For the Love of God

Vulnerable people arrive at southern border with physical and psychological scars from inhuman treatment. Even amid such desperation, there are rays of light and new life.

Author: Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div.

Editor’s Note: Father Joe Corpora, CSC, spent 10 days during the Christmas holidays volunteering at the Humanitarian Respite Center led by 2018 Laetare medalist Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J. Corpora shares reflections about his encounters with immigrants and refugees who made arduous journeys from their home countries to reach the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

Preying on the Poor

When people at the Humanitarian Respite Center talk about getting to the United States from places such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, so much of what they share saddens me. Along the way they have been exploited, robbed, raped — taken advantage of in unimaginable ways to profit their exploiters. How can people make a business from stealing and robbing other people, especially the most vulnerable among us?

I just can’t understand how some people in Mexico demand every last penny from immigrants to get a raft across the river into the United States. It breaks my heart when I hear story after story after story of what human beings will inflict on one another. Where is the compassion? Where is the human feeling? Where is the respect for people who have given up everything to get this far and now someone wants to charge them $50 for a floatable raft for the last part of the trip? A few weeks ago, a bus with “31 foreigners” was kidnapped near the U.S.-Mexico border by men in five vehicles. After five desperate days, the victims were found.

An article in the New York Times a few months ago outlined the big business in Panama preying on people who have come through the Darien Gap, otherwise known as 61 miles of an almost impassable jungle. The United Nations has called this the most dangerous journey for immigrants in the world. How can people seek to profit off of fellow human beings facing such risk and misery?


Corpora Border Johnston
Photo by Barbara Johnston

Who’s Helping Who?

I don’t like telling people that I spend time working at the Humanitarian Respite Center. A common reaction — that I’m some great hero helping people in need — makes me uncomfortable. I am just your above average sinner.

It’s true that I provide a listening ear and essentials such as cough syrup and diapers, powdered milk and toothbrushes — and, on this visit, the necessities for a mother to breastfeed her newborn. But the real person being helped is me. Almost every encounter with someone at the Respite Center offers a corrective for my own life. I will find myself complaining that I have a middle seat on a three-hour flight, and then remember that Juan Carlos and his wife and child spent five months walking from Colombia to the U.S.-Mexico border. Time and time again, the horrific stories the immigrants and refugees tell — and the inspiring example of their resilience and hope — helps me get over myself and my first-world problems.

When I was at Moreau Seminary from 1980 to ’83, there was a hymn I liked a lot, called “I Come Like a Beggar.”

By the hungry I will feed you,

By the poor, I will make you rich,

By the broken, I will mend you,

Tell me, which one is which?

This is my experience. The hungry feed me. The poor make me rich. The broken mend me. I am forever grateful.


They Already Feel God’s Presence

When a priest comes to celebrate Mass at the Respite Center, the homily often includes this consolation to the people: “God is with you.” I believe this truth 100 percent, with every fiber in my being. I am very fond of saying that God is present at every moment of our existence, independent of the content of the moment. I would die for this belief.

The immigrants and refugees know the truth of that statement.

“How did you cross the border?” I ask.

“With the help of God,” they invariably answer.

Yet I have to admit that I find it difficult to say “God is with you” to the immigrants and refugees at the shelter. And I don’t like hearing it. When a priest says it during a homily, I can feel my skin bristling. I have asked myself time and time again why I find it so difficult to say this to the immigrants and refugees and to hear others say it to them.

It boils down to this: To me, it just sounds cheap to say this to people who have been through a hell over many months, escaping untold dangers and near-death experiences. Though I believe God is with us at every moment, it rings hollow coming from someone like me, with my blessings and comforts, when it is the immigrants and refugees who know this truth in a way that perhaps I never will.


I Didn’t Learn This at the Seminary

Seminaries are famous for not preparing priests for the real world and the lived experiences of the People of God. Every priest will tell you this at some point. In nearly 40 years since my ordination, I have found it to be true many times.

At the shelter, one experience took the cake! While I was working at the farmacia, a woman came in terrible pain, physically and emotionally. When she crossed the border on December 26, though she was only seven months pregnant, she began having contractions. Border Patrol took her to the hospital where she gave birth to a son by a C-section. In early January, her son was still in the hospital, though he was doing fine. Doctors told her that he would be there four to six weeks. The emotional pain was from her separation from him, having no reliable way to get from the Respite Center to the hospital. I found a staff person who took her to visit her son.

The physical problem was that her body continued to produce milk but she could not breastfeed her son while they were apart. So I set out to find a breast pump and find Ziploc bags for the milk — like every priest does at least once, right?

Another baby, Mia, was born literally while her mother was crossing the border into the United States. Mia might be the cutest baby ever. Her mom shared with me that while she was going through the processing center, she asked to lie down and told Border Patrol and ICE that she was going to have the baby then and there. They called the paramedics and little Mia was born in the processing room. An American citizen — and a beam of hopeful light amid so much darkness.

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Father Joe Corpora is associate director of the Transformational Leaders Program. He is a priest-in-residence at Dillon Hall and one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. His most recent book about this latter experience is Doing Mercy: A Path to Contemplation.