PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Standing In The Gap

This is the final blog about Paula Mehmel’s trip to the southern border of the U.S. with Abriendo Fronteras/Opening Borders delegation, which spent six days in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, exploring issues related to immigration.

Who are the people who are willing to stand in the gap?

In the midst of the attack on the people of Juarez from a corrupt government, the poverty that surrounds so many people, and refugees who are victims of unjust systems, who will stand in the gap to help protect them?

On Thursday, as we returned to Juarez, we met some of the men and women who are the unsung heroes, dedicating their lives to standing up for the last, the lost and the least and seeking to protect those who hide in the shadows.

Our first stop was to meet Father Bill Morton, a Columban priest who first came to Juarez in 1996. He left for a while under falsified deportation orders because of his advocacy for the poor he served and returned 2½ years ago to continue his commitment to the people of Juarez through his call to Corpus Christi Church.

Juarez, Mexico, near where Father Bill and Dr. SanJuana Mendoza serve migrants awaiting hearings on their asylum in the U.S.
Juarez, Mexico, near where Father Bill Morton and Dr. SanJuana Mendoza serve migrants awaiting hearings on their asylum in the U.S.

Father Bill shared with us several stories about the level of corruption in Mexico. He came under scrutiny when he sided with a group of 350 poor families who settled on some unclaimed land in the mesa area surrounding Juarez and established a community, according to Mexican laws. If after five years no one claims the land and the squatters improve it, they can take ownership.

However, one of the richest men in Juarez claimed, without proof, that he owned the land and he sent his bandits to destroy the homes and property. They knocked down Father Bill’s church, they burned children in their houses, murdered people and rained holy hell down upon these impoverished people trying to find a place to live.

Father Bill was warned to stay away from the squatters, since the man who was attacking them was a powerful and wealthy man who gave a lot of money to the Catholic Church. But Father Bill stood in the gap for them, putting his call to serve the poor above all else, even at great personal risk. He could not be bought.

He shared with us how corrupt Mexico is. The drug cartels hold the government at gunpoint and rob the country blind. They have “fake” teachers who don’t show up at school except to be paid, and no one can say anything or they will be targeted. When elected officials leave office, most of them do so by emptying the treasury.

Father Bill said in the midst of it, the church is one of the few places where there is not corruption. Although they also try to buy them off, most don’t give in to that temptation. He believes the church is one of the few places that will be able to effect change in Mexico,

Father Bill said that he wanted the church to be a place where they build up community, as he attempts to combat the endemic problems caused by alcoholism. He wants to focus on how people can work together finding strength as they grow as disciples with a commitment to the poor.

Father Bill is a man who doesn’t see the world as “us and them” but rather as a place where we are all called to work together to build each other up in acts of compassion, as we stand in the gap together.

Dr. SanJuana Mendoza.
Dr. SanJuana Mendoza.

From there we ventured to the clinic run by Dr. SanJuana Mendoza, who is the closest person I have ever met to Mother Teresa. She runs a “medical dispensary” where she and her partner, a dentist, offer their services for practically nothing to the impoverished people that surround her. They can’t call it a clinic or what they would be able to do would be limited by regulations.

They charge 30 pesos (about $1.50) for her medical services and a dental appointment, 50 pesos for an extraction and 100 for a filling. If the patient can’t pay, she takes whatever they can afford. And if they have meds, they provide them for free. She refuses to charge migrants. She firmly believes that no one should profit from human pain, and health care should be a right not a privilege.

Her career began working as a physician in the ER, but one day a young girl came in who was pregnant. She had no prenatal care and the baby had died in utero and was decomposing. They needed to do a complete hysterectomy. The next day, a person came in with a foot that stank so much it was unbearable. When she unwrapped it, she  saw that the foot and leg would be lost to gangrene because the person had no knowledge of diabetes or how to care for it.

Dr. Mendoza wondered why she was in the ER. People needed more care before they reached that point. One day, she saw this dispensary and she knew that was what she was called to do. Her role there is to do the basic things — teach people not to try to clean their ears with nails, how to try to take care of yourself if you are pregnant or have diabetes and how to get birth control. She is working on the margins, trying to do what she can to lessen the suffering where it is possible.

They don’t advertise, otherwise they would be overrun. Instead, people come by word of mouth. They come in malnourished and desperate and seeking a place of compassion and solidarity. She sees a lot of young girls who are pregnant and have been rejected by their families and a lot of migrants as well. A person cannot migrate if they are not healthy, so she does what she can to help them show that they can be ready to work when they seek asylum.

She told us her clinic has many needs. One is finding “virtual volunteers.” She is an excellent doctor but would relish other medical professionals to whom she could send photos of rashes and the like to share “ideas” for treatment.  Her clinic can also use pretty much anything in terms of supplies — from hoodies to jeans to walking shoes, footie pajamas and fleece in any form. The people with whom she works have nothing, so something makes a difference.

Living and working and standing in the gap in such a hopeless place is hard work, but Dr. Mendoza emanates joy. She told us she cannot be at peace if she knows someone is hungering or in pain. She said  she keeps her joy because she lives in the present, one day at a time, trusting in divine providence. For her, the past does not exist. The future is not yet. You have just today.

After telling us that, Dr Mendoza  left us with a reminder. You have just one life to live. Use it well.

After visiting Dr. Mendoza, we stopped in the park where many of the migrants are camping as they await their chance to claim asylum.  While there, we distributed many of the hats, mittens and personal care items that many of us had brought to share. The temperature had dipped to just above freezing the night before, and the migrants were ill prepared for it.

We had to literally “smuggle” the items we brought across the border, since the authorities don’t want things like them distributed. We hid them in our backpacks. It was kind of ironic that we had to “smuggle” toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, and soap to care for those who have so little. It was a small way to stand in the gap in solidarity.

The people we encountered did not swarm us or overwhelm us but had a quiet dignity as we distributed the items. It felt awkward, but I know what we brought provided some knowledge that they were not forgotten. Some games of soccer and volleyball broke out as well, so we made the human connection, which is so vital for all to remember our shared humanity.

From there, we went to Cas del Migrante, which was currently housing 336 refugees awaiting the opportunity to claim asylum in the U.S. We were hosted with tea and cookies by Sister Catherine and Sister Virginia, two “retired” nuns.

Sister Catherine had returned from years in South America to her native Ireland when she says she saw the Time magazine with the cover of Trump facing down a crying migrant child being separated from her parents. When she saw that, she knew she needed to leave Ireland and come to Mexico to serve and do what she could. “You can’t retire if you have your health,” she told us.

Sister Virginia at Cas del Migrante, which was currently housing 336 refugees awaiting the opportunity to claim asylum in the U.S.
Sister Virginia at Cas del Migrante, which was currently housing 336 refugees awaiting the opportunity to claim asylum in the U.S.

Because of the anonymity that is required for the people living at Casa del Migrante, the sisters shared with us some of the stories so we could learn more about the realities of the lives of those seeking asylum. They told us stories of people who came there who had been deported after living in the U.S. for over 30 years. They were arrested for minor traffic issues, like driving without a light in their car, handcuffed, taken away in chains and put on a plane to return to a home they hadn’t seen in over 30 years.

The violence people were fleeing was unbelievable they told us. People are struck down by rocks being thrown to their heads by the gangs and then they chop up their bodies into pieces to burn them.

Sister Catherine shared the story of a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl who faced the threat of becoming a gang girlfriend, which meant she would be gang raped and likely left for dead at some point. Her family paids a coyote $4,000 with the assurance that she would make it to the U.S. But she was subjected to horrors on the trip to Juarez and was abandoned,  dumped in an unsafe house in Juarez before she escaped. The people who run Casa del Migrante found her and she ended up returning to Guatemala, $4,000 lost and the danger the same as when she left.

People who are staying at Casa Del Migrante awaiting court dates for asylum must wear an ankle bracelet. When they leave for the final time, they remove it and leave it on the cross.
People who are staying at Casa Del Migrante awaiting court dates for asylum must wear an ankle bracelet. When they leave for the final time, they remove it and leave it on the cross.

The also told us about a family in which the husband was told he must either join a gang in El Salvador or their 6-year-old daughter would be killed. The man had written threats to prove that their lives were at risk. The family walked from El Salvador. and the daughter contracted severe bronchial spasms along the way. They now have been at Casa del Migrante for three months and are waiting on a court date to plead their case.

Sister Catherine and Sister Virginia shared with us that it was challenging work as they sought to share the burdens of those with whom they ministered. But they were also overwhelmed by the generosity and support they received. People keep providing what they need to be a place of support and sustenance in the midst of violence and despair. They also emphasised that they needed quiet time with God to keep working and serving.

They concluded our visit with what I took away as the greatest hope in this hopeless place. In the midst of squalor, violence and pain, they have chosen to be present and stand in the gap for those who have nowhere to go and need advocates and support. And they closed our visit by reminding us that people united will never be overcome.

One thought on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — Standing In The Gap”

  • Darci Asche November 25, 2019 at 4:00 pm

    Glad you could be there with these wonderful servants and the people they serve.


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