Their footsteps are heard on six continents. They are of every age, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, friends, relatives. Most often, they are strangers to one another.
Who are they?
They are migrants and refugees who leave their homelands because of war, violence, political unrest, persecution, poverty, lack of dignified work, or intolerable family situations. They set out on their difficult journeys in search of peace, security, and a better life.
We hear their footsteps here in Salto de Agua in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. They come from Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, then travel through Tenosique and Palenque to reach Salto de Agua, a village with about four thousand inhabitants.
The majority of the travelers are men, but more women and children are making the perilous journey. Sometimes they board freight trains, nicknamed La Bestia (the Beast), but often they walk or find other alternatives. They pass through a gauntlet of hardships and dangers and face death along the way. Many migrants become sick or sustain injuries. Gangs and organized crime groups exploit these vulnerable men, women, and children by extortion, forcing them to transport drugs, or using them for prostitution. If they refuse to cooperate, they are killed.
Each day the number of migrants coming to Salto de Agua varies from only a few people to groups of twenty, fifty, or sixty. In the name of Jesus, we welcome them at the Chapel of St. Martha because there are no other organizations that offer them compassion and care. Space and facilities at the chapel are not adequate, but we do what we can to provide our guests with food and shelter. We help the sick with medicine or take them to the hospital if their condition is more serious.
The Chapel of St. Martha in Salto de Agua is a place of hospitality and rest for the migrants, just as the home of Martha and her sister, Mary, in Bethany was for Jesus and his disciples. One day, Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel of the Diocese of San Cristobal visited us at the Chapel of St. Martha. “Esta es su casa,” he repeatedly told the large group of weary migrants who had come to us that day, “This is your house.”
Seeing the cramped conditions at the chapel, Bishop Esquivel encouraged us to buy land and build a house with enough space for our guests to eat, sleep, and shower. The parishioners have agreed that it should be called Bethany House of St. Martha because they recognize Jesus in the travel-worn men, women, and children who come to them.
The words of Jesus have come alive for them: “He who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me welcomes him who sent me. . . . And I promise you that whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is a disciple will not want for his reward (Matt. 10:40–42).