When he embarked on a short-term mission trip this past summer, Matt Gray, a religious educator of the Diocese of Oakland, California, said, “I wanted to expand my own horizons, see different cultures and encounter people who struggle.” He and six other U.S. Catholics had ample opportunity to do that in this mission immersion trip to the El Paso and Ciudad Juarez border.
The trip was organized by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in collaboration with the Border Awareness Program hosted by the Columban Fathers. During the five-day journey, the group—including teachers and Maryknoll employees—learned about projects on both sides of the border, which they said put a human face on issues and challenges affecting people on the U.S./Mexico border.
In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the group visited Good Shepherd Center, a children’s library in Puerto de Anapra, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city with a high rate of violence and lack of services. Guided by Columban Father Robert Mosher, trip participants met Cristina Estrada, who runs the education project.
The program, based on donations and the support of the Columbans, provides more than 300 students with school supplies and scholarships and offers an after school program. “We help them register for school and with their homework,” says Estrada. “We are trying to keep families together so they do not have to risk their lives crossing the border and hope students can graduate from college and find jobs here.”
In the same neighborhood in Puerto de Anapra, participants witnessed the sad reality of children running and playing in the shadow of an 18-foot-high border fence that resembles prison bars.
Visiting a border-town factory called a maquiladora, the group learned that more than 400 maquiladoras exist in Ciudad Juarez—a city with more than 1.5 million people. These international factories attract people from across Mexico who are desperate for jobs. Workers earn as little as $33 a week, while the owners of these factories justify the low wage because they offer free transportation, medical insurance and Mexican Social Security. These benefits, however, often come with negative tradeoffs, such as difficult and dangerous working conditions.
Take the case of Estrada. Before she started the children’s library, she worked in a maquiladora for 22 years. “I was injured and got my hands burned during work,” she says. “I remember well when the ambulance brought me home after the accident with my hands all bandaged up. I could not use my hands for seven months.” After the accident, she was fired without benefits.
Leona Jewett, a trip participant who is originally from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, saw similarities between life in Juarez and that on the Oglala Lakota tribal reservation where she grew up. “The same level of poverty, the lack of running water and lack of jobs remind me where I come from,” she says, “and also help me recognize Christ in the poor.”
Now a teacher, Jewett has lived in El Paso for more than 20 years and sees herself as an indigenous migrant. “I can relate to the people on the border who know what it is like to leave families, cultures and languages to be part of a new community,” she says.
Trip participants contrasted life on both sides of the border. In Ciudad Juarez they realized firsthand the level of poverty and few educational and medical services, and they saw people struggling to survive with low wages. Meanwhile crossing to El Paso, the visitors noticed paved roads, thriving businesses, good infrastructure and better educational and health services.
In El Paso, where the group stayed at the Columban Mission Center, they were encouraged to live simply but comfortably, following guidelines for care of creation, such as composting food waste and limiting water usage. “We try to listen to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth,” says Father Mosher. “They are both victims of the same consumers’ short-sighted attitudes that our society has fomented and encouraged in our lives.”
“I met migrants and people who are helping them,” says trip participant Kathleen Mick, a Spanish teacher at an elementary school in Toledo, Ohio. “I am thankful for that.” For Mick it was important to encounter people and let them know that somebody cares. “I wanted to discover more about people’s hardships on the border, be aware and understand,” she says. “I have friends who are undocumented and they value their faith and religion. Migrants who come here need our support and the things we can offer, but we also need them.”
Showing support for and solidarity with the migrants, the visitors invited more than 50 refugees and migrants for dinner one evening. The guests came from Annunciation House, a shelter a block away from the Center, where Maryknoll Sister Lelia Mattingly volunteers. (See January/February 2018 MARYKNOLL magazine.) Most of the migrants from Central American countries and Mexico have fled violence and hunger.
During the meal, trip participants tried to talk to their guests in Spanish and listen to stories of their journeys to El Paso. “This experience helped me understand that it is not easy to learn a new language. I know a little bit of Spanish, but it was very hard to speak,” says participant Agnes Stipetich, a retired teacher from Menomonie, Wis. “It is sad to find out their struggles and how people die trying to help their families flee violence and poverty. Families risk their lives. Now I understand the humanitarian side of the immigration issue.”
The migrants were very thankful to the group. Most of them were families and pregnant women, who arrived at the El Paso border a few days before and were dropped off at the Annunciation House’s door by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
The last day of the trip, the visitors attended a Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Westway, Texas, where Maryknoll Fathers began accompanying migrants in 1998. Maryknoll Father Robert Coyne celebrated the Mass in Spanish, complete with a joyful choir of children and adults. “About 60 percent of our faith community are undocumented, but they are afraid to talk about it,” says Father Coyne, who recently returned from his border mission to the Maryknoll Center in New York. Maryknoll Father Michael Gould continues to serve in the parish.
“The metaphor that I come up with to describe our trip is a garden,” says Gray, the Oakland diocesan religious educator, who is a parish director of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). “We learned about immigration law and the set of rules, which is the border. Then inside this border is this planting, where we found people like Estrada, who are growing and giving life and prospering. She is really enforcing education, but her history is definitely a resurrection, going from no hope to give hope.”
Back home in California, Gray is bringing his mission experience to his fellow parishioners. Using the Catholic social teaching model of see, judge, act, he has shared stories of this trip with his RCIA group, reflecting with them on it and encouraging them to connect with those on the margins in their own community.
Featured Image: Columban Father Robert Mosher (l.) leads (l. to r.) Matt Gray, Kathleen Mick, Agnes Stipetich, Leona Jewett, Walter Hidalgo, Kevin Foy and Darrin Mortenson to visit the wall dividing the United States and Mexico. (G. Soria/Mexico)