In May 2013, as a rising senior at Catholic University, I traveled with Campus Ministry and four other students on an immersion trip to the United States-Mexico border. When we arrived in El Paso, Texas, we knew very little about each other and even less about the struggles that Central American migrants face on their journeys. But we were ready and excited for the experience that lay ahead.
Our expectations were very different from what was in store.
When we stepped off the plane, we expected to settle into our new home for the week and to prepare ourselves for how we expected the trip to go. Fr. Bob, the Columban priest who would serve as our guide for the week, greeted us and we quickly discovered that our expectations were very different from what was in store. We left the airport and traveled through El Paso and, much to our surprise, arrived at a youth detention center just outside of the city.
As we stepped out of the van, I began to grow nervous, unsure of what to expect inside the detention center. Luis, a young man who worked with the Columbans and volunteered at the detention center, met us and introduced us to the group of 30 youth who lived there. All of the children we met came from different countries in Central America and had made the long journey from their home country to seek refuge in the United States. They were detained while attempting to cross the border and sentenced to live together at the center while they awaited their next move.
What happened next could only be described as a “Holy Spirit Moment.”
At the detention center, we spent time playing games with the children, but with broken Spanish, it was often difficult to communicate. It was Sunday, and Luis gathered everyone together for a reflection on the Mass readings for the day. The room fell silent as Luis read the story of Pentecost to us in both Spanish and English. What happened next could only be described as a “Holy Spirit Moment.”
We sat and listened to the group of young men and women living at the detention center discuss how the story of Pentecost related to their own lives. They shared how difficult it was for them to be separated from their family and friends in a place where they were often surrounded by strangers. Being from many different countries and towns across Central America, they often found it difficult to relate to one another based on their own cultural differences. They shared how speaking in different dialects of Spanish could make it difficult for them to communicate with one another. What they took away from the story of Pentecost was that, even though they might not have always been able to understand what the other was saying perfectly, their gift of tongues was the ability to understand the common struggles they all faced on their journeys and to be united through their experiences.
That reflection on Pentecost Sunday forever changed my life.
That reflection on Pentecost Sunday forever changed my life. It opened my eyes and gave faces and stories to the lives of migrants. It helped me pursue my passion for peace and justice. It guided me to serve as a missioner in Guatemala for three years after my graduation in 2014. It brought me back to the border five years later, where I lived and worked with migrants, refugees, and a community of religious sisters who dedicated their lives to walking with the marginalized. It influenced my life in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
As we celebrate Pentecost this year, I am reminded of that day in El Paso. I may not be surrounded by the same children in that detention center, but the message they shared with us still rings true. I don’t always speak the same language, have the same life experiences, or share the same worldview as the people I interact with every day, but the gift of tongues that the Holy Spirit has given each of us can be the gifts of understanding, love, and care. It can be about sharing with each other, getting to know people who are different from us, seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, and walking the journey together.
Use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given you to love the people around you, those who are similar to you and those who are different from you…
My challenge to you, and to myself, is to use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given you to love the people around you, those who are similar to you and those who are different from you, to enter into dialogue with others so you can see the world from their eyes, and to be guided by the Holy Spirit to work for love, peace, and justice in our world.