A few weeks ago I introduced you to El Camino del Inmigrante, the 11-day, 150-mile walk from the southern US border at Tijuana to Los Angeles. People of faith walked in solidarity with immigrants on a pilgrimage to highlight immigrant stories and to raise awareness of the need for change in the immigration system.
El Camino del Inmigrante was the brainchild of Noel Castellanos, inspired by El Camino de Santiago de Campostela in Spain. More than 170 walkers joined El Camino, and over 50 churches participated by feeding and/or sheltering the walkers. The youngest person to participate was 3 months old; the youngest walker to complete the entire trip was 11 years old; and the oldest walker was 79. One participant traveled over 2,800 miles from Guatemala to participate.
Today I’d like to introduce you to my dear friend and soul sister, Nancy Gagner. Nancy is my partner in prayer and ministry for refugees and immigration advocacy. Nancy participated in El Camino for the first three days of the walk.
Why did you walk?
I’ve had a heart for refugees, immigrants, the stranger since the 1970s. As I’ve continued to be involved in mostly a background way, like through teaching ESL, through literacy classes with children and cultural mentoring, I’ve realized more and more that compassionate immigration reform is an issue that needs to be addressed.
This migrant crisis is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation, and I feel like the church can’t just continue to sit on the sidelines. I personally feel that there’s more of a need for boldness, so as an individual I can do that and maybe I can encourage other people to do that, and hopefully the churches will start stepping up and becoming strong, vocal advocates.
I loved having my daughter-in-law, Megan Gagner, with me. As you get older, you think about what kind of legacy you want to leave for your children and your grandchildren, how you want them to remember you. I want to be remembered as somebody that cared about the stranger and was willing to do something about immigration reform. Since I do have a son and daughter-in-law in San Diego, I very possibly will have grandchildren there. I love the idea of them thinking sometime, or my daughter-in-law saying, “Oh, your grandmother and I walked along this street supporting immigration reform, we walked in solidarity and did something.” Hopefully that’s how they will remember me and think about me.
Did you have any fears or anxieties before beginning El Camino?
No. Right away I thought, I could do this! It sparked an interest in me. I have a hard time feeling like, Oh God is calling me to this! with certainty, so I remember I went home that night and I wrote down all the reasons why it would be a good positive thing to do, and I had a long list, and I couldn’t come up with anything negative. But I still wasn’t sure, so I prayed about it. In women’s Bible study I heard a young woman speak and her talk was “Born to Be Wild.” She was talking about how God does not want us to have these boring quiet lives. He wants us to step out in faith and do things. The last thing she said was, “So put on your peace shoes and walk somewhere!” Then it was pretty clear and I thought, Yes I’m called to do this.
I had the blessing of walking with my daughter-in-law, which hadn’t been planned. She came to the launch and decided to walk with me that day. The first day we walked 10 miles to Imperial Beach. Then she showed up again the next day and walked 16 miles. She has a heart for immigrants. She’s on the board of a small orphanage in Tijuana, and she crosses the border every month to work with the orphans and meet with the staff at this orphanage. I’ve been able to do that with her a couple times, and I want to continue to, because I believe it’s a way that we can address one of the root problems, especially as far as making sure the children have education and are well cared for, so they hopefully will not ever have to feel the need to cross the border.
Tell me about the border, about Friendship Park.
It’s really strange because you’re by this beautiful ocean, and then you realize that to the left there’s this wall. It’s actually two walls. You can see Tijuana on the one side, and there were lots of Mexican children and a lot of older women. We were on our side of the fence and they were on their side of the fence. We were waving at each other and holding our hands up in a prayer position, and they would be doing the same. We’re so close but yet so far. It’s uncomfortable with all the Border Patrol, and they carry big guns, and they’re all over the place. You have this beautiful beautiful setting, but it’s this wall that is so cruel.
Did you talk to people on the other side?
No, we were too far away and we weren’t supposed to do that.
How did it make you feel when you saw the wall and the people?
That was very sad and again, because we’re so close and most of them have loved ones in the United States that they don’t get to see. They told us that often people come every Saturday with the hopes that their relatives might be across on the US side and they at least could wave to each other or blow kisses. When I think of my own children or grandchildren having to live like that…
Thousands of families—many separated for years, or even decades—come to Friendship Park each year. More than anything else, they tell us, they wish they could hug their loved ones. Yet Border Patrol now allows hugging only once a year, in an event staged for the media in which just a few pre-selected families get to hug for just a few minutes. This policy gives the false impression of openness and hope.
(http://www.friendshippark.org) Border Park is open on the US side on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am – 2 pm.
Tell me about the crosses.
We planted crosses in the sand the first morning. Some had the name of someone who had died while crossing. Others had words or phrases in Spanish. Then we picked them up after our prayer service and walked with them.
Describe a typical day.
We would start in the morning with devotions, and that was usually 6:30. One morning in particular when we were on Imperial Beach there was an Episcopalian church that brought breakfast burritos for everybody. People stayed in different places: some people stayed in churches, some people stayed in hotels, some people stayed with friends. So we always had a meeting place so we could get on the road by 7, because it did get hot. We started with devotions in English and Spanish.
We usually walked until at least 2:00, sometimes until 5 or 6. So there wasn’t a lot of downtime before the debrief and dinner. Various churches provided dinner and space for an evening program. Our debriefs focused on specific immigration issues, such as child migrants or human trafficking.
What was the walking like?
I loved it from the beginning. I loved the intentionality of it, and the rhythm we would get into. The time went so quickly because I was always talking to someone really interesting. There were so many people from so many of these sponsor organizations in particular, with lots of great stories that people were able to share. We had crosses and bandanas on our backpacks, so people that were riding their bikes or walking by would stop and ask, “What are you doing?” So we had a chance to tell them. It was hot in the middle of the afternoon, and our feet were aching at night. One of the walkers was a nurse who would treat blisters each evening.
The first day I didn’t do it I was missing it SO much. I was in the airport just pacing. They continued posting the devotions and debriefs on facebook, and comments throughout the day. So it was really fun to feel like I was still a part of it. But it also made it hard because I really wanted to be there. It was that experience that you have on mission trips where they talk about that thin place, the intersection of heaven and God’s Kingdom on earth. You feel a lot of sorrow afterward, when you’re no longer in that place.
What did you feel spiritually?
I loved being so intentional and so in the moment. There wasn’t a whole lot else that I was thinking about other than the person I was talking to or what I was learning. It was nice realizing how little you need in order to experience inner joy. If you’re doing something that God has instructed you to do and you’re following in the way I’ve heard his voice. It’s very peaceful and hard to leave that setting and replicate that. But it was beautiful when it happened, and a wonderful memory to try to keep fresh in my mind.
It made me think about how we use the idea of comfort and security as idols sometimes. We did have security, we knew that we would have a place to stay at night. We didn’t necessarily know where or what we would be eating, but we knew that food was coming. I was not in control, not having to feel in control, but feeling very confident that the Lord had it under control.
It’s hard to think of the immigrants crossing without having adequate water. We all had water bottles, and every 5 miles they had arranged for water stops. We knew that if we ran out, we would be able to get some more. Certainly we weren’t going hungry. We knew that if we tripped or fell there would be help. Get on your phone and somebody would be there in ten minutes. It was hot, so you do realize how that must be terribly hard, plus the danger that they’re actually going through, whereas we weren’t actually afraid of anything. We didn’t have to have that fear.
It was wonderful to be with so many people that felt the same way and are working toward the same things, beautiful to see so many of God’s people coming together. There was such an energy being in this group. The encouragement was great. A lot of times I feel like I’m pretty alone in my concern for the stranger. It was one of the highlights of my life.
What was the most challenging?
Once I came back here, trying to process it all, and feeling this sadness that it’s over. Not over for the immigrants, but seeing things now in a bigger picture and understanding what they’re going through. It’s also challenging to figure out what kind of role I should now play. What does God want me to do next?
What did you learn?
I learned that I can have a voice. I tend to be more of a quiet person and work behind the scenes, but sometimes you do need to step up and be a little more vocal and a little more bold. It can be the right thing to do. It can certainly be done in a gentle way, so I think that’s something I’m going to try to really focus on: being gentle yet bold. There’s a way that both can be done. I feel even stronger commitment to see this through. Hopefully change will happen in my lifetime.
What would you like to see happen in US policy?
One of the most important things is somehow being able to reunite families. I think the people already in the United States need to be given some legal status. I think we need to recognize the valuable work that so many people are already doing in the US. We need to value that.
What would you like to see churches do?
Read the Bible more. Hear the biblical references to welcoming the stranger, loving the stranger, have that preached from the pulpit, because I think one of the big problems is a lot of people have no idea that this is very biblical. It’s not something that a political party just came up with. I think people need to know what the Bible says, what Jesus says.
What’s your next step? What did you take away?
I mentioned the orphanage in Tijuana. I’ve been there a couple times now, and I hope to continue visiting whenever I’m in San Diego, which is usually a couple times a year. I’m a financial donor for that too. It’s getting at the root problem, so people in those countries will be safe.
I’m thinking about getting more involved with Border Angels. I’d love to do an exposure trip with them. My daughter-in-law and I have talked about that, maybe doing a water drop or something.
I’m continuing to work for a more expansive refugee/immigration ministry at my church.
And continuing to be a voice through signing petitions or actually showing up maybe in front of the Capitol someday, supporting any legislation or policy changes where I could possibly have something to say.
I feel that I have an obligation to be a voice for God’s heart for the stranger. I don’t have a choice as a follower of Jesus. In the churches we need to help shape the narrative reflective of God’s plan for welcoming the stranger. We need to be a part of it, not just sit on the sidelines.
For more on what God’s Word says about welcoming the stranger, check out my post, “God’s People on the Move.”
To read about El Camino in the San Diego Union Tribune, click here:
To view a highlight video of El Camino, click here: