It’s close to 1,200 miles from St. Joseph’s Academy in Frontenac to the U.S./Mexico border in El Paso, Texas.
But after journeying to the border town and back — and encountering the people there — it doesn’t feel so far away, said Lila Summers, a senior at St. Joseph’s Academy.
“We’re all humans, we’re all one — we just go through different experiences,” she said.
Lila was one of five St. Joseph’s students who joined about 40 other high schoolers from the archdiocese on the Solidarity at the Border pilgrimage
in early November. The pilgrimage, organized by the archdiocesan Office of Peace & Justice, the Immigration Task Force and the Office of Youth Ministry, was held this year for the first time since 2019 and is centered around the annual Mass at the Border.
The Nov. 5 border Mass, celebrated just a few days after All Souls’ Day, marked the 25th time that the border cities of El Paso, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, have gathered to pray for those who have died trying to reach the U.S., including the more than 850 people who died crossing the border in the past year. Catholics gathered on either side of the Rio Grande, where Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso celebrated Mass from a raised platform constructed over the river.
Lila, along with Arden Menzel, Judith Vazquez-Perez, Frankie Schuman and Malae Hill, heard about the pilgrimage from theology teacher Ann Hammer. The girls all cited a desire to experience visiting the border and learn more about immigration from people on the front lines; and for Judith, it was even more personal.
“I have family from Mexico who immigrated here to the U.S.,” she said. “I’ve never been to Mexico, but (I wanted) to go see what my parents had gone through.”
In addition to the border Mass, the pilgrimage also included a hike and Mass at Mt. Cristo Rey in New Mexico and visits with a migrant woman’s cooperative, the Border Patrol, Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso and Annunciation House, which offers shelter and hospitality to recently arrived migrants in the El Paso-Juarez border community.
The group had the chance to talk with two families who had recently arrived in the United States, one from Mexico and one from Honduras. Getting to know recently arrived migrants and asylum seekers as people, instead of statistics, makes a big difference, Arden said.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric going around in the media that the people who are coming into the United States are unsafe, or they are drug dealers. But really, at the end of the day, they’re families, they’re mothers and fathers, they’re just people,” Arden said. “We’re all the same. And if we’re able to help them — we have so much privilege, living in this country, that for us not to do anything is selfish and absurd.”
Being at the border wall for Mass was powerful — and tough, Frankie said. As they walked through the border wall, onto the strip of land between the wall and the Rio Grande, they saw lots of belongings left behind by those crossing into the U.S. “We just saw all these little pairs of shoes, pairs of pants, little backpacks from little kids. There was a pair of headphones that were the same kind my sister used to own,” Frankie said. “I was looking at all of it and realizing that while I was growing up (in St. Louis), there are these kids who are crossing borders with their parents and swimming across rivers just to get to where I was. It was really heavy.”
Now, the students are making a point to share their experiences with their classmates and friends, drawing others into solidarity and service here at home.
“I don’t think people are aware how many immigrants come to St. Louis,” Malae said. Judith agreed: “I wish everyone knew that (immigration is) affecting people who are literally sitting right next to them. People usually think, ‘Oh, that’s happening in Texas, who cares? It’s not affecting me.’ But really, there are so many people here in St. Louis that have family or are going through it themselves.”
It starts with awareness and then moves to action, Judith said. On the bus back, the teenagers discussed different ideas to bring back to their St. Louis circles. Even small things, like the Mexican fish fries at her parish, St. Cecilia in south St. Louis, can serve as a starting point for people to learn more about immigration, Judith said.
In addition to the St. Joseph’s Academy participants, students from Notre Dame High School, Rosati-Kain High School, Vianney High School, Cardinal Ritter College Prep, Villa Duchesne High School and Cor Jesu Academy took part in the pilgrimage, as well as students from Saint Louis University.
Joy Garavaglia, a student at Notre Dame High School, decided to go on the border pilgrimage to learn about immigration issues firsthand. Now that she has, she’s eager to get involved in serving migrants and refugees back home in St. Louis. In the upcoming weeks, the pilgrimage’s sponsoring offices will host organizations and agencies serving immigrants in the archdiocese, inviting those who went on the trip to find ways to continue learning and serving here at home.
“We’re (going to) meet with many different organizations that we can support, and help inform our schools about ways we can help welcome people that are looking for a better life,” Joy said.
To read more about the Mass at the Border, visit: stlreview.com/3A22RQW