Shelter for Refugees, Home for Justice
As people flee their homelands in massive numbers all around the world, Columbans support their local churches wherever they are, as they respond generously and warmly to newcomers and strangers. It is a stated priority for all Columban priests and lay missionaries.
Columban Fr. Bill Morton began to look for a house near downtown El Paso in 2005, one that could serve as a base for university students and others on their service trips to the U.S.- Mexico border. Mr. Ruben Garcia, founder of Annunciation House – a shelter offering hospitality to migrants and refugees since the 1970s – told Fr. Bill about an old, two-story building a few doors away.
"The owner has a crew of painters working on it," he told him. "I'll bet you he's thinking of selling it."
The Columban Mission Center opened its doors a few months later— and teams of carpenters and plumbers, builders and electricians entered. They tore down walls and put up new ones, adding a kitchen and patching up what could still be used. The floorboards from a nearby demolished school gym were sanded, coated and installed on the first level. Windows and doors were repainted and old fixtures repaired in bathrooms. Used furniture found a home, donated from offices and sold in flea markets.
U.S. Columban lay missionary Dan Diamond used his considerable computer skills to design the placement of a new, compositewood supporting beam to replace a load-bearing wall on the first floor, creating a large space for multimedia presentations and lectures. Ceiling fans and larger attic ventilators, after the expulsion of pigeons and related detritus, kept the house cool during the day in this arid climate, with the help of insulated window blinds and stuccoed insulating material added to the outside walls.
Twelve to eighteen groups per year use the Columban Mission Center as their home base. They spend the days visiting Annunciation House and cooking at least one meal for the 40 or so guests staying there, hearing presentations from the legal aid organizations in town and seeing the education and health projects operating in nearby Juarez, Mexico. The faces and voices of those fleeing poverty and violence make a deep impression and help to clarify issues only vaguely understood in their homes and houses of study, hundreds of miles from the realities of the border. The Border Awareness Experience helps mold attitudes and open doors to actions of advocacy and solidarity afterwards for many participants. Some even dedicate themselves to a year or more of work in the very countries they heard about, or take on a career in organizations dedicated to social justice and refugees.The Columban Mission Center also grew to welcome local groups, looking for an infrastructure of support, which reflect the priorities of the Columban Fathers. These priorities not only emphasized the dignity and rights of migrants, but the urgent needs for ecologically sustainable lifestyles and interreligious dialogue. After Fr. Bob Mosher arrived in 2011 to take over from Fr. Bill the running of the Columban Mission Center, he and the administrative assitant, Sister Peggy Denawith of the Sisters of Charity (based in Cincinnati) hosted meetings and day-long retreats of Eco-El Paso, an umbrella group of green organizations and construction companies. The El Paso Solar Energy Association found a home there as well, under the 22 solar panels installed on the rooftop of the building and held workshops there.
The Interfaith Alliance of El Paso and Southern New Mexico began to operate in 2011, using the mission center for many of its meetings, and for a special daylong workshop on the issue of water availability and care. Guests from the Islamic Center of El Paso presented talks on Ramadan. The Columban Mission Center is home to the Young Adult Ministry of El Paso, the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, and more recently provided space for the "sanctuary" movements of university students at several institutions, organized under Education Not Deportation (E.N.D.) to support the rights of those brought to the U.S. as children and allowed to attend schools here.
Refugees, our neglected planet and our brothers and sisters of other faith communities – the Columban Fathers and lay missionaries have established a home in response to these "signs of the times," our new areas for the mission of Christ today, allowing us to be instruments of God's own work in special ways, out here in the desert.
Columban Fr. Robert Mosher lives and works in El Paso, Texas.