Dhaka, Bangladesh
Young Life at the Border

Young Life at the Border

(from previous issue) One of the most important jobs of Young Life staff on the border, Prieto says, is to build safe and stable relationships with students and offer spaces where they can work through their fears and uncertainties with others. El Paso is ground zero for the national immigration debate-President Trump launched his 2020 campaign there, as did Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke-and the heat of the spotlight has heightened anxiety in students' households. "People weren't coming out of their homes," says Prieto, who points out that illegal immigration is far less of a conversation in El Paso than it is in other parts of the country. "God is not a God of fear," she emphasizes with students. "We go boldly with God." Holly Smith, 43, teaches high school more than 600 miles southeast in McAllen, Texas, just across the border from Reynosa, Mexico. As the faculty sponsor for Young Lives, a Young Life ministry to teen moms, she says she reminds students, "God has a plan for your life whether you are documented or not." Smith has students whose immigration status has trapped them in abusive situations or who were left effectively homeless after their families were deported. She's opened her home to students who needed temporary places to live and has found others to do the same. Through years of this kind of work, Smith says she's seen students come to faith in Christ. "I'm going to love these kids and I'm going to take care of them no matter what." Smith works with Young Life Rio Grande Valley director Joe Wilson, 37, who says he looks at immigration as one of many sanctification issues in a young person's life. He helps them sort through their legal options if their status is tenuous, and watches them grapple with lies they feel they have to tell to stay safe or to navigate the seemingly competing expectations of family, peers, and the law. For instance, which commandment takes precedence: honoring your father and mother (and remaining in a US school with a dodgy address), or not bearing false witness? Christian ethicists have long debated when, if ever, lying might be permissible. Exceptions to the Bible's general prohibition against deception include Rahab, who lied to protect Israelites from harm and is nonetheless lauded for her act in the Book of Hebrews' "hall of faith." And Dietrich Bonhoeffer hit closer to home when he argued, hypothetically, that if a teacher asked a student about her father's drinking in front of the class, the student could righteously lie because publicly outing her father as a drunk would violate the biblical mandate to honor him. As Wilson sees it, teens at the border are walking toward righteousness like any other teen; they just may have additional obstacles in their path. "It's going to take a long time to get there because of the systems that have been set up around [them]," he says. What for one person may be a matter of integrity-such as choosing to live on one side of the border or another-may, for another, be a matter of safety or obedience. Wilson has counseled teens who have good options in Mexico to consider moving back. But if doing so would compromise their safety, he does not encourage it. "The broken political system probably doesn't supersede the sanctity of life." Young Life staff often find themselves in the middle of the brokenness. Annie Mays, the ministry's area director for San Antonio, tells of a phone call she got recently from a panicked student leader. He'd been in a car accident, riding shotgun with a friend who was, he admitted, driving recklessly. No one was hurt, but the police were on their way. Mays, 34, knew why he was panicked and calling her rather than a family member. The student was in the country illegally. Mays rushed to the scene of the accident to beat the police there. She wanted to be the first person the officer encountered. "I had this very gut reaction that maybe my whiteness, or my old-ladiness, or the fact that I was driving up in a minivan" would validate the student in the eyes of the police, she says. There was no reason to detain her student, who was not driving. But she knew that things could quickly go sideways. "These kids don't have room to make mistakes." Young Life leaders across the country and the globe are used to dealing with risky teenage behavior. In that regard, communities along the border are no different. "Every teenager I've ever walked with is navigating the fallout of this broken world," Mays says. If one is undocumented, "will we ignore them because their mess is more intimidating to step into?" That doesn't mean Prieto, Chacón, and their counterparts in McAllen and Brownsville, another Texas border town, haven't had to adapt to the unique needs of immigrant and binational students. Ministry staff help students navigate the immigration system in pursuit of legal status when necessary. Some have obtained their citizenship after a Young Life leader connected them to an immigration lawyer. America's labyrinthine immigration system can even complicate putting on a local event. Students transitioning from a parent's work visa to a student visa-a routine and legal procedure-may balk at signing a waiver or registering for an activity for fear they may be crossing an invisible line that will jeopardize their application."It creates a lot of extra work," Chacón says. "But if these are obstacles that are keeping these kids from meeting a loving and everlasting God, are you willing to meet them where they are at?" For Chacón and other Young Life leaders, part of meeting students on their level means discipling them to come to their own conclusions about what is right in their particular situations. They ask questions like, Do you feel the Holy Spirit is telling you that is wrong? and Are you lying because you are afraid? If you were not afraid, would you still feel the need to lie? "When conviction comes into play, we go to Scripture," Chacón says. A lot of times, she admits, students try to avoid the big moral questions until they are out of the ambiguous places-until they've graduated, gotten legal status, or gotten caught. The narrative of the American Dream is strong. "It's worth it to most people," she says, to aim for the dream-even if it means risking deportation or expulsion or if it means adding considerable stress to their lives. The promise has been part of their imagination since childhood, and Young Life leaders know that for many immigrant families it easily becomes a form of idolatry. In the end, however, Young Life always comes back to what the kids have in common: Even if they don't need a lawyer, they still need Jesus, and they still need a friend. For her part, UTEP student leader Perez Lopez says she's found her place on the US side of the border over time. As much as city pairs like El Paso and Juárez function symbiotically, the border is still very real. It divides people culturally, economically, and legally. For students whose lives move back and forth over that divide, they need a God who will meet them there, in the middle. He does so, Perez Lopez explains, through his people. With Young Life, "You know whatever side of the border you're on, you have your people." Bekah McNeel is immigrant communities editor for CT.

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