A reflection of the Board of Trustees trip to Juarez, Mexico

February 24, 2020 by Ruth Faith Santana-Grace

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

Uncertainty and Wilderness Choices

It was a bit of a marathon trip to Mexico as part of the Presbyterian Foundation Board of Trustees meeting in El Paso, Texas –  but the lingering images of the encounter have left an imprint on my mind and heart. The southwest landscape on our drive to Ciudad Juarez was dotted with shanty-type buildings and barbed wire serving as crowns to gated windows and front yards.

As our day came to a close, we made our way to a refugee community. The buildings looked a bit like army barracks – although they were painted yellow with green trim. A makeshift soccer field on grassless soil – adjacent to a playground area – offered a concrete reminder that in the midst of whatever struggles those families and individuals were encountering as migrants or refugees, there was also a determination to create a safe place and rhythm for their children. About 300 people live in this complex – offering a sense of shelter while they await the options before them as they seek to build a new life in Mexico or the United States.

This was the second Refugee Shelter we visited that day. The first shelter we visited was a much smaller offering; a place to live to about 44 migrants, the majority from Cuba. It is difficult to forget the image of 15 people living in one room no bigger than 15 x 15 feet. This overcrowded shelter, however, stands with hope as a commitment of the local Presbyterian church. This church – Iglesia Verdad (Truth) y Esperanza (Hope) converted its space to honor God by expanding its mission to welcome the stranger in their midst – as those strangers embark on journeys of hope into the unknown. It was in this simple space that we ate an extraordinary meal (that made me think of my childhood home) made by the migrants while we broke bread with them and learned of how they were now coming alongside other shelters by building bunks beds for their guests.

What struck me as I witnessed both the challenges and the strength of spirit of this reality was the magnitude of the uncertainty with which these men and women were living – an uncertainty that could last from a few months to a few years. Now I have not lived this kind of uncertainty, but like you, I have found myself at places of uncertainty – where the way forward is unclear and at times, unimaginable. They are times when we don’t know what is before us and we do not know how we will respond. These seasons of uncertainty and challenge are our wilderness journeys. These wilderness seasons of uncertainty are unsettling. But these wilderness seasons can cause us to revisit our lives, reassess our choices and choose a new way forward.

Matthew 4, recently highlighted in the lectionary, escorts us once again to the Judean wilderness where we encounter Jesus as he is confronted by the devil and temptations common to us all. When tempted, Jesus chooses to not satiate his hunger with the bread offered; he chooses to not prove his identity by risking his safety; he chooses to honor the presence and power of God by rejecting the wealth and power offered him. Jesus chooses a way forward in the wilderness – a way that affirms his identity as the son of God; an identity from which he will lean into his public ministry.

Perhaps this is why our annual pilgrimage through Lent is so important. We are invited to consider the wilderness places, temptations and choices in our lives – places where perhaps we have refused to choose a way forward; places where perhaps we have chosen a wrong path; places where we have courageously said “yes” to the divine and “no” to the cultural narrative. These choices are ours to make and they are not always easy, as our choices will have inevitable consequences for our lives. I will never forget the sounds of laughter, the gift of hospitality extended us, the children riding bicycles. I recognize that these saints we encountered on the border have made choices – some driven by circumstances we will never understand. But I also recognize their courageous choice to live, love and hope in the midst of what is clearly a wilderness season – a season framed by uncertainty and the unknown.

So as we reflect on the wilderness of uncertainty; as we move into Ash Wednesday, I invite us to consider these questions: How are we doing? How are you doing? What are the wilderness areas in our lives as individuals and as a larger church that need to be revisited and reassessed in an effort to be faithful to our call as a people of faith?

This is the gift of the wilderness – it thrusts us into a deep spiritual journey that demands our faithful action and choice in the world. It challenges us to choose the way of a God that loves us relentlessly and invites us to be that love for a time such as this.

Ruth serves as the Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. She serves the community and church as a member of the Princeton Theological Seminary board of trustees and as a Council Member of the Philadelphia Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia. Santana-Grace served as Executive Presbyter of the San Gabriel Presbytery (California – 2004-2014). She is also a past member of the San Francisco Theological Seminary Strategic Team and former Council on Theological Education panelist. She holds degrees from The College of New Rochelle (B.A.), Baruch College (M.P.A.), and Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.).