Photo courtesy of Luisa Arumi Ortiz

A Lynch School of Education and Human Development class of 12 Catholic educators and Boston College graduate students ventured to El Paso, Tex., and Juarez, Mexico, in February for an encounter with the sub-layers of the religious, social, political, ideological, and economic factors of immigration, and to experience life on the southern border—a journey that has altered the trajectory of their lives and work.  

Led by Melodie Wyttenbach, executive director of BC’s Barbara and Patrick Roche Center for Catholic Education, and Roche Center graduate assistant Mike Warner, a M.Div. candidate, the contingent spent a five-day immersion—the crucial element of an el encuentro, or encounter—sandwiched between on-campus meetings that each featured relevant guest speakers.

During their trip to El Paso, the group stayed at the Missionary Society of St. Columban’s Mission Center; met with the U.S. Border Patrol, the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, and Jesuit Refugee Service; served meals to more than 550 migrants at Sacred Heart Jesuit Parish; and discussed the realities of educating culturally diverse communities with local school administrators, teachers, and parents. In Juarez, they visited shelters and met with religious and lay ministers who have been grappling with the challenges of immigration for decades.

Melodie Wyttenbach

Melodie Wyttenbach

“This course provides students with the opportunity to examine the contexts and realities of global and United States immigration through the lens of Catholic teaching and tradition,” said Wyttenbach. “Using Catholic social ethics and the multiple, rich and varied experiences of el encuentro, the class challenges students to critically evaluate their understanding of immigration in light of their roles as educators and administrators in Catholic schools.”

The genesis of the class stems from “Catholic Schools in an Increasingly Hispanic Church,” a report co-published in 2017 by School of Theology and Ministry Associate Professor Hosffman Ospino and Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill, then the Roche Center executive director, based on the first National Survey of Catholic Schools Serving Hispanic Families. Its core question centered on how Catholic schools should respond to demographic changes and the challenge of educating the next generation of American Catholics.

Emanating from that query, the Lynch School launched the one-credit course titled El Encuentro: Immigration and the Catholic Educator’s Response in 2020, designed for elementary and secondary Catholic school educators, as well as for graduate students in theology and education.

Students explore topics such as the history of global and U.S. immigration; the political, economic, and social causes of immigration and the role and response of Catholic schools; the journey of the migrant; ways to make the classroom, pedagogy, and school more culturally responsive; and how to personally address the question of being called to live a life of service as a faith response to justice.

I was struck by the question of how, as educators, can we adjust to better serve immigrant children and their families? What should we be doing to ‘build’ culturally sustaining schools, to address the trauma that results from immigration?”
Mariana Lima Becker Ph.D. ’23

Erin Flanagan M.Ed. ’22, a third-grade teacher at Brighton’s Saint Columbkille Partnership School and a member of the Urban Catholic Teachers Corps 2020-2021 cohort, described her encuentro as “eye opening.”

She explained, “This experience has greatly impacted how I will interact with immigrant individuals and how I will form my teaching pedagogies moving forward. In Juarez, we visited a Catholic school for students with disabilities—an area I’m passionate about and that Mexican public schools tend to not be supportive of—and it showed me a spark of hope, even among all of the challenges we’ve witnessed. I left inspired.”

For Elizabeth Looney M.Ed. ’16, principal at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Mission Grammar School in Roxbury, Mass., her participation in the class and trip was spurred by the desire to inform herself about “a walk of life” that she had not experienced personally.

“As an educator, I make decisions every day that impact students and families, and I recognize that I can’t make informed and equitable decisions if I don’t have information about lived experiences outside of my own,” she said.  “People are migrating to the U.S. to escape danger and violence in their home countries but the process of this migration is perpetuating trauma and has been for generations. I need to find ways to support students whose childhood has had elements of this trauma; it’s not fixable but it is supportable.”

Campus Ministry graduate assistant Luis Melgar M.Div. ’23 shared a story of Betty Campbell, an elderly Sister of Mercy he met in Juarez, who has turned her passion toward preserving the names of the countless migrants who have been trafficked, abused, and victimized by the cartels, to ensure that they are recognized as people and not just statistics.

“They are people, people with lives, stories, and families, who have experienced so much trauma and anguish in their pursuit for a better life,” he said. “Sister Betty lives her life by retelling these stories for folks who are unable to tell them anymore, to keep their memory alive, and to share how the violence and the U.S. policy are really affecting the Juarez community and communities beyond.”

Brazilian native Mariana Lima Becker Ph.D. ’23, a past participant who addressed the class just prior to their departure, characterized her own border experience as “transformative.”

 “I was struck by the question of how, as educators, can we adjust to better serve immigrant children and their families?” she said.  “What should we be doing to ‘build’ culturally sustaining schools, to address the trauma that results from immigration?”


Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | March 2022