Border visit informs Oct. 14 immigration forum

In Matamoras, Mexico, Pastor Abraham Barberi speaks with refugees. [photo: Gary Lustic]

When something feels very important, even if it’s very far away, one sometimes has to see it in person. That’s why 15 members of Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian (FHC), flew to El Paso, Texas, in February, to discover what immigrants encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The trip was a profoundly impactful experience for all of us,” said Stephen Sedam, a member of the church’s Immigration Task Force. A week-long stay revealed realities that made the visitors “toggle between despair and hope,” he added.

Hosting the group was Caly Fernandez, executive director of Puentes de Cristo (Bridges of Christ), in Hidalgo, Texas. Fernandez’s energy, leadership and compassion endeared her to the group so much that they invited her to FHC.

There, on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2–4:30 p.m., Fernandez will share her first-hand border experiences in a community forum, “Compassionate Justice for Immigrants Now!”

Joining Fernandez, to offer his perspective on the immigration process, will be Pastor Abraham Barberi, who led the visitors through the Matamoras Refugee Encampment, just across the border in Mexico.

“There, many hundreds of migrants wait their turn to present themselves to U.S. authorities for asylum,” explained task force member Jeff Smith. “Their squalid living conditions included ‘homes’ made of plastic bags, tarps, boards and rope.”

Cynthia Lehman, who also made the trip, recalled walking with “Pastor Abraham” when a woman approached, crying inconsolably, having just learned that, while she was approved to enter the U.S., her children would have to stay behind. Pastor Abraham’s prayerful comfort and advice to stay with her children and resubmit forms for each person were the consoling words she needed to hear.

Forest Hill Church is no stranger to immigration concerns, having provided temporary “sanctuary” for several immigrants over the past seven years. But this journey to the “front line” offered new insights into what refugees face at the border.

The group’s visit to Las Toronjas Colonia in Hidalgo County, Texas, confirmed that colonia settlements have “third-world living conditions,” said FHC member Kermit Lind. Lots rented out by "developers" lack electricity, sewers, running water, Internet, stores, and health care. Along the South Texas border, about 500,000 people live in 2,300 colonias, all with similar horrific conditions. When the team, led by Fernandez, arrived with food, household supplies, clothing, health services and more, it was cause for “a festive occasion,” recalled Lind.

Carol Wedell said the group’s visit to “The Wall” confirmed that it is “big and brutish,” sending the message that "you are not welcome."

When the group visited the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in Hildago, Sister Norma Pimentel tasked them with playing, coloring and just having fun with 30 small children, while their parents safely rested. Families stay a night or two before moving on to their legal destinations in the States. There, said FHC member Mark Wedell, the team helped prepare and serve a meal, and left the center “in high spirits about the work being accomplished there.”

Hear more from Fernandez and Barberi at the free community forum on Oct. 14, at Forest Hill Church, 3031 Monticello Blvd. Five local partner organization will be on hand to provide additional information. To attend, register by Oct. 10 online, at, or by calling the church (216-321-2660).

James Hogg

Jim Hogg is a member of Forest Hill Church, as is his wife, Kay. He retired as a senior writer/editor with American Greetings, and currently spends much of his time playing keyboards in two rock bands, one of which has performed on the Cain Park stage.

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Volume 16, Issue 10, Posted 10:30 AM, 09.29.2023