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Church responds after mass death of migrants (UM News)

June 28, 2022

After the deaths of at least 51 migrants in San Antonio, United Methodists are responding with lament, prayer and renewed efforts to follow Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger.

“We grieve their loss and will continue to work for justice through our United Methodist connection,” Bishop Robert Schnase, whose area includes San Antonio, said in a statement. He leads the Rio Texas and New Mexico conferences, or regions, of the denomination.

The bishop said The United Methodist Church as a whole and the Rio Texas Conference in particular “have a long history of working with partners throughout the connection and the border to provide safe and welcoming places of care and dignity.”

At the same time, people desperate for a safe and welcoming place increasingly are willing to take great risks — including getting inside a tractor-trailer with no air-conditioning in the sweltering summer — to try to cross the border.

On the evening of June 27, a local worker heard a cry for help and found an abandoned 18-wheeler containing the bodies of migrants who had died without water in heat that reached 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

Forty-eight people died on the scene, and two died at local hospitals, CNN reported. Sixteen people, including four children, were transported alive and conscious to nearby medical facilities. The death toll has since risen to 51. 

Law enforcement are investigating what appears to be one of the deadliest incidents of human smuggling along the U.S.-Mexico border. Three suspects, including the suspected truck driver, have since been arrested. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the deaths “nothing short of a horrific human tragedy.”

The dead include migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, but authorities are still working to confirm the nationalities of some victims. Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador blamed the deaths on “poverty and desperation,” according to news reports. He also blamed human trafficking and a lack of control at the U.S. border.

The Rev. John Feagins, co-pastor of La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio, said that as the U.S. approaches its Independence Day, now would be a good time to reflect on “the unalienable rights” spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. 

“Then, as now, precious human souls have died while being enslaved, trafficked and shipped like merchandise,” Feagins said. “The fathers, mothers and children who perished in the semi-truck in San Antonio were exploited in life even as they are being politically exploited in death.”

He added that he hopes to learn soon the names of those who died as well as those who survived but now face likely deportation “for having the audacity to pursue life, liberty and happiness in the United States of America.”

Bishop Felipe Ruiz Aguilar of the Methodist Church of Mexico, said people who have worked closely with “our migrant brothers and sisters” understand something of the hardships they face.

“Many must leave their lands due to the conditions of extreme poverty or high risk in which they live,” Ruiz said. “We do not know exactly the reason or reasons why the occupants of this rolling coffin traveled in the worst conditions that we could imagine, knowing that their lives were in serious danger.

“Today we raise our prayers to God for the lives of the survivors, who are reported in very serious condition and we also intercede for the families who had the misfortune of losing their loved ones. God fill them with strength and be the provider in all their needs.”

The United Methodist Church has long committed to seeking greater welcome for immigrants to the U.S.

The Social Principles in the denomination’s Book of Discipline urge the church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.

The United Methodist Church also has long worked to provide legal avenues for immigrants to be in the United States through National Justice for Our Neighbors, which is supported by donations designated for its work. 

“We need to continue to show compassion to immigrants who make the journey, and to the family members and loved ones of those lost in San Antonio,” said Joy Green, the legal director of Justice for All Immigrants in Houston. The organization is part of the Justice for Our Neighbors network and a United Methodist ministry. 

Schnase in his statement cited the guidance of Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

He also added that he is praying for the families, first responders and all who have experienced loss and pain from this tragedy.

“I pray we continue to work towards justice so that these kinds of occurrences will not happen again,” the bishop said. “Lord, in your mercy, hear our pain and prayers.”