Border Pilgrimage Report

HEARTBEAT’s second Border Pilgrimage cohort has recently returned from a seven-day journey through El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Ten of us traveled to the borderlands with the intention of learning more about the regional community, increasing our understanding of the migrant experience, and reaching out with volunteer work. We prayed. We listened. We witnessed. We worked. And we walked away determined to deepen our engagement as advocates and activists. Leading up to the journey, each pilgrim also made a commitment to raise money to provide respite supplies for migrants who are in the care of the Annunciation House. Thanks to the generosity of many, we delivered a check for over $6,000. The pilgrimage was a meaningful experience, one that showed pain and suffering, but also beauty and resilience of the border community.

“When you go home, we want you to take part of the borderlands home with you in your heart,” said my co-leader Ilka Vega when we first started planning the pilgrimage. Ilka was born in El Paso and raised in Cd. Juárez and is the Community Engagement Specialist at Hope Border Institute, an organization that works to deepen solidarity and transform the region. They provide pivotal research and witness – advocating for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and conducting thorough reporting and media outreach. With the intention of expanding understanding of the migrant experience within the context of historical and current events, each member of our group was required to study Hope Border Institute’s most recent report that documents their observation at the border.

Ilka tells the story of the families, friends, and communities separated by the border wall.

True to the HEARTBEAT pilgrimage model, our days on pilgrimage in the borderland began with Morning Prayer. We followed the text in John Philip Newell’s Praying for the Earth: A Prayerbook for Peace. Each day was also marked by a theme that would provide focus for our intentions and learning. Site visits in Cd. Juárez and El Paso packed our mornings and afternoons. Members of the group took turns sharing about their migration story (whether from country to country, state to state, or neighborhood to neighborhood) and how their family came to inhabit their current home. We learned about each other’s unique approach to spirituality and how this aspect of ourselves provides grounding for our engagement and activism. It was also normal for us to find time to observe silence, rest after long days of activity, and to journal. In the evening there were guided small group conversations to help internalize the experience and a meditation in the form of a “review of the day”, a practice originally introduced to us by Ali Newell.

On the first day of our pilgrimage, Ilka took our group to the border wall in Anapra, near Sun Valley, New Mexico. This is the area where rogue American militia members were recently unlawfully detaining migrants at gunpoint. We parked our van a few yards away from the wall with Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) vehicles stationed nearby. Our group formed a circle and Ilka told us about the construction of the wall and how it not only prevented the natural migration of people, but also the migration of animals. We discussed how moving to a new place is a fundamental necessity of life. I now think of the t-shirt that I brought home from Hope Border Institute that reads, “TODOS SOMOS MIGRANTES”, we are all migrants. Ilka spoke of the families and friends who had been separated by the wall’s construction. She reiterated a noteworthy lament of many people along the border: we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us. The pilgrims in our group took a few minutes to walk in prayer and silence for a few moments. The wall towered above and cast a long shadow. For those of us who traveled from the north and were unfamiliar with such a malicious sight, the wall’s menacing presence would stay with us for a long time.

Border wall dividing the Anapra neighborhood and Sun Valley, New Mexico

Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico

During the next two days on the pilgrimage we visited sites across the border in Juárez. We met the organizers at La Promesa, an organization that promotes the arts and culture as a strategy of recovery and organizing for community life. We heard about how their neighborhood had been decimated by violence. La Promesa was originally a safe haven for women who were frequent targets of attack. Eventually they expanded to meet the needs of young people in the neighborhood, empowering them to paint murals that now blanket multiple buildings and walls in the neighborhood. Members at La Promesa also facilitate a T-shirt design business where creating, printing and selling provide critical income.  We were inspired by the creativity and ingenuity of these leaders.

Mural painted by youth from the La Promesa Community Center.

Each experience built on the last and enhanced our understanding of the region’s story. And since a HEARTBEAT pilgrimage is more than a tour, we soon found ourselves even closer to the heart of our trip. El Buen Pastor, is a migrant shelter in the notoriously marginalized Juárez neighborhood of Anapra. It is a community that was hit hard by violence from drug cartels and is now scrambling to meet the needs of migrants. With original capacity for around 20 people, at one point El Buen Pastor hosted over 200 migrants. Most of them are waiting their turn in court to claim asylum. All of them work at the shelter during their stay. The husband and wife pastoral team of El Buen Pastor did not set out to open a shelter for migrants and we were inspired to learn that they had simply responded to the needs of those who continued to show up at their door. Providing a safe place for people to eat, sleep, and bath while they prepare for the next leg of their journey is a massive undertaking. Our cohort divided into groups that cleaned bathrooms, helped prepare a new building for remodeling (which would eventually expand space to increase capacity), and met with people staying at the shelter.

El Buen Pastor Migrant Shelter in Ciudad Juárez

Hueco Tanks

Halfway through our time together in the borderland we observed a sort of Sabbath by visiting a protected place, now a state park called Hueco Tanks. This visit provided an opportunity to acknowledge the first peoples to inhabit and migrate through the land, long before the borders of “Mexico” and “The United States”. A little weary from our travel and work, our group sought rest in this place that has long been a sanctuary to moving people moving through the region. “Hueco” (whey-coe), a Spanish word meaning hollow referred to the depressions in the rock that hold rainwater, historically providing a valuable resource for travelers making their way through the region. Pictographs in the caves possibly date back to as far as 6,000 BCE and the Kiowa, Mescalero Apache, Comanche, Tigua and the people of Isleta del Norte Pueblo consider the area to be sacred.

Pilgrimage walk in Hueco Tanks State Park

As we walked the land, we did our best to do so with reverence and respect. We took time to wander on our own in silence and listen the surrounding landscape. There were numerous birds, cactus flowers, striking rock formations, and expansive views. When the sun reached its height we sheltered in a cave for prayer, reflection, and story sharing. If Hueco Tanks provided timeless sustenance and strength for the traveler’s journey, it seemed to swell the hearts of those of us who came to more deeply connect with people who now find themselves practicing migration. We had encountered a thin place and the convergence of the land’s story and our pilgrimage intention struck a deep chord within us all. 

El Paso, Texas, United States

“Your claims do not apply to requirements for seeking asylum and I am therefor ordering your deportation,” the judge told a 19-year old who had just finished explaining his reason for traveling to the United States. He was from a rural town in Guatemala where the MS-13 gang tried to recruit him. His neighbor had already been murdered and fearing for his life he made the decision to leave, rather than join the gang. Our cohort spent two days observing court proceedings. We spent time at the U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas and the courts for the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR). Migrants who had been apprehended by CPB appeared there to plead their case and learn their fate. Most were very young – in their late teens and early twenties. In the federal court they were shackled around the wrist and ankles. Chains wrapped their waists. All wore orange, green or blue jump suits with bright orange rubber shoes. We observed the judge setting bonds ranging from $2,000-$4,000 – an unspeakable amount for those who had just spent everything in an effort to make the journey. The defendants testified paying their coyote (someone who smuggles people across the U.S.-Mexico border for hire) between $1,300-$8,500. As we sat at the back of the courtroom, tears filled the eyes of some of the members of our group. Others seethed with anger as we witnessed a system that fails the most vulnerable while prisons and detention centers make a profit.

Border pilgrims explore and enjoy the plaza in Ciudad Juárez

As a young and well-built officer escorted us out of the EOIR compound, he asked what our group had been doing. One of the older women in our group told him we had spent two days in Juárez to learn about the city. He scoffed, “Do you know how dangerous it is there?” The pilgrim asked if he had ever been into the neighboring border town. “No,” he said, “I’ll never go to Juárez.” The contrast in assumptions and experience was striking and unsettling.

While debriefing with the Hope Border Institute team, the Deputy Director Marisa Limón Garza helped us understand an additional layer of tension in the region. “Finding employment in security and law enforcement is one of the few pathways to the middle class in El Paso,“ she told us. Federally funded contracts for private prisons have created a system that provides immense financial incentive for increasing the incarceration of migrants. The superfluous and extreme militarization of our border through ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement) and CPB provides a rare opportunity for individuals to have stable employment. What we witnessed was a tremendous misappropriation of resources that pits people against people through a dysfunctional system. “The U.S. Immigration system is not broken,” a panelist remarked during a roundtable discussion at an event we attended. “It is doing exactly what it was designed to do.”

Graphic courtesy of The Guardian

From then on, we would continue to witness migrant people’s experience on the Texas side of the border. The Annunciation House network had partnered with the Catholic Diocese of El Paso to set up a temporary shelter in response to the influx of people released by ICE. During the Border Pilgrimage we spent an afternoon and evening preparing the dinner meal for about 90 people, serving food, and speaking with those staying on site. “In every journey there is beauty and there is bitterness,” one man told us towards the end of the meal. Some of us joined a pick-up game of soccer after our shared meal, finding a common language in the dance of working together to move a ball across a small field and into a goal. It was an evening that seemed to stretch on and on. The connections we made were strengthened through the tears, laughter and stories shared. It was another oasis – a thin place for those who paid attention.

Border pilgrims get ready to serve a meal to migrants at the Catholic Diocese of El Paso

Organizing for Change

While we were in El Paso we learned that another child had died while in CPB/ICE custody. According to reports, 16 year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez crossed the border near El Paso with a hired coyote. He died in a hospital on April 30. At the writing of this article six migrant children have died during President Trump’s tenure. I thought of my two children back home and wondered how the parents must be grieving at this loss of life. Hope Border Institute’s Executive Director Dylan Runner explained that the increase in deaths is a direct result of the Administration’s policy that has placed increased pressure on migrants. After extending the border wall, families now must travel into dangerously rugged and desolate landscape for an opportunity to cross. Increased wait times in processing centers adds to the risk of illness while in custody.

16 year-old Juan de León Gutiérrez from Guatemala

I was reminded of a scripture from the Book of James that I have known since childhood, “Faith without works is dead.” Our Border Pilgrimage cohort assembled because of our shared resonance with the vision of Celtic Spirituality and a desire to more effectively resist the injustice facing those migrating to the United States. I’ll never forget John Philip Newell recounting the story of his first meeting with the late George MacLeod on the Isle of Iona as they discussed the dangers and injustice of nuclear proliferation. “Newell, what are we going to do about this?” he asked. Having witnessed the systems of oppression and exploitation of migrants as they make their way north, we put that same question to our cohort.

During our last evening together, we conducted an ‘organizing workshop’. We spent time in prayer and reflected on our journey. Next, we identified meaningful, emotional, and significant moments from our experience. We looked for themes and moved to align those moments with personal core values. Each pilgrim spent time writing about what they wanted to accomplish upon their return home. Some wanted to give presentations to increase awareness. Others wanted to join activist groups. We set realistic goals and deadlines for continued advocacy and action. Finally, we divided into three teams where we could provide ongoing support, community, and accountability for our commitments.

Border Pilgrimage group crosses the Paso del Norte Bridge from Juárez into El Paso

On the final morning of our pilgrimage each of us had our feet anointed with oil, marking the sign of a Celtic cross with a final prayer:

May your feet be blessed
May you have strength for the journey
May you remember the journey of the migrant, the refugee, and the asylum seeker.

The road ahead is long. For some more than others, and in different ways. Ilka relayed a saying that has stuck with me whenever I think of the tall steel beams of the border wall, “the wound is where the healing comes.”


Ben is the Executive Director of HEARTBEAT and has been leading pilgrimage and other spiritually oriented trips for over a decade. He is certified in spiritual accompaniment (also known as spiritual direction). As residents of Portland, OR since 2014, Ben and his family challenge themselves to live sustainably through their energy efficient tiny house and thriving vegetable garden. Ben comes from an evangelical Christian background but now like many of his generation, finds himself deeply committed to spiritual practice without formal religious membership.