By Sherry Simon
Vice chair, Pax Christi USA national council
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”Matthew 22: 36-39
This past October, Pax Christi USA’s national council met in El Paso, Texas, a city where there has been growing political disagreement over how to handle the rising number of immigrants coming into our country from Mexico, Central America, South America, and several other countries throughout the world. During our time in El Paso, the council had the opportunity to meet with Bishop Mark Seitz, bishop of El Paso, and Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House. Both have been working tirelessly with migrants, immigrants, and refugees on both sides of the border for many years. They shared some of the truths they have come to understand about the situation at the border and how these border experiences have affected their perspective on immigration.
When asked about how he views his role at the border, Bishop Seitz emphasized that “we are just people trying to be Christians,” living out the gospel that tells us to welcome the stranger among us, as it is in these moments that we may encounter Christ. Bishop Seitz went on to emphasize the pain and suffering that motivate these migrants to leave their family and homeland and travel sometimes thousands of miles with all their belongings on their back, seeking some form of safety and security. He said, “Immigrants have had the experience of leaving everything that helped them feel at home and secure in this life behind, and to depend utterly on God as they journey. They have so much to teach us about how God will accompany us on our journey.” Bishop Seitz also stated that our country must come together to make significant immigration reform so that we can once again welcome our neighbors with the dignity and respect that their courageous journey deserves. He described the situation at the border as a “pro-life matter.”
Ruben spoke with the members of Pax Christi USA staff and council for over an hour, recounting many stories of abuse and neglect of immigrants, such as the results of the zero-tolerance policy instituted during the Trump administration. Ruben has worked for over 40 years establishing refugee centers on both sides of the border and speaking out against inhumane US policies. Although it is no longer talked about in the media, hundreds of children still have not been reunited with their parents. He compared the experience working with migrants to the disciples who knelt at the foot of the cross as Jesus died: There was nothing the disciples could do to save Jesus. They could not prevent his death as he was already on the cross, nor could they fix the broken system that led to his crucifixion. But they could stand in solidarity with him and bear witness to the injustice. Ruben said that this is what we can all do with our neighbors who have come here for a better life. We can walk with them and provide what support we are able. We can let them know that we see them and that we are walking beside them as they make their journey to a better life.
The day before the council meeting began on October 13, my husband George and I had the
opportunity to spend the day in a refugee center in Ciudad Juarez. During the encounter with the 25 men, women, and children waiting in the center for their opportunity to enter the US, we encountered saints. Roman, the man who, over time, gave up his entire home so that these refugees would have a place to shelter, smiling broadly and treating each person with incredible kindness and dignity. Clara and Gustavo, Abara educators who spend their days providing firsthand encounters on both sides of the border so that the truth of the border might be experienced rather than heard secondhand via politically biased media. We got to personally know several of the migrants in the shelter who recounted their stories of giving up everything in hopes of finding a better life. Each one of them was so grateful despite the hardships they endured along the way. The faith that each of these individuals exhibited was humbling and let us know that it is indeed the poor in spirit who have found that direct
connection with God.
On Saturday, November 4 at 10 MT, the Diocese of El Paso will host a border Mass in the middle of the Rio Grande river between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, in memory of migrants who died during their journey to the US. Bishop Seitz, one of the bishops who is concelebrating the Mass, also emphasizes the unity that this tradition is meant to bring to a border currently defined by division and exclusion.
I believe that our world will never move forward on the path of peace and nonviolence until we learn the lessons that are so clearly in evidence at the border. Perhaps Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves had to do with walking with them long enough to learn who they are and how we might connect with them rather than simply rejecting them out of hand. After all, once we share a meal with someone, it is almost impossible to turn our backs on them or watch them suffer alone.