The US border agent frowned.
'Brownsville? Are you sure? You really don't wanna go there...'
But we did: fourteen of us representing the VC community on our annual spring break outreach trip, connecting for the first time with Guadalupe Regional Middle School, an Edmund Rice Christian Brothers school located on the very tip of Texas. What we faced, though - and what the customs official was referring to - was the hot-button issue of immigration, as Brownsville sits on the Rio Grande, right across from Matamoros, a much larger city with a high crime rate. The Brownsville border itself is a conduit for refugees seeking asylum in the US from mainly Central American countries.
Over the next eight days, while their peers slept in, lay on beaches, or generally relaxed, our boys painted and cleaned out storage sheds, tended community gardens, cooked and served meals, and distributed clothing, all in aid of refugees and other 'undocumented' immigrants. However, although there was a plethora of physical tasks, the most impactful experiences for our boys occurred when they interacted directly with these marginalized people. The two most intense opportunities for these were at Sacred Shelter in McAllen, Texas, and at La Posada Providencia in nearby San Benito. At Sacred Heart, our boys welcomed asylum seekers arriving from several harrowing weeks or months of living in fear and harassment on the road. They fed, clothed, and provided showers for folks from newborn to middle age, but most importantly, treated these beaten down people with dignity, playing with the children and sharing a welcoming smile or simple Spanish phrase with the older ones. At La Posada, the boys spent the day teaching English - 14 - on a one-on-one basis. Here, again, the simple task of practicing the alphabet quickly turned into witnessing astounding personal stories of hardship for these longer-term refugees from as diverse cultures as the Congo, Cuba, and the Ukraine.
What impressed me most of all on this trip was not how hard our boys worked or how open their hearts were to these downtrodden (though both of these were highly impressive as well!), but how they struggled deeply with the shocking realities they were facing. The long and intense work days inevitably turned into deep and involved discussions that often lasted until midnight. I watched as our boys grappled with the complex issues of immigration after having witnessed the personal and tragic stories of the victims caught in an unjust system exacerbated by political gamesmanship. Their global outlook went from ignorance to oversimplification to genuine empathy and outright rage over the course of a few days of action and reflection. They found it difficult to accept that they could not solve the problems they encountered but were ultimately empowered in understanding their mission to witness and advocate, truly be the voice for these voiceless as they return to our lives of privilege.
I encourage you to read more about one young man's experiences in Brownsville and his story of advocacy here. In my mind, these kinds of transformative experiences in the service of other are the true capstones on a VC education. Encourage your sons to get involved early with our relationships with Brownsville and Peru and look forward to more of these experiences as we connect further with our global Edmund Rice network in the years ahead. The ultimate expression of our Better Man aspirations lies in these opportunities as we equip our boys with the awareness, skills, and faith, to truly make a difference in our world.
From Grade 12 student Stephen Zelis:
"Over the course of our seven days in Brownsville, we served at Guadalupe Regional Middle School, helped at immigration centres, worked with a local parish and community, participated in the community garden program, and celebrated Mass. Throughout the trip, we constantly had the opportunity to put ourselves in solidarity with the poor and to listen to their stories. By connecting with the people on a personal level, we were able to get a glimpse into their lives and the immense struggles they face every day. It really felt like we were making an impact on their lives. Although the trip is over, we know that there is still much work needed in this area. Our trip to Brownsville was the first step that opened our eyes to the many issues with immigration today. We are so grateful for this experience, which has widened our perspective and helped us grow emotionally and spiritually."