Mission Agape: The Church of Universal Love

By Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris

The Refugee Health Alliance, a Southern Californian volunteer network of healthcare workers has treated more than 3,000 refugee patients, since waves of migrant caravans began arriving in Tijuana last November, as the fled repressive US backed Narco-dictatorships in Honduras en-mass, joining migrants from Central America, and elsewhere in a two thousand mile exodus searching for the hope of a promised land. This is the fifth and final story of one day spent with these health care providers, the day after President Donald Trump declared a national military emergency to use his executive powers to build a wall on the southern border, ostensibly due to the national security threat posed by the migrant caravan. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Mission Agape: The Church of Universal Love

Our healthcare team in Tijuana turned from a road paralleling the border, and its tall imposing triple layered wall of cold red rusted bars and barbed wire towering twenty five feet above the earth.  We passed a Chevron station, with an artificial waterfall falling into a grate from a concrete pillar covered in stucco.  The road traveled up a riverbed, the steep terraced hillside lined with small stucco, plywood, and colored drywall homes, painted bright blue, purple, and light aqua marine green.  Clotheslines wrapped across the corners of one and two room shacks tied black metal fences of corrugated iron. 

Refugees Sheltered By Faith

We’re headed to Mission Agape, a church of universal love. 

This shelter is one of several churches and shelters housing thousands of refugees awaiting asylum in the United States just across the California border in Tijuana.  We were one of four or five volunteer teams dispatched across the city that day, the first day of a supposed national military emergency to combat the migrant caravan threat.   A group of San Diego college students went to paint a church that had been distributing supplies.  Two other groups of doctors and nurses left to set up pop-up clinics at the shelters and open air camps that sheltered recent migrants and unaccompanied children who continued to arrive to the city. 

The Honduran Exodus, a migrant caravan of refugees from the U.S. backed dictatorship of Juan Orlando Hernandez, began to arrive in Tijuana in mid-November, where thousands camped at a baseball field a few blocks from the international border until violently dispersed by Tijuana’s municipal police.  Many dispersed throughout Mexico, and to other border cities.  Some stayed, and new migrants arrived.  One small group was staying at the Mission Agape; Church of Universal Love.

American Caregivers Volunteer

Our group crowded into a small van; we headed to help as we could with our limited medicine and supplies.  Next week a larger group, organized by the Service Employees International Union, would arrive at Mission Agape, with dozens of LA County doctor and nurse volunteers. 

But today, there was just us.  There was Brianna, or Bri, a Tijuana and San Diego native, who was helping a group produce a documentary about the Migrant Caravan; there was Walter, a mild mannered Long Beach doctor I picked up at 5:30 am that morning.  Summer, was an enthusiastic, slender, eighteen-year-old freshman with long black hair from the University of California San Diego.  She had been heading to help the volunteer refugee clinics every weekend.  Abby, the psychologist, directed us, ordering Ubers and coordinating with the main clinic downtown.  Erica, the tall blond travel nurse from Wisconsin had just arrived in California to work in a San Diego hospital at night, and hang out by the beach by day.  She crowded in with us.

Our uber driver was an amateur Archeologist, he had found fossilized eggs and whale bones in layers of sediment eroding from the exposed sides of the canyon valley walls.  The first indigenous native to Tijuana, the Pumai arrived 30,000 years ago, according to artifacts that archeologists had discovered in the canyon walls, according to carbon testing methods.  That seafaring civilization traveled up and down the California coast, along with successive others, trading with tribes from Canada to the Catalina Islands, from Tijuana to the tip of Baja California.

A Grammar School is Christened

We finally arrived at the top a tall hill, an uneven crooked dirt road that made the van rock back and forth violently.  We approached the church.  It was built on a landfill; the nearby lots full of trash and half salvaged rusted machines.

As we arrived at a kitchen area, summer enthusiastically rearranged chairs and tables to set up the makeshift clinic.  However, a woman associated with the church hurriedly arrived.  She said we would have to wait.  They were having a religious service, a ceremony for several hours to commemorate the launching of a new school the church was building in the community.   There were four to five hundred school age children in the neighborhood, but not enough schools– the primary school was overcrowded and filled to capacity and only fit three hundred.  Some parents were able to send their kids to schools in other parts of town, but it was too far for too many.

They were dedicating the foundation; the school’s cornerstone.  The new building would be  christened The School of Promise.  A Korean-American church organization in San Bernardino and Los Angeles was helping build it– as a banner in Korean and English proudly displayed.  On stage, a band played, as parishioners clapped in rhythmic unison.  Though slightly perplexed by the change in plan, we joined them for a bit, clapping and smiling to briefly participate in the festivities which rearranging our schedules. Those on the stage, members of both the Korean-American and Tijuana church, waived the red, green, and white Mexican flag, a flag emblazed with blue and red circle of Korea, and the American stars and stripes.

We departed, to return later that day.  A small stray black dog ran into the room where we would set up the clinic, its rows of black nipples puffed and elongated, its belly swollen- the arm length small dog pregnant, its tiny legs pattering across the lime green and white tiled floor.  A man cooking a giant vat of rice and chicken in a huge tin vat in the back kitchen ran up, gesturing to scare the dog back outside into the courtyard.

We walked down a narrow concrete path from the courtyard between two buildings, opening a latched metal gate, and down the dirt road to the intersection of a paved four lane road.  Cement trucks, cars, yellow taxis and white vans picking up bus stop passengers for five and ten pesos for a trip downtown drove slowly past, climbing up a hill and passing on.  A pair of roadside restaurants flanked the side streets.  On this corner we departed, and the same corner we returned, to walk back to Mission Agape in the afternoon after the service dedicating the new school.

The Pastor’s Mother

An old woman sat at a table eating rice and chicken, as we scurried hurriedly to prepare to see patients.  We had planned earlier to return to the main clinic in two and a half hours, and wanted to see as many people as possible.

She seemed oblivious to our actions, and ate her chicken soup slowly, asking me at times if I had seen the pastor, Alberto, in a quiet weak voice, almost a whisper.  We didn’t want to bother her, but she was sitting at a table we needed to move.  Summer, the chipper UC San Diego freshman, decided to approach her, to ask her to move to another table, where we cleared of a pot and other kitchen utensils that had been placed there, helping three cooks who were preparing an afternoon supper, tending a vat of chicken stew, and a tub and a large tub of rice.

I realized that the older woman was the pastor’s mother.  She sat finishing her food her as I checked in the various patients before nurse Erica and Doctor Walter saw them.  She was waiting for her son Alberto, who had founded the church here.  She traveled to see him every week.  “He’s always running around, from one thing to the next,” she told me.  Right now, he’s working with the Korean-American church to build a new school for the community, she declared proudly in a quiet voice.  She’s from Puerto Rico originally, Alberto was her fourth child.  She fled an abusive relationship there 25 years ago.  Her husband, whom she met when she was quite young, he was a drinker, and he used to beat her.  One day he beat her with a wooden beam, hit her right on her head.  The blow knocked her unconscious, he had fractured her skull.  She took the kids and left, to live with her sister in West Covina, a city in eastern Los Angeles County.

“Alberto is my youngest.  He was just a boy then.”  She is so proud of her son; how he built the mission, turning this mound of trash where the poorest of Tijuana’s families would scavenge for food and metal scraps to build a church, first it was only a tent, then a brick and mortar building, to distribute food, clothing, and try to provide healthcare, education, and a religious ministry.  “But he is always running around helping others.  He should spend more time with his mother, with his family,” she confided, looking out expectantly for her son, who was busy working with the Koreans from Los Angeles building the school.

Healthcare without Clean Water

Walter treated a lot of patients, most from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  A lot of those who he treated, those who stayed at the Mission Agape de Dios, had for colds and headaches.  One man said they didn’t have any hot water, when they wake up in the morning they have to bathe with cold water, and it caused pain in his joints and muscles.  While health professionals were busy checking patients, a man in the kitchen asked if we had any water.  “Water? “ I replied, perplexed. 

“Yes,” he explained.  They had run out of clean water; the water from the pipes wasn’t fit to drink.  “This church sits on what once was a garage dump, a landfill,” another volunteer explained. “ Even now there are pockets of gas under this kitchen.  It all started with a tent over there, and grew and grew.  The pastor would help people, provide food and clothing to those who lived here on the landfill, the poorest of the poor, they didn’t have food to eat.  And now look at this place.  They have these buildings.  And they are building a new school,” he shared with pride.

Victims of Police Brutality

One patient sat in a metal chair awaiting to be seen.  He arrived before the Caravan did.  He was in Jalisco, and jumped a train up to Tijuana.  He complained of neck pain, he had been beaten by police a few months ago, and the pain was so bad that he had trouble sleeping.  “I was working with two Mexican guys from Guerrero.  It was payday, so we all went to a corner store, to buy some beer.  We were sitting there in the parking lot drinking, and some city cops rolled up on us.  They pushed me up against a police car.  When I didn’t have ID, one said, ‘Fucking Hondurans, what are you doing in my country, you are all less than dogshit,’ The next thing I knew I was hit hard, I don’t know by what, three times on my neck, and handcuffed.  They gave me a fine of 300 pesos, and I could either pay them right there or they would take me to jail, where I would have to pay anyway, and would be deported.  Luckily, I still had my week’s paycheck, so I gave it to them.  My neck’s been hurting ever since.”  He’s been taking pills, but they haven’t helped much.  He wanted stronger pain meds.  Walter told him to ice it, but there wasn’t much we could do with limited diagnostic equipment.

A Stranger in a Foreign Land

While I was talking to the man, another Latino gentleman asked me if I needed help translating, a man in his early 40’s, talking in perfect English.  His family migrated to the United States when he was six years old, when he was in grammar school.  He grew up in Sacramento.  His wife and four children still live there; a 21, 25, and 28 year old daughter, and an 18 year old son.  “I mean, I’m more American than Mexican,” he pointed to himself raising his hands.  He was a permanent legal resident, but never bothered to apply for citizenship.  In 2004, he was involved in a domestic dispute.  “I was wrong; I lost my temper,” he confessed.  His wife called the cops, and he was convicted of a felony.  The immigration laws got stricter with George W. Bush, and he got deported.  He’s been living in Tijuana ever since.  It was tough for me getting deported.  I didn’t know anyone.  I lived in the United States almost my entire life.

You could hear in his tone that he enjoyed helping support the church.  It was a way for him to start over, and to try to redeem himself, to rebuild a community he could lean on in time of need; and one he could help as well.

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