Christ found me at the border

Sister Norma Pimentel, left, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, walks to the U.S.-Mexico border with Greg Coogan, the director, Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries for the Diocese of Camden, and students from Stockton and Rowan universities.
Immigrants just released from detention via a U.S. immigration policy known as “catch and release” stand at a bus station April 11 before being taken to the Catholic Charities relief center in McAllen, Texas. “Catch and release” allows immigrants in detention for entering the U.S. without legal permission to be released while they wait for their cases to be processed.
CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters

As a young adult attending Stockton University in the Diocese of Camden, I was presented with an opportunity to take part in a Solidarity Pilgrimage to the border town of McAllen, Texas. I had no idea what a “Solidarity Pilgrimage” was, nor was I familiar with the term “missionary disciple,” but through my five-day experience near the Mexican border, I have come to understand exactly what those terms entail.

I had no idea of what to expect. Regardless of the Spanish for Healthcare course I’ve been taking for the past two semesters, I’m not really conversational in Spanish.

The application for this trip asked for me to recount an experience where I’ve seen the face of Christ through someone who is “on the margins” of society. After a good 20 minutes of reflecting, I couldn’t even come up with one personal story, and that’s when I knew that I needed to go out and encounter Christ. Little did I know that I would be profoundly changed by this experience. I did find Christ, or rather, he found me.

I want to start by talking about the Mexican-American Border Wall, which is really an iron fence. Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, brought us to the historic area of Hidalgo County to see the border and share her expertise during the morning after our arrival in Texas. Here was the view walking up to the border “fence” for the first time:

We learned that this fence, erected during the Bush Administration, is about a mile or so from the actual natural border with Mexico. American territory lies on the other side, and there are American citizens whose homes exist behind the fence. They pass freely through gates by typing in a passcode. It looks like an overgrown forest on the other side. Before we left to go past the fence, we said a prayer all together, with a special plea to Our Lady of Guadalupe, who has become a great symbol of hope to Mexican migrants crossing in this area.

Once we traveled past the border fence to the physical border with Mexico, the trip became much more real for me. As we stepped out of our tour bus with Sister Norma, and saw the Rio Grande, she explained that many people try to cross the river here, but the currents can be so strong that, many times, the fire department has to come and fish bodies out of the river when they clog up the water pumps.

For the first time it occurred to me that there are many people who would rather risk their lives by traversing dangerous terrain than continue to live in their home country. There are people who leave almost everything they have to escape to the United States because the risk of traveling is not greater than the risk of staying. One particular thing that stood out to me was a piece of the bottom of a shoe that lay next to the river. I thought about what the story behind that shoe could have been. One can’t help but wonder.

Again, we joined together in prayer, and it was a powerful experience. This was love – here in prayer, we were in unity willing the good of the other. After my trip, I came to the realization that the border wall is akin to the well that Jesus visits when he meets the Samaritan woman. Here is a place that can reveal the disparity of one group of people, represented by the Samaritan woman, and can reveal the power of another, represented by the society that shunned her. We can play the part of Christ in this Gospel story. Especially because Divine Mercy Sunday just passed recently, I am left questioning how we can be Christ’s vessels of mercy? After all, the merciful will be met with mercy!

The Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen is a humble building with two main rooms, a kitchen, some bathrooms with one shower for men and one for women, and a small room with donated clothing that has been organized by size. Every day, those who have been detained by Border Control who are trying to gain asylum status are sent over to this center. All of the adults have tracking bracelets that allow Border Control to make sure that they reach the destination that they have stated they’ll be traveling to. Here at the center, the Catholic Charities employees, along with as many volunteers as they can get, provide food, information, guidance, instruction, clothes, access to showers, and any necessary supplies such as diapers, feminine hygiene products and formula.

It was a truly humbling experience to have a man ask to get some food for his young child who was hungry.

I was so shocked at the number of young children with their parent(s) at the center every day. I was so moved with compassion to care for these little children.  How can we let our politics get in the way of showing Christ’s enduring love and mercy to little kids?

I have never felt so honored to be able to show love to the migrants passing through the center. I finally understood what it meant to encounter Christ in another, and what it meant to share his love. There were many more impactful encounters that we had on this trip — too many to talk about here. If I could share any parting words about how this experience has changed me, it’s that we are all one Body of Christ. His Eucharist unites each and every one of us, throughout the entire world. If Christ can surpass all borders, so can we. Our Lord said that even giving someone a cup of water in his name will ensure a reward in heaven. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to love your neighbor.

Vicki Mitchell is a student at Stockton University, Galloway Township.