By S. Janet Gildea
In October 2016 the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) moved its large annual vigil from Fort Benning, Georgia, to the U.S.-Mexico border in order to draw attention to the causes of migration and the abuse of human rights that has accompanied increased militarization of our southern border. When Giving Voice, the organization of younger women religious and discerners, decided to join forces with SOAW for the Convergence at the Border October 7-10, six of us knew that we had to be there! Sisters Andrea Koverman and Louise Lears traveled from Cincinnati, Ohio, with S. Tracy Kemme who was on the GV planning committee. Sisters Carol Wirtz, Affiliate Whitney Schieltz and I drove from the initial formation house in Anthony, New Mexico, and we converged on our destination in Nogales, Sonora at the U.S.-Mexico border. We received hospitality with our Seton Hill Sisters of Charity in Tucson, Arizona, who had plenty of space for us and three other Giving Voice members.
The first site for the Convergence was the Eloy Federal Detention Center near Tucson. We heard testimony from women and men who had been incarcerated at the enormous for-profit facility and from area ministers and activists who visit the prison. Standing outside Eloy, keeping vigil with our candles and singing in the darkness, I realized a very personal connection. “This is where Yessenia’s husband, Boris, was imprisoned and where he was deported to El Salvador,” I said to my companions. Yessenia and Boris and their son, Chris, are our extended family at Casa Caridad in Anthony. Though Yessenia and Chris are citizens, they live in Anapra now, because Boris has a bar on entering the U.S. The story is long and complicated but the bottom line is our immigration policy separates families, causing suffering and sacrifice to those we love. For these dear ones we were, “Presente!”
For S. Tracy, too, the vigil at Eloy was a most impactful moment: “Our encounter with the people inside the detention center is forever etched in my heart. We gathered outside the center’s barbed wire fence chanting, ‘No están solos! You are not alone!’ to our sisters and brothers held inside. The wind carried our message of solidarity and they flicked the lights of their rooms off and on to show that they could hear and see us. What a profound and heart-wrenching moment of unexpected human connection.”
With three other Giving Voice members, we received hospitality with the Seton Hill Sisters of Charity in Tucson. On Saturday morning we caravanned the 30 miles from Tucson to Nogales. “We are so used to crossing the border to Anapra,” S. Carol commented, “but to experience walking across in a strange little town, not sure where we would go or how we would be received felt a bit uneasy. I guess that’s just a tiny bit of what migrants feel when they approach from the south!” But our group made the crossing easily and we found our way to the staging area that hugged the 18-foot-high wall on both sides of the border. We meandered along the steel fence, meeting friends and Sisters from all over while the microphones were tested and musicians were tuning. It had the feeling of a fiesta except for the serious subject that drew us together.
Whitney noticed the impressive use of art to express the suffering and the faith of the borderland, especially against the backdrop of the stark border wall. “While some works were colorful and evoked joy, others served as memorials to the many lives lost. The pieces that moved me the most were images that inserted the likenesses of modern migrants into Biblical scenes.” We walked to the feeding station of the Kino Border Initiative for an afternoon workshop organized by Tracy and Giving Voice. Under a mural of a migrant’s Last Supper we were conscious of how many thousands had sat on the benches where we gathered to discuss how women religious can network in service to these sisters and brothers in Christ. Later we walked to nearby apartment buildings where missionary Dominican Sisters provide shelter, safety, counseling and community to women who have been victimized by drug cartels and human traffickers.
“One of the most moving moments of the weekend was when I looked beyond the seemingly endless stretch of border fence in front of me and noticed a young Mexican boy pressing his face as far as he could through the bars and into the space designated as the U.S.A.,” S. Andrea said. “It was a poignant reminder of the artificiality of lines and borders and of the enormous pain they have caused by dividing us and pitting us against one another – tearing apart the whole human family.” Just a few weeks in advance of the U.S. presidential election when the nightly news frequently featured the chant, “Build the Wall!” the days we spent walking along that very structure made us wonder how people could be unaware of its existence.
S. Louise added, “The encounter at the border helped me to understand in a deeper way the importance of putting my body in the places where people suffer and struggle. I would tell anyone who has an opinion about ‘the wall’ to go to the border first. Touch it and walk on either side. Talk with folks on both sides. Feel the pain and the hope. Then, and only then, decide how you feel about what and who should be on the border.”Those of us who made the journey for the Convergence at the Border have read, studied and advocated for reform of our immigration system. We have the privilege to know and offer direct service to people in migration. We needed to be at the SOAW Convergence not just because this issue is so important but also because we ourselves needed an experience of solidarity. We needed to know, like those people held in the detention center, that we are not alone.