From the Pastor…
Last week I traveled to McAllen, Texas, with a group of 22 priests from several US Archdioceses and dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Our trip was sponsored and entirely funded by the Catholic Extension through a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.
Catholic Extension helps fund the construction and operation of Catholic churches and Church facilities in the poorest parts of the country. Since its founding in 1905, the Extension has helped build over 12,500 churches in the US.
The purpose of our trip was to expose us to the work of the churches that the Extension supports in the Diocese of Brownsville, the poorest diocese in the country. All of these serve the migrant communities along the TexasMexico border. The Extension’s hope was that, as we gained firsthand knowledge of the Church’s ministry on both sides of the border, our own ministry back home would be enhanced.
Over the course of three full days, we visited:
- La Posada Providencia in San Benito TX, a facility that shelters and cares for migrants who have been released from detention by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement;
- La Lomita Chapel in Mission TX, the first church built by the Extension in Texas in 1906;
- the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen TX, where migrants traveling from the border to other parts of the US rest, are fed, given supplies for their journey, and receive medical attention;
- the Fundacion Misericordia, a free medical clinic in Reynosa, Mexico, that is funded and operated by the Diocese of Matamoros, Mexico;
- Casa del Migrante, also in Reynosa, which provides shelter each night for as many as 120 men, women, and children who have either been deported from the US and who are making their way back to their home countries, or who are awaiting immigration hearings in immigration courts across the border in the United States;
- Proyecto Desarollo Humano in Penitas, TX, which supports migrant women through a sewing cooperative, a community garden, a medical and dental clinic, and a second-hand store; and
- St. Michael Church on the Rio Grande River in Los Ebanos, TX, and San Juan Diego Mission in Citrus City TX, which is the poorest parish in the poorest diocese in America.
Along the way, we had the opportunity to hear the stories of migrants from Mexico, Central America, and Africa who are fleeing the violence and crushing poverty in their home countries and who are seeking safety in the US for themselves and their families. Mothers told us of husbands who had been arrested and deported, leaving them and their US citizen children to fend for themselves. Some migrants told us that they had lost hope of finding a place of safety in the United States and planned to return home. Others insisted against all odds that they and their children would someday be permitted to enter and remain in the United States. No one whom we met told us that they had wanted to leave the home country; they left home because they believed they had no choice.
And while eating a breakfast of tacos (real ones), beans, and orange juice one morning on the banks of the Rio Grande, the local priest told us that, in times past, people from both sides of the river would gather on this spot for dancing and fellowship. Now, he said, the river has become a barrier between them.
The trip reminded me of my own work as an immigration attorney on behalf of immigrants and refugees for several years after my ordination, and I confess to missing that daily contact with them and the opportunity to serve them. For other priests in the group, it was the first time they were able to put a human face on what to that point had been simply a political issue to be debated dispassionately. That personal contact changed them forever, they said. These migrants were good, hard-working people who want the same things for themselves and their families that you and I want. As Bishop Daniel Flores, the Bishop of Brownsville, told us one evening at dinner, “The Gospel is not a book; it is people. The Gospel is not about rubrics and doctrine; it is about taking care of one another.”
But the most significant “take away” for me was that, in every facility and mission we visited, it was religious women who had built the buildings and who were running the programs. It was religious women almost exclusively who were providing the face-to-face care of the migrants. I came home wondering who would care for these people if not for the nuns.
I also came home with a renewed commitment to our own parish social justice programs. Our Church and our parish can never become a club centered on our own.