At the end of August, a group of lay and religious volunteers traveled to El Paso, Texas to share their faith at the U.S./Mexico border. Two separate teams -- for a total of 28 people -- from various parishes throughout the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland traveled to minister and volunteer at migrant shelters and gain a deeper understanding of life on each side of the border.
After arriving in El Paso, the team was welcomed into the Encuentro House, which served as home base for the weeklong immersion.
The Encuentro Project offers services and lodging in the area between the two countries. Dedicated to migrants, the project works directly with applicants for asylum, migrants and refugees.
During the opening dinner, conversations moved beyond simple introductions. From law enforcement officer to Catholic school teacher, each person began to learn that employment or background comprised their diverse team. However, each was drawn to this ministry by a common desire to spiritually serve the lives of migrants.
“All were led to this experience from a strong passion to do more, learn more and accompany further our migrant brothers and sisters,” said Ashley Ponce, outreach coordinator for Church of the Gesu in University Heights and a Welcoming the Stranger team member. Welcoming the Stranger is a group that assists immigrants and migrants.
Within the first 24 hours the group toured a transitional migrant shelter before returning the next day to volunteer.
At the day’s end, the team reflected aloud using words or phrases. “We took our first steps at processing what we witnessed after a long day,” Ponce said. Words used included esperanza (Spanish for hope), grit, gratitude, solidarity. Phrases used were who is missing, what a journey and no guarantee, she said.
In order to understand the full spectrum of the migrant phenomenon, the team examined this question: “How can we help people not to migrate?” To find deeper understanding, one day the team traveled into Juarez, Mexico to meet Father Steven Pitts, S.J. His presentation provided insight on the many challenges with migration and the Church’s social teaching on fair trade. Through fair trade, Father Pitts explained that livelihoods are stronger and people from Mexico have a reason to not consider migration.
“Working with the people of Chiapas, Mexico to grow, produce and roast coffee that is of a high quality, Father Pitts outlined economic growth and job security for the members of the community,” Ponce said.
Chiapas is the largest producer of quality organic coffee in the world.
“As people of faith, our support of projects such as these is justice in action. We are directly supporting our brothers and sisters to help them have a better life and stay in their homes -- where they want to be all along,” Ponce said.
The team also met Sister Betty, who lives in Juarez. Like Father Pitts, she has devoted her whole life to accompanying those in the surrounding community. Sister Betty shared personal stories of caring for those who are missing, those who died and those who need to be remembered in prayer.
Together, Father Pitts and Sister Betty maintain a shrine where they list the journalists who have been killed in Mexico, the men and women who have been killed or are missing, priests who have been killed and migrants who perished in the dessert.
As one team member said, “When visiting Father Peter and Sister Betty, it truly was entering sacred ground.”
Each team member was given the name of a person who had been killed so the name could be written on a memory wall, thus documenting the deceased.
“As we prayed and are tasked with continuing to pray for the dead, in that moment, our souls became intertwined with another -- even though we had never met this person whose life had been demanded of them,” one team member said, during the end-of-day reflection.
The last of the team returns to Cleveland this week. The teams will gather for a post-trip retreat that will allow for brainstorming at the parish level about what can be done to support the region they visited.
Additional photos and reflections at the conclusion of the trip will be published online in the NEWS tab at dioceseofcleveland.org.