The 12 STM graduate students and one administrator who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border over spring break (just one week before the University moved to online instruction) didn’t require social distancing to remind us that relationships and community are essential components of human wholeness and flourishing. These elements were not only integrated into our weeklong experience of sharing daily meals, nightly reflections, and communal cleaning responsibilities but also were reiterated time and again by persons at the border as requirements for moving forward—together. “If you start seeing relationships as significant, it changes things,” emphasized Lorena Andrade, co-founder of the La Mujer Obrera, an organization in El Paso that works to resist systemic injustices that dehumanize women. “Relationship is the hidden part, and it’s the most difficult part, but real healing comes through community and relationships. We must be in it for the long haul,” she affirmed.
Over the course of five intense and emotional days, our group heard from administrators of El Paso’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, the Hope Border Institute, and U.S. Border Patrol as well as an asylum attorney and Annunciation House’s Ruben Garcia. We spent a full day in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where we learned from women and children who are waiting to have their asylum cases heard after being returned to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocol. We visited a scholarship program for students and the elderly, and a clinic for kids with special needs started by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. The group also spent time in conversation with Sister Betty and Father Peter, two justice advocates who have spent most of their 60+ years of ministry in Latin America. Following the discussion, each of us was given the name of a person who had died while attempting to cross the desert, so that we may pray for them. We were then invited to inscribe these names on the living memorial that Sr. Betty created behind her house.
At the end of each day, we spent significant time reflecting on what we had seen, heard, felt, and experienced. We grappled with the injustice that is inflicted when decisions are made far from and without the voices of the people who are affected, and we also marveled at the resilience of people who risk everything to flee violence, poverty, and domestic abuse. In these cherished times of communal prayer, we attempted to hold the depth and diversity of each person’s sacred story while also wrestling with our individual and communal responses.
As the group continues to discern the “Now What?” and the specifics of what God is inviting each of us to do with this experience, we are reminded that "progress" and "success" are defined differently by different constituencies and cultures. As the people we encountered at the border reiterated again and again, true success means walking with and listening to people to determine what it is they want and need; it is not imposing our own ideas of progress or social justice. As persons who advocate for and with others, we must be willing to take a step back, learn from one another, and see how we fit in. This takes more time, but is much more constructive. As the African proverb affirms, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” The courageous men, women, and children we met at the border already know this, and we would do well to learn from their lead.
Denise Morris, MATM ’20
Taiga Guterres, MA/MSW ’22
For questions about the Encuentro Project e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.