This year was the first time since my priestly ordination in 1993 to celebrate the Easter Triduum outside of a parish church. In El Paso, my mission includes pastoral ministry at immigration detention facilities. I regularly go to three: the one adult U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enflorcement (ICE) facility for both men and women and two (of three) Southwest Key facilities for unaccompanied minors.
I felt honored and humbled, thinking of the actions of Pope Francis, as I washed the feet of 12 detained minors during the Holy Thursday Mass at Southwest Key. Undoubtedly, those young feet had trekked perilous routes through Mexico after leaving the dangers in their country of origin in Central America. About 30 were present, and it was a moving celebration.
On Good Friday, we had liturgies both with the adults at the ICE center and with the minor detainees at the second Southwest Key facility. Between the two liturgies, we had about 140 attendees. Members of these unusual congregations read the parts of the Passion from John’s Gospel. They were excellent lectors!
One of the men was a young newspaper reporter from Acapulco, Mexico. Martin Mendez's articles denouncing government corruption brought him persecution and threats. Like other reporters, he has sought asylum in the U.S. Crossing to the U.S. on Feb. 5th, he is now detained here in El Paso. His case has been in the news. It was so moving to hear of the injustices of the Passion read by him and other detainees, men and women, wearing their EPC (El Paso Processing Center) jumpsuits!
Recently, a parishioner came to the sacristy after a Sunday Mass to have a crucifix blessed. It was of carved wood and rustic, brought from San Juan de los Lagos in Mexico. I commented on how beautiful it was and mentioned I was searching for something for upcoming Good Friday liturgy at detention centers. He said he would work on getting one for me and left after the blessing. Five minutes later, he came back and said "Padre, quédese con él. Usted puede darle mejor uso que yo." ("Father, keep it, you can give it better use than I.") And so, on Good Friday, I told the detainees the story of the crucifix, how it was given to me for them.
The veneration of the Cross, including the long line of worshipers, attests to the profound faith of so many detainees. Migrant men and women – and children – truly place their life and destiny in God’s hands when they embark on this journey of suffering, escaping suffering, death threats, kidnappings, gang violence and violent harassments. The crucified Jesus certainly connects intimately with them.
At the end of the Good Friday liturgy at Southwest Key, one of the detained boys from Guatemala went to his locker and said he wanted to give me a cross he had made during his time in detention. I was quite moved. The cross is beautiful, very Guatemalan in its design and colors. It was a tangible expression of the Easter mystery: In Christ, the Cross leads to New Life. The crafting of this cross, with its bright colors, is evidence that during times of profound pain, like in migration and detention, Hope and New Life can still break through in the human heart.
This same young man in a low voice said to me something which made my day. (He actually repeated the same thing on Easter Sunday!) "Siga hacienda lo que hace. Es un trabajo muy importante que nos ayuda a nosotros." ("Keep doing what you are doing. It’s very important work which is helpful to us.")
Wow. All of this from a young man who is separated from his family and waiting to move on to a new stage of his journey, whether into our anti-immigrant government environment and laws or deported back to his home country.
On Easter Sunday, at both Southwest Key facilities, we sang joyful songs led by music on a CD. One of the songs, by a music group in Veracruz, Mexico, involved in ministry with migrants, is titled “Cristo Peregrino.” With joyful instrumentation, one sings "Migrante, migrante, no estás solo en tu camino. Migrante, migrante, Jesucristo va con tigo." ("Migrant, migrant, you are not alone in your journey. Migrant, migrant, Jesus Christ goes with you").
As they followed with the song sheet and sang, it made me pause to think how these detained children are here today and gone tomorrow.
On Friday of Easter week, we celebrated Easter Sunday mass at the ICE facility. Jesuit novice Angel Flores a talented guitarist and singer, accompanied me. He led us in joyful singing, and a meditative song after communion at the women’s mass created energy-filled peaceful silence, heads bowed praying and tears to many.
The Light will not be overcome by darkness!