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Five days at border are 'life-changing'

Mary Jo and Pat Sweeney learned about borderlands.  Photo courtesy of St. Aloysius Parish

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

"Life-changing" was how Pat and Mary Jo Sweeney described their five-day sojourn from March 14 to 19 to the U.S./Mexican border near Nogales and Douglas, Arizona.

They were part of a delegation of seven from St. Aloysius Catholic Parish in Spokane, which had been planning the opportunity for two and a half years. The others on the team were George Waldref, Rita Amberg Waldref, Mary Ann Shine, Kathy Dauer and Tom Dauer.

The first borderlands trip occurred in 2019, with another planned for 2023. 

Pat and Mary Jo moved to Spokane from the Seattle area about four years ago, after Pat retired from work as an accountant for a telecom. Mary Jo had worked part-time as a paraeducator. They were drawn to St. Aloysius by its Jesuit affiliation and its social justice programs.

The Sweeneys met while attending Seattle University, where both were influenced by their Jesuit education. That education involves a "transformational" learning model, drawing on one's past and new learnings, reflecting on the experience, with action and evaluation following from the learning.

As a couple, they became active in Seattle area parishes, volunteering in youth and music ministry and other areas of leadership.

Their interest in social justice grew out of Jesuit values of caring for each person as a child of God and taking responsible action on moral issues. Friendships with Maryknoll priests who had served in developing nations further impacted their concern for people living in poverty.

Today they have three grown daughters, one who lives in Spokane, and eight grandchildren. A grandniece previously worked in Guatemala and El Salvador.

When the opportunity for a visit to the borderlands presented itself prior to COVID, they began planning to go. This year it became possible.

As she began the journey, Mary Jo questioned: "How do you prepare for a journey that is guaranteed to break your heart?"

She and Pat knew what they hoped to learn from the journey, especially given their understanding of the contrast between the Gospel of Jesus and what they had read about the situation of immigrants and asylum seekers at the southern border of the U.S.

Two School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sister Lucy Nigh and Sister Judy Bourg, who were their hostesses in Douglas, Ariz., developed the Mission Awareness Program (MAP) as a comprehensive program that addresses what their group sought for an experience.

It is a program for those who want to understand first-hand why migrants decide to cross the Mexico/U.S. border, to meet those who live and work on the border, to understand stories of migrants who crossed or planned to cross the border, to meet people involved in immigration ministry, and to promote dialogue and advocacy on immigration reform.

"Even though we were a day late arriving because of airline cancellations, we filled already packed days with visits to shelters on both sides of the border, projects for providing people a sustainable livelihood and talking with many people who served the migrants, migrants themselves and a border patrol agent. We even had a little time for reflection on our experiences each day," said Mary Jo.

These days brought them face to face with realities they had read about, but which can lose their urgency and immediacy over time.

They came to know in concrete ways what an enemy poverty and violence are for people who are desperate to find a way for themselves and their children to survive. Migrants dare to travel long distances, prepared to risk their lives climbing over a dangerous wall, only to face the dangers of crossing the desert.

They also heard about the violence of gangs and cartels, which drove so many north and then continued to plague them when they were refused entry and sent back to the Mexican border towns. 

"No migrant can travel and cross the border without having to pay the cartels for their passage at some time in their journey—sometimes more than once," explained Mary Jo.

They heard that El Chapo's cartel controlled the area that they visited. 

"Even though he is in prison, little goes on in that part of Sonora that cartel members don't know about and influence," said Mary Jo. "Thankfully, the cartel seems to leave the shelters alone so the sisters and volunteers can minister to the people." 

Several incidents in their days there stood out in their memories as Pat and Mary Jo spoke about the experience.

One day, they traveled with a group called the Green Valley Samaritans to leave water in the desert at places where migrants were known to travel. At one point they came across a 24-year-old man who was alone, lost and hungry. He asked them to call the border patrol so he could turn himself in.  

With Sister Judy translating, they spoke with him. They learned that despite having traveled over 2,000 miles from Oaxaca, he had lost hope and was giving up. Sister Judy discouraged them from pressing him for details but asked them to pray for him each day.

Pat was impressed by a cooperative program in Agua Prieta called Café Justo. The cooperative produces coffee in Chiapas in southern Mexico and sends it north to Agua Prieta, where other members process it, prepare it for market, sell it in their coffee shop there, and fill orders to be sent to various markets outside of Mexico. Café Justo hires members of the community in all areas of the co-operative to create sustainable, local business. This practice provides employees incentives to remain in their family lands.

"We will be ordering Café Justo to serve and sell at St. Aloysius after Masses on June 25 and 26, with information about how to order from the cooperative."  

Another day, Pat and Mary Jo joined others in ritualizing migrants who died in passage by planting a cross in the desert.

Some crosses have the names of victims; others simply say, "No identificada" when no name can be assigned to the migrant. 

On another occasion, they met a border patrol agent named Obie. He explained that he tries to treat each migrant with dignity if possible. Knowing that the people he spoke with were only visiting in the border area, he tried to extend their concern beyond the suffering they were seeing there.

Mary Jo was struck by Obie's wisdom. He told them, "Look for the 'borders' where you live. Who are the marginalized and outcast in the area? Try to make a difference for those who live in poverty and fear where you are. Step out of your comfort and take a small step to make it right."

Since returning, the seven participants have shared reflections about their experiences with the St. Aloysius community through powerpoint presentations, in the newsletter and on the website.

They are now meeting to discuss what they want to do now, such as ways to work with the Café Justo co-op.

"We are now keeping informed on immigration policy and current activities at the border," Pat said. "We will continue to contact our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., to urge them to work for humane immigration laws."

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May, 2022