About once or twice a week, I make my way across the U.S.-Mexico border from Nogales, Ariz., to Nogales, Sonora. I know the path well. As I approach the heavily fortified gate, I can see the high, serpent-like border wall on each side, undulating up and down the desert hills of Ambos Nogales.
I often think about my resistance to coming here in the first place. My Jesuit provincial superior had asked if I would be interested in being the director of the Kino Border Initiative, a new binational migrant ministry on the border, focused on humanitarian assistance to migrants. Being an obedient and faithful Jesuit, I told him no. I had projects I wanted to finish, and the idea of switching to another ministry did not excite me.
Weeks later, however, when talking about this project with a friend, I felt a deep movement in my heart, and as I paid attention to this deep desire, I could see that God was inviting me to this work, to this border, with all of its challenges and uncertainties. God had surprised me with an invitation I had never anticipated. I was both excited and scared. How could this be?
I had never been a director of a Jesuit apostolate, let alone a cross-border ministry. Yet I felt deeply that this was God’s initiative. God had invited me to become a Jesuit years ago, when, much to my surprise, I discovered Jesus walking next to me in a meditation on his appearance to Peter on the lake shore, asking me if I trusted him enough to accept this call. In spite of my own terror and fear, I had said yes. I could never have imagined the many blessings that God has poured into my life, all because I said yes. So if this invitation to the border was from God, I figured, then God would make it work somehow.
I pull up to the Kino Border Initiative’s comedor, or soup kitchen. A corrugated roof covers a small, semi-enclosed boxlike structure, with stifling heat in the summer and bone-chilling wind in the wintertime. A line of deported migrant men, women and children stretches down the sidewalk, many carrying their belongings in large plastic bags, compliments of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Their body language communicates everything they are feeling: fear from being in an unfamiliar place; despair at being deported and separated from loved ones in the United States; uncertainty about where they are and what to do next.
And yet, a profound change takes place when the migrants walk through the door. Their faces slowly brighten, as we welcome them and invite them to be seated at the table, where they are introduced to our staff and volunteers and participate in a presentation on human rights. When the moment arrives to bless the meal, I step forward and look out over the migrant men, women and children. They remind me of others who have come to us over the years: the woman who was beaten by her guide and then raped and abandoned in the desert; the man who crossed into the United States hoping to be reunited with wife and children in California but died before reaching them; the man who was savagely kicked in the ribs by Border Patrol agents while attempting to surrender; the woman who was strip-searched while in Border Patrol custody and then left standing in a cold cell, naked, for hours.
At the same time, as I make the sign of the cross, something powerful happens inside me. I feel a soulful and profound silence descend over the comedor and fill my heart. I watch heads bow, hands slowly folded together, eyes closing. The Spirit of God gently envelopes me and all of us present. These men, women and children have every reason to be bitter, to be angry, to hate. Instead, I am amazed as they place themselves, their spirits, their lives, their beings in the hands of God.
Perhaps they recall how God has been present to them, through their spouses, children and siblings far away, in their parents and grandparents who walked them to church in their hometown years ago, in the woman who tossed food to them as they rode on top of the train in southern Mexico. Maybe they feel what one migrant in our comedor has written, that “Jesus’ footsteps and mine are the same.” God’s Spirit is palpable, and the Spirit that surrounds me now opens up in me, as I stand before them and begin to speak, while at the same time feeling that the migrants are really leading me in prayer. In that moment, they show me how to place myself and my life into the hands of God, how to welcome the Spirit into my heart and in that place to find strength for the journey.
There are times when I want to flee this border filled with tragedy, disappointment, loss and injustice.
And yet, when those moments come, the migrants teach me how to discover the presence of God’s Spirit, and how to live from that experience. Perhaps I am still on the border to continue to learn that lesson.