Jesuits at the Cutting Edge

On a newly constructed wall at the Nogales part of Mexico marking the US border hung white crosses with the names of those who died crossing and braving the vast unforgiving Sonora desert. Fr. Peter Neeley SJ said that he had performed several blessings of headless bodies or bones found scattered in the wasteland. They said that cayotes would carry the head of the victims to their burrows because it was the best part.

In 1691, Jesuit missionary Fr. Eusebio Francisco Kino SJ came to this area invited by the Sobaipuri Indians who wanted to know more about his religion. This was the time when the desert was a part of Spain, then Mexico, before it became American territory. Still later, it became a part of Arizona. He built some of the beautiful Spanish mission churches like Tumacacori and San Xavier del Bac (see succeeding post).

Three hundred years later, the Jesuits still work at the frontiers. Today, we are at the border of the same desert Fr. Kino once thread. However, the work is at the other side of the wall the Americans built. We wait for deportees whose dreams of a better life has been crushed to death.

Introducing us to the Kino Border Initiative mission, Fr. Neeley gave us a taste of what the illegal immigrants experienced. When we went to the Mexican immigration processing center, we were treated rudely. The people who were dumped by the US border patrol bus said that even their own people treated them like desert animals. Even the hardened criminals deserved some humanity. To be there waiting for the migrants, which Fr. Peter do every day, was risky. I honestly was scared.

Then we walked through the streets of Nogales, passed by the cemetery where the deportees sometimes spent the night. Some of them recognized us from the breakfast earlier at the comedor, where we served hot rice coffee (kape grano), a plate of filling Mexican pasta, beans and tortillas. At some days, mass was celebrated there since they were mostly Catholic.

But some things don’t change from Fr. Kino’s time to this day. Jesuit life is marked by being at the borders, at the frontiers. Risk is what we eat. Miles from this border, but still in the Sonoran desert, Fr. Kino’s church, the San Xavier del Bac stands majestically white; from afar, a weary native American in the 16th century would like look like the waiting arms of the father of the wayward son of the Gospels. Around 1622 in Cartagena, Columbia, St. Peter Claver SJ also waited, protected, and nursed newly-arrived African slaves. Today, the Kino Initiative waits with open arms to serve the ostracized and the persecuted.

On the road from the Mexican Immigration we took the Nogales bus. Mexican buses were like large Philippine jeepneys: seats were located at the sides, passengers faced each other. One passenger talked to Fr. John Murphy SJ my tertian master. Another who recognized me at the comedor said, “AhGonzales! Speedy Gonzales! Arriba, arriba!” We both laugh, and the guy seated across me joined in laughter. We didn’t know each other, but everyone joined the conversation as if we were friends.

The risk was making ourselves vulnerable to the possibility of persecution in living a radical truth: in the name of compassion, there are no borders. In the vision of eternity, we are all one family riding a bus towards the same destination.

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