By Fr. Brian Strassburger, SJ
I first met Gaby and Meidy in July 2022 when a new shelter for migrants, Senda 2, was opening in Reynosa, Mexico. They were a lesbian couple traveling together from El Salvador, where they had faced discrimination based on their sexual orientation. They had come to seek asylum in the United States but found themselves stuck on the U.S.-Mexico border, which was closed at the time under the pandemic restrictions known as Title 42.
At that point, I had been serving on the border for over a year. I was first missioned to the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, in June 2021, with Jesuit Fathers Louis Hotop and Warren Broussard. We were sent to explore a new initiative for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province. For Louie and me, it was our first assignment after being ordained priests. Upon arrival, we met with Bishop Daniel Flores, who gave us our charge: to read the reality of the situation and respond to it.
The reality we encountered was a migrant community in great need. We saw acute material needs as evidenced by the squalid living conditions in shelters, but we also saw a nearly complete absence of pastoral and sacramental care. So, we started visiting shelters and camps on both sides of the border to celebrate Mass and listen to people’s stories.
For most of our first year, there was a densely packed camp of migrants living under tents and tarps that covered the main plaza of Reynosa. People were stuck living there for months as the pandemic continued, and the border remained tightly sealed. As it became clear that the pandemic wasn’t going to end quickly, local organizations mobilized to build another shelter to provide more safety to migrants who were living in the plaza. This was the origin of Senda 2.
To call Senda 2 a shelter is generous. It is basically a large concrete wall – built by volunteer migrants – surrounding a pair of old baseball fields. Inside the walls, there is one large tarp, a few small wooden houses, and scores of tents. There are bathrooms and cleaning sinks built into the wall along the sides, and a kitchen in the back corner. The conditions are jarring: You can peer inside a tent to see a family of five with small children huddled on top of a couple of meager blankets, with their few possessions lining the tent.
In May 2021, the Reynosa city government decided to clear out the plaza. Migrants were awoken in the middle of the night to bulldozers and armed guards who demanded their immediate evacuation. The migrants dispersed to local shelters, including Senda 2, which wasn’t ready for inhabitants. There was no septic system for the bathrooms, for example. But the migrants had few other choices.
Gaby and Meidy were some of the first residents, and they immediately volunteered to help. Most shelters in northern Mexico rely on the volunteer help of the migrants living there, because organizations that run shelters don’t have the funds to fully staff them with paid employees. Gaby and Meidy began helping out in the bodega, where donated hygiene products, plates and cups, and cleaning supplies were distributed to people in the shelter. They both had professional work experience, so they developed a system to track inventory. In other words, they used their gifts to serve others.
We visited with Gaby and Meidy every Tuesday and Thursday when we visited the shelter and dropped off donations to the bodega. We were able to connect them with a lawyer helping migrants in the LGBTQ community, and a few weeks later, they were granted permission to enter the U.S. It was terrific news for all of us.
The last day that we saw Gaby and Meidy, we took a photo together. Meidy told us that she had chosen her shirt deliberately. The front read, “Nadie es illegal.” (“No one is illegal.”) It was a good message, but what she actually wanted to show me was the other side. That’s where I saw the logo for Servicio Jesuita a Migrantes (Jesuit Migrant Services), a migrant accompaniment network run by the Jesuits in Mexico. It turns out Gaby and Meidy had been accompanied by Jesuits in the south of Mexico when they crossed the border from Guatemala. And now they had met Jesuits in the north of Mexico, too!
I was taken aback – and also very excited. “I’m actually going to visit there next month!” Louie and I had planned a trip to visit the Jesuit project in Chiapas in the south of Mexico. We stayed in touch as Gaby and Meidy entered the U.S., and when we were in Chiapas, I texted them about my visit.
“Can I ask you one favor, Fr. Brian?” Gaby texted me while I was there. “Of course,” I responded. “Is there any way you can get me one of those t-shirts? I want one, too!”
I asked the Jesuit I was visiting for a couple of the t-shirts and a handful of stickers, too. When I got back to the U.S., I shipped the items to Gaby and Meidy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where they had settled. They sent me a photo with big smiles on their faces as they held up the stickers and showed off their new shirts.
After more than two years of growth and exploration, in October 2023, we formalized our initiative on the border as Del Camino Jesuit Border Ministries. The name stems from Nuestra Señora del Camino – Our Lady of the Way – because so many of the migrants we’ve met have such great devotion for Mary.
The main focus of our ministry remains pastoral accompaniment and sacramental ministry. We also continue to provide humanitarian aid, including to Senda 2 in Reynosa.
With the pandemic ordinance lifted, migrants all along the border use the CBP One app developed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to request appointments daily to get access to relief in the United States. The average wait time is 2-3 months, which leaves people in shelters like Senda 2 for an extended time.
The migrants who join our humble Catholic community for Mass have found it to be a meaningful space of prayer and reflection. The Mass is simple, with an altar cloth draped over a folding table under the large dining tent, with folding chairs set up for people to sit. The extreme summer heat made things unbearable at times. Now that temperatures have dropped, people wrap themselves in blankets as they join for Mass.
There is no climate that is comfortable when you are sleeping in tents on the ground every day, as people do at Senda 2. But I have been amazed to see that there is also no climate that will stop people from emerging from their tents, gathering in folding chairs around a makeshift altar, and celebrating the Eucharist together.
I witness time and again how the faith of migrants is a source of hope and strength during a dangerous journey and an uncertain wait – the strength to endure, and the hope that they will one day reach their destination, like Gaby and Meidy.
The story of Gaby and Meidy didn’t end with stickers and a t-shirt shipped in the mail. I recently shared their story at a talk over Zoom to parishioners of a Catholic church in the Harrisburg area. It hadn’t occurred to me when I planned the talk, but as I shared the story, it suddenly struck me: That’s where Gaby and Meidy settled! Here was a story of the border that had come right to their very own community. Immigration is not, after all, a border issue. It touches communities across the country. Since then, the social justice group of the parish has accompanied Gaby and Meidy as they navigate their court proceedings to seek asylum and apply for work permits. Their journey continues, and so does the accompaniment.
Every day on the border, we encounter people like Gaby and Meidy. People who have fled situations of violence to seek protection in our country. We cry with them as they recount stories of being kidnapped by the local cartel. We laugh with them as we organize the kids into a game of Duck-Duck-Goose. And most of all, we pray with them, as we gather around the altar and ask for God’s grace to continue to accompany all those on the way in their migrant journey.
Nuestra Señora del Camino, ruega por nosotros.
Our Lady of the Way, pray for us.
Learn more about Del Camino Jesuit Border Ministries at www.delcamino.org.
Father Brian Strassburger, SJ, and Jesuit Scholastic Joseph Nolla host The Jesuit Border Podcast to share stories and reflections about their and others’ ministries with migrants in shelters and camps along the border. In each episode, they interview people who accompany, serve and advocate for migrants and refugees. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.