Tres Rios Border Foundation connects Presbyterians to the border and beyond

March 20, 2023 by Erin Dunigan

The headquarters for the Tres Rios Presbytery Border Ministry Foundation is located in El Paso, Texas — about 50 feet, through an imposing iron ‘fence’ — from Juarez, Mexico.

Rev. Dr. John Nelsen

Created as a descendant of the historic Presbyterian Border Ministry, Tres Rios Foundation seeks to become a “Presbyterian portal to all things border” in the words of long-time border ministry advocate Rev. Dr. John Nelsen. Nelsen retired in 2022 as pastor of University Presbyterian Church in El Paso.

“We feel that this location is important because proximity makes a difference — when we say we’re at the border, we mean that literally,” Nelsen said.

Nate Ledbetter is the Border Coordinator for Tres Rios. Ledbetter grew up on the northern border, in the greater Detroit metro area. “As I look back on my life as a bridge builder that theme has been carried through like a thread throughout my journey — bridging worlds, resources, and communities at the margins,” he said.

As part of the journey that brought him to the border, Ledbetter spent a decade in Grand Rapids, Mich., living in a multi-ethnic area with a public park at the center. That park joining the different communities provided a space to come together, to interact, and to listen.

“That time in Grand Rapids was the beginning of my quest for seeing how listening connects with justice and imagination,” he said. It is that quest for listening connected with justice and imagination that has brought him to the border to continue the learning. “Our hope is to come alongside individuals and meet them where they are on their journey,” Ledbetter said.

Ledbetter and Nelsen work together to bring the stories from the border to congregations around the US and to bring those congregations and individuals to the border to listen and see for themselves. The mission of the Tres Rios Foundation is to inform PC(USA) congregations about immigration issues and processes, and connect them to real ministry and ways to help on the border and beyond.

Narrative Change, System Change and Personal Change

“What we are trying to accomplish — an encounter —  is really the best way to experience the border,” Nelsen said. Groups often comment that what they learn while they are on the border is very different from the information they receive via the news back home. Tres Rios is hoping to change that narrative. “We want people to be able to see and hear and experience what is really going on,” he said.

The Tres Rios Foundation is also working toward system change. In the midst of debates on immigration and the migrant situation there is one thing that most everyone agrees upon: the system is broken. “Our hope is that in learning what is going on at the border, folks will go home and tell others and that this telling will lead to action,” he said.

Their desire is that these Border Encounters will have a lasting impact on those who participate. “I don’t know anyone who has gone through this experience who has not been changed personally as well,” Nelsen said.

Rev. Charlie Smith can confirm this. Smith is Interim Presbytery Pastor of Indian Nations Presbytery in Oklahoma. He traveled with a group of pastors to participate in a border encounter in February 2023. “This was a journey of discovery,” Smith said. “Not only was there substantial information given to us about the border crisis, the complexity of it became much more clear as we spent time hearing from people working and living along the border. There were also opportunities to have one-on-one encounters with people caught up in the midst of the situation. All of that together sent me home with a new understanding of this work, and its importance.”

Changing misconceptions

The Border Encounter is a three-day immersion experience into the issues of the border, on the border. The encounter includes presentations from local leaders, non-profits, border patrol officers, and various faith groups.

A fundamental question to consider when trying to understand the border is, “How do people arrive at the border and why?” There are three main misconceptions.

The first is that most migrants choose to leave their homes for a better life. “Many people, due to violence, economic collapse, and natural disasters don’t have a choice,” Ledbetter said.

The second misconception is that El Paso is a dangerous and chaotic city. Statistically El Paso is actually one of the safest cities in the US. “This city of immigrants is the kindest I’ve ever lived in,” Ledbetter said.

The third misconception is that there exists a fair and reasonable process for immigration. The reality is that legal avenues have not been updated in decades and that all available avenues are difficult and lengthy. Many people will never qualify.

Ledbetter is quick to point out that the Border Encounter is not “border tourism.” “This experience is at the invitation of local leaders to amplify what the border can teach us,” he said. The distinction is an important one for the Tres Rios Foundation. “We are trying to move away from the old mission trip mentality of going and doing for and toward a mutuality and doing with,” he said.

Meeting Needs with Dignity

On the border, the humanitarian needs can often be overwhelming, Ledbetter said. The Tres Rios Presbytery Border Ministry Foundation is working toward helping meet those humanitarian needs when they arise, but also doing so with dignity. “Just because I have an extra pair of shoes doesn’t mean that I am the savior,” Ledbetter said. “If anything, I am the one being changed through the process of listening.”

Examples of meeting these needs are providing pastoral care for the pastors and shelter leaders in Juarez. This is done through meals with spouses, spiritual enrichment for all leaders, and short retreat for a few days at a time. TRP Border Ministry was one of the organizations that provided initial support to open the shelter in Sacred Heart Church in El Paso in December when the number of immigrants sky rocketed – and nearly every news outlet in the country was camped outside reporting on the difficult conditions.

That was an opportunity for the entire country to see the needs that exist in El Paso and in Juarez.

Beyond the Border

“Our goal is to get people involved, especially if they live in the area or if they have come on a border encounter,” Ledbetter said. “We are trying to connect those dots toward love of neighbor, solidarity, and pursuit of justice back at home.”

“Come on a border encounter — come and encounter the voices of the borderlands, let us walk together and listen and reflect on what the border can teach us,” Nelsen said. Or, in the words of Jesus of Nazareth, “Come and see.”

Erin Dunigan is an ordained evangelist and teaching elder in the PC(USA). She is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. She serves as a photographer, writer and communications consultant and lives near the border in Baja California, Mexico. In her free time she is an avid gardener and leads horseback riding tours along one of the most pristine stretches of beach in Northern Baja.