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Fr. Tom Greene Visits Brownsville and Matamoros

By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Fr. Tom Greene says Mass in migrant settlement
Fr. Provincial Thomas P. Greene, SJ, celebrates the Eucharist in a migrant settlement in Matamoros, Mexico.

November 13, 2020 – There is what amounts to a refugee camp on this province’s border with Mexico. There are currently hundreds of migrants from Central America and Mexico living in Matamoros, Mexico, in tents and handmade shelters without electricity and with only limited access to clean water. They stay there in a sort of limbo, waiting. They have applied for asylum in the United States, but current U.S. immigration policies restrict them from entering the country before their asylum hearing. And, so, they wait. Jobs are scarce, so migrants scrape by on what they can scavenge and donations from non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The settlement simply sprang up. People with nowhere else to go began massing near the river. At one point, as many as 4,000 people were living off the land and being preyed upon by gangs. Eventually, the Mexican government fenced in the area, which added some degree of security. But while this move helped reduce some of the gang violence, it also keeps out people who were coming with donations or offer legal assistance.

The Matamoros camp, like others that range along the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, resembles a refugee camp, but it receives no assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Mexican government has declined to recognize the Central American asylum seekers as refugees and its own citizens living in the camp do not qualify given the legal standard that a refugee must cross an international border. Therefore, the U.N. doesn’t recognize the camp’s residents as refugees and doesn’t provide aid.

This settlement has all the features of a refugee camp, but much less coordination and structure. NGOs have stepped up and brought in portable toilets and showers and potable water. Other NGOs provide medical care. The Diocese of Matamoros does what it can, and the Brownsville (Texas) Diocese across the river helps. There are a couple of makeshift schools. But, all in all, it’s a pretty bad situation.

Fr. Tom Greene, SJ, visits a classroom
Fr. Tom Greene, SJ, visits a classroom in the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, in November, 2020.

Father Provincial Thomas P. Greene, SJ, recently visited the migrant camp in Matamoros. He went at the invitation of the Bishop Daniel Flores, Bishop of Brownsville, and was accompanied by Sr. Norma Pimentel, MCJ, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Sr. Pimentel is a leading public advocate for immigrants and refugees. Really, she’s something of a rock star. She was recently included on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People Of 2020. So, if you’re going to visit a migrant settlement, it’s good to travel with her.

“The bishop and Sr. Norma wanted me to see the realities of what was going on at the border,” Fr. Greene said. “Sr. Norma is great, very unassuming, but also savvy and diplomatic. She is able to see the goodness in people on all sides of this situation. Of course, she’s hoping the Jesuits might help with pastoral care.”

Fr Tom Greene listens to migrant stories
Fr. Tom Greene, SJ and Sr. Norma Pimentel, MCJ, listen to migrants tell their stories.

She invited Fr. Greene to visit the camp and say Mass. He had a tour and stayed for lunch with some of the migrants. All told, he was there less than six hours, but the people he met and the conditions he witnessed made an impact. He left with two intentions, promises he made to himself.

“This visit was kind of a COVID wake-up call,” Fr. Greene said. “When I came back, I kept thinking, ‘I don’t have problems. These people have problems, and yet, they’re hopeful.’ How can I not be hopeful and grateful? I made a promise to keep them in mind.”

His second promise was to figure out what this province can do to help the people he saw in the camp.

“To be faithful to the call of God and the cry of the poor, to the suffering there, we have to respond,” he said. “This is happening on the doorstep of our province – across the border – but part of our reality in this province. Looking at it from the needs of the people of God, I made a promise to explore ways in which the province can partner with the Mexican Province to help. I would like to see if we can get some Jesuits there to do some pastoral work.”

Fr. Tom Greene, SJ, listens to one refugee's story.
Fr. Tom Greene, SJ, listens to one refugee’s story.

Father Greene cited a Mexican priest, Fr. Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, who works with and advocates for migrants. Fr. Solalinde has spent years ministering to migrants, witnessing the violence and cruelty perpetrated upon them. He says the poor and the migrants are a great spiritual reservoir that sustains the world.

“We have so many examples, scriptural and historical, of the spiritual resolve of migrants – the Israelis fleeing Egypt, Irish Catholics, Black Catholics and now, these immigrants,” he said. “Let the People of God educate us. If we can tap into that strength and that faith, we become better people … the more I can get young Jesuits to experience the poor and marginalized, the better off we’ll be, whatever their future ministries are.”

The environment of the camp reminded Fr. Greene of his early Jesuit ministry, when he worked with refugees and immigrants directly.

“I spent a summer in a refugee camp in Malawi, and this had a very similar feel, a small area of human suffering,” he said. “But to find it so close to home … to walk over from Brownsville, Texas, to a refugee camp reality was powerful and sobering. It is a place of suffering, but also such a great place of hope and community and people supporting each other.”

A native of New Orleans, Fr. Greene recalled his hometown after Hurricane Katrina. “I remember after Katrina, it brought out the best in people. You see that in refugee camps. Sin is there and greed is there, yes, but there is a lot of hope and love and sharing of resources. Because they’re all in this together. This search for a better life, this search for safety and an escape from violence.”

A migrant blesses Fr. Greene
Fr. Tom Greene, SJ, receives a blessing from a woman in the refugee settlement in Matamoros, Mexico.

After Fr. Greene celebrated the Eucharist with the migrants, a young pregnant woman approached him and asked him to bless her and her baby.

“I blessed her, and then I asked her blessing for me, so that I might know better how to support her in my ministry.”

Fr. Greene was in south Texas to give a talk after the “Red Mass,” an annual liturgy for lawyers, judges and elected officials in Brownsville. He spoke on putting on the “armor of God” (Eph. 6:11).  He reminded those present – and those watching via livestream – that St. Paul doesn’t tell us to arm ourselves as the centurions do, he instructs us to arm ourselves with integrity. And he told them about his experience in Matamoros that day.

“I met some people across the border who put on the armor of Christ every day,” he said. “They’re not very powerful, but they arm themselves with integrity and truth and hope and faith and prayer. Maybe we can look to them as an example, to live our lives with faith and integrity.”

Migrants – and those who minister to them – are clear examples of faith and hope. Inspired by them, Fr. Greene will not soon forget the promises he made to himself. He will listen to their cries, and he will find a way to respond.

Fr. Greene and Sr. Normal Pimentel pose with camp residents
Fr. Tom Greene, SJ, and Sr. Norma Pimentel, MCJ, pose with camp residents.
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