Working for Those at the Border — from Arizona and New York

Don Watkins, OFS Friar News

Joe Kotula spent several weeks in Arizona last fall learning about the lives of migrants. This experience motivated him to share information with a Secular Franciscan fraternity and to help organize an event at St. Bonaventure University. A Secular Franciscan wrote about Joe’s experiences.

While riding in the car last summer listening to NPR, Joe Kotula, OFM, heard a story about a young girl who died crossing the desert along the U.S. border. This radio broadcast pierced his heart and drew him to take action. Since November, he has been working to help migrants at the Mexico border by raising money and sharing what he learned.

Joe Kotula stands at the fence at the southern border. (Photo courtesy of Joe Katula)

After hearing the powerful news report, Joe reached out to the friars who live in Elfrida, Arizona – a small town located 25 miles north of Douglas with a population of about 460 people – and to the friars in his community at Holy Peace Friary in Western New York. He discussed his desire to visit the Elfrida community and they agreed that Joe should follow his heart to the southern border. He contacted David Buer, OFM, in Elfrida and they decided that Joe would arrive in November, just before Thanksgiving, and stay for three weeks during Advent.

He was welcomed into the friar community – described as one that follows the principles of Ite Nuntiate, established by the late Giacomo Bini, OFM. Joe participated with David, a member of St. Barbara Province, in numerous events — including a visit to the border at Agua Prieta in Sonora, Mexico, to help at the Migrant Resource Center.

The migrants seeking asylum and entry into the United States wait in a tent pitched against a wall at the border just outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Port of Entry in Douglas. Joe joined other volunteers in escorting these migrants to and from the shelter. Many of these migrants have recently been deported. They have many needs, including food, fresh socks, access to a telephone, and medical attention for conditions like dehydration and blisters. The center provides these migrants with options, such as bus tickets so that they can return to their homes further south. The facility also provides counseling to abuse victims and it helps crime victims obtain legal assistance. This migrant center is not an overnight shelter, as it is open only during the day.

In addition to escorting the migrants, Joe went on multiple tours of the Agua Prieta area with two members of the Sisters of Notre Dame, which has an outreach program on the border in Douglas. While there, in addition to the school sisters, he joined a group of students from Northwestern University of Chicago. The tour included a second migrant shelter, where up to 110 people are housed overnight.

In Agua Prieta, Joe learned about a coffee shop with a unique mission. The business is an outgrowth of the vision of local farmers where coffee is cultivated on the side of a volcano known as Tacana at Salvador Urbina, in the southern state of Chiapas. The farmers’ vision was fulfilled by Mark Adams, a Presbyterian minister, and Tom Bassett, who founded Just Coffee, a faith-based organization that provides the growers with a fair exchange for their crop. Providing a fair market for their crop is one way of keeping these farmers in their homes – and in their native land – because it gives them the financial wherewithal to feed, clothe and support their families. According to its website, “Just Coffee Cooperative is a worker-owned coffee roaster dedicated to creating and expanding a model of trade based on transparency, human dignity, and environmental sustainability.”

Work Equals Sustenance
“We visited a workshop in Agua Prieta where women produce useful craft items and men assemble furniture from wood pallets,” said Joe. “The proceeds from the sales help sustain the migrant community as they wait for asylum. The emphasis on all these ministries is for these people to be able to feed their families. Many of the people there simply are looking for a way to keep their families in this area.”

Joe Kotula shares his experiences at the border with SBU students. (Photos courtesy of Don Watkins)

In Agua Prieta, Joe participated in a posada, a prayerful representation of Mary and Joseph’s plight as they looked for shelter for the birth of the child Jesus. A powerful moment occurred when participants on both sides of the border joined hands by reaching through the border wall while praying.

In Douglas, every Tuesday in the early evening a procession took place on the boulevard. It began at the port of entry in Mexico. Joe said that everyone who participates in the procession carries a number of crosses representing the folks who have died in the desert while making the perilous crossing in Cochise County. He said that each of the crosses bears the name, date and age of the person who died while crossing the border looking for work in the United States. As each person’s name is read, the group shouts “¡Presente!”

As the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe was approaching, the friars gathered on nine separate nights to pray the rosary in the homes of Elfrida residents. “This was a powerful way to get to know the community who were mostly natives of Mexico,” said Joe, a native of Pennsylvania who has lived at Mt. Irenaeus for close to 30 years.

From Elfrida, Joe traveled to Tucson to participate in a protest at the government center with the newly-elected mayor and speakers from the local Tohono O’odham community, which included a Native American poet, the chief, and other leaders. Other folks from the local community who are involved in the migrant issue also participated. “Everyone, including the mayor, was of one mind to deal with the immigration issue in a humanitarian way,” said Joe.

Jim Mahar, the founder of BonaResponds, speaks during the Saturday gathering of people helping Joe help those in need. (Photo courtesy of Don Watkins)

While in Tucson, the protest participants visited with representatives of U. S. Senator Krysten Sinema to advocate for the migrant community.

The group also traveled to Ajo, Arizona, where they were welcomed into the homes of local residents who see the value of migrants in the community. While there, they hiked five miles into the desert to leave drinking water at stations along migrant trails. They left messages on the bottles to let the migrants know that they are not alone. While at Ajo, they crossed the border and visited a migrant shelter in Sonoyta, Sonora, Mexico, where Joe cradled an infant in his arms.

During his stay in the Southwest, Joe traveled to Nogales, Arizona, where he participated in a posada on the Mexican side of the border. This event was sponsored by the local Jesuit community and included more than 200 participants. While there, they learned of the various ministries and good work of the local Jesuit community — called the Kino Border Initiative. Joe gave each of us a pamphlet from the KBI “Bi-National Migrant Posada,” which he attended on Dec. 14.

On the final day of his visit, the group participated in a cross planting with the Sisters of Notre Dame, Br. David, and Native Americans in the area.

The Cross Planting project seeks to remember the 6,000 men, women and children who have lost their lives while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Cochise County, Arizona, Joe said. Commemorative handmade crosses are carried into the desert and placed near the locations where migrants have died.

At the cross-planting ceremony led by a Native American, Joe joined the circle of participants in a group prayer using the four directions of north, east, south and west, along with other symbols. The leader asked Joe to participate in a blessing that is connected to baptism. He poured water on Joe’s hands and offered him a blessing. Joe then rubbed the water in his hands and placed them on his head and rubbed his scalp. He said he felt honored to do the blessing for the whole group. Afterward, the group had lunch together and a time for fellowship.

Sharing the Journey
Joe drove home to Holy Peace Friary in Western New York the next day. While still in Arizona, he had contacted Jim Mahar, a finance professor at St. Bonaventure University who founded and serves as the leader of BonaResponds — an outreach group formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that strives to make things better for people through volunteering.

Members of BonaResponds prepare food packs for migrants at the border. (Photo courtesy of Don Watkins)

Upon his return, our Secular Franciscan Fraternity at Mt. Irenaeus invited Joe to come to our monthly meeting to share his journey with us. Before doing so, he asked our group members to read the immigrant stories from the Kino Border Initiative, which is part of the Bi-National Migrant Posada. In a presentation on Jan. 26, Joe showed pictures of his journey and described heart-wrenching personal stories. His poignant testimony motivated our fraternity to join others in our community to share from our abundance with our hungry sisters and brothers on the southern border.

A week later, on Feb. 8, BonaResponds led approximately 60 people — which included university students, local residents, faculty and Secular Franciscans — who assembled at the Swan Business Center on the SBU campus to prepare food packs that were sent to the Franciscan community in Elfrida for distribution to migrants at the border. This joy-filled group, which donated both money and food, formed around two long tables to unpack food items and place them in plastic bags. An encouraging message from the group, written in Spanish, was placed in every bag. Volunteers were asked to sign the message.

After a couple of hours of work, we produced 352 packages, which were then placed in 15 packing boxes and shipped to Elfrida. The group took breaks during the activity to listen to Joe share his experience working with the migrants on the border. Our project was a small way of helping Joe help migrants at the border.

– Don Watkins, a resident of Franklinville, N.Y., is secretary of the St. Irenaeus Secular Franciscan fraternity based at the Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Community in West Clarksville, N.Y. In September 2017, he wrote a reflection titled “Journey to a Franciscan Heart that was published in HNP Today.