From Sunday, September 24, 2023, Our Lady of Angels Chapel, Wheaton | Sr. Christa’s reflection on the Gospel [Mt 20:1-16a] and her ministry work at the U.S./Mexico border in Juarez.

“God is near to all. God is good to all. God is generous, of great kindness and full of surprise.

A few years ago, I had Covid, as by now most of us have had. When I discovered I was positive, I had just worked two overnight shifts at our shelter in Ciudad Juarez named after Pope Francis (Papa Francisco). We served and accompanied about 50 families from South and Central America seeking asylum who were forced to wait on the Mexico side of the border during the height of the pandemic. I quarantined for three weeks in our shelter.

Photo courtesy of Juanita Rea-Dorn

I was totally dependent on the great kindness of the few volunteers we had. I couldn’t leave my little room, so I asked for everything I needed including toothpaste, soap, etc. The families took turns preparing meals for the whole community and they would bring me a tray that they left by the door. Every time I opened the door, from a distance anyone who was outside would wave and send air hugs. 

Each night, a few of the families from Brazil would gather in one of their rooms and video call me to pray and sing alabanzas, worship music in Portuguese, over me. They accompanied me from a distance along with my family and sisters in the U.S. by phone and prayer. I felt that God was certainly near and good as our Psalm says.

At the end of those sacred three weeks, I returned to ministry ready to serve, ready to accompany. On my first day back, I decided that morning that I would buy a cake… to thank the families for their love and care. That morning I was running late, as I typically am, and I didn’t get to buy the cake. I worked a shift that day and I was just about to leave when one of the women asked me to go into the dining room. I walked in and the room was decorated, the families were applauding, and on the table were two big cakes welcoming me back to ministry. I was so surprised! One of the Brazilian men asked me, “Sr Christa, do you know why we are having this party?” I said, “yes, this is so sweet, it’s my welcome back party!” He said, “Well… not exactly… It is because God is good! Even if you would have died, God is still good.” Whoa! I didn’t expect him to say that! But he was right, God is good! I think St. Paul in the second reading would agree with him that whether by life or by death, Christ will be magnified.

God is near to all. God is good to all. God is generous, of great kindness and full of surprise.

This experience taught me that in our mission, it is just as important to be able to receive love as it is to give love. To be honest, it wasn’t an easy lesson. I felt guilty not being able to work until I tested negative. A doctor gently reminded me that guilt is not from God and doesn’t help the healing process. All I could do was receive and say thank you. At that time, our families in the shelter were not able to leave and work due to covid for that year. They too, were dependent on the donated resources at the shelter. I had a tiny taste of what our families experienced on a daily basis. 

In our Gospel, we hear a parable about unexpected generosity. Jesus loves to use parables which are meant to turn us upside down, surprise us, and teach us a valuable lesson. We are typically surprised by the miracle of generosity and mercy. God shows us how to be extravagantly generous, kind, and merciful in the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, and Prodigal Son. The audience listening to Jesus at the time would wonder what just happened? That is not the response I expected. But this is how the kingdom of God works.

God is near to all. God is good to all. God is generous, of great kindness and full of surprise.

In this parable, there was a lot of work to be done in this vineyard and the landowner went out five times looking for laborers to hire. For the people hearing Jesus’ story in the context of an agricultural society, they lived this reality daily. They would go out to the marketplace hoping to be hired for a day’s wages to feed their families for that day. What is interesting is that laborers were chosen by the landowner. The question the landowner asks to those he encounters in the marketplace is “why do you stand there doing nothing?” The answer is, “because no one has hired us.” It wasn’t by any fault of their own. 

Fortunately, this group was hired at the last hour and joined the laborers in the vineyard. At the end of the day, they were paid first and received the same wages as those who worked a full day. Of course, the ones who worked a full day grumbled. The people hearing this story would have been shocked! What, equal pay?! Come on… they’ve worked hard all day in the hot sun and this person just arrived and gets the same pay… no way!! How is that just? Such a normal human reaction. Parables invite us to think differently and to act differently… giving us a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Although we don’t hear the reaction from those who only worked an hour and were paid a full day’s wage, I imagine they were just as shocked and wondered how could this be? We only worked one hour! But I’m sure they were so grateful to be able to feed their families that day. Every single laborer was a recipient of the landowners’ great kindness and generosity, first to be hired and second to be paid a full day’s wage. This is the point, everyone receives and has what they need to live. This is the kingdom of God!

God is near to all. God is good to all. God is generous, of great kindness and full of surprise.

I’m a grateful recipient of God’s generosity through a grant I have received for four years from the Wheaton Franciscan Ministry Fund. This grant allows me to represent both our IBVM and Wheaton Franciscan communities at the U.S./Mexico border. The last three years, I lived in El Paso but just last month, I moved to Juarez and now live at the shelter run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd. Citing the Gospel mandate to welcome the stranger, Pope Francis asks us to welcome, promote human dignity, protect and integrate desperate people fleeing violence, poverty, and climate crises.

Our families arrive from Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Mexico among other countries. Our families are courageously leaving situations of political instability, economic insecurity, and cartel and gang violence. One of the women at our shelter just arrived after losing both her parents who were beaten to death by a cartel. Her husband was kidnapped and she knew she and her daughter were next, so she fled. A woman from Colombia was a community organizer in Colombia in an impoverished community and received death threats for her work. Families from Venezuela share about the struggle to feed their families daily, the political instability and violence. 

Photo courtesy of Sr. Fran Glowinski

The journey to the U.S./ Mexico border is horrendous. Many of our families travel through the Darien Gap, a jungle between Panama and Colombia. One woman said there are thousands of ways to die in the jungle. Not just encountering the wild animals but the criminal organizations in the jungle that rob, rape and attack the people on the move are even more dangerous. Our families walk through the jungle smelling death in the air and seeing bodies of people who have died that were left behind. Some have shared of nearly drowning in the river. Families with small children make this difficult journey. If you survive, the next part of the journey is just as scary traveling on top of a train through Mexico. Fear and faith are constant companions of our families. At the same time our families talk about how they helped one another along the journey generously sharing their own food and water. Every face I see, I am aware that it is a miracle that this person has survived. 

God is near to all. God is good to all. God is generous, of great kindness and full of surprise.

We have no control over where we are born. We are recipients of privileges we did not earn or born into difficult circumstances we do not deserve. When we have privilege, the question is what do we do with the responsibility of this privilege. This week is National Migration Week and Pope Francis “Free to choose whether to migrate or to stay.” This theme calls attention to the conviction that persons have a right not to migrate and if a person migrates it should be done by choice and not by necessity. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), “By the end of 2021, 89.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations.” 

In Ciudad Juarez, our families know what it means to wait. Once our families arrive at the shelter they apply on the CBPone phone app for an appointment. Thousands are applying and only so many are chosen each day. At the same time, thousands of people are also crossing each day and arriving in Chicago, New York, San Francisco among other cities… How do we meet the overwhelming needs?

We are recipients of Gods generosity… just as I was a recipient of the love of God in the Covid story I shared. We all have stories of receiving in abundance even when we don’t feel like we deserve it. We are invited to give what we receive and be generous with our time, talents and treasures building the kingdom of God. How are we invited to respond to such overwhelming need…

God is near to all. God is good to all. God is generous, of great kindness and full of surprise.”

Sr. Christa Parra, IBVM

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