By Beau Guedry, nSJ
Yo vengo a traerte vida
Vida en abundancia
Yo soy el camino,
La verdad y la vida
Vida en abundancia
(I come to bring you life
Life in abundance
I am the way,
The truth, and the life
Life in abundance
About 24 hours after arriving in Brownsville, Texas, I sang along with these words of Christ in the Gospels inside a church filled with migrant children from Central America. We were singing after communion at a parish Mass in the poorest neighborhood of a city that is among the poorest in the nation. For these children, this Mass is something to look forward to, not least because it is the only chance they get to leave the campus of their detention centers during the week.
These children are not juvenile criminals. They are unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States, whose parents or guardians had to send them into a foreign country alone for a variety of reasons, including violent attacks and threats on their life.
When children are apprehended by border police, they are brought to youth migrant detention centers, where they are housed until they can be sent to a relative in the States who can care for them. For some, this process takes a few weeks; for others, it can be months or more. For all, though, spending time in this liminal, transitory state effects a very real fear and lament in their hearts: will I get to be with my family? Will I be safe?
The care of these children is just one of the many complex border issues faced in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. Newly ordained Jesuit priests Brian Strassburger and Louie Hotop were missioned here, along with Fr. Warren Broussard, SJ, to join in the vibrant humanitarian response of the Catholic Church in the area, and to discern what or how the Society of Jesus might add to it.
The Border and the Valley
What Father Brian and Father Louie – as the priests are called by people in the camps – have learned so far is that the need is great in this part of the country. In an area of over 1.3 million people, more than 1.1 million, or 85%, are Catholic. They are served by some 72 parishes, 44 missions and just over 100 diocesan priests.
Economically, Brownsville and nearby McAllen, Texas, consistently rank among the poorest cities in the nation, with more than a quarter of people in each city living below the federal poverty line in 2020. Educational attainment is low, and jobs are hard to find (and hard to keep).
In sum, the people here have great faith and great need.
The same can be said of the many migrants staying in and around this area who are in various stages of trying to enter the country safely and legally. Currently, well over a thousand migrants who have already left their home country are staying in tarp-covered camping tents in a park plaza in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen. In their makeshift camp, electricity comes strictly from generators, water from 55-gallon drums, and they must pay to shower. Most of them traveled north for a month or more from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, and many have been stuck in Mexico within earshot of the border wall for months, not permitted to make their asylum claim with the current state of U.S. immigration policy.
Among those few asylum seekers who are permitted to cross over are dozens of families with children under 6, who pass daily through the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities in McAllen. There, they can rest on plastic mats a few inches thick and get a ham and cheese sandwich before taking planes or buses across the country to their relatives and host families in places like Minnesota, Nebraska, California and Wisconsin. Once they arrive, they await their court date when a judge will hear their case and decide whether to grant them asylum or to send them back to their country of origin.
Some families resort to splitting up and sending their children to cross the border alone. These unaccompanied minors are the hundreds of children in the detention centers scattered throughout the American side of the Rio Grande Valley. Most speak very little, if any, English; some from areas with large indigenous populations speak even little Spanish. The children often receive some clothing (like polo shirts and jeans), food and water, shelter and some basic schooling until they can be connected with and travel to their family members in the U.S, though conditions vary between the different detention centers.
Responding to Need
Fathers Louie and Brian are becoming involved in as much of the response to these realities as they can. Both are helping provide ministry at mission parishes along the border, where they offer Mass and confessions, sit on parish councils, and facilitate parish youth groups. Two weekends before Thanksgiving, Fr. Strassburger organized a “youth-giving” potluck for the teens at San Ignacio, a parish whose grounds on one side end right at the rusted border wall.
About his work in Brownsville, Fr. Hotop says he is consistently “struck by the generosity of the local community, especially at the parish. People are clearly devoted to their parishes and their neighborhoods and that’s life giving for the entire community.”
At San Pedro [the parish where Fr. Hotop is assigned] parishioners organize food drives throughout the week to help support their neighbors. They drive through the streets of the colonias [very poor, highly populated neighborhoods served by a parish] ringing a bell or honking their horn and distribute fresh vegetables, canned goods, and milk. Many people rely on this service, and it’s all organized by volunteers at the parish.
Fathers Brian and Louie are finding their work with the people of these parishes grounding and energizing.
On Sundays, after morning Masses at these parishes, Fathers Louie and Brian trade off presiding over the afternoon Mass that the unaccompanied minors attend at an active parish named San Felipe de Jesus. There, the children also get a meal and join in song, led by a host of Dominican sisters and lay volunteers. After Mass, as the kids eat cake and drink sodas in the wooden pews, Fathers Louie and Brian sit and talk with them. They range in age from five to seventeen. Some have brothers or sisters with them; others are alone without parents or siblings in the detention center. When the meal ends, the children are escorted single-file back to their white twelve-passenger vans and return to the centers.
Two days during the week, Fathers Brian and Louie make visits to the migrant camp in Reynosa and the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen. Loaded down with donations from generous benefactors, they bring necessities like soap, blankets, sanitary pads and toothbrushes across into the camp, where they also celebrate Mass and get updates from the migrants who volunteer to run one of the four cocinas, which function both as kitchens and distribution centers for goods.
After their time in Reynosa, they cross back over the border to offer another Mass for those in the Humanitarian Respite Center and minister to them.
These Masses are powerful for migrants.
“The familiarity of the Mass and the beauty of the ritual can strike a chord with migrants who have been traveling for months,” Fr. Strassburger says. “I find it to be an incredibly moving experience to pray with them in the Mass. When we get to Communion, we invite every migrant to come forward to receive the Eucharist or a priestly blessing. Many migrants come up with their children and ask for a blessing for the family together. I have seen it move the migrants to tears, and it truly touches my heart and reminds me of the importance of the ministry that we do.”
Father Hotop also finds these liturgies moving, especially in the camp, where Mass is “always a bit chaotic. People are passing through. Children are crying or loudly playing games. It’s hot and dirty. And it’s incredibly humbling to preside at a Mass for people who are truly begging God for change. You can feel their sense of longing. You can hear it and see it in the way they pray and sing – hoarse voices, hands reaching up, crying out to God. It’s their faith that encourages me the most. I have never been around such faithful people.”
Possibility In Progress
The future of the situation in the Rio Grande Valley hangs precariously in the balance. At any time, immigration policy could shift and move migrants either across or away from the border. A new camp for Reynosa could be established, or a second formed elsewhere, or the original camp dispersed and broken up by local government. The Humanitarian Respite Center never knows whether to expect 50 people or 1,500.
“Immigration laws and enforcement are constantly shifting,” Fr. Strassburger says. “What’s governing the border today might not be the same in another month. Or it might remain the same for another year. And it’s almost impossible to project out by a few months.”
Father Hotop agrees about the unpredictability of the situation and the vulnerability of the people caught in it.
“Many of [the migrants in Reynosa] are children, and all of them are vulnerable to cartel activity, deportation by the Mexican government, unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, violence within the camp, and any number of factors that make this kind of living dangerous,” he said.
“It’s difficult to look at a kid without shoes, playing marbles in the dirt, sleeping exposed to the elements, not always having enough to eat and not see the tremendous cost that this situation will have on his life. I have to remind myself sometimes, ‘This is not normal!’ This is not how people are meant to live, it is not how people are meant to be treated, and it is not the call of the Gospel to continue to allow people to live in squalor.”
The response of the Church to the great need in the Valley is led by a host of dynamic leaders, like Sr. Norma Pimentel of the Missionaries of Jesus and Most Reverend Daniel Flores, Bishop of Brownsville. They – along with Fathers Hotop, Strassburger and Broussard – work together with several other religious charities and local non-governmental organizations, like Good Neighbor Settlement House for people experiencing homelessness, or The Sidewalk School for children in the migrant camps. Many people are trying to do something to contribute because, as Fr. Strassburger says, “this is what is at stake: human lives.”
Fathers Louie and Brian are also working to spread word of the great need at the border and their work here. They’ve started the Jesuit Border Podcast, in which they host guest experts on Catholic social teaching, the border and immigration law. They are also producing a regular email newsletter (subscribe here) to share updates about the local situation. And, for those who want to help the migrants, they have a public Amazon wishlist through which you can donate supplies that go directly to the migrants in Reynosa.
One such person is Claudia, a woman who both lives in the camp and organizes one of the cocinas there. She’s known and beloved among the migrants for constantly giving hugs, always seeming to be everywhere (and in every picture), and constantly shouting through her smile “valoreme, padrecito, valoreme” – value me, acknowledge me, strengthen me. Her voice rings in my head when I think and pray about the need in the Valley and what we, the Society of Jesus and those we collaborate with, can do to help respond to it.
“Ultimately,” Fr. Hotop says, “our salvation is at stake. Mine and yours. Either we choose to follow Christ’s call to serve our neighbor, regardless of which country they are from, regardless of their legal status, regardless of what the news or other media might tell us about them, or we ignore Christ’s call and walk away. Of course, I’m not saying that everyone needs to come down and work in the camp. But we all have the opportunity to serve our neighbor every day – it just so happens that our neighbors live in this camp across the border in a very difficult situation.”
Beau Guedry, nSJ, is a second-year Jesuit novice on temporary assignment at the Border.