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Arizona, 2015

I lower myself down onto the dusty ground in the shade of a withering tree. Surrounded by nothing but rocks, shrubs, and long stretches of desert in every direction, I welcome the rest at this stopping point — the furthest we’ll go out into the desert on this trail before turning back. 

We had already hiked for several hours, each of us carrying more than our share of non-perishable food items and gallon jugs of water, though we gradually lightened our load as we went along. We dropped food and water at specific points along migrant trails, and finished where I now find myself resting in this shady spot — hot, dirty, and weary.

To my right is a tired-looking barbed wire fence, where I had just hung my final bundle of food. With its highest stretch of wire barely three feet off the ground, this mangled fence marks the line through the dirt where the United States meets Mexico. The border line that has crossed and divided families, neighborhoods, nations. A line in the dirt in the desert that has meant life or death for those crossing through remote areas such as this one, and our group’s hope is that the food and water we’ve left means more life and less death.

I am suddenly struck by the holiness of this place. I realize I am seated on holy ground. I am resting in the shade where countless prayers have been uttered, where people have clung to God and one another for survival, where there has been hope against all hope for arrival to a place of provision and refuge. This is holy ground, where the desperate need for God is palpable and the presence of the Comforter to embrace the writhing sobs of suffering is unmistakable. 

My breath catches in my chest, and I can do nothing but pray and wonder at the greatness of God and the smallness and total dependence of humanity; the moment-by-moment leaning into God’s strength that is required to put one foot in front of the other in the wilderness. In this unsuspecting corner of the desert, the air is thick with God’s presence to the sojourner.

Texas, 2019

We are instructed not to speak to the ‘residents,’ as the chaplain leading our facility tour called them. The ‘residents’ will be wearing jumpsuits, color-coded by their crimes, we’re told. This is not a prison, but a processing center, we’re told. Most of the ‘residents’ here will ultimately be deported. Here’s where the movie nights are, here are some board games, and here you’ll see they get a pretty decent dinner menu.

We are led into the women’s quarters, and no sooner do we turn the corner than we encounter half a dozen women in street clothes, standing along the wall, shackled at the ankles and from their waist to their wrists, their faces downcast and defeated. I can only assume they are about to be deported. The room is cramped and I have no choice but to stand within feet of these women, and I don’t know what to do with myself. 

The chaplain does not acknowledge the women, and as he drones on about some documents posted on the wall, I look to the ground with shame and anger, and I take a deep breath. I tune him out. I decide I have the choice to listen to his script or be present to the women next to me that I cannot speak to. 

In that moment, the presence of the Holy Spirit overwhelms me and I am made aware that I am standing on holy ground — like the earth had split open in that very room to expose every cry of anguish ever cried, every suffering groan ever let out by Jesus himself. I am overcome with the grief of it all.

Just like in the desert in Arizona, I am pulled by the gravity of the moment into prayer — there is no other task when occupying holy ground — and I look each woman in the eye, immensely aware of the heaviness of their prayers above them and their hearts within them. The ground that was intended to break their spirits and sense of self was made holy by a God who sees them, hears them, and goes with them.  

I never considered myself a person particularly aware of the spiritual realm, and there are very few instances in which I have felt strongly the very presence of God physically around me. But among these few instances, I have noticed something: they were not during worship. They were not at church. They were not in my personal devotion time. They were in the place and presence of the suffering sojourner.

God’s presence is the strongest where humanity needs God the most; where the suffering is too great and the options for human efforts have run out; where the journey is too long and there are no guarantees of tomorrow’s survival. God’s presence is the strongest where humanity has begged — even simply let — God flood in, into being all that we needed God to be.

God is with the suffering. God is with the sojourner. When God is called to them, the ground they occupy becomes holy ground.

Photo by Harishan Kobalasingam on Unsplash

Melissa Stek

Melissa Stek is a Justice Mobilization Specialist for the Christian Reformed Church, and works to network and encourage Christians to seek immigration reform. She holds a Bachelor of Social Work from Calvin College and a Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan.


  • Melissa,
    This is beautiful and important. I’m grateful for the good and necessary work you are doing!

  • mstair says:

    Very provocative article …

    “God is with the suffering. God is with the sojourner.”

    As Christ’s Church, let us ensure we respond to His call to come out and be separate in this matter. Our commandment is clear, “welcome the sojourner verbally and tangibly with The Gospel of Peace,” and, “pray that we may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Beautifully written and powerful, Melissa. Brings me to tears. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  • Jim Brink says:

    Thank you, Melissa.
    By calling this space “Holy Ground” you remind me that no matter what I call this space, a prison, a summer camp, a cage or anything else, God intends otherwise for those whose lives have crossed into this place. May God’s grace and mercy give me eyes to see, ears to hear, and feet to join them.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    Melissa this is beautiful and heart wrenching.
    It is reminiscent of one of my sister Barbara’s earliest sermons when she spoke of the homeless of Grand Rapids among whom she ministered for nearly 20 years. “Take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground.”
    Thank you for giving voice to these women and the thoughts many of us have in our hearts, but feel helpless to change.
    Please keep telling their story.

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    I’m so thankful my denomination has staff to remind, educate, and challenge us regarding this painful – and shameful – crises.

  • Lou Roossien says:

    Melissa, thank you for sharing your experience of the presence of God in the desert, and of standing with women in “holding”, even looking into their eyes… Reminds me of Hagar’s experience of God in the desert of Shur and being comforted by the Lord “who hears her misery,” as she names her child Ishmael, “God hears”, the descendants of whom are represented by God’s children in misery today. Reminds me of my teenage friend Douglas, falsely accused and convicted, in a Border holding cell, then sent back to a country that was not his home, El Salvador, where he now lives, needing to move his own family periodically because of danger… Thanks for the reminder to notice people, to stand with them and to experience the presence of our “Suffering God” in our own places too.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Okay… Wet blanket time….

    Ms. Stek,

    According to your bio, you are an employee at the CRC, and your focus is on immigration reform. I have two questions:

    1. You have never experienced God’s presence in a worship service, church, or during personal devotions. Have you shared that with your co-workers and supervisors?

    2. What is your solution to the immigration crisis (I believe we all agree now it is a crisis)? Is there a limit to the number of people who should emigrate, legally and illegally, to the United States?

    • kate kooyman says:

      “You have never experienced God’s presence in a worship service, church, or during personal devotions.” This strikes me as extremely petty.

    • Melissa Stek says:

      Hi Marty, thanks for engaging and for your obvious concern for my spiritual health. I have felt God’s presence in many contexts including church, and the work of the Holy Spirit has been very apparent in my life, which those that know me well can attest to. The point I was hoping to drive home is that I never felt that presence more strongly than in the particular contexts I described. I hope and pray that you experience God’s presence in many ways and in many contexts, too.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Thank you for that clarification. My concern is not your spiritual health (though I’m glad you’re good). I was more concerned that you, as a paid employee of the CRC, who advocates for political positions about which a majority of individual members may disagree, does not feel the presence of God in worship. So, again, thank you for clarifying.

        How about my second question? Does the United States have the right (legal and moral) to restrict legal immigration and prevent illegal immigration?

  • Robert VanStright says:

    Mr./ Ms. Woodall,

    1. I identify with the author’s observation about “the very presence of God physically around me.” Certainly I have had spiritual experiences in church, but I remember few of those in much detail. The life-altering times of being touched by God’s presence are those moments of confrontation in the world where evil seems overwhelming and I have heard God assuring me and saying “ I am here”.

    2. As to the immigration crisis. Certainly I agree there is a crisis. However, I find nothing in Jesus example or the Biblical mandate to love that quantifies or limits that mercy. Oh yes, there is that seventy times seven rule related to forgiveness, but every sermon I have heard interprets that as an unlimited quantity.

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Your first question is a severe misrepresentation of what Ms. Stek wrote: “… there are very few instances in which I have felt STRONGLY [my caps] the very presence of God physically around me.” I think each of us experiences the presence of God in different ways and different experiences. The experience that moves me most strongly may be quite different than the experience that moves you or the experience that moves Ms. Stek most strongly. I think your question lacks charity.

    Your second question is, of course, the gist of the issue for all of us and the answers are difficult. Unfortunately, we have no political leadership on this issue with the current administration and congress, only an excessive amount of finger-pointing and name calling. But, to me, the truly distressing issue is that our treatment of asylum seekers denies their basic humanity and cheapens our national identity. Tearing families apart, putting children in cages, and cramming people in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities is unacceptable, regardless of our proposed solutions to the immigration problem. We as Christians should be united in calling for better treatment of these human beings, regardless of the final disposition of their individual cases and/or the development of a national policy.

  • Melissa, amen to this. Of course, God is present whether we feel him or not. It’s just that at certain times and places we become more aware that the Holy Spirit is getting our attention. You’ve been sensitized to the plight of aliens, frequently the objects of God’s loving attention in the Scriptures. Too many of us are insensitive to the human suffering that is part of this hot political issue. Thanks for reminding us.

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    I don’t know if you were employed by a major denomination when you enabled people to commit crimes, but maybe that is what a “social justice mobilization” employee does. I certainly hope that the denomination reviews it’s standings with law enforcement.
    Your point that these people are sojourners implies that they are just visiting for a short time, similar to when we sojourn to Mexico for a week or two for R&R. in fact these people are making every attempt to break the law and take up illegal residence in a foreign country.

    • Undisclosed says:

      I am not saying you are religious, but I always found it interesting how so many religious Americans would have crucified the very deity they worship exactly because of the “you must follow the law at all costs all the time” mentality. In fact, I believe we do not necessarily need religion to debate and share some food for thought regarding certain topics.

      Here is one of my favorite thought provoking quotes: “According to history, the U.S was born out of an act of treason (broke the law) against an out of control government. This is not to say that breaking the rules is something that should always happen. However, there is a distinction that right and wrong is a very different standard than legal and illegal. The law is no substitute for morality. Every act of progression in this nation’s history has involved tension with law, whether it is the abolition of slavery, enfranchisement of women or the birth of the U.S, laws were broken and that is because the laws were wrong”. (Edwad Snowden)

  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan says:

    Thank you for being so open to the Spirit in these moments, dear friend. I’ll carry these thoughts with me.

  • Isaiah Cruz says:


    As a Latino, a Salvadoran-American, and a Christian, I want to thank you for writing this. These are the words I have been looking for to describe what I have been feeling these past few months.

    I have recently rediscovered and embraced my identity as a Latino, realizing that my primary identity as a disciple of Jesus does not mean my ethnicity is somehow abrogated by it.

    These words just give me a connection with fellow sojourners who want a better life for their children and themselves.

    In Christ,

  • Hannah Campbell Gustafson says:

    Thank you. This is beautiful and important.

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