There is a family story sketched inside my head. Details have blurred and faded over the years, yet when I close my eyes, I see a young man walking on railroad tracks, bright blue prairie sky shining overheard. His name, in my mind, is Jacob, and he is stepping forward tie by tie, looking for his family. In a moment of forgetfulness or misplaced urgency, he has missed the train that is carrying the rest of my Mennonite ancestors across the Canadian prairies to their new home. He is only on foot until he reaches the next station, where everyone is waiting, yet this is still part of a journey across the unknown. Perhaps he is thinking of Russia, of the way the golden wheat reminds him of life on the Ukrainian steppes before the violence or maybe he is simply enjoying the breeze as he steadily follows the tracks into the future.
I am on my own journey, one of choice, through the north of Guatemala and southern Mexico, as part of an international observation mission of human rights between borders. We are exploring themes of gender, territory, and migration. In between meetings, however, there are awkward bus conversations and late night dinners, as I try to respond to questions about Mennonites. Instead of catching up on local context beforehand, I should have brushed up on the reformation. I try to explain the concept of adult baptism and revolution in the sixteenth century, along with the desire to live apart, concepts that eventually bore fruit in both the work I am currently doing and the lives of colony Mennonites, a familiar sight in Mexico. Am I a descendant of an earlier Zapatista-like movement, with a desire for autonomous communities, or a colonising force, migrating and invited to take over other’s lands for political protection? Is it possible, over a history of 500 years, to be a nuanced combination of both? All I know is that I am unexpectedly being asked, perhaps fittingly, to carry my ancestors with me across borders.
La 72, two hours across the Mexican border, is bustling with life. Groups of families huddle together, talking and feeding babies as they lean against the shelter walls. Children cling to the legs of volunteers and shriek with laughter, refusing to be shaken loose. People eat together at long tables beneath vibrantly painted murals and line up patiently to wash their dishes in the buckets by the kitchen. As evening nears, disparate activities combine as people migrate to the chairs set up on the cement court. We sit in the centre of a circle, surrounded by hundreds: women wearing eyeliner, boys that are barely men with brightly shined shoes, toddlers with pigtails peeking around chair legs. As we settle, Fray Tomas invites those who wish to speak and to share their journey with us. One by one, migrants stand to take the microphone.
“The only education we have in Honduras is learning on the street. When the government doesn’t help to take care of its people, what can we do?” shares one young man of his search to find possibilities of work, somewhere else. Another young man quietly speaks about his decision to leave Honduras and to reinvent his life,“When I entered La 72, I had a choice. Would I choose to stay quietly in the men’s section or would I move upstairs, into the LGBTQ dorm, and thus out myself again, here? I did not want to leave my family behind, but I did because the discrimination I faced in Honduras as a gay activist was too hard. At the end, here at La 72, I realised that being upstairs, in the dorm, is a privilege.”
We hear of kidnapping, rape, extortion, threats and death all along the journey, a journey which is only beginning as all of Mexico stretches out ahead. We hear of increased militarization and deterrence leading to death.
All their stories demand attention, but I find myself sitting up a little straighter when a young women, not more than twenty-six, stands up and grips the microphone. “I am a single mother, sharing a home with another mother. Between us, we have eleven children. When gang members approached us and demanded that we give them our teenage daughters, we refused and turned to the police. The next day, the police arrived at our home and gave us 24 hours to hand our children over to the maras. So we left. And here we are.”
At one point there is a muffled commotion from the women’s dorm, but we are too busy paying attention to the courage all around us to notice. As he closes the space, Fray Tomas speaks directly to us: “You are now baptised with memory and by these voices. You cannot leave the same.” He tells us he source of the contained weeping he heard earlier: one of the migrants had received a phone call from Honduras. Gang members killed her daughter.
This is truth: none of us, migrant, refugee, human rights defender, or uncertain Mennonites will leave this journey the same.
As we prepare to leave for our hotel, the music begins. A volunteer explains that Saturday nights are for dancing and that the migrants were waiting for us to leave so that the real fun of the evening could start. The eyeliner and the shiny shoes were never for us. We get back in the van to the rhythms of cumbia and the dance of resistance, of ordinary people living their lives in extraordinary ways.
Carlos is waiting for the train to leave as we pull up beside the tracks in Palenque. He stands near the boxcar that he has picked as the most probable option to carry him north, through the Tabasco jungle to central Mexico. The Honduran smiles with bravado, while his friend beside him is visibly nervous about “jumping on the famous Bestia.” Both young men are aware of the high risk travel options and chose to leave home anyways, trying to earn a living to support their families. As we walk away, they remain beside the tracks, their hope for the future a ride into the unknown.
We follow the railroad tracks to a tiny church in Salto de Agua. Sister Kati, short and determined, welcomes us inside and leads us past the mattresses in the foyer into the sanctuary. When we ask her about threats she has faced for her work, she brushes off being accused of being a human trafficker and instead focuses on the practical details of her hospitality, telling us about the thousand migrants the church attends each month and the support provided by the local community: donations of food and time, when they can.
The new priest, recently arrived to direct the building of an official shelter, is still finding his bearings. He lacks the confidence of Sister Kati, but beams with pride as he passes around a photo of the second mass he held within the church.
“This is the year of miscericordia in the Catholic church,” he explains. “This was my mass of mercy, even thought it was not held on the official church calendar date. I had to change the service to include all of our Protestant brothers and sister, the migrants passing through, but together we learnt from each other as we worshiped, a recognition of our shared humanity and faith. That is what mercy is all about.”
One moment, we are in the midst of a church, the next, as we step out the door, in a march. The verdant humidity of jungle and the smoke of incense cloud my camera lenses and filter everything with a sense of unreality. There is so much that I do not understand about this place and a history, culture and context that I am only beginning to learn. Yet, here I am, invited to be in this sacred space. None of us know the marchers’ chants, so organizers hand out photocopied scripts so that we can join in, calling for hospitals and respect for Mother Earth. As we walk alongside the Pueblos Creyentes, grassroots communities of faith, on a pilgrimage to defend their land from mega-dams and four lane highways, we share stories among ourselves of others marches, in other places: Colombia, Mexico City, Guatemala, and test out each others’ chants.
We arrive at the first stop, a giant auditorium. A Mayan altar of tortillas, beans, plantains, mangos, and oranges, fills the centre of the room, circled by vases of marigolds and incense. Fray Gonzalo explains the way the altar combines Mayan and Catholic spirituality in a way that allowed the Virgin of Guadalupe and the conch shell to both be present. It is an incredible symbol of abundance and belonging in the land. As the ceremony begins, I am reminded that these are the same communities, demanding their rights not to be displaced, that are also feeding and sheltering the migrants passing through their land.
Right before we introduce ourselves to all the communities filling the room, one of the trip organizers asks me if I will give the saludos from our entire group of observers. I stand before the pilgrims and say the only words that I know at this moment:
“As we have travelled, we have observed and heard worrying and concerning testimonies of pain, of violence, of displacement, and of mega-projects. But we have also observed and heard many, many stories of resistance and of lucha. That has been a privilege, as well as the great privilege to walk with you this afternoon and to stand with you today. This is our commitment, to continue to walk with you and to carry these stories and testimonies with us, to our communities and wherever we go.”
As we walk down the hill to the van, my friend and fellow observer Patricia puts her arm around my shoulders and squeezes gently. “Now I know what a Mennonite greeting sounds like,” she says. “Thank-you for speaking for us.”
Aldo sits at our table as we finally begin to eat after another long day. Part of his work for Voces Mesoamericanas involves connecting Argentinian forensic teams, the coroner’s office in Arizona, and families of the disappeared in Chiapas. He likens the challenges of families finding their disappeared as searching for a needle in a haystack; even when remains are successfully identified, families struggle to believe that their search is finally over.
His eyes soften as he tells us about one incident, where conditions in the desert had deteriorated the body to only bones by the time it was found and miraculously connected with DNA samples from southern Mexico. Aldo received some photos, along with other documentation, to take to the family. As they gathered around, there was a general refusal to associate the photos of assorted bones with a loved one. That is, until the youngest son stared at the skull for a long moment before announcing: “That is my dad. Look, that’s his smile.” At that, doubt was laid to rest. The disappeared was home.
On the second last night, we are all on the brink of weeping exhaustion. Irritable and cranky, we gather for an endless reflection session, complete with clay, notecards, small groups, hug circles, and a modified Mayan ceremony. As we stand on the tiny porch, Juana lights the altar fire and asks us all to place candles on the flames. As we step forward, she invites the ancestors to be present in our midst, to guide our steps, heal our anger and move us into action.
As I watch the flames circle higher and higher, I think about my own ancestors: of Jacob, walking the train tracks; of stories of my great-grandmother and her refusal to talk about the trauma she suffered in Russia; of courageous aunts; of my own parents, farming in the Yukon; of endless church services and faspa; of the good work of my own organization; and of myself, roaming the Americas.
Before Mexico, I spent some time in Honduras, leading an advocacy workshop for Mennonite youth. They were the most responsive group I have ever worked with, echoing everything with an emphatic amen. But for all their earnest enthusiasm, I was never sure if they fully grasped what we were discussing. We would talk about our spaces of influence, complete with string webs, only to feel like everything had been erased the next morning with the start of a new day.
During breaks, they would burst into song, evangelical alabanza music, to be precise. Every awkward silence and unanswered definition could be filled with music and every space was a reason for praise. My colleague Emily and I escaped for a coffee during a moment of free time. As we watched the sunset from the balcony, we heard snatches of worship music and joked that the youth had followed us, only to walk downstairs to see that it was actually our group filling the space, pounding on piano keys and pouring out their hearts.
I felt old and also a little silly. Who was I to teach advocacy skills to a group of young people so sure of their faith expressions that they could convince a cafe manager to give them free reign over the piano, for hours? Yet the next day, we piled into the old church van and they sang all the way into Tegucigalpa and the offices of Association for a More Just Society, dressed in our Sunday best. As they listened to fellow Hondurans share about the purging of corrupt police officers, the slowly diminishing levels of violence and the actual fact of more school days because of citizen oversight, hands waved in the air, not only in praise for the work, but also full of questions and wonder at the possibilities of transformation within their beloved Honduras.
This possibility of transformation is also what it means to journey as a Mennonite.
Maybe this really is the year of mercy. When can we can we look at one another, love one another and learn from one another? In a tiny church on the edge of jungle and train tracks, mercy means a mattress, a plate of beans, if there are any that day, and an invitation to be human together before the God of our own understanding. An altar of mangos and oranges, cumbia in the midst of grief, single moms, smiling bones, young Hondurans playing music in a cafe or waiting to get on a train into the unknown, Jacob, walking towards our family: mercy and memory.
I hope you are proud of me, ancestors, as I continue the journey.