Late afternoon on Friday, I’m spending my last day in February in one of the poorest sections of Juarez, Mexico. I have come to stay with three Franciscan sisters who live and work here so that I could learn more about them, their ministry, and why they would choose to live in such a place. They invited me, so I said yes, answering the call of both my inquisitive writer and compassionate heart. I know that this section of Mexico is not the safest –(I can hear the snorting and huge exhalation of carbon dioxide from some people reading this)–but many people live their lives in this kind of environment, the sisters among them.
Sisters Josefina and Carol have lived here five years, arriving in 2009, at the height of the drug cartel violence. Thousands of innocent people were being killed, victims of random shootings or mistaken identity (although this still happens but not to the degree it once did). While many people fled Mexico at that time, transporting their belongings across the bridge into El Paso, the sisters headed in the opposite direction carting furniture and other possessions to their new home. People were shocked. Why were the sisters moving into such a dangerous place? To understand, you’d have to know who these women are.
They took up residence in a parish house in the second poorest colonia in all of Juarez. The neighborhood’s dirt roads are rocky and full of potholes. Many homes are crumbling stone facades. Graffiti plasters walls and storefronts and even the church building next door to where the sisters live. Signs of the gangs who live here.
I asked Sr. Carol if she had any fears about coming here. She did. But she knew this was where she was called to be. The sisters have established a presence here. They walk the dusty streets visiting homes, bringing Eucharist, support, and God’s love. Through generous donations of people back in the United States, the sisters distribute food to 60 of the neediest of the needy families every month: portions of beans, rice, sugar, and oil. They march in demonstrations for justice and peace, in solidarity with the families who have lost their sons and daughters to the violence of the drug cartels.
Sr. Arlene, the third sister who lives here, works at the human rights center associated with the parish. Initially started as social outreach 12 years ago, as the violence escalated, along with the torture, it was clear the center needed to focus on human rights abuses. Since the police are the ones doing the torturing, acquiring forced confessions on fabricated charges, working theses cases can be tricky, to say the least. In 2011 the federal police raided the center, busting doors and removing files. They claimed they were chasing drug dealers.
When I first arrived here last night, Sr. Carol handed me a scrapbook she’d put together of photos and newspaper articles of their years here. The first page I turned to displayed a newspaper photo of a young man lying on the street, his face and chest splattered with blood — the sisters’ introduction to Juarez. I read the numbers of those who have been executed, the thousands of “forced disappearances.” So many innocent people tortured, killed, gone. From university students at a party at the wrong place and the wrong time, to mothers shot down in front of government buildings while protesting the wrongful and violent deaths of their sons. In 2012, 60,000 deaths were attributed to drug-related violence in Mexico.
It’s hard to fathom the intense grief of this country of mourning parents. As I read these cases, I feel my own mother’s heart. And yet I don’t let myself feel it too much. At least not in this moment here in the sisters’ house, sitting in their bright pink kitchen. But their statue of St. Francis greeting me at the doorway tells me that I will allow myself to feel this. He reminds me that only in taking the risk of opening my heart to feel will I truly connect with life. And with the God within.