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The Jesuit Border Podcast

The Jesuit Border Podcast

Author: The Jesuit Post

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Brian Strassburger, SJ, and Joe Nolla, SJ, are two Jesuits based in the diocese of Brownsville, TX, and working in the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico Border. This podcast will share on-the-ground stories and interviews that highlight the tremendous response to the migrant situation from a Catholic perspective.
53 Episodes
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We are thrilled to welcome Rafael Cortes to this episode of the podcast. While he works professionally as a pilot, he spends his days off joining us for our migrant ministry. He tells the story of how he connected with the Jesuits and started by making sandwiches at their sides. He became involved with the Catholic community at the plaza in Reynosa, and now he helps lead a men’s prayer group at Casa del Migrante by sending them a nightly reflection every day. He also loves to play favorites, so he shares the story of Eric, a young boy from Honduras who stole his heart with a hug. Brian and Joe also reflect on the Lenten theme of prayer. Brian talks about the unaccompanied minors who write down their prayer intentions on little pieces of construction paper before Mass. It’s remarkable to hear the affectionate ways that they address God, and the moving prayers that they offer. Joe shares the story of Isis, a Venezuelan migrant who used to be a seminarian. He started leading a nightly rosary in his shelter in Matamoros to gather the people together for daily prayer. Joe and Brian have a good laugh about his name, Isis (pronounced “EE-sis” in Spanish). Rest assured, when we say that “Isis is at our border,” we’re not talking about terrorists!
We are excited to welcome Eleanor Acer, who is the Senior Director of Refugee Protection at Human Rights First. Established in 1978, Human Rights First works in the U.S. and abroad to promote respect for human rights and the rule of law. Eleanor shares how her pro bono work with asylum seekers inspired her to shift her legal career from securities litigation to human rights defense. Addressing the theme of fasting, Eleanor talks about the many essentials that migrants don’t give up willingly, but are denied, including access to safety and the protection of their rights. Brian and Joe reflect on the ways that many migrants they encounter “fast.” Joe shares the story of Guerline, a migrant from Haiti who embodies the spirit of fasting in the sense of denying oneself in order to help others. Brian talks about unaccompanied minors in the U.S., like Carmen, who are forced to fast from cell phone use while they are in centers and their case is being reviewed. It often provokes self-reflection from the teenagers as they are freed from the distractions of social media. Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to force a cell phone fast from teenagers in your own family! Eleanor also encourages listeners to contact their representatives in Congress to let them know that the protection of access to asylum is an important issue for you, especially in this election year. If you would like to call your own representative, you can find their information by inputting your address on this page.
For our first episode of Season 6, we are thrilled to welcome back to the podcast our former co-host, Louie Hotop, SJ, who is the Assistant Principal for Mission at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver, CO. Louie is helping us launch the Lenten theme for this season by sharing the moving experience of celebrating Ash Wednesday in the camp in Matamoros last year. He reflects on the theme of repentance as we enter Lent, and shares stories of some of the people whom he continues to carry with him even as he has moved on from the border. Plus, he talks about the time he heard confessions while sitting on an overturned bucket crammed between tents in a migrant camp. In this episode, Brian and Joe talk about moments of repentance and God’s healing mercy. Joe reflects on the importance of discernment with feelings of guilt and sin. He shares the story of a young girl carrying a guilt that she needed to free herself from, to be able to see the way God was looking on her with love. Brian shares a time he responded uncharitably over text in a conversation with Yurlin, a pregnant woman who was in Reynosa. It didn’t take long for him to remember that a pregnant single mother of two young girls living in a shelter in northern Mexico deserves a little more compassion and respect!
We are getting ready for Season 6 of The Jesuit Border Podcast! As we continue to learn about the migrant situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and the humanitarian response of the Catholic Church, we will continue to share stories and experiences with you, along with great interviews with people dedicated to the accompaniment and protection of migrants. This season will be specifically designed for Lent. We will cover Lenten themes like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Join us every Tuesday this Lent to reflect on the themes of the liturgical season in light of the migrant experience. The first episode of Season 6 will come out on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
Earlier this season, it was our pleasure to welcome Susan Bigelow-Reynolds, Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at Emory University. If you enjoyed hearing from her in Episode 2, here is the full interview. Susan shares her experience of living in Brownsville years ago and watching out her front window as the border wall was being constructed, an experience that helped inspire her to study theology. Susan spent Holy Week with us in April 2023, so she reflects on that experience, and especially the power of the liturgy and its symbols in the midst of marginalized communities like a migrant camp. The full interview also includes her reflections on the contrasts and commonalities between her experience living on the border, and her experience in the diverse parish of St. Mary of the Angels in the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston. Susan also advocates for the value of doing theological research on the ground to become more intimate with people’s lived realities.
For our final episode of Season 5, we are thrilled to welcome Fr. Flavio Bravo, SJ, a Jesuit priest working with us at Del Camino Jesuit Border Ministries. Flavio has been on the border since December of 2022, so he has a wealth of experiences to share from our ministry. He has a particularly strong link to the migrants we accompany since he himself came to the U.S. as a migrant, fleeing the violence in his home country of Nicaragua in the 1980’s and coming to the U.S. alone, as a teenager.  The image of how we carry one another comes up throughout the interview. Flavio reflects on how we hold and carry the stories of so many migrants as they share with us their pain and suffering, their hopes and dreams. We talk about how we carry each other and lift one another up as a Jesuit community, bringing our unique gifts and talents. And we smile and laugh at stories of carrying migrants, literally speaking, when we pick small kids up and put them on our shoulders. It’s all fun and games, until Joe ends up with a leaky diaper on his neck! Enjoy this final episode of Season 5, and look for us again in the new year!
We are pleased to welcome Pastor Abraham Barberi, Pastor of Comunidad Esencia Urbana in Matamoros and Director of Ministerio Una Misión. Pastor Abraham shares how his ministry started in Matamoros by reaching out to youth and young adults through hip hop music. His story is filled with moments where he just said yes when needs arose, including a chance encounter with asylum seekers on the bridge and the unplanned opening of the Dulce Refugio shelter at his church. Brian and Joe share their own moments of saying yes. Brian tells the story of meeting Hajar, an Iranian migrant he met at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX. His initial curiosity, aided by online translation, led him to learn more about her story and its complexities. Joe shares the story of a teenage girl who was released from being kidnapped in Mexico. They connected on a deeper level as she awaited the release of her other family members. It’s a moving story, and this was not the first time Joe has shared it publicly. But the first time came after a twelve-hour road trip across the state of Texas when he was unexpectedly put on the spot! Rest assured, he was better rested and more prepared this time.
We are delighted to welcome Christine Meyer, a parishioner at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in New York City and a member of their Ignatian social justice committee. Christine came to visit Brownsville in January 2022 with other members of the parish, and the experiences of that visit transformed the group. She shares the ways that she has gotten involved locally in New York City with migrants arriving in the city and facing numerous obstacles as they get settled. As stories of migrants arriving in New York City have dominated the news recently, Christine offers insightful and moving reflections from her on-the-ground perspective, while lifting up the stories of some real heroes. Brian and Joe share stories of resilience in the midst of adversity. Joe talks about a food shortage at a shelter in Mexico and how he turned to his prayer squad for help. Brian shares the story of Alejandro, an older man from Venezuela, who was in a place of real despair. He needed a reminder of all the amazing ways God was working through him at the shelter, including his self-appointed role as photographer for every Mass! He might go a little overboard with the amount of photos and videos he takes, but there is no doubt that he has taken on the job with great pride.
We are thrilled to welcome Annie Leone, who is a nurse midwife at the Holy Family Birth Center and a care provider at the clinic at the Humanitarian Respite Center (HRC) run by Catholic Charities. Annie gives a helpful background on midwifery (including how to pronounce that word!), and she describes the birthing center and its origin story. She also shares from her years of experience attending pregnant women at the clinic at the HRC, including the many accounts of partners getting separated by U.S. immigration and stories of the trauma and violence encountered at home and on the journey. Brian and Joe reflect on how their horizons have broadened from their ministry on the border. Joe talks about how drastically his perceptions of migrants have changed after his first few months on the border, including meeting William, a political refugee from Venezuela who went out of his way to care for others. Brian shares a privileged moment of being welcomed into the sacred space of a preteen girl’s farewell party at Casa del Migrante. It might be hard to believe, but it all started with a shared love for…mathematics.
We are happy to welcome Deacon Luis Zuñiga, the Director of San Juan Diego Lay Ministry Institute in the Diocese of Brownsville, TX. Deacon Luis is a native to the Rio Grande Valley and has a twin brother who is a priest. We talk about the great women in his life who raised him and his brother in the faith. Deacon Luis also serves at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral downtown, so we discuss how the cathedral opened up its old gym as a respite center for migrants. He shares stories of the many wounds that he has seen on migrants who have come to their door: from cuts crossing razor wire by the river, to bruises and scars from physical abuse during kidnappings. Brian and Joe reflect on their own encounters with the woundedness of migrants they have accompanied. Joe shares the story of a woman who came to the hygiene counter at the Humanitarian Respite Center and needed healing that no medicine alone could provide. Brian recounts the story of Michel, a pregnant woman in Reynosa, whose situation kept increasing in vulnerability as he tried to help get her the resources she needed. It is a story that Michel will likely tell to her newborn child for the rest of her life, and one that Brian won’t soon forget!
We are excited to welcome Susan Bigelow-Reynolds, Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at Emory University and author of the recently published book, People Get Ready: Ritual, Solidarity, and Lived Ecclesiology in Catholic Roxbury. Susan shares her experience of living in Brownsville years ago and watching out her front window as the border wall was being constructed, an experience that helped inspire her to study theology. Susan spent Holy Week with us in April of 2023, so she reflects on that experience, and especially the power of the liturgy and its symbols in the midst of marginalized communities like a migrant camp. Brian and Joe share stories about the tangible dimension of our faith, including the popularity of getting sprinkled with holy water and the high demand for rosaries. They also share a moving story of a couple of young migrant girls turning waste into beauty by making crosses out of discarded items that they scrounged together in their camp in Reynosa. And at the end of the episode, you’ll hear Brian’s inevitable future assignment!
For our first episode of Season 5, we are humbled to welcome Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami, FL. Growing up in south Florida as the son of Polish immigrants, Archbishop Wenski learned Spanish in the seminary and Haitian Creole as a young priest. He shares stories from his 18 years of experience working with the Haitian community. He reflects on his understanding of a missionary spirit that invites one to enter another language or cultural space as a guest and learner. In this episode, Brian and Joe talk about the hospitality that they have received from migrants. The shelters where they minister are spaces where they are really guests of the migrants who live there, and who often want to show hospitality, as any host would to a guest. They share the story of Yurgelis, a migrant woman from Venezuela who generously offered them a meal as a farewell. On another occasion, Juan Diego, a migrant man from southern Mexico, served them chalupas after a Mass in Reynosa. Keep in mind, these were authentic chalupas from Guerrero, Mexico, and not chalupas from Taco Bell. (Not that there is anything wrong with those!)
It’s with heavy hearts but trust in God’s plan that we want to share the news that Fr. Louie has been missioned to a new apostolate, Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver, CO.  In this bonus episode, Louie and Brian reflect on saying goodbyes, something that is a regular part of life on the border working with migrants. They share the story of a Honduran family of five that spent several months in Casa del Migrante in Reynosa. During that time, their three children were baptized in a beautiful service at the shelter. After three months of trying, they finally got an appointment through the CBP One app to present at the bridge, and Louie and Brian were there to welcome them to the U.S. with (what else??) a trip to McDonald’s! Louie and Brian also reflect on the news of Louie’s new mission and the sadness of saying goodbye to our ministry and friends here in the Rio Grande Valley. If you want to send a message of thanks and well-wishes to Louie, rate our podcast and add your message in a comment. Let’s send him out with lots of love!
In this bonus episode, Louie and Brian offer their perspective on recent events that have dominated news headlines. They talk about the tragic circumstance in which eight migrants were struck and killed by a truck outside of a migrant shelter, The Ozanam Center, in Brownsville on Sunday, May 7th. They attended a pair of vigil services the day after the tragedy to pray for the men who lost their lives and for their families. Then they discuss how, on May 11th, with much anticipation and heightened media coverage, Title-42 finally came to an end. In the days following the fall of the pandemic policy that has governed the border since March 2020, the Jesuits have encountered a different reality than was being predicted. The bottom line: the border has not suddenly “opened,” and many people are still stuck in terrible and dangerous conditions in northern Mexico. This episode ends with Brian and Louie sharing a couple of stories of the joy and humor that continues to mark their ministry. In this case, one story involves Fr. Louie being literally marked with the snot of a 2-year-old girl. It’s perhaps the closest he’ll ever get to true fatherhood!
Earlier this season, it was our pleasure to welcome Joanna Williams, the Executive Director of the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), onto the podcast. KBI is a binational program in the border cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, which includes a shelter and soup kitchen for migrants, education and encounter programs, along with advocacy outreach in both the U.S. and Mexico. If you enjoyed hearing from her in Episode 2, here is the full interview. Joanna shares the story of what brought her to KBI in 2011 and the stories that continue to inspire her work. She reflects on how her migrant ministry is truly a vocation, and how that ministry has been enhanced and deepened through her own motherhood since the recent birth of her daughter. The full interview includes stories of the many artistic talents she’s encountered among migrants, from a now “semi-famous” painter to many talented singers. She also reflects on persistence in the midst of adversity and offers her take on reframing migration in a more positive light through insights drawn from Catholic theology.
For our final episode of Season 4, we are thrilled to welcome Fr. James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest who is a best-selling author and editor-at-large at America Magazine, along with hosting a podcast on the Ignatian Examen. The Examen is a contemplative prayer of reflecting on the moments of your day, noticing how God has been at work, and considering how you responded. For this episode, Louie and Brian turn the interview around, and invite Fr. Martin to interview them and lead them on a guided Examen of their nearly two years of ministry on the U.S.-Mexico border. They reflect on moments of growth and grace, of challenge and failure. They share stories that have meant so much to them, like when children carried the cross around the Reynosa plaza on Good Friday, or when Louie went looking for displaced migrant friends at local Reynosa shelters the day after the plaza was forcibly cleared out. They highlight two people who inspire them (that’s you Rafael and Sr. Rose!), and even spend a few minutes saying nice things about each other. They conclude the episode (and the season) with a prayer, for all the migrants that they have encountered carrying their crosses and in gratitude for this ministry that reveals the face of Christ daily.
We are pleased to welcome Laura Peña, the new Director of ProBAR, the south Texas pro bono asylum representation project. She is also the host of the new podcast, Valle de Sueños, which tells the story of the roll down of the “Remain in Mexico” policy in 2021 in Matamoros, Mexico. As a Rio Grande Valley native, Laura shares about the joys and challenges of living on the border and the beautiful networks that form among advocates when they work together for a common cause. Louie and Brian explore the art of storytelling and reflect upon how this podcast has been not only a useful tool for their ministry, but also a means for them to personally reflect more deeply upon their own experiences. They share some of their favorite stories that have come out of the podcast, and they talk about some of the limitations of the medium. If anyone out there is looking to be a pro bono translator / voice-over artist, feel free to reach out!
We are excited to welcome Pastor Carlos Navarro from the Baptist Church in West Brownsville, TX. Pastor Navarro got a call from the Brownsville mayor a few years ago to help receive migrants. That phone call turned into a shelter that he continues to run today, along with the everyday operations of his ministry. Pastor Navarro also shares from his own experience as a migrant from Guatemala, and the unlikely path he took from San Francisco bartender to Baptist pastor. Louie and Brian reflect on celebrating Mass with migrants during Lent and some of the difficulties of conveying the joy of the Gospel when the musical selections can be so somber. They also reflect on the joy that begins every celebration of Mass they share with migrants, when they call out the countries that people come from. Don’t forget “los gringos!”
We are pleased to welcome Fr. Rafael García, SJ, who is the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in El Paso, TX. He shares from his own background as a migrant fleeing Cuba for Miami, and how this inspired his deep care for migrants and his mission to the border city of El Paso. His church made the news in the winter when they opened up their gymnasium to house migrants in response to a pressing need in the community. Since opening their doors, they have continued to offer food and overnight shelter. Louie and Brian reflect on their own experience of responding to needs. With the CBP One app currently serving as the only means for migrants in northern Mexico to access the U.S. through ports of entry, having a smartphone is essential. So imagine the exacerbation of an Ecuadorian couple in Senda 2 who had one phone stolen in southern Mexico, and dropped the other in a gutter. It was time to issue a call to search desk drawers to help this couple out!
We are excited to welcome Joanna Williams, the Executive Director of the Kino Border Initiative (KBI). KBI is a binational program that includes a shelter and soup kitchen for migrants in Nogales, Senora, and education and encounter programs, along with advocacy outreach in both the U.S. and Mexico. Joanna shares the story of what brought her to KBI in 2011 and the stories that continue to inspire her work. She reflects on how her migrant ministry is truly a vocation, and how that ministry has been enhanced and deepened through her own motherhood since the recent birth of her daughter. Louie and Brian share the story of Pilar’s vocation as a father, and the sacrifices he’s made to support his family on their journey north from Honduras. They also share their own vocational calls to minister at the border. Brian’s was a call born out of living in Nicaragua, spending a summer at KBI, and focusing on migration in theology studies. Louie’s was a phone call from the provincial that came by surprise!
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