A Journey of
Faith and Struggle

An Interview with julie and john of the new documentary film, across

by Billy Price

UnRival Network CREATIVE DIRECTOR AND PROGRAM CO-DIRECTOR

unRival sits down to interview Producer Julie Mirlicourtois and Pastor John Garland on their new documentary film, ACROSS, the story of what happens when we set aside our politics and witness the humanity and faith of asylum seekers firsthand.

“Crisis at the Border!”

That’s been the news headline for years as waves of migrants from Central America cross through Mexico and attempt to enter the United States to request asylum.

No one can deny that the situation at the USA’s southern border is vexing and can seem hopeless. It’s scary for everyone involved—especially the countless Central American asylum seekers fleeing life-threatening poverty, violence, and corruption in search of safety and security for their families.

Filmed in Honduras, Texas, and Illinois, the four-part docuseries ACROSS follows three women and their children who escaped abuse and violence in Honduras and Guatemala, a Mennonite pastor, John Garland, who is determined to help, and a Midwestern church community that experienced a complete transformation in their hearts when they stopped seeing these families as news headlines and started treating them like brothers and sisters in Christ.

Billy-Headshot
Billy

Hello Julie and John! Thank you for taking the time to speak with us about ACROSS. I watched the series this week, and I have to say, I was moved to tears—of both sorrow and joy—several times.

From a US perspective, discussions on the “issue” of immigration often feel unrelatable and theoretical. One often hears people saying that the experience of migrants and asylum seekers is “difficult to understand.” As one of the interviewees in the film says, seeing from afar, we “forget that it is families, mothers and daughters” that we are accepting or rejecting. So thank you for bringing us close to both asylum seekers and those stepping up to care for them.

Julie, I was struck by how relatable everyone became under your lens. Every moment felt very personal, so I’d love to start by asking what led you to this project. How and why did you decide to invest yourself in this story?

CROP+PLS_JULIE
Julie

That’s music to my ears. I’m so glad to hear you found everyone so relatable. I’ve spent most of my career in television sharing stories that shed light on difficult topics through storytelling and help build empathy toward people who may be misunderstood. I first started digging deeper into the issues surrounding immigration for an episode of the podcast I executive produce called Maybe God. I realized just how many misconceptions there are about this population of Central American asylum seekers crossing the border, from people on both sides of the issue politically. 

I had no plans of turning an episode of the podcast into a four-part documentary series until I met Pastor John Garland from the San Antonio Mennonite Church. John’s church has been working with asylum seekers in San Antonio since 2016, as unprecedented waves of migrants started crossing the border into Texas. Through the people he introduced me to, I immediately started to understand that asylum seekers aren’t just victims like they’re so often portrayed, in need of our rescuing. The overwhelming majority of migrants from Central America are deeply faithful and resilient individuals, and if we stop to listen to their stories, we witness incredible sacrifice, unconditional love, true hope, and endless patience. I’ve learned that their stories have the power to enrich, even transform, our own lives and spiritual journeys. 

Instead of focusing the immigration conversation around politics like we so often do, ACROSS calls people to meet the humans behind the headlines, and to experience firsthand the stories of hope and love overcoming fear and judgment. 

Billy-Headshot
Billy

Early in the first episode, John, you say, “All trauma healing begins with felt safety.” I can’t help but think about how many different fears and threats are swirling in these topics of migration, border security, and asylum seekers. Some fears are more immediate, urgent, and factual than others, yet all of them are felt quite honestly. With so many fears at play and so much need for healing, where do we begin?

John_JPG
John

The Fears that are held by the body and brain from past horrors and current threats have power over our decision-making, health, and experience of love. They have the ability to make every situation and relationship feel (and thus be) unsafe. Lives become driven by Fear. How do we arrive at lives that are driven by Love? First, there must be an intentional and visceral experience of physical safety. This physical safety needs to then develop into social and community safety. A hospitality house, a small group, or a church can be this place of experienced safety. Safety is characterized by non-anxious reactions, rest, forgiveness, good food, and prayer. From this location of experienced safety, the fearful experiences can be intentionally engaged and a drive of fear slowly dismantled. This looks like “group therapy,” where we talk about our memories and fears in a safe, moderated circle. It also looks like going out to do fearful things (like tracking down an imprisoned loved one, or checking in with a deportation officer) knowing that the safe haven is awaiting. Healing requires this foundation of safety (also called “home”) where you experience forgiveness and love.

Billy-Headshot
Billy

Turning back to you, Julie, one of the most poignant moments for me was hearing a church volunteer recount the story of a teenage asylum seeker saying she had worried the townspeople wouldn’t “like” her family. The volunteer, who had become a friend to the young girl, replied with a tearful confession, “I was one of those people.” What do you think is the key to breaking down these kinds of rivalries and creating the possibility of transforming strangers into friends?

CROP+PLS_JULIE
Julie

That’s one of my top three favorite scenes in the film. I think Linda, the woman you mentioned, shows us exactly what we need to do. When our favorite politicians and news channels inform our feelings about a group of people, that should be a warning sign that we haven’t experienced the issue from a human perspective. Linda opened herself up to a personal encounter that changed everything for her. Every time I see her, she’s in tears when she talks about Jenifer and Lucia, about how their faith has deepened her own, about how she wants to continue helping more families like theirs.

Go out of your way to meet strangers. Serve people you believe are your enemies. Listen to their stories. Ask God to put people in your path that you most need to meet. 

We’re not trying to alter anyone’s politics through ACROSS. We don’t have the answers for what needs to happen at the border. We can all agree what’s been happening for many years now isn’t working for Americans or asylum seekers. But that shouldn’t prevent us from seeing the issue from a human perspective and treating the asylum seekers already living in our communities with dignity and respect.

Billy-Headshot
Billy

The film does describe the current immigration policy goals in Mexico and the US as simply aiming to deter migration. It is said that the underlying strategy is to “Make people suffer so much that they won’t want to come.” But this strategy is neither achieving its stated goal nor addressing the sources of suffering. Even with human movement criminalized and extraordinary obstacles placed between “us and them,” families continue to flee their homes. Even if there’s no single, obvious answer, what sorts of better policies do you recommend we advocate for that will move the conversation away from “us vs them” and towards our common desires of safety and self-determination?

CROP+PLS_JULIE
Julie

I wish I had the answers, but I don’t. We need to find ways to take the power away from the cartels at the border. We need to find safer and more accessible pathways for families fleeing life-threatening violence and extreme poverty to seek asylum. And we need to make sure women who are experiencing abuse at the hands of murderous gang members are included in asylum law. Someone needs to bring an end to the extreme corruption in countries like Honduras and Guatemala. We feature some experts in the film who offer some solutions. 

In the meantime, I want Americans to understand what asylum seekers currently in the U.S. are up against, and how there is so much potential for mutual transformation when we come alongside them, instead of ignoring or rejecting them. 

"Instead of focusing the immigration conversation around politics like we so often do, ACROSS calls people to meet the humans behind the headlines, and to experience firsthand the stories of hope and love overcoming fear and judgment."
- Julie Mirlicourtois

Billy-Headshot
Billy

I should note that ACROSS focuses on the Christian faith experience shared by asylum seekers and aids. A self-aware character even notes that rural religious communities in the US have lately been getting a bad rap. As someone who is not an Evangelical, this series was an endearing and encouraging look inside that culture. I was personally struck by witnessing the courage that comes with believing our actions have transcendent significance. At one point, a middle-aged white man says, “The gospel comes alive through the experiences you have with people from another culture.” This is not a message that non-evangelicals tend to associate with white evangelical communities. Can you speak a bit about how faith plays out, in helpful and perhaps not-so-helpful ways, from the beginning of an asylum seeker’s journey to their arrival in the States?

John_JPG
John

“Evangelical” is simply a proclamation of “Good News.” What does it mean to proclaim good news in a world full of horrific news? Jesus proclaimed it by saying “all Time is fulfilled” and “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” That first part is very mystical and calls us to the contemplative disciplines. The second part unveils the ephemerality of every structure of authority. To say that the Kingdom of God is at hand in Roman-occupied Israel, gang-controlled Honduras, Cartel-ravaged Mexico, a segregated major metropolis, or an abusive relationship is to say that the “power” cannot last, the abuse is ending, the violence is a dead-end, and the only thing that is eternal is the presence of a gracious God.

This message in the Evangelical movement is joined with an affirmation of the individual believer as a beloved child who also is gifted with authority–authority over their life choices, suffering, fear, identity, and eternity. The believer is bestowed with an identity that is immune to the oppressor’s insults; suffering is cast in the light of eternal victory, and fear is replaced by a mission of love. This message of the “Empire’s” demise, God’s forever power, and our own liberating authority is exhilarating, and thus the Evangelical movement is exploding throughout the impoverished and oppressed regions and communities of the world.

All of our religious trouble, sadly, comes when this evangelical message of authority is manipulated and mutated into one of personal gain, power over others, and legalistic recipes for blessing. The semantic twist is easy and the selfish temptation is strong. This terrible mutation of the Good News happens in both impoverished and privileged churches. The remedy is active engagement in the actual dismantling of the Empire forces–freeing people, loving through hardship, welcoming the weary, sacrificing in grace, creating communities of safety. The false “good news” always falls apart in the presence of lived faith.

Billy-Headshot
Billy

Late in the series, there’s this beautiful example of planting flowers amidst hate, pain, and violence. I’m so grateful for that hopeful image. For those of us living in countries like the US (even if we don’t live near the border) what sorts of “flowers” can we plant to bring beauty and grace to those who have traveled with great suffering to join our communities?

John_JPG
John

What a lovely question.

There is a woman in a community who regularly leads us in contemplating the mysticism of seeds. She reminds us that we do not own them, do not grasp the mystery of their sleeping and awakening, or hold the power of their growth and fruit-bearing. She reminds us to pray through each stage of plant growth as a miracle. Her voice is very grounding.

The flowers we plant for weary sojourners have to come from this same humility and grace. We understand our resources as not our own. They are beyond our designs, rooted in something deeper than ourselves, and bear fruit that exceeds our control. Also, everything is very fragile (so barefoot gardening is the best.)

Logistically this looks like a discovery of resources, a surrendering to “sanctification,” an active service, and an intentional acknowledgment of the “miracles” beyond our power. (“Sanctification” just means to proclaim that everything belongs to God and thus cleanses our hold of ownership and power. “Miracles” just means proclaiming it as fully God’s work and thus cleansing our egos of self-glorification).

So every community’s garden of welcome will look different. Some will have resource pantries and closets, others will share space for legal help. Some will host community events and others will foot the bill for counseling. Other communities open hospitality houses, sponsor people out of prison, provide job training, incubate micro-enterprises, give loans, donate vehicles, pay for travel tickets, organize language learning exchanges, fund scholarships, or plant churches. The important discipline in all of this is that we never stop marveling at the bouquet. We never claim credit, and we keep the eyes of our hearts open for the new seeds coming from the fruit.

Billy-Headshot
Billy

One last question for you, Julie: there’s a point in the story that is particularly nerve-wracking for one asylum seeker. A volunteer assures her, “You are not doing this alone.” This simple commitment to presence was the difference between unbearable tribulation and hopeful perseverance. You spent so much time “being with” all sorts of people committed to overcoming the impossible. What has it meant to you to accompany people such as you have?

CROP+PLS_JULIE
Julie

Oh gosh, so much. Mostly I’m just grateful. Grateful for being able to witness so many miracles. Grateful these families have entrusted me with their stories. Grateful for the impact their children have had on my own children as we’ve shared life together over the last several years. And most of all, grateful for the way their faith has increased my own. 

Every time a mother in our documentary was pleading with God to be freed from horrific abuse, to be reunited with a child, to be released from a detention center, there were many times it felt so hopeless. Even Pastor John admits he sometimes had very little faith that things would work out. I would automatically wonder what we could do to fix things. But each time, the mothers were the ones reminding us that God was listening and making promises of freedom. And they were right. Miracle after miracle. It taught me just how much God wants to be in the weeds with us. 

When my own son was in the hospital several months ago facing a scary surgery, I was down on my knees pleading with God like I’d never done before, inspired by these Central American mothers who are never afraid to ask bold prayers and expect positive outcomes despite the overwhelming darkness all around them. 

Hold onto hope with us.


When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

By contributing as little as $25, you join us in supporting peacebuilders who are bringing creative solutions to the world’s toughest problems. Your donation funds leadership formation programs, research, and resources for those resisting rivalry with you.