A Christmas of Encounter at the El Paso Border

Fr. Tom Florek, SJ, religious in residence at the University of Detroit Mercy, shares a reflection of his Christmas at the border with migrants.

January 23, 2019 — Sister Erin McDonald, CSJ, and I recently accompanied 10 University of Detroit Mercy students to the U.S.-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas, as part of UDM’s immersion trip experiences.

UDM students at the border.

Taking a week from their Christmas break, Dec. 15-22, the diverse student group joined the recently organized Encuentro Project — a collaborative work involving Jesuits, the Marist Brothers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Family, and the Hope Border Institute — whose mission is to offer an El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border experience among immigrant asylum seekers.

The Encuentro Project offers groups both hands-on experience and social and theological reflection based on Catholic social teaching. Fr. Rafael Garcia, SJ, and Br. Todd Patenaude, FMS, carefully guided us through the weeklong transformative experience.

Fr. Tom Florek, SJ, and UDM student Vania Noguez at the border.

“I want to find out what’s happening at the border” was the students’ repeated response to the question of why this journey. Most expressed a desire to serve in what is seen as a humanitarian crisis at the border. Sr. Erin helped to focus the excursion as a pilgrimage, encouraging the students to remain open to the sacred encounter with the other. She emphasized that the fruit of the immersion week would be personally transformative in many ways: intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. And so it was.

Within less than 24 hours of landing in El Paso, Br. Todd and Fr. Rafael invited our group to prepare the Sunday evening meal for arriving asylum-seeking families at the Loretto-Nazareth shelter. It’s one of 16 multi-denominational facilities in the El Paso Annunciation House Network, serving the 2,000 to 3,000 weekly arriving immigrants. Some students prepared the meals while others went to the shelter and were instructed on how to receive the Central American parents with their children.

Central American Asylum seekers are dropped off at the Loretto-Nazareth shelter in El Paso.

Arriving at 3:30 p.m. on a government bus were the first dozen Central American families who had just been released from an ICE detention facility, which is referred to as the la hielera, or ice box, because of the cold temperature. They spent three to five days in a windowless and bed-less cement cell with an aluminum mylar cover for warmth, water, and a daily meal of a frozen burrito or other packaged food items.

The families came into the back entrance with their children in hand. No one carried luggage or backpacks, only their children. The shelter’s volunteers, including the UDM students, provided a warm welcome, assuring the young, exhausted, cold, and hungry families with hospitality and human care.

Silent was the march through the labyrinthine hallways to the cafeteria where Fr. Rafael welcomed the Guatemalan, Honduran, Salvadoran, and Brazilian families. Unlike their previous treatment, the fathers and mothers were oriented to the movement of the next 12 to 24 hours while at the Loretto-Nazareth shelter, which included volunteers contacting their families in the U.S. who would purchase their bus or plane tickets; the evening meal prepared and served by volunteers; room assignments; showers; a visit to the clothing dispensary; and an evening rec room for children and parents. Most leave the following day. Each day the bus arrives around 3:00 p.m. with numbers varying from 10 to 80 families.

Central American asylum seekers at the Loretto-Nazareth shelter in El Paso.

The UDM students immersed themselves in this critical historical event of people on the move. Some students sat and talked with the young families. Others helped distribute fresh clothes in the dispensary. Some were responsible for the laundry while others made beds and cleaned showers. The soon-to-be graduate nursing student and biology pre-med student attended to the sick children. This incredible two-day, hands-on encounter with asylum seekers filled our souls, launching us into an encounter with the sacred other.

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso welcomed and edified the UDM students with his personal story of transformation while pastoring to the needs of immigrants. His recent pastoral letter, “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away,” from Isaiah 35 referencing the Israel’s return of the exiles, helped to situate the border reality within a sacred historical narrative. 

Bishop Mark Seitz speaking to students.

Instead of seeing migration as chaotic and violent, which results in the militarization of the border and the demonization of the immigrants, Bishop Seitz named the reality as one which is blessed. Historically El Paso-Ciudad Juarez is not a boundary but rather a joyful place of people coming together.

“We are united in family, fiesta, and faith,” said Bishop Seitz in his pastoral letter. He reminded the students that El Paso has historically been a place of both North-South migration and East-West migration.

Because we were in El Paso during the pre-Christmas season when border communities celebrate the migration of the Holy Family from Nazareth to Bethlehem with the popular religious Posadas, a deeper understanding of the asylum seekers was presented. The 2,000-year-old Christian narrative of a young and expecting family who had journeyed across dangerous terrain seeking a place of safety to rest and give birth to their child illuminated the experience of the arriving immigrants to the shelter. 

The same hope of a previous age continues with the journeys of today’s immigrants. In the midst of fear, rejections, and threats, a renewed understanding of God-with-us awakens an effable joy. Christmas will never be the same.

A mural on the wall of the social center at Sacred Heart Jesuit Parish in El Paso.

Who gets it? King Herod only saw a threat to his kingship. But it was a few pastors along with gentiles from a distant land who came to Bethlehem and recognized that God had crossed the border between heaven and earth to bring the darkened world good news. The UDM students were among the visitors, along with the many women religious and the not-so-religious truth-seeking young volunteers who came to welcome the immigrant families. 

The gift of the asylum-seeking immigrant families became real during my return flight from El Paso to Detroit. Being one of the last to board the Dallas-bound flight, I found one remaining seat next to a Guatemalan dad, Zunun, and his young son Yori. After a brief introduction in which we found out that our paths crossed at the border shelter, Zunun opened up his one and only carry-on plastic bag and gifted me with a large fruit cup. He took out the other smaller food container to share with his son. In our conversation I learned that he left his Guatemalan village 23 days earlier, arriving at the border with nothing but his son. He was then put in the asylum detention center for five days, during which he and his son only had water and gelatin to eat. His gift continues to fill me up.

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