Day 2: Border Awareness Experience, October 31, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
Meeting with Father Bill Morton at Corpus Christi parish, Rancho Anapra
“God’s work, our hands,” encapsulates Day 2 of our Border Awareness Experience. Our first stop, Father Bill Morton’s parish, Corpus Christi of Rancho Anapra, is across the border from El Paso in Juarez. I have never been to Mexico and crossing the border is surreal to me. A simple bridge connects yet divides two disparate worlds—one of enormous wealth, the other of abject poverty.
Father Bill tells us the story of meeting Alma who had epilepsy and was raising three children as a single mother. She had no idea where her family’s next meal was coming from, and some days her children did not eat. Father Bill often prayed the Lord’s Prayer with her, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and thought how many times he had repeated those words never giving a thought to the possibility that he might not have food for his next meal. For her, however, the words meant everything. She possessed a primitive, essential faith that we do not have.
He relates another story of a man from his parish telling him one day that Pedro Zaragosa, a wealthy man who lived in Juarez, was kicking all of the people in their colonia off the mesa. These people had lived on the land for 30 years and their colonia had electricity, running water, and a certified high school. Pedro wanted the land so he took it. One day 70 police trucks roared into town. The electric wire was rolled up and the poles pulled out of the ground; Pedro then put vigilantes next to the community and literally wiped it out.
Wealthy men such as Pedro have no reservations about doing illegal things and perpetrating violence. One day a man was beaten to death and two children burned to death. Father Bill placed an ad in the newspaper blaming the Zaragosa family for the deaths, and it received international attention. The family then placed an ad denying they had anything to do with the violence. In 2006, after a year of fighting, Father Bill was given 24 hours to leave Mexico. The stated reason was that he did not have an FM3 visa, but in reality the police and corrupt government officials kicked him out because he was causing trouble for the Zaragosas who-- because they were wealthy--always won, but left no fingerprints behind.
Father Bill explains that the church in Mexico is conservative and is in bed with the wealthy and the corrupt government. The few lawyers, doctors, professors, and other professionals that make up the small middle class serve the wealthy while the poor are left to fend for themselves, working in factories (maquilas) for 6 to 7 dollars a day, with no labor laws to protect them from being taken advantage of. In 2016, 300 factories along the border in Juarez employed 200,000 workers. Amazingly the workers buy the lies that they are poor because they drink too much or don’t work hard enough, so God punishes them with poverty.
Liberation Theology for the poor transformed Father Bill and has made him determined to bring social justice to the forefront of the church. The realities of people’s lives are poverty, addiction, abuse, and violence. He describes the priests as “vanilla” who speak in grand generalizations about love and peace but never touch the difficult subjects that could transform people’s lives on earth.
Father Bill returned to Mexico in 2017 to continue his work among the poor and he asks us to pray not only for the peacemakers but also for the conversion of war profiteers. Sadly, the livelihoods of the poor and the middle class in the US depend on the economic benefits of war. Pope Francis believes that the economic system must serve the people, not exploit them for the benefit of the wealthy. God does not will human suffering; it is a result of human ignorance and human behavior. Father Bill’s ministry among the poor of Juarez has strengthened his belief that God’s will is for all people to be treated justly and with dignity. Poverty is the real sin and the church has much too long ignored it. Father Bill leaves us with the directive that we must denounce injustice for the sake of our moral integrity and we must be involved in the resistance. Father Bill has lived the words, “God’s work. Our hands,” and asks us to do the same.
Visit to Biblioteca Infantil, with founder Cristina Estrada
One life that Bill’s hands has touched is Cristina’s. We meet her at the Biblioteca Infantil where she is the coordinator. She tells us an amazing story of God’s work in her life. She has only a third grade education, but she worked in a maquila as a highly skilled welder for 22 years. One day she burned her hands badly, her plastic gloves melting into her skin. Her boss told her if she signed a paper, the company would pay for medical help to heal her hands and continue to pay her until she could return to work. She signed the paper, was given first aid, and brought home. A week later she returned to work to pick up her pay check and was told that she no longer worked at the factory because she had signed a paper saying that she quit.
Many hard months lay ahead for her. One day when she came home with her hands wrapped, she saw a man watching her; it was Father Bill, her guardian Angel. For seven months she could not cook or care for her family. One day she met Clare and Tim, a couple who volunteered at Annunciation House; Clare had 20 books in a library at the church. When the couple left, they asked Cristina to take over the library and keep the books. “You’re crazy!” was her response. They asked her again, and she agreed to take the books to her house. She started by lending the books to the children, then reading the books to them because many could not read. That was not enough, though; she wanted to help the children go to school. She asked Father Bill to help, and he agreed to support her idea. When the program out grew her house, she--with Father Bill’s help--purchased the house across the street which is now the Biblioteca Infantil.
Cristina has encountered many problems along the way including getting birth certificates for the children, registering them, and helping parents get money for tuition and uniforms. Her school has grown from 12 students to 450 students, Kindergarten through University. Fifty two of Cristina’s students have now graduated from University and are doctors, lawyers, professors, psychologists, and engineers. Her classroom wall is covered with their pictures. She has had to work with their parents to convince them of the importance of their children getting an education to improve the quality of their lives. She has promised to walk with their children every step of the way. Because many of the children’s parents are poor, she cooks both breakfast and lunch for them with food donated by the community.
Cristina was once angry with God, “Why did I have this terrible accident?” She now believes God gave her this opportunity to help the children in her community get an education and live a meaningful life. God has always been in charge, and he will continue to help her. “This place is a blessing from God,” she declares. She asks us to help by donating money to the school so she can carry on the work God has given her to do.
Visit to Holy Child of Atocha School
Across the street from the biblioteca is the Holy Child of Atocha School which serves special needs children from babies to age 26. The school, run by the Sisters of Charity and many volunteers, provides physical therapies to help with physical and mental disabilities, play therapy for younger children, and classrooms to serve the older children. Volunteers provide both breakfast and lunch.
Visit to the Border Wall
Our third stop is the border wall, 18 feet high, built of steel poles topped by steel plates. Small children, who live in shacks next to the wall, come running, talk to us, hold our hands, and smile and giggle as we stand in a circle and pray that God will forgive us for building this wall of division and hatred. As we drive away, we see words painted on the wall, “F . . . you, Donald Trump.” We pray our country and leaders will learn that we must build bridges to unite us, not walls to divide us.
We drive by the Foxconn factory built by a foreign company right near the border. It is an enormous white building surrounded by a fence. Apple phones are assembled here by Juarez workers who struggle to survive on their paltry salaries.
Visit to the Refugee Emergency shelter at Blessed Sacrament parish
Finally, we cross over the border and drive to our final stop for the day, a shelter run by the Church of the Blessed Sacrament for temporarily housing refugees. ICE had dropped off 18 families in the last few days at the shelter because the detention centers were full. The refugees had surrendered at the border and asked for asylum. The BP then turned them over to ICE who checked to make sure they did not have criminal records, gave them documentation, and set up a court date for them. Volunteers at the shelter fed them, gave them a change of clothes, checked their medical health and hygiene, and called their contacts in the United States, asking them to buy tickets so the refugees could be put on planes and buses to unite with their sponsors. The shelter, a former convent, had sleeping rooms supplied with cots and clean bedding. Refugees arrived on Mondays and Tuesdays and were usually gone by Thursdays. Volunteers cleaned the shelter and washed the bedding to be ready for more groups to arrive the following week.
Our group spends two hours sorting clothing donations into piles for men, women, girls, and boys. The clothes are then sorted by size, put into boxes, and labeled, ready to be given to the next group of refugees who come. In 2014 at the height of the refugee influx, El Paso had 14 shelters staffed by 5,000 volunteers.
We have been overwhelmed by the dedication of the volunteers in all of the places we have visited and their outpouring of love for the refugees who seek asylum in America. The day has been an affirmation of God’s work done by human hands. The smiles on the faces of a young mother and her four sons, as they are fed and given warm clothing before they continue their journey to a new life in Kansas, fill our hearts with gratitude for all those who give of themselves to help the “least of these, our brothers and sisters.”