Fourteen missionary disciples from the Diocese of Camden, including myself, began the new year staring wide-eyed at the banks of the Rio Grande River in Texas. It was eerily beautiful — sunny and warm with a slight breeze, deep blue skies reflecting off the winding river as far as the eye could see. In a way, it felt wrong to admire such a breath-taking scene, given what we were hearing in that moment from a border patrol agent.
“We recovered a few bodies the other day from right there,” he said, motioning toward a nearby marshy area of the river bank. “Migrants are more likely to drown than to survive swimming across.”
One of the members of our group pointed toward a child-size shoe that had washed ashore, tattered and worn out. Next to it was a boogie board that had broken in half. Suddenly the river wasn’t so beautiful.
These border patrol agents, who at the time were working without pay due to the government shutdown, were willing to speak with our group and patiently answer the many questions that we had. One of them shared a story about a mother who — just the other day — was led to a dangerous part of the river by a “coyote” (human smuggler) who told her it was shallow enough to cross.
When she tried, she and her children were caught in a current, and her infant was immediately swept away from her arms and drowned.
According to the border patrol agent, she had fled Honduras after her husband and two eldest children were held for ransom and, even after she paid the kidnappers every penny she had, the kidnappers murdered her husband and sons anyway.
One of the pilgrims had to step away for a moment. “Imagine making it this far,” she said, motioning toward the river, “just to lose your baby when you’re this close.”
This was not an unusual scenario for many of the migrants we met, mostly mothers and children, whose last chance at safety was journeying thousands of miles through Mexico to seek asylum in our country. For these people, many of whom literally walked thousands of miles through Mexico, the dangers and threats that they faced along the way paled in comparison to the ones that they experienced in their countries of origin.
Also accompanying our group was Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who is known worldwide for opening a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas. The center assists migrants who have been released from processing facilities and are awaiting their court hearing to determine if they will be permitted to stay in the U.S. The center has helped over 100,000 migrants since 2014.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma is well-known, immediately recognized and respected by migrants, citizens, volunteers, border patrol agents, police officers, first responders and parishioners. For these diverse groups, the immigration issue is part of their lives, and they must live and work together. And they do.
The visit to the river was the second day of the seventh Solidarity Pilgrimage to the Rio Grande Valley that has been organized by Catholic Charities and the Diocesan Youth and Young Adult Ministries.
Almost one year ago, I had been to the border as part of a fact finding team to figure out what future pilgrimages would look like. This time, I was joined by a group of young adults, mostly college students from Rowan, Stockton and Rutgers-Camden, for a five-day experience to learn, to encounter, and to live out the Gospel, especially in the spirit of the Share the Journey campaign.
We did this at Sister Norma’s Humanitarian Respite Center each day, chatting and eating with local parishioners and community members, visiting the river and the border wall that was erected after Sept. 11, among many other activities.
Each night, reflections were led by Ivan Soares, coordinator of Catholic Campus Ministry at Rowan University. He guided us through the various components of Catholic social teaching, especially those dealing with migration issues. The group was eager to share their thoughts, reflections and questions.
“We hear so much about immigration at home from so many different sources. It’s different being here at the source and witnessing all of this first-hand,” explained Domingo Villanueva, a student at Stockton University, as he helped organize toys and clothing for the newly-arrived migrants. He laughed as he told me that he isn’t one to get too emotional. “But seeing these children … seeing their faces light up when they get a toy … seeing that joy after all they’ve been through … it gets to me,” he said.
Two other students from Rowan University talked about the impact that this pilgrimage has had on their faith.
Timothy Broderick explained, “We read in the Scriptures all the time about how what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for him. And these [migrants] are truly in need of so much right now. And being able to come here and help them, whether it’s giving them clothes, or shelter, or food … being able to just talk to them and listen … it shows what Jesus was talking about. It shows how we can be active and responsive Catholics.”
Christa Ouellette, another student from Rowan, agreed. “This trip has strengthened my faith. We hear all the time to ‘love thy neighbor.’ These people are our neighbors. Being here to help give them back their dignity after everything they’ve been through … it makes me feel better about my calling and what our faith is about.”
We saw a lot. We heard a lot. And we brought back a lot with us. Many of the pilgrims said again and again, “I’m going to need time to process all of this.” And so will I.
I journeyed with a group of college pilgrims with a wide variety of backgrounds, views and personalities. Rather than relaxing during their winter break, they felt a call to do more, to be more. They wanted to live out the Gospel, and they wanted to journey to the source of an issue to be first-hand witnesses to an issue that they have been hearing so much about.
I saw 12 young people in our diocese who, rather than seeking to validate their existing opinions of immigration, had a real and genuine desire to learn more about a situation with enormous complexity, and learn the facts first-hand in an era of so much virtual information gathering (and widespread misinformation).
I watched them journey to the peripheries, to the margins, and into a situation which threw us into the uncomfortable gray area. I saw them wrestle with it and resist the temptation of simplifying something that cannot be simplified.
I saw them live out solidarity, compassion and empathy in the respite center: welcoming and bringing smiles and tears of joy to migrants who had endured unimaginable journeys and trauma; playing soccer with children who had not been able to play in months; replacing dirty, tattered clothes with new ones; providing warm meals to the hungry; responding to whatever needs the migrants had. Sometimes, it was just sitting there and listening.
I heard them talk about ways that they will work toward social justice for migrants — and for all those living on the margins of society — upon returning home. Many of them have reached out to explore ways to volunteer at Catholic Charities. Others have committed to giving presentations on their campuses and parishes about their experiences and sharing what they learned.
The group came back tired, transformed but — more than anything — ignited to share what they had learned, to make a difference, to live out the Gospel through their words and actions as they continue their own journeys.