Episcopalians participate in interfaith march, vigil supporting migrants in El Paso, Texas

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Mar 22, 2024

A crowd marches to Sacred Heart Church for the March and Vigil for Human Dignity in El Paso, Texas, March 21, 2024. Photo: Justin Hamel/REUTERS

[Episcopal News Service] Some 15 Episcopalians joined Rio Grande Bishop Michael Hunn and the Rev. Lee Curtis, the diocese’s canon to the ordinary, in a march and vigil on March 21 in El Paso, Texas, to protest recent efforts to close a local network of migrant shelters and enforce a bill that allows law enforcement to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being in the United States illegally.

“The idea is to gather people of goodwill from all faith traditions together to have a march and a vigil calling for the humane treatment of everybody who comes to that border, and that includes, in my mind, to treat Border Patrol as human beings and not ask them to do inhumane things,” Hunn told Episcopal News Service before the march and vigil.

Recent threats to close the Catholic-affiliated nonprofit Annunciation House and enforcement of SB4 prompted the Catholic Diocese of El Paso to host the interfaith “‘Do Not Be Afraid’: A March & Vigil for Human Dignity.” The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande’s borderland ministries, Interfaith Immigration Interfaith Coalition, Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico, the Immigration Law & Justice Network and other organizations joined the Catholic diocese in sponsoring the event.

Episcopalians gather for the March and Vigil for Human Dignity in El Paso, Texas, March 21, 2024. Photo: Lee Curtis

In February, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accused Annunciation House of human smuggling. On March 11, a district judge in El Paso blocked Paxton’s efforts to subpoena the migrant shelter rooted in Catholic social teachings. Eight days later, Texas’ SB4 immigration law, which grants officials permission to jail and prosecute suspected undocumented migrants without authorization, was enforced. Hours later, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel blocked Texas from enforcing SB4.

“This is really a shot across the bow saying that even government entities may now target not only immigrants, but those who are doing this work, which we see as fundamental to living out our Christian faiths,” Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told ENS. “We see this as a threat to our ability to do what the framers of our Constitution ensured we could do, and that is to live out our faith and freedom.”

El Paso stands on the Rio Grande in west Texas across the U.S.-Mexico border from Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua. The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande encompasses the entire state of New Mexico and far-west Texas from the border to the Pecos River. The diocese is based in Albuquerque, although Curtis works out of El Paso, where the diocese has about  200 members.

Seitz and Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Celino of El Paso led the march, which began at San Jacinto Plaza in downtown El Paso and continued 0.4 miles south to Sacred Heart Church, where the two Catholic bishops led an interfaith vigil to observe nearly one year since 40 migrants died in a fire at an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juárez on March 27, 2023.

Hunn said supporting migrants is not “a political thing,” but an act of following Jesus’ commands.

“Shutting down Annunciation House — or giving them a cease-and-desist order — is infringing upon our right to exercise our religion and to follow Jesus Christ as our lord and savior,” he said. “We are not doing anything illegal here. We are following the laws of America, but more than that, we are following the command of Jesus Christ to love and to welcome the stranger, to feed those who are hungry, to clothe those who are naked.”

The Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande works with the Catholic Diocese of El Paso to welcome newly arrived migrants to the United States by giving them food, clothes, personal hygiene products and other necessities. St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church is home of the Diocese of the Rio Grande’s only migrant shelter in El Paso, serving about 25 people every day.

“This kind of welcome is essential to El Paso’s identity, and we’re not big fans when folks who don’t try to get to know us or understand the work that we do tell us that we have to stop,” Curtis, who is also a member of Rio Grande’s borderland ministries team, told ENS. “It’s a gift that we have such an amazing network that supports us and supports each other in this work. This is why we need to show up to support Annunciation House.”

Annunciation House coordinates shelter placements in cooperation with Customs and Border Protection. The federal agency then arranges transportation for the migrants from detention facilities to the community shelters like the one at St. Christopher’s. Migrants then can rest, depending on their date of departure, for a few hours or days, wash their clothes, charge their phones and connect to the internet while flight or bus tickets are arranged to their final destinations. While waiting at St. Christopher’s, volunteers give the migrants — most of whom are asylum-seekers — a brief U.S. geography lesson to help them understand where they will be settling. Asylum-seekers must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen to stay in the United States while their asylum case is pending. Although the terms migrants and asylum-seekers are often used interchangeably, not all migrants are asylum-seekers. Once asylum-seekers are granted asylum, they are officially recognized as refugees. Asylum-seekers and refugees leave their homes for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to war, violence and persecution over race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande Bishop Michael Hunn stands directly behind Bishop Mark Seitz of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso inside Sacred Heart Church for the March and Vigil for Human Dignity in El Paso, Texas, March 21, 2024. Religious leaders from throughout Texas and other states, including several Catholic bishops, participated in the interfaith event. Photo: Justin Hamel/REUTERS

On March 22, Hunn and Curtis will join Seitz, Celino and other area religious leaders at the Catholic-affiliated Hope Border Institute to discuss how to best prepare migrant-supporting organizations and respond to future attempts from local, state and federal governments to quell their operations.

“We will talk about the role of faith in helping society become a society that welcomes, protects and promotes the integration of migrants as siblings, not as criminals,” Hunn said.

“How can we do a better job to inform people in our country that it is these very shelters that are being attacked, who are the main bulwark against those who would traffic people in our country? If the shelters close, then you’re going to see a boom for the traffickers,” Seitz said.

Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande Bishop Michael Hunn speaks at the March and Vigil for Human Dignity in El Paso, Texas, March 21, 2024. Photo: Lee Curtis

To help Episcopalians learn firsthand about the circumstances asylum-seekers face, the Diocese of the Rio Grande offers a weeklong pilgrimage to key sites on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. During the pilgrimage, participants can meet Border Patrol agents and ask them questions.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for people to see the reality of the borderlands not just in El Paso, but also out in the Big Bend,” Curtis said. “It’s both educational and spiritual, and it cuts through a lot of the political wrangling that persists on both sides of this issue.”

For Hunn, supporting migrants strengthens his faith, referring to Matthew 6:11.

“You know ‘give us this day our daily bread?’ These folks have been living it and they’re desperately relying on God to care for them and their family,” he said. “There’s a predominant sense that I have whenever I meet with folks at the border. When the volunteers show up to help make a hospitable space for us, or when we’re in the kitchen cooking food to feed the migrants, the Holy Spirit is there, and we feel the presence of God in the flesh.”

The Episcopal Church is committed to advocating for humane immigration policies that respect the dignity and worth of every human being and for comprehensive immigration reform. For more information click here.

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service based in northern Indiana. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.