It’s called The Beast. And it’s not the rollercoaster ride at King’s Island outside Cincinnati.
Also called “The Train of Death,” The Beast is a catch-all phrase used to describe the 10-15 train network throughout Mexico that ferries immigrants from their countries in Central America and Mexico to the borders of the US.
I just returned home from Honduras and made a genuine new friendship with a guy there named José. José and I made two round-trips from Tegucigalpa to San Marcos and spent about 14 hours in the car together during that time.
We also worked next to each other all week.
On one of our 3.5 hour drives, José and I talked about soccer and what it means to Hondurans. José explained:
There are many poor people in Honduras. So many poor people who are struggling. The great thing about fútbol (soccer) is that for 90 minutes everyone has hope. Eight million people have hope. We have hope of winning something.
An extremely common misconception when people visit the poor in other countries is that the people there are all happy. “They’re so poor but they have so much joy,” is the oft-repeated refrain. It’s not true for many.
There is such a thing as manners. To be unkind and ungracious to visitors would be rude. Although I’ve been flicked off numerous times in my travels, it’s an infinitesimally small percentage who are so ill-behaved.
In addition, we need to imagine ourselves in their shoes. Imagine you lived in poverty and you heard some wealthy people were coming on a fact-finding trip to see what conditions were like. You’d have hope they might help out your community. THAT would make you happy. You would be abundantly kind to them in order to win favor.
I’m not so cynical as to believe that NO ONE in poverty is happy or joyful. Or that their motives are selfishly driven. But we Americans need to stop being silly in thinking all poor people are happy. They’re not.
One of the great disadvantages of going to countries where you don’t speak the language is that you can’t have full conversations with the locals, asking questions that really probe the realities of their lives.
The other disadvantage of short-term trips abroad is that they’re, by definition, short-term. We don’t spend enough time to really get to know the people there so we don’t earn enough trust with them.
A final hinderance is that we rarely get to spend extended time with the SAME people. Even if we have conversations, they’re often with multiple people throughout the week – which prevents us from going deep with one person.
If we can overcome one or more of those barriers with locals, what we discover at some point is tears. It’s probably true of all human beings – spend enough time with any of us and we’ll cry when we talk about our lives. But I’m telling you the tears come quickly with many of the poor when you get beneath the surface.
An article in the New York Times reported just this morning that the US Border Patrol has apprehended 39,000 adult illegal immigrants since October. This is in addition to 52,000 CHILDREN traveling WITHOUT adults that have been apprehended in the same time period. 9,000 people were apprehend this May alone – a new monthly record. That’s roughly 100,000 people. We have no estimate as to how many have been successful in crossing the border.
Pain, high unemployment rates, and lack of hope is what fuels most immigration to the US. Many of the materially poor are not happy where they are. It’s why they risk life and limb to leave their families and homes.
When I was in Honduras this past December, my friend Samy told me about his friend who had gotten on The Beast. About halfway to the US, his friend fell off the train while he was sleeping (a common occurrence on The Beast) onto the tracks and had both his legs severed. He survived but now lives back in Honduras in a wheelchair, begging on the street because he’s unable to work doing the manual labor he once performed.
(If you’re interested in learning more about The Beast, I’d recommend the films Sin Nombre, Which Way Home, and De Nadie as starters to the topic. If you’re a reader, I’d recommend Sonia Nazario’s novel “Enrique’s Journey”).
Throughout their journey on The Beast, people deal with the constant threat of violence from gangs who board the trains at various points for purposes of robbery, rape, kidnapping, and even outright murder. In 2010, there were a reported 11,000 kidnappings of people from The Beast. At a ransom of almost $2,500/person, kidnapping is big business for Mexico’s drug cartels.
There are biblical things we don’t understand a lick. Our wealthy lives insulate us from some biblical understanding. Someone traveling on The Beast understands this Psalm in a way I probably never will…
Hide me from the plots of this evil mob,
from this gang of wrongdoers…
They shoot from ambush at the innocent,
attacking suddenly and fearlessly.
They encourage each other to do evil
and plan how to set their traps in secret.
As I stood 4,700 feet above sea level in Honduras’ Sierra de la Botija mountain range, I talked with a teenager named Juan who is quitting his job next month and trying to make it to the US on The Beast.
When I heard this, I immediately and reflexively blurted out, “Buena suerte, hermano!” which means “Good luck, brother!”
Can you now imagine the difficulties that await him on his journey?
His path forward is one fraught with danger and I hope God helps him survive and thrive.
I have no action steps. In the last 12 months, I’ve been on eight trips to six countries on three continents. I’ve seen the opulence of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and the dilapidated shacks of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. Every single trip I’m taking is disrupting my life a little bit at a time.
And that’s why I wrote this post. I want it to be something that moves the soil of our hearts just a little bit. We need to see the lives and experiences of the poor and understand they’re made in God’s image just the same as us. He loves them just like he loves us. And from our perch of power, God is expecting us to do something. Each of us can do something to help the poor in the US and abroad. We need to discover what it is and how to do it. We already know the WHY. May it fuel us every day to dig a little deeper.
We love because he first loved us.
_1 John 4:19