Border leaves novices with powerful & painful memories

April 27, 2016 by

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The Concordia group poses in front of St. Pius X Catholic Church in El Paso at the end of their weeklong “Border Experience.” Kneeling is Sister Patricia Urbinelli, leaning against her is Sister Donna Smith. Standing, left to right are, Sisters Anna Marie Broxterman, Ann Ashwood, Betty Suther, Christine Carbotte, Missy Ljungdahl (who lives in El Paso), Mary Anne Larocque and Judy Stephens, and Manna House of Prayer staff member Cecilia Thrash.

The 820-mile drive southwest from Concordia, Kan., to El Paso, Texas, was not rowdy, exactly, but it was noisy, with a van and a car packed with women excited about the upcoming adventure.

Filling the vehicles were four of the five women in the U.S. Federation Novitiate (Sister Christine Brodie could not make the trip because of a death in her family), along with novice director Sister Betty Suther, novice program director Sister Ann Ashwood and Manna House of Prayer staff member Cecilia Thrash. Also travelling with them were Sisters Judy Stephens and Anna Marie Broxterman, who speak Spanish and would help as translators.

Greeting them in El Paso would be Sisters Donna Otter and Missy Ljungdahl, who live at the Grandview Convent, owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph and a “hostel” of sorts for volunteers and other women religious who visit.

“Driving down was really exciting,” recalled Sister Donna Smith, a novice in the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada, of the journey that began Easter Sunday. “There was lots of landscape I’d never seen before, and anticipation of what we would see at the border.”

Eight days later, “The drive home was a lot quieter,” Sister Donna said. “All the things we had seen were starting to sink in.”

The "assembly line" for prayer flags at the sewing co-op in Juarez, Mexico.

The “assembly line” for prayer flags at the sewing co-op in Juarez, Mexico.

The noise level says much about the power of a “Border Experience,” organized each year by the Concordia congregation and included this spring in the novitiate curriculum. The weeklong educational, immersion experience is “a time of listening to the needs of the dear neighbor,” Sister Betty explained, and helps participants understand the complexity of immigration and border issues.

The Concordia group spent time along the border fence, at a shelter and service agency for immigrants in El Paso, then crossed into Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande, to visit a women’s sewing co-op and to meet a Sister of Mercy and Carmelite priest who serve there. Later they would return to El Paso to meet with Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, which strives to serve basic needs of undocumented immigrants; to visit the Columban Mission Center; to learn more about the detention centers for immigrants on the American side of the border; and to tour the “colonias,” the unregulated and unincorporated areas surrounding the city.

They also spent one evening at Grandview with sisters from other congregations who serve in El Paso.

“In the end there were about 35 of us together,” Sister Betty said. “These were all women who were probably in retirement and they were telling about the ways they were involved; these were women who were doing what they could do. They’d all been missionaries somewhere before, and so this has given them a place to still be in service. And that was a very rich experience to listen to their stories.”

For Sister Ann, “The memory I carry from Juarez is a hopeful one — the women’s sewing co-op, built on the edge of the dump.”

A Dominican sister started the Centro Santa Catalina program about 30 years ago, at first just to provide spiritual enhancement for the women in that area of Juarez. It began with prayer and study, and has grown into a center that supports before- and after-school programs, computer labs, English-language classes and immigration education.

“These women are sewing in an assembly-line sort of way,” Sister Ann explained, “and at each step the women are praying for whoever will buy and use their products. And they ask in turn that those of us who purchase these items pray for the women who made them.”

Sister Patricia Urbinelli on the bus in Juarez.

Sister Patricia Urbinelli on the bus in Juarez.

Through the sewing co-op and sales, the women also gain an understanding of manufacturing and marketing, she said.

“These are desperately, desperately poor people, but there was no one there who seemed to feel sorry for herself. Each woman seemed empowered. Several of the women had their children there, and (Sister) Missy was out playing Duck-Goose with them; that to me was the most hope-filled moment of the entire trip,” she said. “The rest of it was pretty bleak, pretty bleak.”

For Sister Christine Carbotte, the bleakness began with the controversial metal fence that lines the American edge of the river.

“To see that fence…,” Sister Christine begins. “As we were driving by, I couldn’t help but take a video of that fence, just miles and miles and miles of that fence. I was just horrified by it.”

The most horrifying experience for Sister Mary Anne Larocque was on the other side of the fence, in Juarez — and she returned with a mix of outrage and determination.

“I was appalled and I continue to be appalled at the capitalist forces of which I am a part,” she explained with a certain sadness, “and how this is not known.”

As an example, she told of the group riding “on a rickety city bus and we passed what Sister Judy Stephens pointed out was a factory that’s been built and operated by a multinational corporation.

“What I learned was that I as a Canadian I support those multinational corporations – I’m thinking of the auto industry as an example – that has moved its manufacturing base to Mexico, opened these factories ostensibly to cut their bottom-line costs. Their selling point it is that these companies are employment for people in the country who have no jobs.

“We feel sorry for our Canadian workers because we’re losing highly paid employment positions to Mexico, so we protest, we picket — only to learn that when these corporations set up shop in Mexico they abuse the workforce; that there are strikes in these multinational factory sites because the Mexicans employed there receive substandard wages.”

And yet, Sister Mary Anne noted, “We’re not getting that part of the story in Canada. There are strong forces to prevent us as taxpayers from knowing what is really happening.”

That lack of complete information — and sense of personal complicity — also struck Sister Christine.

“I recognize that I am a beneficiary of the cheap food, the cheap clothes, the cheaper cars (that can be produced in Mexico and elsewhere),” she said. “So am I willing to pay more for these products? And am I willing to accept the environmental damage that’s happening where there are no environmental laws and even flagrant disregard for the environment?

“It’s not just in Mexico; it’s in other countries as well, yet we’re not being told these things, we don’t think about these things.”

Sister Patricia Urbinelli left El Paso thinking about something else — what she described as “a simple comment” from one of the workers at the Opportunity Center homeless shelter: “We find ways to serve.”

“Whatever they’re going through, whatever they’re faced with, when their funding is taken away… they find ways to serve,” she explained. “At every place we went, that’s the experience I felt — people serving there found ways to make do, to make a difference, to make an impact.

“I left with a renewed hope of just finding another way. There will always be people who will try to find a way to serve.”

The group in Juarez, from left, Sister Betty Suther, Sister Ann Ashwood, Sister Mary Ann Larocque, Cecilia Thrash, Sister Missy Crawford, Sister Christine Carbotte, Sister Patricia Urbinelli, the director of the sewing co-op and another sister who serves in El Paso.

The group in Juarez, from left, Sister Betty Suther, Sister Ann Ashwood, Sister Mary Ann Larocque, Cecilia Thrash, Sister Missy Crawford, Sister Christine Carbotte, Sister Patricia Urbinelli, the director of the sewing co-op and another sister who serves in El Paso.

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