Why a poor rural Texas town captured the pope’s attention


Catholic youth from towns near Peñitas, Texas cheer while kicking off World Youth Day July 26, 2016. Even though the pope is in Poland, he sent a video message specifically to the group gathered in Texas, even though many from the impoverished area can’t travel. (CNS photo by Amber Donaldson)

By Brenda Nettles Riojas

MISSION, Texas — As World Youth Day kicked off in Poland today, a group of Catholic youth in Texas, some without the money to travel to Poland and others without the legal papers to travel there, got the next best thing: Pope Francis came to them via video, with a message tailored for the community there.

Why did the rural area known as Pueblo de Palmas, near Peñitas get such an honor? Why would the Holy Father send a message to the people of a rural area that some consider “insignificant”?

Three missionary sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who have been living and helping in the area for 12 years will tell you that it’s because the people of God here have a deep faith that is not daunted by poverty or other hardships they may endure.

Father Michael Montoya, a Missionary of Jesus priest, is pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church in Peñitas, Texas and its three missionary churches. He said the idea of connecting the youth in the area to the more global event in such a personal way started off as an idea to help the young people in one of the poorest areas in the country see how they are connected with the church and other young people from around the world.

Given the poverty levels in the community and their immigration status, it is impossible for most to travel. For those in Peñitas, explains Father Montoya, traveling from their homes to church comes with risk. Some fear that if they are pulled over for something such as a minor traffic infraction, they could be deported. Father Montoya points to what he refers to as a “military presence” in the area. There is a no shortage of local police, sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, U.S. border patrol agents and National Guard patrolling the area located just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s a constant reminder to the people that something is not right. We live so close to the wall that divides families, it affects self-identity. All the images we receive from the outside are negative. It’s always connected to the border, always connected to the things we cannot do,” said Father Montoya.

Add to this the poverty and lack of basic infrastructure in some neighborhoods that do not even have a sewage system or water lines.

“There are many circumstances,” said Father Montoya “that make it difficult for the people. They think they are forgotten.”

But they are not forgotten. Today they are celebrating the Holy Father who prepared a personal message for the youth of the diocese.

“The parish of St. Anne is beyond happy. Things like this don’t happen to a place like Peñitas,” said Father Montoya. “The pope is sending a message to us! I think that is proof enough, that the love of the church for our poor people is really palpable, it’s real.”

“God has certainly worked wonders,” said Sister Carolyn Kosub, one of the three missionary sisters who arrived in the area along with Sister Emily Jocson and Sister Fatima Santiago in 2004 to help rebuild the community after it was devastated by a tornado.

A project they started in an under-served area blossomed and eventually led to the building of St. Anne Catholic Church in 2009. They never dreamed it would become a mother church of a parish four years later, or that one day, on the feast of St. Anne, the Holy Father would send a personal message to the youth of that parish.

Father Montoya says when thinking of the honor the area has received, we need to be reminded that the infant Jesus chose to be born in the small town of Bethlehem and not a city center. So, a great event can happen in an “out of the way” place.

“Not everyone can travel to Poland for World Youth Day,” said Father Montoya, “but we believe that even in our area, a profound and meaningful encounter with the world’s youth can be organized.”

“It’s a reimagining,” said Father Montoya, “of who we are. We are not defined by the border, we are defined by our culture and by our faith.”

This is truly a testament that the mercy of God knows no limits. It should also serve as a reminder to each of us that no matter where God places us, no matter where we stand in the world, we each matter and must do what we can to foster a “culture of encounter,” as Pope Francis has often said.

Father Montoya said “the mercy of God knows no limits within a church that knows no borders,” and the encounter in the rural town in Texas shows that mercy and grace can reach “even the remotest part of the world. We don’t have to be in the center of power to be recognized by the church.”

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Nettles Riojas is the editor of The Valley Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Brownsville.

Keeping up those rewriting skills

Jose Orta hands out fans during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. The former medium security prison converted for family detention in 2006, has been the subject of harsh criticism from attorneys, immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

Jose Orta hands out fans during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. The former medium security prison converted for family detention in 2006, has been the subject of harsh criticism from attorneys, immigrant advocates and civil rights organizations. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of spending a few weeks on a story, turning it in with the expectation that it will run “tomorrow,” then hearing on the radio the next morning that the entire premise of your story is about to be made irrelevant.

Is it good news that it hadn’t run yet, or bad news that you now have to rewrite the whole thing (and here)?

Do you feel disappointed that your story didn’t get out in time to explain the problem before an announcement is made about its resolution? Or do you sigh with relief that you don’t have to put out a “stop the presses, don’t use that story, a new version is coming ASAP” advisory?

After covering the U.S. bishops’ spring meeting in San Antonio in June, I stayed in Texas a few days for a couple of other reporting projects, including the chance to cover a rally focused on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy of detaining families in a former medium- security prison in the small town of  Taylor.

The  T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility had been on my “write about this” list since 2007, shortly after ICE began putting families there and reports came out about the conditions inside. Pax Christi, Catholic Charities organizations, and several men’s and women’s religious orders had long been among groups protesting the use of Hutto to detain families.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which frequently partners with various Catholic immigration organizations, had co-written a report that led to a lawsuit against ICE, resulting in a settlement which brought some significant changes, though problems remained. My immigration sources regularly pointed to Hutto as a situation in need of more public exposure.

Maria Elena Casetllanos holds a sign during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

Maria Elena Casetllanos holds a sign during a vigil at the T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in late June in Taylor, Texas. (CNS/Bahram Mark Sobhani)

So I was glad my Texas trip coincided with one of the regular protest events in Taylor. I wasn’t able to arrange a visit inside, but I made some good contacts, heard the issues aired and got a firsthand sense of what the detention center is like from the outside, as well as what the Taylor community is like.

When I got back to the CNS office in July, amid other assignments, I worked on explaining Hutto’s history and the issues it presents, relying on a stream of relevant reports (by a court-appointed monitor,  by the National Immigration Law Center and the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Jusice) that came out one after another in July.  And I started trying to get background information and answers to questions about Hutto and ICE detention policy from various public affairs staffers at the Department of Homeland Security.

I wasn’t having much luck. I received a series of “we’re working on your questions. We’ll get back to you” responses. Finally, I let my contact know that I couldn’t wait any longer. I’d given them a couple of weeks already and the story was going to run with an “ICE didn’t respond” clause by midweek.

The story went to my editor, lacking ICE comment.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only reporter working on Hutto stories, though. The morning of Aug. 6, The New York Times reported on “leaked” information that ICE was that day going to announce the end of family detention at T. Don Hutto and a revamping of the entire immigrant detention system.

That was indeed what John Morton, assistant secretary for ICE, announced later that morning.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go completely back to the drawing board and our clients didn’t have to rip a now-outdated story from their page layouts just before press time.

I’d still rather not have had to redo something I’d worked on for so long. But it is kind of refreshing to be able to simultaneously explain a problem and report that someone in charge has already announced a plan to fix it.