In the desert twenty-five miles north of the U.S.-Mexican Border I am leading a BorderLinks delegation of seminary students. We walk on sand and rocks, up and down rolling hills and through wash beds. We weave through cactus and push aside thorny bushes that have clamored their way onto our path. Every couple minutes we stop to pry an embedded cholla cactus out of someone’s shoe or ankle with a comb.
After 30 minutes of walking we approach our first stop. A black weathered book-bag lays stunned by the sun and discarded on the slope of the shallow valley we walk through. Then, we follow the wash behind a bush and arrive at a clearing. There, two small white crosses about knee high are surrounded by brush and cactus and fixed in the sand. One is marked “Presente”, meaning present, and the other, “Desconocido”, meaning unknown. We gather in a semi circle in front of the crosses. Our guide, a humanitarian aid worker who places water in the desert, informs us that the crosses mark the locations where human remains were found of migrants who attempted to cross the desert. The group holds a moment of silence to remember the journey traveled and the lives lived by the two children of God who died where we stand.
A student breaks the silence with prayer. He mourns the migrants’ death but gives thanks that God was with them until the end and welcomed them into God’s arms. At first, I digest his words with contention and discomfort while I stare down at my sandy shoes. I imagine the slow, dry death by the hand of the desert in unforgiving elements that contradict the nature of a God of grace. All the while, thorny bushes and cactus seem to enclose upon us as we stand and pray in this shallow valley of death.
Then, with the close of his prayer, we continue on our journey to visit other small white crosses fixed in the sand. We climb the valley’s slope and I turn around to see roofs of house less than a mile away over waves of small rolling desert hills. Life was so close and the people we remember either didn’t know or didn’t feel they would be welcomed. We continued forward. Near in the distance the steep bank of a copper mine towered over the desert landscape.
I continue to struggle with my participant’s prayer throughout the week. I imagine God’s arms towering over someone in the desert as the same thorny branches and cacti that seemed to engulf the small clearing where we stood with the crosses. Could God’s presence possibly be so great that it could be found even in the deeps of a valley of thorns where the shadow of death still looms? With this question, my discomfort with the student’s prayer subsided. If I have witnessed anything about the presence of God as UMC Mission Fellow, it is that God’s presence is most recognizable in the valley of the shadow of death. In these places of need and despair where no one knows of us, God is there. Even in the heat, the rocks, and the spines and thorns.
At BorderLinks I lead groups from around the country that come to the border to learn about immigration and the borderlands. We interact with many community members to discuss multiple perspectives on these issues. A desert walk is an activity meant for reflection on the challenges migrants face while crossing through the desert and to remember those who died while trying.