“Faces of Mission” is a bi-weekly blog series produced by the United States Catholic Mission Association highlighting our membership and all their work in and for mission. This week we feature Fr. Michael Montoya, MJ, previous Executive Director of USCMA who currently serves at a parish in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas.
The Border Reality
A distressed 29 year old gentleman came knocking at one of our parishioner’s house. He just escaped from a “sequester house” where he was being held without consent after being abducted from El Salvador and forcibly brought to the US. His family in El Salvador and U.S. were being asked to pay or he will be killed. Recently, the decomposing body of a 15 year old from Guatemala was seen close to the parish. Apparently, he was left by his group when he could no longer go on. In broad daylight, tons of marijuana have been confiscated after a violent chase, with the criminal driving to the waters of the Rio Grande River where armed men in motor boat were waiting to fetch him. In another case, more than 500 gun shots were exchanged between the police and a gang leader who lived right across the street from the church. These and many more happened within a span of two months.
Much closer to home, within a span of one week, two vandalisms happen in the church property. First, something solid was thrown on the façade of one of the churches that cracked open the stucco and bending the metal frame that holds it. Then one evening, the alarm of the parish office went off and we found later that someone has broken into the office breaking one of the windows of the office. These experiences are part of a number of stealing and vandalisms that happened in the churches of the parish in the past few years. The worst of these vandalisms happened in one of the churches where the Blessed Sacrament was desecrated. All of these experiences promote a culture of fear, of anger, of resignation. Violence and crimes in the midst of poverty seem too commonplace that inflict pain and burden on the good people that live in the area.
The ironic part is that these things happen despite the increase in number of public safety patrol units in the area. Military patrols can now be seen along the borders, together with Border Patrols, Sheriffs and the local police. Helicopters hover every so often. There are blimps stationed in 3 sections along the border, two of which are within the parish, monitoring every movement along the border.
The Response of the Gospel
This is the context of mission along the borders of the Rio Grande River. A culture of fear and violence is blatantly forcing itself onto people. In an area considered one of the poorest in the country, the poor are most vulnerable, and in particular, our young people in the communities.
As the Diocese of Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores said, “Eleven- or 12-year-olds are making decisions about whether to make money quick and easy, or risk being beat up if they choose to live an honest kid’s life and go to church or go to religious education classes. The border violence is not simply about security around the line of demarcation between two sovereign nations; battles are being fought on the borders of the soul that mark the difference between life and death, grace and sin. The conscience of an 11-year-old is the principal battleground in the current border wars.”
The border reality is mission! It is frontier situation both in its literal sense and its
missional challenge. It is within this context of the border where the call to proclaim the Good News is exigent. It is within this context of violence, poverty, isolation, fear and marginalization that we as a Church must bring the Good News of hope, peace, welcome, and love. It is within this destructive culture that the Good News need to be proclaimed loudly and clearly. It is within this human divide that we must proclaim a church that knows no borders and our God whose mercy and love is real. As Catholics, baptized in mission, it is incumbent upon us Christians to respond not so much with the political discourse or party lines. For us Catholics, there is only one discourse – the Gospel. There is only one party – God’s. There is only one response – mission!
The Missionaries of Jesus
It is within this perspective that the Missionaries of Jesus has sent Fr. Michael Montoya, MJ to help establish a brand new parish along the border. As Bishop Flores told us, “The church needs to be among the poor.” And in what the Bishop considers as the poorest section of this mission Diocese that the parish of Saint Anne was established on September 8, 2013. It is comprised of 4 poor church communities – Saint Anne in north Peñitas, Our Lady of Guadalupe in Sullivan City, Saint Michael the Archangel in Los Ebanos, and Saint Juan Diego in Citrus City. The parish extends around 20 miles east to west and 4-15 miles north to south, with about 10 miles of the parish bordering literally the Rio Grande River separating US and Mexico. The new parish also crosses demarcation lines between cities and counties.
When the Missionaries of Jesus started, we did not even have a place to live. Up until recently, one of the sacristies became the parish office. We cannot afford to hire a full time staff. For most part, the parish operates with volunteers, from the office work to the religious education. We simply cannot afford to hire a full time secretary or a religious education director. In fact, the parish could not even afford my salary. In a place that can easily use two priests and a full time staff, we are left to find creative ways to respond to the great demands of the mission entrusted to us.
Together with the financial challenge is the challenge to create a new identity as a parish.
The four church communities used to belong to two different parishes, and with one church being run and operated independently from the parish. The distance from one church community to another makes it a challenge to bring together the communities as one parish family. It does not help that there are no public transport system in the communities.
Building A Culture of Encounter In Border Parishes
This year we are focusing on creating “una cultura de encuentro” (a culture of encounter) where we grow as friends and disciples of Jesus. It is a culture that celebrates faith and life. It is a culture of welcome and of convivio (community sharing and celebration). It is an alternative culture where the values of the Gospel is promoted, lived and celebrated. To do this, we launched a holistic evangelization process – from liturgies to leadership and development training, youth encounters, establishing faith communities, outreach to the remote colonias, and creating a new program for Christian Faith formation that focuses on the growth in faith of our young people and not simply receiving sacraments. Through para-liturgical celebrations, we also reach out to the remote parts of the parish, reclaiming the whole community and our families for our faith. We celebrate our faith through the richness of the Tradition and traditions that God has blessed us.
The border reality is no joke. People live in constant danger. Poverty has a name and a
human face. We live in what others call a militarized zone. And it is in the midst of these challenges that we are called to respond as a church. Yes, I say, we because we are truly companions on this faith journey. We have a very dynamic community despite the poverty and other challenges. It is a community with deep faith in God and zeal for everything that gives life. It is a people that embrace Christianity and its long and beautiful traditions handed on to them by their ancestors in faith. But with a lot of evil forces competing with the love of God, we would like as a church to be able to give our people, particularly the children, a clear choice – a simple one for most of us here, but radical in our context, for them to choose faith over drugs, to choose the church over gangs, to choose God over the lure of easy money. As we begin to walk as a newly established parish, I would like to ask you to please pray for us and to continue supporting us. We would like to help build this newly established parish in the way God calls us to. Like a baby that is recently born, we too need a lot of help to survive and eventually to begin to walk on our own. Thank you for partnering with us in serving the least of our brothers and sisters.