As CT’s immigrant communities editor, I was planning our coverage of the crises affecting immigrant children at the Texas border when I saw the now-infamous Associated Press photo: that little arm around the neck of her father, hanging on as they drowned in the Rio Grande.
Days of pent-up journalistic angst cracked, and I sobbed. I cried thinking of the fear of those last moments. I cried in dismay knowing that, if they had made it, they might have been safe. I cried in frustration knowing that, if they had made it, they might not have been safe.
She could have been one of the diaperless toddlers in a detention center. One of the 700 separated from her parents in the last year. One of 125 to be left behind after the parents were deported. She could have been one of the 1,000 or more children abused while in US shelters. Meanwhile, authorities continue to discover unidentified border-crossers dead in the South Texas desert—most recently, a young woman, toddler, and two infants found in Mission, Texas.
As I continue to report on Christians at the border—the humanitarian work ministries are doing there as well as efforts to lobby Congress for a better system—I realized we must begin with lament over the hopelessness and danger these image-bearers face.
Lament is a cry for mercy or help in a time of sadness and regret. Because we are uncomfortable in lament, we often look away in times of overwhelming tragedy. We don’t want to feel grief over the deaths of migrant children: Carlos Gergorio Hernández Vásquez, 16; Juan de León Gutiérrez, 16; Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle, 10; Felipe Alónzo-Gomez, 8; Jakelin Call Maquin, 7; and Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez, 2.
We are so tempted to turn from the hurting, and in some cases, even question whether it’s really that bad. Politics, cynicism, and fear pull us away from lament, repentance, and action. As children get moved back and forth from crowded, unsanitary Border Patrol facilities, I wonder how long people will keep reading. Will this become another case of “compassion fatigue”?
I realized that my journalistic angst was misplaced. As Christians, we are not moved by reports, news coverage, or even ability of a writer or editor to expose the humanity in the other. Those things only confirm what we already know: The world, aching under the power and weight of sin, is grieving and we have always been called to weep with those who weep.
We do so in the spirit of the Lord, and his compassion does not fatigue.
I asked Christian leaders working along the border to lead us in lament, so we can spend time together in the grief sin has brought. Here’s what they had to say.
Max Lucado, author and pastor in San Antonio:
The harrowing photo of a drowned immigrant and his nearly two-year-old daughter stirs outrage. These are human beings; a dad and his child, a family. We scarcely have time to process the emotion before we read about sick, hungry, migrant children who are at risk in detention centers. Children? Combing lice out of each other’s hair?
Oh, my. My, my, my.
We want to look away. But let’s not. Let’s not turn away. Let’s not return too quickly to our summer activities. Let’s let these reports and images prompt the deepest form of prayer.
The groan is the vernacular of pain; the chosen tongue of despair. When there are no words, these are the words. When prayer won’t come, these will have to do. Sunnier times hear nicer, more poetic petitions, but stormy times generate mournful sounds of sadness, fear, and dread.
These sounds, these unadorned petitions of darkness, find their way into the ears of God the Father. Why? Because they are entrusted into the care of the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Rom. 8:26–27).
We do not know how to pray as we ought. The Spirit does. And the Spirit will.
We lament the desperate conditions of immigrant families.
We lament the impossible assignment given to the Border Patrol and officials.
We lament the inability to find civil solutions. Let us pray for God-breathed solutions.
Lord, please help us.
We need to act, help, and rescue. But first, we need prayerful empathy. This is a mess. A humanitarian, heart-breaking mess. As we are wondering what can be done, let’s do what we are called to do.
Let’s pray. Let’s lament. Let’s groan.
Karen González, author of The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong:
How long, Lord? Will you forget the children forever? How long will you hide your face from their suffering? How long must they endure separation from their parents and have sorrow in their hearts? How long must the cruelty of their captors triumph?
Look at them and answer, Lord my God. Restore them, heal their traumas, and reunite their families.
We repent for our complicity in their suffering. We have failed to support policies that care for our neighbors and not just ourselves. We have failed to elect legislators who will do justice for migrant families. We have failed to do our part to welcome immigrants in mutuality. We have failed to see their humanity and trust in your bountiful economy.
But we trust in your faithful love to transform us; we trust that you hear the cries of migrant children.
Our hearts rejoice in your salvation because you have been good to us.
We commit to do justice for the immigrant, to love mercy remembering your mercy to us, and to walk with you all of our days.
Helen Boursier, former detention center chaplain, author of The Ethics of Hospitality: An Interfaith Response to U.S. Immigration Policies and Desperately Seeking Asylum: Testimonies of Trauma, Courage and Love:
I have seen their tears and heard their cries of injustice (Ex. 3:7). I have listened to their testimonies of violence, oppression, extortion, and death threats. These mothers and fathers and girls and boys are fleeing a nightmare.
They read the same Bible as we do. They believe that God has a hope and a future (Jer. 29:11) for them. They believe they will be safe in America, so they come here to request asylum. They seek life. Not fancy life. Bare life. They simply want to live. One mother said, “I want to see my daughter smile.”
I pray the church in America will humbly fall to its collective knees in a corporate confession of sin for its inattention to the cries of injustice (Ps. 58) for these asylum seekers on both sides of the US-Mexico border.
“What does the Lord require? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). May it be so for the church in America as we extend radical hospitality to our brothers and sisters who are desperately seeking asylum at our southern border. Amen.
Matthew Soerens, author and director of church mobilization with World Relief (excerpted from a liturgy based on the Lord’s Prayer):
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. … I’ve honestly never had to forgive anyone for anything particularly terrible. I’m occasionally insulted on social media. Sometimes my wife inconsiderately leaves me all the dishes to wash. I’ve been cursed at while driving on the freeway. Forgiving such trespasses is not really all that difficult.
But some of the families at the border have had their bodies trespassed. Raped. Tortured. Shot. Some have had their children taken away from them. How do they forgive?
Others plead for forgiveness. Parents who thought they were pursuing safety for their children are now held by the US government in overcrowded spaces described by observing physicians as “torture facilities.” And parents grieve that they have subjected their children to this. I grieve that my country is subjecting them to this.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. … I pray for God’s deliverance. Deliver them from violence, hunger, abuse and extortion. From detention. From despair.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Carlos Colón, Salvadoran-American composer and assistant director for worship and chapel in Baylor University’s Office of Spiritual Life:
As followers of Christ Crucified, lament is always the appropriate response to our human frailty, and for the sufferings of others. It is here, in the Kyrie Eleison, that transformation starts, and many of us rehearse this every Sunday.
In regard to the immigration crisis, it is important that we lament deeply and recognize that human beings made in God's image are suffering and need our help. But lament should not be confused with self-centered emoting and with the booing and shaming which seeks to score political points. No. The problems before us are complex, and they require that we work at home and abroad to put a stop to the immigration crisis.
I believe with all my heart that the church is equipped in many ways to help in the finding of long-term solutions. Lament is the starting point to help others and their communities find the way from mourning into dancing; from despair to resurrection. May God bless those at the frontline of peace and healing!
Alan Cross, Southern Baptist pastor and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus and advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees with the Evangelical Immigration Table:
Tears flowed reading this. If only someone had been there on that river bank to grab the baby girl, Valeria, to hold her safe, to help her father, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez. After crossing the dangerous river with his baby girl, he went back for his wife, Tania, on the other side. Little Valeria, probably scared and wanting to be with her father, jumped back in the river to follow him. Oscar turned and went after her, but the strong current of the river swept them both away; Valeria clinging to her father, Oscar holding her tight. Their bodies were later found together face down in the mud.
Jesus sees them. They matter. He sees all of the crowds of migrants, harassed and helpless and fleeing for refuge. Tens of thousands of parents and children making the dangerous journey from Central America, fleeing violence, drug gangs, corruption, and cartels.
Do the millions of Christians in America see them? Can we be moved with compassion for the crowds of migrants coming to us? Can we weep for Oscar and Valeria? Jesus sees. Do we? May God help them. May God help us.