In a podcast, two Jesuit priests document their ministry along the southern border

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(RNS) – During the years of work for their priestly formation, the Revs. Brian Strassburger and Louie Hotop got used to tough missions. Hotop taught English in a one-room school in Siberia and looked after the homeless in San Francisco, while Strassburger looked after young people in rural Nicaragua and was chaplain in Boston.

Now, after Strassburger and Hotop were ordained in July, the two are working together, having been sent to the Diocese of Brownsville in Texas to minister in the Rio Grande Valley along the US-Mexico border.

With no existing Jesuit community there, they rented a house and got to work. They celebrate mass with migrants on both sides of the border – at a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas, and at a migrant camp at an outdoor plaza in Reynosa, a town in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. – and helped with everything from making ham and cheese sandwiches to serving queues of people asking for milk and diapers for their babies.

It was revealing to see the large numbers of migrant women and children along the border, said Strassburger – in contrast to what he called a stereotype of single young men “looking to steal American jobs” – as well as seeing how the migrants themselves look after each other by cooking and keeping Reynosa camp safe. Strassburger and Hotop were also struck by the level of faith-based organization at the border.

A panoramic view of Reverend Louie Hotop leading mass at a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico. Courtesy photo


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These experiences are what prompted Strassburger and Hotop to launch a podcast to document the stories of migrants, advocates and organizations they meet on both sides of the southern border. It’s called “The Jesuit Border Podcast” and so far includes two episodes: the first features an interview with Bishop Daniel Flores, who heads the Diocese of Brownsville; the second presents Nancy Dimas with the legal team of Project Dignity, a ministry of Catholic Charities RGV. The goal of the podcast is to explore immigration through the prism of Catholic social education. The first episode went live on November 16.

“The important thing for us is not to shed light on us or on what we do or on the great things that the Jesuits do, but to shed light on the people who have passed here… who are working on the border and also the migrants themselves whose stories are worth telling, ”said Hotop, 31, who radioed while studying philosophy at the University of St. Louis.

Reverend Brian A. Strassburger holds a photo given to him at a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas.  Courtesy photo

Reverend Brian Strassburger holds a photo given to him at a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas. Courtesy photo

Strassburger, 37, said he hoped that through this work they could convey to migrants “there are American citizens who really care about their rights.”

“I don’t want them to feel like they’re being thrown out or neglected or ignored or forgotten,” said Strassburger, who was editor of The Jesuit Post.

In their first episode, “Life and dignity of the human person”, priests recap their first time at Reynosa camp. Without knowing anyone, they arrived at the camp, unloaded hygiene products and other donated goods from their car, and quickly lost order as crowds of people showed up. They thought, “There must be a better way.

Soon Hotop and Strassburger, with the initial help of a volunteer from Médecins Sans Frontières, began to familiarize themselves with the organizational structures of the camp. They learned that the migrants took charge of the distribution efforts, prioritizing those who arrived most recently at the camp. It was a source of inspiration for priests.

“Those who live side by side in the struggle in this very difficult situation are choosing to step up and help each other,” Hotop said.

Reverend Brian A. Strassburger, left, and Reverend Louie Hotop speak to migrants at a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas.  Courtesy photo

Rev. Brian Strassburger, left, and Rev. Louie Hotop speak to migrants at a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas. Courtesy photo

Currently, Hotop and Strassburger spend half of their time looking after the two parishes assigned to them in and around the Brownsville area. They lead a group of young people and celebrate masses, weddings and baptisms. The other half is devoted to responding to the situation of migrants. The priests divide their time between the McAllen Respite Center – which is run by Catholic Charities – and the Reynosa Migrant Camp, across the border from McAllen, where thousands of people are said to be staying.

Migrant camps have developed on the Mexican side of the border due to policies that force migrants seeking asylum to stay in Mexico pending the response from the U.S. government or that bar them from seeking asylum due to public health orders linked to the pandemic.


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Reverend Louie Hotop offers blessings at a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico.  Courtesy photo

Reverend Louie Hotop offers blessings at a migrant camp in Reynosa, Mexico. Courtesy photo

Strassburger and Hotop celebrate morning mass at Reynosa camp and drop donations into what they call the “four cocinas,” or the four kitchens, run by migrants on every corner of the square. They then cross the border and visit migrants passing through McAllen Respite Center, celebrate Mass there, and then return to Brownsville.

Although this is their current routine, priests realize that their ministry could be very different in the months to come.

“We have really been sent here to look at the situation, observe the situation and react… We currently have the capacity to adapt to a dynamic and changing situation,” said Hotop.

Hotop acknowledges that he and Strassburger were entitled to another form of freedom of adaptation, which, he said, “is not what a lot of Catholic priests get, especially in their early years of service. priesthood”. Usually, he says, young priests are sent to a certain parish or mission, but “you have a very clear job.”

The Jesuit Frontier Podcast logo.  Courtesy Image

Logo “The Jesuit Border Podcast”. Courtesy Image

“We were sent together to think creatively about how best to engage with the situation,” Hotop said.

At Hotop, their training, which sent them to accompany marginalized communities around the world, taught them to comfort people in uncertain conditions.

“We can’t just say, ‘Well, everything will be better soon enough. The law is going to change soon enough, ”because that is just not true. We don’t know and it is very likely that it will not. You have to be prepared to sit down with people in the discomfort of uncertainty, ”Hotop said.


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