Life and Mission on the U.S. Southern Border

Barabbas and Simon of Cyrene were pulled over by Immigration and Customs Enforcement while driving home one evening from a rehearsal of the Passion. They lacked proper documentation, so they spent the night in detention in South Texas. Jesus and one of the weeping women were in the same car; being American citizens, they were quickly released from custody. 
Fr Michael MontoyaFr. Michael Montoya, M.J., pastor of a parish at the southeastern tip of the border between Texas and Mexico.

All four called and texted their pastor, but cell coverage (like most utilities) is spotty to nonexistent in this stretch of the border, and it took him a while to figure out where his parishioners—the weeping woman was his secretary—had been taken. He stayed in the parking lot for five hours, into the middle of the night, until the two young men, brought to this country some 20 years ago, as babies, were let go. 

“Sometimes, even going to church becomes a radical decision,” said Fr. Michael Montoya, M.J., himself an immigrant, from the Philippines, and a member of the Missionaries of Jesus. He is the pastor of the St. Anne Catholic Community, made up of four parishes in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, at the southeastern tip of the border with Mexico. The men and women detained that evening were playing parts in the parish’s Holy Week celebrations. 

Father Montoya was in the lead car, leaving a rehearsal at one of the churches, unaware that the vehicle behind him had been stopped. It might have been because the driver didn’t signal, or the license plate was dirty, or just because the officer suspected there were “illegals” in the car – he doesn’t remember. (This was before the recent passage of Texas State Bill 4 [SB4], which allows officers to ask anyone they suspect of a crime for their papers.) He waited faithfully for his friends to emerge from the detention center. Once released, they returned to their church communities, undeterred. This is their home. They are not strangers in a strange land… 

The Border as Mission
The boundary that separates the United States and Mexico spans 1,954 miles of desert, river, mountains, wooded forests, and cities. One is as likely to build a stairway to the moon as to build a wall along its entire length. 

“Here at the border, this has always been considered mission territory,” said Fr. Montoya, who was previously executive director of the USCMA. “It is a very complicated setting of mission. Sometimes it’s almost like a caricature image of church here, when it’s presented on the national media. The realities are much more complicated than building a wall or having a river separate the two places.”

border fenceBorder fence between San Diego's border patrol offices in California (left) and Tijuana, Mexico (right)
Montoya describes a vibrant, faithful community that exists in both north and south, with families spread among the four parishes over about 10 miles on the border, in towns with names like Pueblo de Palmas, Peñitas; El Flaco; and Los Ebanos. The pews are full on Sundays and First Communion classes are packed with children; a youth encounter for which Pope Francis recorded a special video message recently overflowed with more than 500 “juvenes” in tents on the parish grounds. 

“The people here, a lot of them have existed for many, many generations, even prior to the annexation of Texas,” he said, recounting the history of the area. “Some keep reminding me, ‘Father, remember we did not cross the border. The border crossed us.’”

One of the parishes, St. Michael the Archangel, will celebrate its 105th anniversary in September with a procession. Father Montoya expects a temporary border patrol tower to be erected, police cars to be stationed nearby, and helicopters and a blimp to hover overhead, as they did during last year’s procession. It’s a constant reminder that, even in church, which should be a sanctuary, the authorities can reach in and take someone they believe has no right to be there. 

“The message the Church has here, one of the things we need to repeat time and again with our community, is our faith should be the thing that determines what we can and cannot do. Fear should not dictate,” said Fr. Montoya. “If we live in fear, it will be difficult to do anything. It’s time to reclaim our community for our faith, our culture, our people. It’s a deliberate missiological imperative”…
A Humanizing Presence
The Kino Border Initiative —“the Church without frontiers”— lies on the border, in Nogales, Arizona. Founded by the Jesuits in 2009, the staff focuses on education, research and advocacy, and humanitarian assistance. “Our mission is to be a humanizing presence,” said Fr. Sean Carroll S.J., Executive Director.

The Jesuits did not enter into this space lightly, spending more than 18 months asking two questions of those in both the north and the south: what are the greatest needs you’re seeing around the issue of migration, and how can we help? 
Fr Sean CarrollFr. Sean Carroll, S.J.

Fr. Carroll said there was a definite pattern to the responses. There were tremendous humanitarian needs in Nogales/Sonora, a central point of deportation, including care for vulnerable women and children, pastoral support, advocacy for those abused by Mexican police or denied access to the asylum system in the U.S., and a general need for bi-national organization to facilitate cooperation along the border. 

“We trusted that God would speak to us through the people we were interviewing to give us a sense of whether we were welcome here or not,” said Fr. Carroll. The response was overwhelmingly positive. It was a call, an invitation, to be in solidarity. Although the timing was not necessarily fortuitous—Carroll noted dryly that they began this new mission during a global recession—they had faith that this was exactly where God was calling them to be.

“We’ve been sent by God to address a very important need and to do that on the border, he said. “Our work is very much in the spirit of what Pope Francis has talked about in terms of encounter, to encounter the other, and to be transformed in the process. I think that’s happened for us. These encounters are what help us continue to be faithful to this mission and to facilitate encounters for others who come to see and are transformed by the experience, as well.”…

(Reprinted with permission from U.S. Catholic Mission Association)

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