Encuentro Project on the Mexican Border: Educational and Transformational
Meg Distler, Executive Director, St. Joseph Community Health Foundation
The St. Joe Foundation, as a ministry sponsored by the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, listens attentively to assure the needs of the most vulnerable are heard and addressed. Increasingly, we are hearing of the fears and challenges of the immigrants amongst us. Immigrant voices are important to recognize as we answer Christ’s call for us to “welcome the stranger among us.”
St. Joe Foundation has “welcomed the stranger” or immigrants in recent years with grants to local agencies to provide education on immigration laws, access to trained interpreters, written translations, and multicultural and bilingual counseling and support services. But the needs are complex and much deeper.
To increase our understanding of the immigrants’ plight, together with three board members: Tom Felts, Janet Stephenson, and Mary Glowaski, I traveled to the El Paso, U.S. – Juarez, Mexico border at the end of January. We joined with four other Catholic Foundations and participated in an incredible six-day “Encounter.” The experience was more than educational; it was transformational for each of us.
As Janet explained, “The Encuentro Project (which means “to encounter” in Spanish) was an excellent vehicle for our small group to discover first-hand the humanitarian crisis of migration along our southern border that reverberates throughout our country and globally. We met with families who were fleeing from their home countries and those in ministry both in the US and Mexico who have dedicated their lives to attend to the legal and basic humanitarian needs that encompass this crisis. We learned our immigration system is broken. This was the consistent message offered by everyone we met. This system has been broken for many, many years. This isn’t a new problem, but the rate of migration combined with recent policies has created a humanitarian crisis. The issues of the border are not isolated to the border. Families are affected throughout the country by decisions made at the border.
“I came away feeling a full spectrum of feelings: Inspired, frustrated, helpless, saddened, hopeful, to name a few. While in El Paso and since returning home, I am struck with a restless discontent. The discontent is knowing there can be a better way to respond. Sharing facts about the history of migration in our country and throughout the world and examining the current practices is a big first step in our communities appreciating how this is not just a border issue. With greater appreciation of the issues, communities can engage in conversations that bring attention to the need for comprehensive immigration reform of our laws and policies. We can do better. Our faith that commands the love of our neighbor requires that we try.”
Board Member Tom Felts advised, “I was inspired by the dedication and passion of those serving the asylum-seekers as well as the faces of mothers and children in the shelters. Inspiration quickly turned to frustration upon learning that the vast majority of the asylum-seekers we saw will likely be returned to their native countries. Such is the complexity of the issues facing all concerned.”
“There are no words,” added Board Member Mary Glowaski, “to express my gratitude for the opportunity to encounter those who are hoping to enter our country and those who are serving them. So often, we had no words, didn’t have the language to communicate, but in a look, a gesture, in touch, love, and an experience of God’s presence was shared, and hearts were encouraged and changed. All that we witnessed and shared is not just happening on the border of El Paso and Juarez but also right here in our communities. I am called to listen and to discern God’s call for myself and as a member of the Board for the Foundation to become a living expression of God’s love and embrace for the immigrant and the poor. What will this look like?!!
As the fourth pilgrim on Encuentro, I can add, “The individuals that most humbled me, were those we met fleeing from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, and Brazil. Each was escaping incredible oppression to save their own lives and those of their children. One woman had been fleeing since November 11, 2018, when gangs took over her neighborhood and threatened her life. Another woman escaped a murderous gang by walking from Honduras to El Paso. A mother at Mass thanked God for keeping her three boys under age ten safe after they were kidnapped from her in Juarez for $1,000 ransom. If my family was likewise threatened, would I too have the courage of these mothers, these parents, and women? Amazingly, in these women, I also witnessed incredible hope for a better life and simple joy in each small act of kindness. Truly, God was and is present with them.”
This spring, the full Board of the Foundation will discern these experiences and strategize opportunities to respond and strengthen our community to welcome all. Stay tuned.