Rev. Michael Montoya, MJ is the founding pastor of Saint Anne Parish (established in 2013) which comprises 4 churches along the border – Saint Anne in Pueblo de Palmas, Peñitas; Our Lady of Guadalupe in Sullivan City; Saint Juan Diego in Citrus City; and Saint Michael the Archangel in Los Ebanos. Fr. Montoya is a member of the Missionaries of Jesus, a religious institute of men working in Guatemala, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, and USA. For more information, you can contact Fr. Montoya at firstname.lastname@example.org .
La Misión Bajo la Sombra de la Migra
(Mission in the Shadow of the Border Patrol)
Rev. Michael Montoya, MJ
Picture this: About 150 people by the banks of the Rio Grande River, all Hispanics, carrying the image of Saint Michael the Archangel, some dressed in traditional Mexican attire, priests in their full vestments, altar servers with the crucifix, incense and candles. It was a beautiful Tuesday evening. In their midst, however, are two border patrol cars, a portable border tower set up just a few days earlier, helicopter hovering, and a blimp just a few distance away. The people are literally “bajo la sombra de la migra” (in the shadow of the border patrol).
It was a beautiful scene to behold, just like the movies. But this is no movie scene. It depicts the reality of the people in the communities of Saint Anne Parish, and in particular, right here at the border of Texas and Mexico in the community of San Miguel Arcangel in Los Ebanos. It is a picture of seeming contradictions: a peaceful gathering of simple people in prayers surrounded by symbols normally associated with war; where the joyful hymns sung in honor of the feast of their patron Saint Michael, belie the fear, intimidation, and at once resignation of the people living along the borders. An outwardly serene bucolic sight that hides the violent realities that our people experience day in and day out.
It has become a growing tradition in the community of San Miguel Arcangel to celebrate the patronal feast that starts with the blessing of the river – and with it, all the memories, joys, pains and hopes associated with it. The river has a very deep connection to the life of this community. It marks the community. Not only is the community bordering on 3 sides by the river, but many families on both side of the river do share a common heritage, a common history, and in fact, family members live on both sides of the river. To an outsiders’ point of view, the river and all its violent and negative connotation, defines the community. But for us, the river is a symbol of hope, of connection, of life. The river is a witness to a vibrant faith life of a people that calls this border town their home.
It needs to be noted that since the annexation of Texas in the mid-1800, this area of Texas and the towns on the other side of the river, has seen vibrant community activities. It is simply wrong to think that everyone on this side of the border have crossed the river to migrate. For some, their families have settled in these lands for generations. Some even have copies of land titles from Spain. “We did not cross the border but the border crossed us,” they would remind me.
Last year, as we celebrated the Feast of Saint Michael, there was a helicopter that hovered over us. It was such a strange sight that people began to question whether we should come back to the river as we celebrate this year. After some discussions, we decided to inform the Border Patrols of the event that we would be doing. Then came September 29, the Feast of Saint Michael. As we processed to the river, we were surprised to see a portable tower of the Border Patrol that was set up, two border patrol cars, a helicopter hovering, and a blimp. People feared whether we could still do it in the same place or if we needed to go somewhere else. They were frightened by the presence of so much patrols. But we decided that we will continue to do the ritual as planned. In the midst of the presence of such security agents, we decided to pray.
The fear of the people is quite reasonable based on the many stories that they tell me about how they are randomly stopped and checked by the different agencies in the area. One of the leaders said that it is like living in a war zone. For indeed we see patrol cars, helicopters, blimps every day. We have the presence of the Border Patrol, the County Sheriff, the State Trooper, the National Guard, the blimps, plus the local police. I have been informed that more patrols will be deployed in our area the next months. Yet despite the presence of so much patrols, violence, drugs, and human trafficking seem to continue undeterred.
People live in fear. Some people feel intimidated by so much presence of patrols, others are simply resigned to accept this reality as part of life at the border. The church has not been immune to the experiences of violence and intimidation. Despite the presence of such vigilant patrols that are supposed to safeguard, our churches have been broken into several times. Then the stories of children in our religious education program who cry because they are missing members of their family who have been deported. We also had an experience of parishioners who after a practice of the Passion play have been stopped and detained. At one point, I was in the parking lot of the detention camp from 10 p.m. – 2:30 a.m. waiting for a word on parishioners that have been detained. No one is allowed in, not even the pastor. Not all detained are undocumented – some are citizens and others with permit to work in the US. And we also have the cases of dreamers, young adults brought to the US as babies. In a neighboring church, also along the border, a person was picked up in the middle of the mass. In another church, the priest protests that during the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament another was picked up. The fear and intimidation is real.
It is in the midst of such realities that we are called to respond as a Church. It did not go unnoticed that the Holy Father, Pope Francis, prior to his US visit chose to call our area to express his care and assure his prayers for the migrant population. The moral obligation that our faith demands goes beyond what human laws limit. We are asked to proclaim a merciful and loving God whose embrace knows no frontiers. We need to be careful not to restrain the mercy of God. As Catholics, the standards set before us are higher than what the society expect from us.
As a Church, we are called to be signs of hope and mercy, where fear and resignation reigns. We need to proclaim clearly and loudly the truth of the Gospel we proclaim. Yes, it may mean waiting for hours in detention centers, or giving hope and courage to a fearful child who recently got separated from her father due to deportation. It may mean going out of the church building and celebrate in the remote corners of the neighborhoods where for fear people would not even dare go to the church. It may mean celebrating our faith “bajo la sombra de la migra.”