Story and photos by Erik M. Lunsford
Hildelisa Mesa had a pain in her heart. For months, the Cuban fencing trainer slept in Panama on garbage bags and inside cardboard boxes, eating bits of rice and tuna as she fled from Cuba toward the United States along with nearly 4,000 fellow Cuban migrants seeking a better life.
All were immigrants allowed to enter America under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA). According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the CAA provides for a special procedure so that Cuban natives and their accompanying spouses and children can be granted permanent, legal residence in the United States.
In her own journey, Hildelisa scaled mountains in Colombia, helped bury a man who died of a heart attack along the treacherous climb, and lamented children who were lost and a woman who fell from a cliff and died. Hildelisa eventually crossed the U.S. border in El Paso and with help arrived at Ysleta Lutheran Mission Human Care (YLM), a human-care and church-planting nonprofit founded in 1982 that is an LCMS Recognized Service Organization.
“It’s as if we arrived in heaven, our lives completely transformed,” she 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 — is currently housing 80 Cuban refugees, and is part of a larger network of Christian agencies in El Paso caring for the influx of the new, legal immigrants. YLM also sustains six mission sites in the sister city of Juarez, Mexico, and three farther south in Chihuahua.
“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. “We’ll have a full dormitory for several more weeks.” Heimer works almost nonstop with the rest of YLM’s dedicated small staff and with his Cuban father, the Rev. Karl Heimer, as they coordinate logistics, shelter and care for transitioning immigrants.
An LCMS grant for $12,600 to YLM is helping to provide for these sojourners and to bring pastoral help from other LCMS congregations, including the Rev. Steve Massey from Michigan and Vicar John Benito from Kansas City.
“[The grant] is giving us a peace of mind that there is a resource that we can use for this immediate need and expense,” said the Rev. Stephen Heimer.
“We are changing lives through simple acts of kindness,” said the Rev. Karl Heimer, president of YLM and pastor of San Pablo on the YLM campus. “I really love them, and care for them, and I will be with them and show the love of Christ to them.”
After Hildelisa arrived, she walked the YLM campus in the mornings and prayed. “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 inquired about the church. Pastors Stephen and Karl Heimer talked with her.
Later, on a Sunday after she had attended catechism classes, Hildelisa Mesa was baptized by Karl.
“Blessed be this church,” said Hildelisa, “and blessed be these people who have chosen us. We will be forever grateful. I believe that I will be faithful to God for the rest of my life.”
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 still in Cuba.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, finally has brought peace to Hildelisa Mesa.
Read a related CNN story, “The last flight and first steps: ‘Historic’ surge of Cubans crossing into U.S.,” that addresses the work of Ysleta Lutheran Mission among Cuban immigrants.
Erik M. Lunsford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing photojournalist with LCMS Communications.
Posted June 2, 2016