Fleeing North in the Full Armor of God

When our church offered therapy to traumatized migrants, we witnessed the healing power of Scripture.
Fleeing North in the Full Armor of God
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Jelena Zivkovic / Getty

Traffickers had trapped Mayra, a Honduran woman, and her three children in a southern Mexican house alongside a crowd of other migrants. The traffickers had stolen her money and her phone.

Her wide-eyed six-year old son was slurring his speech. Her two-year-old daughter was throwing tantrums and retreating into a shell. Her slender preteen daughter was being groomed for sex, and Mayra’s own pregnant belly continued to swell. She had come this far to save her children from the horrors of her hometown, where three of her siblings and her husband had been murdered. But she found herself paralyzed in a place full of drug use, sexual violence, and noise.

What Mayra felt she could do was pray and sing the praise songs she learned in church, which she converted into whispered lullabies. Huddled on a dirty mattress in a corner, she prayed the “full armor of God” over her children each day for weeks. She tried to shield them with her pregnant body and transform the commanding passage of Ephesians 6 into a blessing: “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.”

Normally it takes a month for a family to get from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador to the southern border of the United States. Immigrants ride freight trains and buses and walk for miles through cities and wilderness. Along the way, they are targeted for robbery, kidnapping, and sexual exploitation.

Despite these dangers, asylum seekers from these countries have been coming to the US in increasing numbers. Most turn themselves in at the southern border and, after initial immigration screenings for fear and credibility, many are taken to detention centers while they coordinate with US-based family or sponsors who will provide plane or bus tickets to their next destinations. Upon leaving, the travelers are strapped with tracking devices and given mandatory check-in dates. But logistical kinks are numerous, and migrants often find themselves in cities like San Antonio in need of temporary shelter until they can get to their final destination.

The church that I pastor in San Antonio has, for years, hosted asylum-seeking families as they pass through. We hear their stories in the small guesthouse behind our church or in our own kitchens. Upon arrival, they sign our guestbook and tell us their religious affiliation. The vast majority of these families arriving at our church—nearly 80 percent—are evangelical Christians.

All migrants fleeing danger experience varying levels of trauma and violence. We hear stories of hunger, rape, murder, and torture. They desperately want to pray, to hear words of encouragement and blessing. When we encounter them, they often ask to read the Bible, and they often memorize significant verses. Our church’s program, called Semillas, aims to equip these migrants with a safe place to begin their healing and learn trauma-healing practices that they can use with their own families and communities. Semillas (referencing the “seeds” to which Jesus compares the Kingdom of God) uses the therapy techniques of partnering psychiatrists and groups like the American Bible Society’s Trauma Healing Institute.

Our approach begins as simply as kneeling—to assume a non-threatening posture as we meet the men and women—and gathering vital information. We move through migrants’ stories at a pace that feels right to them and ensure that they feel physically secure, using weighted blankets and strategic spaces in the church that are neither too open or too tight. Once they feel safe, we can address their spiritual and emotional injuries through Scripture.

It takes time and is far too labor intensive for one pastor, a white male pastor nonetheless, to manage alone. That’s why we have trained church and community members to use these techniques. The Good News of Christianity confronts trauma head-on, calling the Church to be a healing communion for broken bodies and spirits.

Many of them, like Mayra, already know full well how to wield Scripture against despair.

‘Surely he will save you from the trap.’

Mayra, whose last name is being withheld for security reasons, braced herself against fear and anxiety using the New Testament. The beginning of all trauma-healing is the establishment of felt-safety. She struggles with reading, but her father, Jorge, had taught her Bible verses when she was young. She held those verses in her heart.

“Let us put on the armor of God,” Jorge said each morning and made his family memorize Ephesians 6. They lived in a city where gangs rule. Along with Mayra’s brothers and a sister, who were gunned down, their pastor was killed. Her father became a lay-pastor, and with the “belt of truth” buckled around his waist, preached fiery sermons at church and in local bars. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” he often quoted, “but against the spiritual forces of evil.”

Mayra, a widow, had managed a fruit stand in Honduras. When the gangs came demanding her service as a lookout she refused, knowing that refusal meant death. The next morning she and her children fled.

In the trafficker’s house in Mexico, Mayra tried to channel her father’s courage, but she wept at night. She had tried so hard to provide for her children but felt that all she had given them was a dirty mattress at the gates of Hell.

Then she found a forgotten phone that still had minutes. She dialed Jorge back in Honduras. “Papa,” she said. He was elated. My daughter, did you make it? Where are you?

She could barely speak. She had been so strong singing her lullabies and now could not find her voice. Tears rolled down her face.

Her father understood. “Repeat after me,” Jorge said. “She who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

Silence.

“I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.’”

She gasped again.

“Surely he will save you from the trap.”

By the fourth verse, she was whispering with him.

“Under His wings you will find refuge.”

By the end of Psalm 91, Mayra was speaking again. A wave of peace had come over her. Not the confidence and strength she’d tried to project to keep her children from losing hope, but something more powerful. She took her kids and stepped through the crowded rooms, opened the door, and started walking north. No one stopped her.

When Central American migrants reach the Rio Grande, they pile up on the streets of border towns. Many try to cross legally, waiting their turn at ports of entry. If they can’t find a safe place to wait, they will join others who desperately cross the river. In wet, muddy clothes, they seek out the Border Patrol and are sent to the same place other asylum seekers are processed.

At an icy processing center with bright lights, harsh voices, and meager food, Mayra’s children begged her to leave. The floor was so cold. She cradled them in her arms and sang.

After enrolling in a tracking system and receiving a date for an asylum hearing, Mayra walked her children out onto the streets of a little Texas border town. A missionary found them that night on a sidewalk and put them on a bus to San Antonio with our church’s phone number.

When they arrived, they had nothing to unpack in their room. We welcomed them with fresh sheets for her children, a warm bath, eggs, tortillas, and some hand-me-down toys. We knelt to hear her story. As we prayed for her, her shoulders trembled and she wept. We wrapped a weighted blanket around her shoulders. Her little boy asked if he could keep the toy car.

Our church offers long-term respite for asylum seekers as they wait for their court hearings. Mayra has been with us for several months and has participated in Semillas. One of our goals is that the women who receive counsel and comfort would be trained to share it with others in the same situation. As she waits, Mayra has offered counsel, prayer, and encouragement to other mothers fleeing violence.

‘Repeat after me.’

A month after Mayra arrived, Jorge decided he’d had enough of the violence and set off north with his five remaining grandchildren, like Moses walking Israel through the wilderness. In the United States, Border Patrol officials told him he could not be the legal guardian of these children. But their parents were killed, he protested. A week later, he dialed his daughter on a phone from a detention center. “They’ve taken the children,” he said. “I don’t know what they’ve done with them!”

Mayra and I drove through the south Texas plains to the center where Jorge was being held. After half a day waiting by the metal detectors under framed photographs of smiling politicians, we met Jorge in a visitation room behind thick glass. His face was creased and gray. He put his hand on the glass but he couldn’t speak.

“Papa, repeat after me,” Mayra spoke into the receiver. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I will not want.” His hand trembled, while she kept her eyes closed. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads beside the still waters, he restores my soul.”

The daughter he had taught to pray was now leading him.

Eventually his voice came, raspy, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

They talked for half an hour, until the guard yelled at him to stand up. Jorge said he was praying for the other prisoners, leading them in song in their cells. He said she looked strong, that he was so proud of her. Just before they led him away, Jorge gave her the number of another man in detention and told her to call the man’s wife and children because they didn’t know where he was.

Two nights later, at 3 a.m., Jorge was shackled and put onto a transport plane to be deported. An immigration official told us the five grandchildren were moved to a facility in New York.

There are times when we can hardly pray or know what to pray. Our throats close up. Paul described this to the Romans, and how the Spirit will groan within us. Sometimes God uses the Scriptures, and our families of faith, to speak truth for us and give our voices back.

When Mayra heard that her father was being deported and that her nieces and nephews were more than 1,800 miles away, she called us around her and asked us to pray for her. She had experienced a new trauma and knew she needed Jesus to minister to this fresh wound. As we laid our hands on her shoulders and head, something she was now comfortable receiving, she shivered and wept. Then she went to her children, as she does each morning, wrapped them in her arms, and said, “Let’s put on the armor of God.”

John Garland is the pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship in downtown San Antonio.

July/August
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