side, dedicated to helping families from Central America who have fled north to escape corruption and poverty. One striking observation:
“Over there, we saw a lot of loose dogs.” Because in the United States, “You know—dogs have to stay on a leash, or in your yard.”
Overall, the kids were shy about speaking in front of a strange congregation. It was Epiphany Sunday, which one young visitor defined as “a time of seeing the truth like never before.”
Our pastor asked if they had experienced any “aha moments” in the course of their visit. After a modest silence, a boy of about 12 shared this thought:
“I came here expecting a war zone. I thought we were under invasion by foreign criminals with lots of guns. Instead, I saw people coming to shop in Arizona.”
This was a child from a suburb of Phoenix. He had been convinced by someone, or some news report, that a war is raging just 180 miles from his home. Caravans crash through checkpoints to threaten his family’s immediate safety.
What a joy it was to hear that he took, instead, the truth his eyes showed him: hundreds of visitors from Sonora crossing the border legally to seek basic products at Home Depot and Family Dollar, peaceably returning home at end of day.
Ours is not a liberal church. I’m confident that no one in our community set out to affront the family or personal beliefs of our guests. No one dragged them through the desert to confront tent cities for unaccompanied migrant youth, which have been compared to concentration camps.
Even so, the mere sight of our neighbors to the south going about their everyday lives that differ little from our own — despite the presence of free-ranging pets — spoke to these children with a truth American leaders had managed to obscure.
[Photo courtesy Sky Islands Arizona]