All you need to know about the third degree of humility,” wrote Fr. William Cain, a Jesuit playwright, “is that when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Pedro Arrupe walked toward the blast.”
Walking toward the blast is what Christ does. But the ethos encapsulated by this short phrase – walking toward the blast – could well describe the efforts of many people working at the U.S.-Mexico border. It was this phrase that came to mind during the Border Mass on All Souls Day, Nov. 2, 2019.
It was a typical liturgy, but on the border itself – literally, on a temporary bridge right over the Rio Grande. It’s the same place that’s been pathologized by the nation’s political discourse and subject to endless policy changes.
It’s the space that’s become a touchstone for the nation’s politics, media coverage and, most importantly, the marker across which countless people hope to cross.
That’s where we had Mass.
The Mass was for the binational and tri-state (New Mexico, Texas, Chihuahua) community taken hostage by people who do not know them. Because it was All Souls Day, the Mass was especially for the many who have died trying to reach and cross this river and create a new life.
I attended the Mass as part of the Encuentro Project in El Paso. The Encuentro Project is an inter-congregational program that welcomes groups, immersing them into the immigration issues that have come to occupy an increasingly larger space in the American imagination. The USA Central and Southern Province is one of the sponsors of the Encuentro Project.
While educational, a stay at Encuentro is meant primarily to facilitate encounter, to meet real people whose lives are affected by the country’s policies. Father Rafael Garcia, SJ, a member of this province, is the director; Marist Brother Todd Patenaude is program coordinator; and Heidi Cerneka is a Maryknoll Lay Missioner and an immigration attorney who works on asylum cases as a part of Las Americas Refugee Asylum Project.
A group of seven Jesuits, including myself, participated in the program.
I am grateful that our stay coincided with the Border Mass.
For me, there was one wonderful surprise that summed up the trip. It was one of God’s surprises. It is stunning to me how radically Christ dives into the nerve of conflict, how Jesus’ mission is anointed by the Father.
I couldn’t get it out of my head: The way Christ walks toward conflict and pain is wondrous.
Meeting people who have dedicated their lives to helping migrants made me marvel at the way Jesus approaches a margin. When I asked Heidi Cerneka where she finds God, she replied, “Where don’t I find God?” Then she told me a story: A mother and daughter who traveled through Guatemala and Mexico told her that “there’s always someone willing to share food with you. We never went hungry.”
Her response reminded me of Jesuit journalist Fr. Antonio Spadaro’s description of Pope Francis’ piety: a spirituality of faces. Cerneka found God in a testimony from these two women. They risked everything by crossing, because everything was already at risk in their home country.
Despite great hardship and all the obstacles, what they testified to was God’s goodness enfleshed through chance encounters with someone willing to break bread.
We also met Anna Hey, deputy director and immigration attorney for Diocesan Migration and Refugee Services. As a child, Hey’s mother suddenly found herself in the deportation process after the death of her husband, a veteran. They went to the diocese for help and received it. Hey said she never forgot that, and now she’s a part of that help.
Encuentro connected us with people working to help the most vulnerable of migrants. They radiate courage and zeal. Despite the enormous setbacks and challenges to their work, there was no sense of defeat. It made me think about the necessary element for looking at the situation on the border without despair: a love made personal for the people who are seeking to cross, and a love for the people of El Paso and Juarez who continue to do what they can to help. That love was unmistakable in the people on the ground giving their lives to those seeking asylum.
Visiting this binational community gives hope. This community suffered a hate crime that claimed 22 lives and yet continues to help those who have nothing. This community hasn’t stopped giving, hasn’t stopped trying to help, fueled by a resilience that’s characteristic of el pueblo fiel (the faithful).
A visit to Encuentro allows one to experience how hope enlivens the courage of those seeking to cross. It allows an encounter with people who, like Abraham, risked their lives by leaving their home, yearning to be “free to worship him without fear” (Lk 1:74).
Father Garcia serves as chaplain at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility. He says Mass at two foster home-like facilities for unaccompanied minors, where they are held and cared for as they await reunification with a family member. One boy there asked for Baptism and First Communion. He was escorted to Sacred Heart, the Jesuit parish in El Paso, along with some of the other children. They celebrated Mass together, and everything that we believe that happens under the signs of the sacraments happened. Then they celebrated with the parishioners in the pastoral center.
I hope you see something beautiful in that, because this kid did.
Appropriately, the second reading for the Border Mass was from the first letter of John: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 Jn. 2:1).
Those who do not know Jesus Christ do not know these people, many of whom flee out of fear for their lives, but keep hoping. The Encuentro Project offers a chance to know the children of God and, through them, God Himself. On the border, one can meet people who have elected to walk toward the blast and encounter the face of Christ.
Watch a video on the Border Mass:
A Texas native, Jorge Roque, SJ, is a Jesuit Scholastic of this province, currently in First Studies at Saint Louis University.