Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
In late June, I traveled to El Paso to report on the immigration advocacy of Catholic nuns, but I spent my first full day of reporting in Ciudad Juárez, learning about a project that had little to do with migration. After I met a group of nuns at their rural home in La Union, New Mexico, we walked through a deserted border checkpoint into Anapra, one of Juárez’s poorest colonias—low-income, unincorporated areas that lack basic utilities like potable water and paved roads. There, the sisters run a free clinic and school for disabled Mexican children in a small structure of adobe, straw bale, and cement: Proyecto Santo Niño.
I spent the day at the clinic, speaking with the Catholic sisters and the mothers. Sister Carol Wirtz, one of the three nuns who founded Santo Niño in 2003, is a nurse. She spent much of the day administering physical therapy to the children. Trained in Western medicine, Wirtz also practices Reiki, a form of alternative medicine involving palm massages that are said to transfer healing energy from the practitioner to the patient. As Wirtz massaged a young woman who suffers from brain-damaging seizures, the 17-year-old’s brow seemed to relax; on the other side of the room, two mothers bathed a little boy with epilepsy—the next in line to doze off under Wirtz’s touch.
Even in the late 2000s, when Juárez was considered the most violent city in the world, the sisters trooped over the border three times a week to work in the clinic. Today, the moms, especially those who’ve been coming for a decade or more, oversee the clinic’s daily operations. Because caring for a disabled child in a colonia amounts to a full-time job, many of them do not work for pay outside the clinic. But inside, they administer physical therapy and run the kitchen and the classroom; a few even hold paying jobs there. A young mom named Cristina has developed her own mythology about the place. Several children treated at Santo Niño have died over the years, and she believes that one in particular still watches over the clinic.
After mopping the floor of the kitchen, which also serves as the dining room and the classroom, Cristina led me into the building’s center room. She pointed to a doorway in the back. One day not long ago, she said, she was passing through the clinic alone when she thought she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a child standing in the doorway. The sight took her a moment to register, and when she returned to look, the figure was gone. At the time, Cristina told the story to one of the clinic’s founders, Sister Janet Gildea, a beloved member of the community who died of cancer this past spring. Imitating Gildea’s reply, Cristina put her hand on my shoulder. “Oh, yes. That’s the ghost,” she said in Spanish, eyes glinting. “The ghost of Santo Niño.”
El Paso, United States
Later that day, after returning to New Mexico, the Santo Niño sisters packed microphones and speakers into their car and headed to El Paso for a community gathering. Each year, Annunciation House—a nonprofit in El Paso that shelters migrants—hosts a themed dinner. This year’s “Voice of the Voiceless” meal of rice and beans honored refugee children. The room was full of volunteers and, hardly to my surprise, nuns. I met Sister Beatrice Donnellan, who runs Annunciation House’s partner shelter, Casa Vides, in El Paso, as well as two nuns who run a shelter in Chaparral, New Mexico, near the Otero County Processing Center, which holds ICE detainees. I heard from volunteers—laypeople and sisters alike—that the shelters had all but emptied in recent days. Because of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, the flow of migrants has slowed dramatically, leaving dozens of beds empty.
I also met Sister of Mercy Betty Campbell, 84, and Father Peter Hinde, a 96-year-old Carmelite priest. They have been living in Ciudad Juárez for two decades, in a house they call Casa Tabor. I would stay with them that night and spend the next day in Juárez.
After dinner, Campbell, Hinde, three friends, and I hopped into a pickup truck and headed to the Santa Fe Bridge, the city’s most trafficked footpath to Mexico. (I sat cross-legged in the trunk of the hatchback.) We flashed our passports at a pair of agents and paid the obligatory 50 cents to cross. When we arrived on the other side, Campbell hailed a taxi and Hinde started to dictate their address. The taxista cut him off, laughing. “I know who you are!” he said. “To your house, then?”
I woke up at 6:50 A.M., in time to join Campbell and Hinde for their daily 7 A.M. prayer. When Hinde asked whether I wanted to comment on the biblical passages he read in Spanish, I declined at first. (I’m not Catholic.) But I wondered, and later asked aloud, whether there really is any inherent value to suffering, as some Christian teachings suggest. I was thinking of the migrants I knew to be languishing in frigid, overcrowded detention centers on the other side of the border, or living in the streets of Mexico, waiting for a court date. Can’t we value people and honor resilience without elevating pain?
After the morning prayer, we ate oatmeal and toast. Casa Tabor is a modest stucco house; curtains divide the space into a main room and two bedrooms with bunk beds. The bathroom is the only room with a door. Campbell often sleeps on a mattress in the main room so she can listen to the street sounds at night. There’s a concrete patio in the backyard; Campbell and Hinde have built a wooden structure on top of it, with three walls and a ceiling, which they’ve fashioned into a room-size shrine of sorts. Campbell has painted faces and scenes on the walls—one depicting migrants crossing the desert under a blazing sun. She has also written thousands of names on the walls to commemorate people killed and disappeared in Mexico, and migrants who have died crossing the desert in the U.S.
Campbell and Hinde used to run a domestic violence shelter in their house, but recently they’ve slowed down. Now they host “border immersion” groups: Americans, mostly, who have traveled to El Paso to learn about the border. Campbell and Hinde, who is a co-founder of the international organization Christians for Peace, are passionate about foreign policy. Despite President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, Campbell, a pacifist, hasn’t decided whether she’ll vote in 2020 if the Democratic nominee doesn’t plan to invest in Central American peace and stability.
A border immersion group from Annunciation House arrived at Casa Tabor around 11 A.M. After a discussion in the house, everyone filed outside and gathered under the shrine’s roof. We plucked paper slips out of bowls and copied the names written on them—of people disappeared or murdered in Mexico—onto the walls.
Later, I accompanied Campbell and Hinde to the chapel where Hinde gave the mass every other Sunday for over a decade: Capilla San Esteban. Today, he and the permanent priest delivered the mass, repeating the same sentence we said during the morning prayer: “Señor, mi alma tiene sed de ti”—Lord, my soul is thirsting for you. I was struck by how well-known and well-loved Campbell and Hinde are in their community. In their travels through Latin America, they said, that was not always the case.
The pair told me a story about their early days working in Peru. They’d gone there to set up a ministry, hoping to offer services to the local community, but one day at a meeting, a man spoke up. Good house guests do not enter a home uninvited, he said. And when they do enter, they do not rearrange the furniture. Campbell and Hinde resolved never to force themselves on a community again. Years later, when they moved to Juárez, they had no plans to set up a shelter or offer services. They simply planned to live humbly, “in solidarity” with the poor. Eventually, their plans changed, as they grew close to the neighbors and learned how they could contribute more actively and effectively. But the lesson from Peru has stayed with them, visible even now in Campbell’s pained expression when she recounts the memory.