Ministry in El Paso Extends Mercy to Cuban Sojourners
Along the Mexican border, Ysleta Lutheran Mission Human Care extends mercy to Cuban immigrants arriving in the United States.
Hildelisa Mesa had a pain in her heart. For months, the warm and soft-spoken Cuban fencing trainer slept on garbage bags and inside cardboard boxes in Panama, eating bits of rice and tuna as she fled from Cuba toward the United States. Mesa was one of nearly 4,000 Cuban migrants who had left home to seek a better life.
Mesa was in Ecuador raising money to help her two daughters who were studying at a university back home when she fled to the U.S.
Her journey was treacherous. She scaled mountains in Colombia, helped bury a man who died of a heart attack along the climb, and lamented children who were lost and a woman who fell from a cliff and died. She was afraid along the way as people who promised to help instead stole money from the group of traveling Cubans.
Like Mesa, Antonio Cutino had a decision to make. He was in Ecuador working at a temporary job. Before his return date to Cuba, Cutino fled north. At one point during his journey, he hiked with others through a deep jungle in Colombia, fearful of predatory animals. Along the way, an indigenous community received them and treated them well.
Cutino said he left “because there was no diversity in expression and, secondly, because of the economic situation that is happening throughout the country … a difficult situation where life’s basic needs are difficult to have.”
Amauris Fernandez Arrate left Cuba in December 2013. After working in Venezuela while waiting for part of his family to arrive, they left for the U.S. He shares similar views to Cutino and paid a high price both in time and money to come. He left because “people don’t feel free.”
All three immigrants were allowed to enter America under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1996 (CAA). According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the CAA provides a special procedure so that Cuban natives and their accompanying spouses and children can be granted permanent, legal residence in the United States.
“We will be forever grateful.” Hildelisa Mesa
Care from the Church
Arrate, Cutino and Mesa eventually crossed the U.S. border in El Paso, Texas, and with help arrived at Ysleta Lutheran Mission Human Care (YLM), a human-care and church-planting nonprofit founded in 1982. YLM is an LCMS Recognized Service Organization.
“It’s as if we arrived in heaven, our lives completely transformed,” Mesa said.
Ysleta — a 5-acre campus with a dormitory, thrift shop, medical clinic, food distribution center, education building for English instruction and the parish of San Pablo — continues to house several dozen Cuban refugees following the peak of immigration, which occurred in May 2016. YLM is part of a larger network of Christian agencies in El Paso caring for this influx of legal immigrants. YLM also sustains six mission sites in its sister city of Juarez, Mexico, and three farther south in Chihuahua.
At the peak of the wave, and for several weeks after new arrivals stopped, Ysleta housed 80 Cubans every night.
“From the moment I got here, it is like being at home,” Cutino said. “It’s like the people have known you all your life. You don’t feel strange; you don’t feel overprotected nor overvalued, they treat me with respect and admiration, the way human beings should be treated.”
“We need a lot of help and encouragement,” said the Rev. Stephen Heimer, pastor of nearby Zion Lutheran Church and chief operating officer of YLM. Months after the Cubans arrived, many have left for other cities, but several dozen have remained in El Paso and some still live in the dormitories.
Since May 10, YLM’s small staff — which includes Heimer and his father, the Rev. Karl Heimer — has worked almost nonstop. They have made themselves available morning to night for the newly arriving Cubans, even staying up well past midnight to provide logistics and shelter.
Elvira Viramontes, human-care program coordinator at YLM, manages a number of projects at the mission in El Paso and Mexico, including a weekly food distribution that serves 120 people.
“I see a lot of love here for everybody. We don’t discriminate; we accept everyone with a lot of love and respect, and we try to serve them with a lot of quality.” Elvira Viramontes
As immigrants arrived, Viramontes or other volunteers ushered the Cubans into the thrift shop for fresh clothing and then onward to the cafeteria for a meal, which was prepared by Cuban volunteers who were already at the mission.
An LCMS grant for $12,600 to YLM helped provide for these sojourners and brought pastoral help from other LCMS congregations. The Rev. Steve Massey came from Michigan, and Vicar John Benito came from Kansas City. Both men have since returned to their parishes, but they continue to help the immigrants with encouragement and prayers.
In addition to offering English-as-a-Second-Language classes for immigrants, the mission is looking forward to providing a financial basics class, encouraging driver’s education and teaching about the country’s laws.
Changing Lives through Kindness
“We are changing lives through simple acts of kindness,” said Karl Heimer, president of YLM and pastor of San Pablo on the YLM campus. He himself is a native of Cuba who came to the U.S. after high school to study for the ministry.
“I really love them and care for them, and I will be with them and show the love of Christ to them.”
Cubans such as Arrate volunteer their time to help repair the facilities, cook food and help other immigrants. “I have a double blessing, being able to receive and being able to help and work for others — that’s what it’s all about,” Arrate said.
While the strain of the immigrants have challenged the normal operations of YLM, Stephen Heimer is confident the mission can continue its work with the Cubans thanks to the ongoing prayers and support from local Lutherans.
“It’s all part of a wonderful work of God,” he said.
After Mesa arrived, she walked the YLM campus in the mornings and prayed. She inquired about the church, and the Heimers talked with her.
“When I arrived here, it was a blessing from God because I have met the most wonderful people in my entire life, and they are what motivated me in this world. … I feel as though I am with my true family,” she said.
After she had attended catechism classes, Mesa was baptized by Karl Heimer one Sunday in May.
“Blessed be this church,” Mesa said, “and blessed be these people who have chosen us. We will be forever grateful.”
The pain she endured — the harrowing journey and fearful struggle — is now gone, and she looks forward to providing a better life for some of her family members who are still in Cuba. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, finally brought peace to Mesa.
Pray with Us
Dear Lord, in Your Son, Jesus Christ, You adopt us as Your own children. Be with all those who seek refuge from various situations in their lives. Bring us together in one family through faith in Jesus. Bless the work of those who assist immigrants and refugees. May they be instruments of Your love and provision through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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