Living the Gospel one drink at a time

Two ministries work to stem the number of migrants who die while trying to cross the desert from Mexico to the United States.

BY MONICA OLIVAS | TUCSON, AZ | October 26, 2009

A volunteer fills a barrel of water at one of the more than 100 water stations designed to provide aid to migrants caught in the desert.

Volunteers who fill water barrels in the desert along the U.S. - Mexican border believe their work is all about living out the Gospel.

Dispelling notions that the water stations actually assist immigrants break the law and cross the border illegally, two faith-based organizations say their ministries focus on saving lives.

Every summer hundreds of immigrants die attempting to cross the desert where temperatures often top 105-degrees. After days of traveling on foot through the desert from Mexico, immigrants are often dehydrated, weak and desperate for help.

Humane Borders of Tucson, AZ, has set up more than 100 water stations -- a couple of barrels of water in a metal rack -- for immigrants who are caught in the desert. The barrels are located beneath a flagpole, so they’re easy to spot. They are placed in remote locations with a high history of immigrant deaths.

With the help of thousands of volunteers the ministry spends countless hours driving through the desert every summer trying to stop the death toll from rising.

“Giving someone a cold clean glass of water in the name of Christ is living out the Gospel,” says the Rev. Amy Gopp, Executive Director Week of Compassion (Disciples of Christ).

The Week of the Compassion and the United Church of Christ are two of more than a dozen faith-based organizations that sponsor Humane Borders.

The Rev. Max Cisneros, a retired United Methodist minister, is devoting his retirement to Desert Ministries another faith-based organization that also attempts to stop the death toll from rising. Often working with volunteers from Humane Borders, Desert Ministries also maintains water stations.

Initially founded by Cisneros who used his own money to fund the Deming, N.M. based ministry, The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) now supports Desert Ministries by providing blankets, medical supplies and health kits. But Cisneros, at 81, still drives his own truck and pays his own transportation costs. Driving through the region, he has found migrants with broken legs, broken ankles, scorpion bites and cactus quills.

Desert Ministries also crosses into Mexico to offer deported migrants much needed blankets, health kits and medical supplies. When illegal immigrants are deported, Cisneros says they are dropped off on the other side of the border with nothing. He has distributed more than 10,000 blankets including some delivered by Humane Borders.

“A blanket is a big welcome. Especially when you don’t have a place to stay and you’re sleeping in the park with your children,” Cisneros says.

Gopp has gone out to the desert with the Rev. Robin Hoover, president emeritus of Humane Borders and has seen first-hand the desperation in the eyes of some of the immigrants. On one of her trips she saw five men and one woman caught in the desert heat. Their feet were covered in cuts and blisters."

“People are risking their lives for a better life here,” Gopp says.

According to Hoover, many migrants are not afraid of being caught. “There are plenty of places to hide. They want to be found,” Hoover says. “During the hot summer months, they want out of there.”

Both Hoover and Cisneros agree that the death toll is not likely to decrease anytime soon. Cisneros says when the U.S. government makes it harder to cross in one section of the border, the migrants find a new, often more treacherous route.

“They keep trying and they keep dying. I have found bodies out there, some women and children. It’s really sad.” Cisneros says.

The men are hoping for immigration law reform that will help end migrant deaths.

“There have been no viable plans for reform in the time we’ve been in business. A lot of different plans for immigration law reform, but not one of them has been designed to get (people) out of the desert.” Hoover says.

And as long as migrants continue to die in the desert while trying to cross into the United States, work will continue for Humane Borders and Desert Ministries.

“It’s dangerous, it’s risky, but it’s the right thing to do,” says Gopp.

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