by Philip Yancey

Last month, around 10,000 people per day crossed the southern border into the United States, most of them illegally. We’re going to hear a lot about the migrant crisis during this election year. Heart-rending stories of refugees. Exploitive “Coyotes.” Bankrupt border towns. Outmanned Border Patrol agents. For perspective, I turned to a friend of mine, Ken Kemp, for an eyewitness account of one temporary settlement near San Diego. As politicians debate the issues, we dare not forget the human factor, and the good people who step up when government fails. The following is an edited portion of Ken’s blog post.

Last Sunday, a few of us drove from suburban Los Angeles into the desert along the Wall, an array of thirty-foot-tall rusting steel pillars crowned with coils of barbed wire. There, we found a makeshift camp of some 300 exhausted sojourners guarded by a small contingent of uniformed officials.

A beloved friend, Rev. Dr. Michael Lodahl, had sounded the alarm. These migrants, possessed by the dream of a better life in America, had ended up on the parched hills of southern California with no shelter, no water, no sanitary facilities, and no food. This time of year, the nights get cold, and few had adequate clothing. “Can you possibly help us?” Michael asked.

After a long career as a pastor and professor of religion, Michael had accepted an assignment from the United Methodist Church: to serve as an interim pastor in a small church on the border with Mexico. He now has a close-up view of the migrant crisis and how some churches are responding.

A recent PBS news broadcast featured the town where Michael works. In this remote place, far from any official border crossings, there remains an unfinished portion of the formidable wall. The gap, several miles long, gives the opportunity for unhindered crossings, beyond the reach of most authorities. Travel agents as far away as China arrange trips to this off-the-map portal. Then “Coyotes,” the traffickers who prey on migrants, offer transport to the gap in the wall—for a fee. Some travelers give their life savings to a driver who will convey them along a dusty, forsaken road to that opening.

The U.S. Border Patrol, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, cannot deal with the refugees’ needs. And Michael’s sleepy little town (population, 600), like many other border towns, can hardly cope. Hence the call for help.

Our group met Pastor Michael at a supply center, where we found provisions of donated clothing, water, and a man cooking a huge kettle of rice and beans over a natural gas flame. We packed our car with as much as it would carry and made our way to the encampment.

We were not the first Americans to offer aid. Another group had purchased and set up camping tents. We soon met Karen, a retired social worker who was volunteering her time. She told us of finding two unaccompanied minors—shivering, terrified—whom she took into her car and fed. She also described some of the health issues she saw: scabies, parasites, necrotic tissue, broken bones, seizures, scorpion bites.

“It’s not my responsibility,” she said, acknowledging what we all knew. “It’s a complicated mess. I didn’t create this crisis and I can’t fix it.” There is no infrastructure dealing with the open camps in the desert. It’s up to the local towns to help out. They show up with fresh water, warm clothes, caps, gloves, and a sincere word of encouragement. And hugs.

Karen listens to the migrants’ stories, and she invited us to do the same. We learned that they came not only from Central and South America but also Turkey, Ukraine, Syria, and even China. Every one of them had a story of tragedy: lost homes, lost family members, lost businesses, lost hope. The only hope left was America. Employment. Safety. A new start.

We did not find, out there on our side of the wall, terrorists or drug dealers carting in loads of fentanyl with the intent to kill off America’s young. We didn’t find communists or thieves or rapists. We met ordinary human beings from distant lands who had sacrificed everything for an impossible journey, driven by an instinct for survival and the promise of a better life in the Promised Land—America.

I’ve read When Helping Hurts, a book about how charity can do more harm than good. I’m quite aware that we do-gooders cannot fix this horrific problem. I returned from my visit to The Wall to my climate-controlled smart-home where Alexa waits at the ready to turn my lights on at 4:30 in the afternoon and off at 10 p.m. The refrigerator is stocked, and the big-screen television brings the world into my living room. Two cars in the garage stand ready to take me anywhere I want to go.

That said, I cannot get Mary’s Magnificat out of my mind. Over Christmas a spiritual director led a group of us on a study of that song. From her longing heart, Mary imagines what her son might become. She anticipates that he will “lift up the humble” and “fill the hungry with good things.”

I watch Karen the social worker embrace the displaced children. I listen to Pastor Michael challenge his people to care. I consider what Mary’s son had to say about both the proud and the humble. The proud will be taken down, and the humble lifted up.

I let it all shape my thoughts, and inform my prayers.

I let it change me.

© 2023 Ken Kemp