This past June, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to the Texas-Mexico border on one of our diocese’s “Share the Journey” pilgrimages. Over the course of my time in seminary, the Lord has placed the desire on my heart to serve people of Hispanic descent in a particular way. When I found out that I was going to be able to work at the border for a week, I was elated by this chance to serve.
Before going on this pilgrimage, I will admit, I was filled with questions. Watch any major news station, and it will not take you very long to discover that immigration is one of the most intensely-debated topics in our country today. It seems that everyone has an opinion on the issue of immigration, most of which are quite extreme: some believe that we should abolish borders and allow anyone to enter the country, while others tend to think that we should have extremely strict criteria for someone to be able to immigrate to our country. With all of the voices and opinions which bombarded me, I didn’t know what to think.
Just days before our trip to the border, we heard the news of the Salvadoran man who drowned in the Rio Grande River as he sought to save his young daughter. Hearing this absolutely broke my heart. I thought to myself, “Lord, what could these people possibly be running from? What is the answer to this grave situation at the border?” This horrific event added a great deal of solemnity to our journey. As a future priest, I hoped to see what my role is in all of this. How should I respond?
Our experience in McAllen was quite intense. We spent the majority of our time working in a place run by Catholic Charities called a “respite center,” a place where immigrants who just arrived could receive basic human needs: a hot meal, a warm shower, some fresh clothes, and an opportunity to call their loved ones. I was very struck my first day by the little phrase they have inscribed on the door outside: “Restoring Human Dignity.” The people whom we served were people seeking asylum, meaning that they are seeking protection here after facing intense violence or persecution in their own country. Most had some kind of sponsor in the US, usually family who came before, and many were awaiting court dates for their asylum cases.
Some of what I saw was heart-breaking. Almost all of the people who came were young families with small children. Many of the children were sick as well. Some people told us that they travelled for 30+ days on foot to arrive here in America. Their faces were filled with fear and uncertainty for what may lie ahead. They left everything behind to embark on this journey, coming only with the clothes on their backs. One of the nights, as I prayed, I asked the Lord again: “What is my part in all of this?”
The next day, June 28th, was the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, which happens to be one of my favorite feast days of the whole year. I was very struck by the readings that day. The first reading from Ezekiel said: “I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.” Then in the Gospel, I heard Jesus tell the parable of the shepherd who seeks after the lost sheep. He says, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.”
Here, through His Word, the Lord made it clear to me why He had brought me to Texas. Each one of the people I encountered in the respite center was one of His lost sheep, wandering in fear, unsure of where they are headed. Yet, in His reckless love for each one of them, Christ seeks them out, yearning to bring them into His fold. As a future priest, my role is to open my heart to the sufferings of these people and so help bring them to Christ, the King of the Universe and Ruler of all nations.
When I returned home from this grace-filled week in Texas, I will admit that many of my questions that I hoped to have answered were not answered. I still have no idea how our nation should proceed in terms of specific changes to public policy regarding immigration. This pilgrimage did, however, show me that the question of immigration is not a question of statistics or politics, but is about souls, created for eternity in the image and likeness of God. This trip helped me, as a future shepherd of souls, to pry open the doors of my hardened heart to become more like the Sacred Heart of our Lord, which burns with unimaginable love for all of His children. Ultimately, this transformation of my heart to become more like His is what priestly formation is all about.