By: Kristen Whitney Daniels

A tent area in Tijuana where refugees sleep while waiting for processing. (Photo Courtesy of Judy Molosky)

[Note: This is the first part of a two-part series on our CSSJ family's work surrounding the recent humanitarian crisis at our southern border. Part II of this series will be released next Thursday]

In October 2018, the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph released a corporate voice statement calling for the welcome and humane treatment of arriving migrants. The statement, in response to what the media was calling the "refugee caravan," called for women religious to "reject the rhetoric of fear and policy of division that poisons our politics today" and "stand with Pope Francis who calls us to, 'promote the dignity of all our brothers and sisters, particularly the poor and the excluded of society, those who are abandoned, immigrants, and those who suffer violence and human trafficking.'"

Since the release of the statement to the end of February, "Border Patrol agents have picked up more than 260,000 people" seeking asylum at the southern border, according to NPR. As the humanitarian crisis continues, so does the Sisters of St. Joseph — and their partners — response to the refugees' needs.

Responding to the call

Sr. Judy Molosky (center) serving food to refugees in Tijuana. (Photo courtesy of Sr. Judy Molosky)

The Sisters of St. Joseph have responded to the call at the U.S.-Mexico border for decades, some congregations even declaring sanctuary during the 1980s. During that time, many of our sisters sparked a partnership with Annunciation House, a nonprofit that serves the varied needs of migrants and refugees in El Paso, Texas.

This relationship continues today, with the Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) putting out multiple calls for congregations to send volunteers. Since that call, many of our sisters and partners have chosen to volunteer at Annunciation House while ministering at the southern border.

Albany, Congregation of St. Joseph, Los Angeles, Orange, Philadelphia, Rochester, St. Augustine, St. Louis, and St. Paul all report sending sisters, associates, or partners in mission to minister to refugees at Annunciation House. Many congregations have also sent significant financial contributions to the organization to assist with securing necessities for refugees.

Other organizations that congregations have partnered with include Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley, The Encuentro Project of El Paso, San Diego Rapid Response Network, Catholic Community Services in Tucson, Arizona, Moana Border Project, and the San Diego Organizing Project.

For many congregations, agrégées, associates, and partners in mission have contributed to this call. This includes many of the St. Joseph Worker programs.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange hosted a Stations of the Cross Lenten prayer focusing on the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo Courtesy of Maria Elena Perales/Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange)St. Joseph Workers from the Los Angeles program spent a day in December 2018 volunteering at the San Diego Organizing Project's (SDOP) shelter, where Sr. Maureen Evelyn Brown (Carondelet-Los Angeles) serves as their co-chairperson. Sr. Judy Molosky, director of the SJW-LA program, made a similar trip a week earlier where she spent a day in San Diego and Tijuana with various shelters. Sr. Judy wrote about that experience for the Federation, detailing her experience at a stadium near Tijuana, which hosted 5,000 individuals from the "refugee caravan."

St. Joseph Workers in Orange joined their congregation's leadership team, justice office, and associates in Dec. 2018 for a prayer vigil and civil disobedience event at the Tijuana-San Diego border. The group joined hundreds of others at the border while sisters at the motherhouse — who couldn't physically make the trip — spent the day in solidarity keeping them in prayer.

Like the sisters in Orange who spent their day in prayer, congregations are finding creative ways to engage those who can't physically make it to the border. Many are keeping pressure on their legislative offices to find humane ways to answer the humanitarian crisis, like in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Rochester, and St. Paul. Others are answering the needs of the refugees, like in Philadelphia, where sisters, associates, and friends created 1,000 fabric wrist pouches containing paper, pens, crayons and plastic bags to protect documents. Many others have created prayer services and events to raise awareness in their local communities.

Partnering with students

Students from Nazareth College at the library of the Good Shepherd in Anapra, Mexico during their March 2019 Border Awareness Experience. (Photo Courtesy of Sr. Donna Del Santo) Right before Christmas 2018, Sr. Erin McDonald (Congregation of St. Joseph) accompanied a group of students from the University of Detroit Mercy during their service immersion experience in El Paso, Texas. Sr. Erin is currently the service and social justice coordinator for the university's campus ministry department, though she spent many years as a social worker working with refugees and asylum seekers. Yet in her reflection for the Congregation of St. Joseph's Spring/Summer 2019 imagineONE publication, Sr. Erin described her time in El Paso as stretching her in "new ways spiritually, emotionally, and professionally."

While in El Paso, Sr. Erin and her group partnered with The Encuentro Project, which helps participants "encounter" a variety of people including meeting with migrants, Border Patrol Agents, immigration lawyers, social service agencies, and local faith leaders.  

Sr. Erin's poignant reflection also explores the parallels of Christmas-season to this experience, remarking that she and the students "were living members of the modern-day nativity scene."

"We encountered Christ during the Christmas Masses in the local immigrant detention facility, where dozens of men and women mourned separation from their families or the death of loved ones in their home country," Sr. Erin writes. "One woman, tears running down her cheeks, spoke of the enormous grief that shattered her heart when she lost five children from gang violence in Honduras. She looked at us and whispered through her sobs, 'What wouldn't you do to try to save your sixth child?'"

Students from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY — a school founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester — had similar encounters. During the college's spring break, a group of students participated in the Columban Center's "Border Awareness Experience" in El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. Sr. Donna Del Santo (Rochester) accompanied the students as they met with a diverse selection of groups, including the Diocese of El Paso's Migrant and Refugee Services, Border Patrol, and asylum seekers. Students volunteered at Annunciation House, Farm Worker's Center, and Wise Latina International.

For Nazareth College senior Juliana Joyce, this was her second border immersion experience, an opportunity she jumped at. 

"This trip holds a very special place in my heart, as my first experience opened my eyes to the migrant community in Rochester. I realized that what happens in Upstate New York does have a direct impact to those at our border," said Juliana.

This particular trip was a powerful one for Juliana that showed her "how unjust the U.S. immigration systems is."

Nazareth College student Juliana Joyce writes the name of a person murdered in Juarez as a memorial at Casa Tabor during a Border Awareness Experience in March 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Juliana Joyce)

"They are still sorting through asylum cases from 30 years ago. By not acknowledging this injustice, I remain complacent in the suffering of countless families, children, and individuals. Moving forward, I plan to do anything in my power to serve this group of people," said Juliana.

While serving, Juliana and her group heard the many stories of those seeking asylum. From those stories, Juliana said she learned that "the overwhelming majority of people entering the border are fleeing from violence in their native countries and are trying to make an asylum claim to live in peace."

"No one willingly leaves their home, their culture, or their identity," said Juliana. "These people are resilient and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect."

Sr. Donna, who also spent three weeks at Annunciation House during the Christmas season, noted that the "great need for volunteers to staff the shelters" was especially challenging for the group during their March trip. Though the trip originally left the group feeling "a sense of powerlessness," Sr. Donna said that as they interacted with people "on both sides of the border, they could see it takes all of us to do our part and make a change."

Sr. Donna believes that this experience will stay with the students long after this semester. "I watched each young woman change before my eyes — in understanding and then their transformation from disbelief and anger to eventual activism rooted in gospel values to respond to all the elements here at the border — poverty, racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant, U.S. policy, and the list goes on and on," said Sr. Donna.

Students of Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston-sponsored Regis College in Massachusetts also participated in their own border experience. As part of their experience during winter break, students delivered water and supplies for refugees making the arduous trek to California's southern border. This included a "water drop" that had the students hiking three miles through the desert to deliver water, food, supplies, and messages of encouragement in "scorching heat," according to the Boston Globe.

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is assistant director of the U.S. Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph]