Franciscan Brother PatrolsBy Fr. Anthony McGuire
the Border Himself
Brother Ed Dunn is a great Franciscan, somewhat in the mode of Friar Tuck. He combines girth and mirth. He jollies up the justice struggle. In the last years, he has spent his energies and talents in the service of immigrants and refugees. As a grandson of Irish immigrants, he has remembered well the stories of poverty and exploitation which are part of his family history and has sought creative ways to help immigrants in this time when popular sentiment has turned against them. At one point, Brother Ed organized a paper plate campaign petitioning Governor Wilson of California to restore the food stamps which had been taken away from immigrants in the Welfare Reform Act. Immigrants sent 3,000 paper plates, some with pictures of their families imprinted on the plate, the sign that plates are empty for this family because of this law. He organized a long distance call with one of the governor's aides and a whole line of people queued up for a hot lunch. All of them talked personally to the aide about their condition.
In recent months, Brother Ed has moved into a house with other Franciscans in National City, a suburb of San Diego. He has begun focussing his attention on the 14 mile wall which the Border Patrol has set up starting at Tijuana-San Diego and which blocks out entrance to California. Brother Ed shares Robert Frost's sentiments in the poem Mending Fences: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down." I went with Brother Ed once to the wall and that was my sentiment as well. This wall is a symbol of a monumental failure of international economic systems to incorporate the poor in any way that helps them rise out of poverty. The wall is another advantage for the rich, disadvantage for the poor.
I went to the wall on the last Saturday of May. Each Saturday in May a small gang of 20 from San Diego and 20 from Tijuana gathered at the border and prayed for the people who had died crossing the border. Since the wall was built, 400 have died crossing into California. A recent study in The International Migration Review cited 1600 deaths totally along the whole length of the border from California to Texas between 1993 and 1997. The whole experience was very Franciscan: simple, prayerful, mindful of poor, desperate people. What impressed me most was the reading of the names. Each Saturday, 80 names of the dead were read out loud followed by some mark of identification: "male, 20 years old" or "woman and child." What struck me was the number of young men in their 20s and, even more chilling, the number of "unidentified males." I could not help but think of wives back home or parents wondering what became of their son. They would never know. Each person who read off the names was asked to bring the names back home for daily prayer. Part of Brother Ed's efforts at the border is to underline the dignity of each person who crosses the border. In the press they can be demonized as illegal aliens, but each one is a human being struggling to survive and get ahead, oftentimes with great courage and dedication to family. The reverent mention of their names is meant to be a reminder of their inherent dignity. The wall, that scar on the border plateau, is a symbol of the place of burial. By these devotional moments, Brother Ed wants to transform scarred ground to sacred ground.
On other occasions, larger groups have come to the wall to pray on All Soul's Day, in the Advent celebrations of Las Posadas, in Holy week. On All Soul's Day white crosses with names of the dead were mounted on the wall; many marked "no identificado". These crosses were then displayed in the zocalo, the main plaza in Mexico City. By night people would come with flash lights to search out the names of cousins, brothers, sons who had crossed and never been heard from since. These crosses will be brought to Los Angeles in July to be blessed by Cardinal Mahony to help all of us in the United States become more aware of the loss of life taking place every day at our borders. In Holy Week, in front of the cathedral in Tijuana, elderly women reenacted the fourteenth station of the cross (Jesus is laid in the tomb) by placing five black wooden caskets in the plaza and leaving them there, as a sign that, unlike Jesus, many poor immigrants suffer the final indignation of death alone and no burial.
In enacting Las Posadas at the border, the lines take on new meaning and poignancy. Las Posadas is an Advent celebration, right before Christmas, reenacting the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. Joseph inquires at different doors for refuge for himself and his pregnant wife. The lines go as follows: Householder: "I cannot open the door. You may be bad people." Joseph responds: "Don't be inhuman; have mercy on us ..." Householder: "Move on and don't bother us, for if I become angry, I will beat you up." Joseph: "We are worn out."
On the cover of the program for the prayer service on the last Saturday of May, Brother Ed Dunne quoted an unidentified migrant who responded to the question: "How can we help?" by saying, "Remove the fear from the people." As St. John reminds us, "True love casts out fear." May the hard work and example of Brother Ed Dunne help to cast out that fear and build us up in love for immigrants and refugees and help us discover more creative and more just ways to respond to their needs.
"Strangers in our Midst" copyright 1999 USCC. All Rights Reserved.
Office of Migration & Refugee Services
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194 (202) 541-3000