Seeking Beauty At The Border
A conversation with Yonathan Moya of Border Perspective
By Joanna Schaus
Yonathan Moya, founder of the humanitarian organization, Border Perspective, has traveled to countries such as Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, and Cuba. He currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota but grew up on the U.S. & Mexico Border. His work advocates for those who are oppressed, hungry, and in need of clothing, security, and safety.
I met and photographed Yonathan Moya in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Going into our conversation, I was full of assumptions, ideas, and questions about the border. Perhaps the most pressing personally was, “Did my vote in this past election actually create sustainable change?” The answer I walked away with was unsettling: perhaps I shouldn’t be voting for changes that I’m not willing to do something about. Not only did this humble me, but the tension it created in me exposed my own divisive nature in our politicized and polarized society. However, Yonthan’s work and perspective also inspired me while begging a better, deeper question: what can I, as a follower of Jesus, be doing for migrants and immigrants today? While the larger issues surrounding borders and immigrations are complex and contextual, I realized that perhaps the answer to this better question isn’t as complex as I’ve made it to be.
Q: Can you give us an update on the border situation regarding the new president we have in the office and any changes that happened with that adjustment?
At the end of 2020, it was a very interesting time on the border because, at that time, there were some policies in place that were not allowing migrants to access US soil, especially those seeking asylum. This was a policy called the Migrant Protection Program and it was causing shelters on the Texas side of the border to sit almost entirely empty. I recall visiting one of the shelters on the border whom we typically work with and there were only eleven pregnant women who were deemed vulnerable.
Fast forward two or three months to February of 2021, with the new administration in place and a new executive order, we saw an incredible increase of thousands of people who were starting their immigration or asylum-seeking process. It’s important to note that these are not detention facilities. These are shelters that are being run by non-profit organizations and that depend upon the American church to continue their work. All of sudden, we saw these shelters filling up with hundreds and hundreds of migrants.
There’s a huge need right now for a change in our political perspective. When I think about the policies that are in place and the suffering that is happening as well as the number of organizations at the border that are overwhelmed it demands that we find a new way forward. Our government is knowingly and willingly allowing an influx of people to be filtered through our very broken system. One of the biggest challenges I see is how we’re letting people navigate the asylum-seeking process. People are typically going through the federal government to seek asylum but yet nonprofit organizations are the ones who are meeting most if not all of their needs.
At Border Perspective our primary goal is to mobilize volunteers. To immerse them, and educate them on border issues. When the pandemic started, we stopped the mobilization of volunteers. As a result of the pandemic, even more needs have arrived. We’re seeing an incredible need for food, clothing, and healthcare at the border that’s been exacerbated by COVID and our country’s response to it. We never anticipated that at the start of 2020, we’d strategically be positioned along with many humanitarian groups to help aid one of the largest humanitarian crises in our nation but the need is daunting.
“Many people see the border as a humanitarian crisis or a war zone. But I see the border as holy ground. The border is where I’ve encountered the divine.”
Q: Is there any hope for the situation at the border?
Regardless of your political affiliation or perspective on immigration, it has to be said that the reality of the situation at our southern border is completely overwhelming the entire nation and the government system that’s currently in place. The sheer numbers of people seeking entrance to the US and the deeply polarized politics surrounding immigration paint a grim picture for how we are to navigate the future of immigrants and asylum seekers.
In the midst of this reality Border Perspective has been focusing our work on the ground, seeking to help alleviate suffering and to restore dignity to the people who are coming into the country. Honestly, it’s hard to see the path, especially when so much of the focus is on the border itself and not on the actual people who are coming. When I think about a hopeful future, it is hard to see one right now because the root of the issue is not being addressed. We’re just putting a bandaid on the problem, and it is difficult to find a sustainable solution due to the complexity of the situation.
Q: So, if there’s very little hope, why do you keep going?
Many people see the border as a humanitarian crisis or a war zone. But I see the border as holy ground. The border is where I’ve encountered the divine. The border is a place of refuge. So when I think about what it means to me, and my perspective working in this region, I’ve grown to be drawn to it. It has given me a different understanding and I’m trying to see it as a place of beauty, not hopelessness. What I mean by that is: I see the suffering and I’m called to respond by working to bring justice to the poor, to alleviate suffering. It does not matter if it’s one thousand people or just one.
Part of seeing the border as a place of beauty is in relating to those who are seeking help and security. I personally have not faced these difficult, dire situations that I am witness to, but I’ve come to understand that most people at the border are searching for the same thing that I am. They are seeking to belong, to find security, to have peace. What they are searching for in a physical world, I am also searching for in an eternal world. So when I see their longing, being portrayed in a physical aspect, I am also seeing the things that cause disruptions in my soul.
Q: Can you share experiences where you’ve tangibly encountered the divine at the border?
The last few months have been extremely difficult for me and my family. My dad recently passed away and I’m beginning to understand my dad’s vision at the border. I’m seeing the fruit of the community he envisioned, and the impact his life’s work has had at the border. My dad never made political statements, he was about bringing hope and peace to difficult circumstances. When I speak about encountering the divine, I’m talking about recognizing what is around you. We can physically experience things and taste food and watch a sunset, while also knowing that spiritually there is a God who created those things. In doing so, you can experience healing in the midst of deep brokenness. So, when I think about encountering the divine at the border, I think about my Dad and how present he was in that beauty and brokenness. I think most people think of the border and they think of policy and politics, but my dad’s life and work help me to think of beauty in that space.
Q: What would you say to young people wanting to do activism work?
One thing that I truly believe is that you have to start right where you are. Too often we glamorize going somewhere else like a foreign country and doing missions or activism work. This can cause us to miss the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to go deeper where we are right now. I think many people in the new generation don’t even know how to start where they are and get involved in their own community. So, with the border trips, we offer young individuals an experience that they can incorporate into their lives back home and impact the community where they are. Because, the truth is that there is always a need present in your community wherever you are.
Part of the reason why I started Border Perspective is because the church wasn’t as involved as I thought we should be in these issues. Sadly, the American church is far behind some of the larger, more active organizations when it comes to engaging the border crisis. We proclaim to know Jesus as our Savior, we proclaim to know Scripture and it’s call to love our neighbor, but when the rubber meets the road we aren’t active in those aspects of faith.
One of the biggest issues in our society today is being divided, and the border conversation has become incredibly politicized. However, the border has never been a right or a left issue. When it comes to the border, we all have a different way of responding to disasters and suffering. Some of us would rather put politics before humanity. Some of us don’t first proclaim the name of Jesus, but the name of a politician. Sometimes we think we’re proclaiming the truth, when really we’re so far from it. Christ can completely break our understanding and shatter our perspective of things. It shouldn’t matter how we vote, if a person needs care we need to give of ourselves to them. When you walk into a shelter and you see someone sleeping on the floor, in need of medication, or a baby in need of a diaper, it doesn’t matter who you voted for, it matters how you respond.
Joanna is a traveling humanitarian photographer & storyteller capturing the stories of those she meets. She grew up in the Middle East in Afghanistan and Turkey for the majority of her childhood and early teen years. Currently, she travels frequently dedicating time to documenting her experiences through her lens and advocating for others to do the same.