Karla's Story: The Crossing of Hurt and Hope
Week after week, the Border Church sees migrants and would-be asylees on its southern side. As migrant waves wax and wane and US budgets rise and fall, our weekly work with migrants awaiting entry into the US shifts in various ways and needs to be done with a spirit of openness to change. Regardless, every Sunday is an opportunity to commune with people on the move from all over the world.
The following story is of a woman from Central America. Her story is as unique as her beautiful smile, but it is also a doorway into a life of hardship. Here’s your chance to peek inside injustice and still see hope. May the story bring you a deeper understanding and a greater impetus to act.
Karla is a Honduran migrant. She is the mother of three children, but that count only includes those still alive. She lives in a colonia in Tijuana with her husband and two of her kids. The remaining child survivor was given up for adoption in Honduras to keep her safe. Karla’s story of getting to where she is has become one of trauma, loss, recovery, and hope. Her whole demeanor is one of faithful resilience and hope in God. Of all the stories in this book, this is the one that brings me the most sorrow and carries with it the greatest foundation for joy. That is because Karla is the very kind of person the Border Church seeks to serve.
Karla fled Honduras for the United States in 2018. She was part of the most infamous of recent caravans, arriving during the Trump presidency. Her life in Honduras was not one of affluence. In fact, she could barely get work. Like many in Central America, Karla worked as a farmer whenever she could. With the harsh weather, grueling working conditions, and neocolonial exploitation, among other issues, doing farm work in a place like Honduras is not very similar to the storied notion of agriculture in the American heartland. Arguably, it’s more of an American hades.
Honduras has high levels of poverty and inequality. More than 48 percent of its residents live in poverty, and rural areas have a 60 percent poverty rate. Only 11 percent of the population is middle class. There is also a lot of violence in Honduras, with more than thirty-eight homicides per 100,000 people. Compared with the rate of twenty-nine per 100,000 intentional homicides in Mexico or five per 100,000 in the United States, it becomes obvious why someone like Karla would so desperately want to leave.
Karla is more than a statistic, though. So were her family members who walked into a violent death. Her father, mother, and brother were all killed. Karla didn’t want to be next. She had already lived on the streets starting when she was eight years old. She had already tried to ease her troubled mind with hard drugs, becoming an addict at age fourteen. She wanted something better for herself.
Between her childhood and her journey north, a group of Christians from a local Honduran church gave her a home to stay in and showed her the way of Jesus. Their act saved her life. She fully believes that Jesus saved her soul, too. Sadly, the Christians who offered Karla a path to freedom from addiction through Christ didn’t have the power to keep her safe from the men who murdered her family. So,
She joined the 2018 caravan with music in her heart. As someone who loved Jesus now, she learned songs about him in the popular alabanza cristiana (Christian praise) genre. Many people may recall the political furor over this massive group of travelers, but the songs of praise in some parts of the caravan were not shown in the media. The media coverage stirred up white fears of brown bodies on the move, but it didn’t represent this caravan as people of God on the move.
Karla didn’t have to wander forty years in the wilderness as the Israelites did, but she did have to wait once she crossed over to her own promised land. It wasn’t the Jordan River but a fence that a pregnant Karla had to pass through on December 3, 2018. Before too long, she was picked up by US federal agents in San Luis, Arizona, and she tried to claim asylum. As happens all too often, the agents didn’t believe her claim. Instead, they threw her in la hielera (the icebox). More than that, they didn’t believe her when she cried about “un dolor que no se imagina” (“a pain you couldn’t imagine”). Deep within her body, something was physically wrong and causing her to scream out in anguish. The agents who were witnesses to her cries did nothing to help this pregnant woman as she pled with them about an incredible amount of pain that she could not stand. They countered her cries with statements that not only dismissed her pleas but also ignored her humanity: “Eso no es nada” (“That ain’t nothing”).
After Karla was transferred to the High Desert Detention Center in Adelanto, California, someone with the power to act finally listened. So, on the last day of the year, she was admitted to the hospital. Instead of ringing in the New Year with friends and family, Karla miscarried and lost her baby on a holiday that ought to be for celebrating new beginnings. To add insult to injury, this mother, who fled her country to make a safe home for her family, had her hands and feet shackled to the bed like a criminal, even as she suffered the unspeakable loss of her baby. At her most vulnerable, Karla’s valley of the shadow of the death of her unborn child came with no human rod or staff of comfort, only criminalization and chains.
The injustice is unreal. But it is also all too real for many who flee to the US for help and instead are treated horribly. History shows the grim realities of our government’s treatment of migrants. Whether it’s the deportation of US citizens under President Dwight Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback, the cold, cramped holding cells or “ice boxes” constructed during the Obama administration, or the more than 5,500 children separated from their families under the Trump administration, officially sanctioned maltreatment of migrants on US territory is nothing new.
Karla spent six months in the United States. Her modern-day dream of an exodus to a land flowing with milk and honey came true in the scantest of ways, for she was barred from partaking in its bounty. Unlike the Israelites, who called Canaan their homeland after years of struggle, Karla was kept out by a government with force more extraordinary than anything in Joshua’s ancient conquest stories.
Karla eventually found herself in Tijuana, a city she had never known prior to her arrival. Such a disorienting journey is not uncommon for asylum seekers. Thousands of would-be asylees are sent back from the US across the border to Mexico, often to regions other than where they had crossed in the first place. During Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” scheme, the asylum seekers were forced back across the border before even being granted a full hearing. Of those in this program, formally called the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” as few as 0.1 percent of those seeking asylum received it. That number is virtually nonexistent compared with the 20 percent asylum approval rate of those who remained in the US while they tried to fight for their legal rights.
Many migrants and asylum seekers are fleeing the terrifyingly likely prospect of being murdered. Others seek to escape poverty and the brunt of global economic injustice, which has some roots in past US corporate and government interference in other sovereign territories. When I imagine what I would do in these situations, I would most likely flee. You probably would, too. I can only imagine what I would then do once the so-called “shining city on a hill” pushed me back down. What would I do for my family if the actions of the country I thought would be a safe haven left us caught between a fence and a hard place? I may well stay right where I ended up. Karla did precisely that. She got stuck in a new place and chose to remain. Here, she found the Border Church as a new expression of God’s basileia.
As I mentioned above, Karla loves praise music. I am filled with awe when I think about her description of how the worship songs work in the people coming to worship at the border: “Se siente una gran fe que traspasa el cielo.” (“It feels like a great faith piercing the sky.”) She continues: “Se siente una gran fe, algo emocionante. Algo muy lindo, se siente hasta el otro lado [de la frontera]. Se siente aquella emoción. Es hermoso.” (“It feels like a great faith—something exciting. Something very lovely, you can feel over to the other side of the border. You feel that emotion. It’s beautiful.”) It’s beautiful, indeed.
Karla usually cannot attend the Border Church services because our meeting spot at the wall is too long of a walk from her colonia. The cost of taking a taxi there is completely unaffordable. Still, Karla fondly remembers meeting the people who introduced us, Pastor Guillermo Navarrete and Robert Vivar (whose stories appear later in the book), as well as others from our core Mexican group. She describes the Border Church service that she witnessed as “muy buena” (“very good”) and “excelente” (“excellent”). Here, she found that we speak the truth and provide “comida a las personas” (“food for the people”). She connects the two by saying: “Hay personas que también andan necesitadas, de la Palabra y del estómago.” (“There are individuals who also have need for the Word and for the stomach.”)
In Karla’s words, when we worship at the border, we overcome the national barrier:
"En el Faro se siente que no hay fronteras, aunque esté ese muro ahí, se siente que no hay fronteras cuando uno está ahí. Se siente que los dos lados están unidos. A pesar del muro, se siente que no hay fronteras. Es una emoción muy bonita; ojalá que algún día quitaran ese muro.
(At El Faro, it feels like there are no borders, although this wall is there. It feels like both sides are united. Despite the wall, it feels like there are no borders. It’s a very lovely emotion. I hope that one day they will remove that wall.)"
Karla is a farm girl who loves creating things and who has a home complete with dogs, rabbits, and birds, which she has referred to as a “jungle.” Karla describes God’s creation with insight that I wish others would take to heart: “Cuando Dios hizo los cielos y la tierra, no hizo fronteras. No dividió nada. Él hizo la tierra perfecta. Nosotros, los seres humanos, hemos destruido la tierra.” (“When God made the heavens and the earth, he did not make borders. He did not divide any of it. He made the earth perfect. We human beings have destroyed the earth.”)
The divine wisdom of justice, faith, and hope in Karla’s words rings true, but no one at the Border Church can claim responsibility for her profound thoughts. The work of God’s basileia was underway while she was living in Central America and even on the perilous path north to our border. She found these virtues on her own, through other people of faith, and from the Faithful One before she ever worshiped at the fence that held her back from what she once thought was her land of milk and honey.
For Karla, to be a Christian is to demonstrate faith “porque con la fe se mueven montañas” (“because with faith, mountains are moved”). Karla has great faith in God. She believes in God because, in her words, “Me ha sacado de muchas situaciones.” (“He has lifted me out of a lot of [bad] situations.”) She says that faith is what brought her from Honduras to where she is today: “La fe en Dios me traído hasta aquí; me da fuerzas.” (“Faith in God has brought me here; it gives me strength.”)
It is through Karla’s faith and hope in God that she was able to pray to have her children with her so that she could have the chance to be “una madre ejemplar” (“an exemplary mother”). It was through this faith and hope in God that she has been able to start going back to Honduras for her children “uno por uno” (“one by one”).
Karla’s hope and faith have led her to believe in God’s promises. She says:
"Dios me prometió, de que él me iba a dar a mis hijos nuevamente. Y uno por uno, mis hijos han venido para acá. Ahora tengo a [lo de siete años y] la de doce años aquí. Solo me falta una. La fe en Dios es muy grande. Le voy a decir algo, perfectos no somos. Perfectos no somos. Todos cometemos errores, perfecto solo Dios. Yo lo único que sé, es que, con todo y mis errores, Dios me ama y sigue amándonos. Y voy a tener a mis tres hijos, porque Él me lo prometió. Yo sé que voy a tener a mis tres hijos de nuevo conmigo. Aunque sea uno por uno, pero ahí voy.
(God promised me that he would give me my children again. And one by one, my children have come this way. Now I’ve got [the seven-year-old boy and] the twelve-year-old girl here. I’m only one short. Faith in God is very great. I’m going to tell you something; we’re not perfect. We all make mistakes; only God is perfect. All I know is that with everything and my misdeeds, God loves me and continues to love us. And I’m going to have my three children because He promised it to me. I know I’m going to have my three kids with me once again. Even if it’s one by one, but here I come.)"
Here is the love of a mother and the faith of a servant of God. It is the hope in God that I yearn for and wish were always conceivable in my own life. I have faith, but Karla has the type of faith that moves mountains. Her faith is not sight totally, but it is coming to be. It is the substance of things hoped for; it is the evidence of things not yet seen.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Seth David Clark, DMin, is an American Baptist minister serving at First Baptist Church of National City and the Border Church/La Iglesia Fronteriza. Working at the intersection of cultures and countries, Seth is the author of Church at the Wall: Stories of Hope Along the San Diego-Tijuana Border, which can be purchased on Kindle or at www.borderchurch.org. He also offers culturally-informed spiritual direction free of charge as a ministry of First Baptist Church of National City (www.sethdavidclark.com).