August 6, 2021

‘Lazarus is at our doorstep’

Archdiocesan priests witness desperation, courage in migrants at the southern border

Cole Hocker, then a student at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, crosses the finish line at the National Cross Country Race in 2018. (Photo courtesy

Fathers Todd Goodson, left, John McCaslin and Christopher Wadelton stand by a border wall near Nogales, Ariz., during a trip they made in April to observe the challenges facing migrants seeking to enter the U.S. and to serve them at migrant centers on both sides of the border. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

GREENWOOD—When he looks back on his experience in April of serving migrants in the U.S.- Mexican border city of Nogales, Father Christopher Wadelton focuses on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31).

In the passage, Jesus tells the story of a rich man who ignores the poor man Lazarus who sits by his door (Lk 16:22).

Father Wadelton saw that parable lived out in the current inhumane challenges faced by migrants in desperate need who seek to cross the U.S.-Mexican border to find a better life for them and their families.

“Lazarus is at our doorstep,” said Father Wadelton in a May 11 presentation at St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, where he serves as pastor. “Lazarus is at our southern border. Lazarus is all around us. As a pastor, as a Christian, I want to help us see that, to see the people that are right there in front of us.”

Accompanying Father Wadelton during his week of service and observation in Nogales were Father Todd Goodson, pastor of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood, and Father John McCaslin, pastor of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis.

All three have years of experience of ministering to and with immigrants in central and southern Indiana. The high degree of hardship and desperate desire for a better life that they witnessed in migrants in Nogales sharpened their own commitment to change hearts and minds—as well as law and public policy—regarding immigrants in the U.S.

Driven by desperation

The three priests chose to spend time at the southern border in part because news reports earlier this year about the surge of migrants seeking to cross the border differed so widely that they wanted to see it for themselves.

So, they arranged a trip to Nogales in April where they would do basic service at a center of the Kino Border Initiative on the Mexican side of the border.

The organization, which gives material and legal assistance to migrants and advocates for immigration reform, is named after Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino, who was a missionary in the 17th and early 18th centuries in what is now the American southwest.

The priests washed dishes, set tables, served food and cleaned floors. They stayed at a residence of Jesuit priests on the Arizona side of the border city and daily walked through the port of entry to spend the day in service at a Kino center in the Mexican part of Nogales.

The number of migrants seeking to cross the border at Nogales was significant, the priests said, but was less than those seeking to cross the border in other areas, especially in parts of Texas.

The priests took walks along the border in Nogales, seeing crosses on fences or walls placed there in memory of migrants who died trying to make their way to the U.S. Elsewhere on a border wall, they saw a message in Spanish that said, “Our dreams cannot be captured.”

In their time along the border, the priests wore Roman collars.

“We wanted to be known as priests in case there was someone who wanted to have their confession heard,” Father Wadelton said in his presentation. “It also made it pretty easy to approach people. We could maybe ask a little more boldly about their situation. ‘What’s going on? What brings you to this place?’ ”

In asking such questions, the priests heard desperate stories from immigrants.

Many were from Central America and were suffering for a variety of reasons. The economy there, which was already difficult, has been made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and hurricanes during the past year.

Then, in their homes and in their travels to the border, the immigrants in many cases suffered violence and extortion from drug gangs.

“It was amazing how powerful the gangs are” based on what the immigrants said, Father Wadelton noted in his presentation. “Many times, the police and the government are in cahoots with the gangs. They seem nearly impossible to beat. … They run the border.”

Father McCaslin said that while the influence of drug cartels is not as strong in Mexico near the border with Arizona as in other places along the U.S.-Mexico border, there are other challenges for immigrants there.

“It’s safer in the sense that there’s less victimization, but by no means free from it,” he said in an interview with The Criterion. “But it’s longer and harder because you have to travel longer and go through the Sonora Desert.”

Despite these wide and varied challenges, the migrants still came to the border, driven by desperation.

“We saw people who had just arrived, and you could just see an exhaustion in them,” said Father McCaslin. “There were a lot of single mothers with little ones. I can’t imagine what it was like to make this journey. Their clothing had been worn for days.”

Father McCaslin saw real strength in the migrants’ willingness to face such trials just to get to the border.

“I can’t imagine the fortitude that they had to have to begin the journey, let alone to get to that point,” he said.

Father Goodson was amazed by the migrants’ determination and wondered how different they are from many people the priests serve back in Indiana.

“What would it take for you to leave your homeland, … to leave everything behind, to come here and put your family at risk in order to do so?” he asked during a May 25 presentation at his parish. “Most of us would only do that out of some kind of desperation. And I would make the case that most of the immigrant community is doing that because of that kind of desperation.”

‘It fortified my resolve and enflamed my passion’

The three priests spoke with The Criterion about three months after their journey to the border. The memory of what they experienced there has only made them more convinced of the importance of working with and for immigrants.

“It fortified my resolve and enflamed my passion,” said Father Wadelton. “It resolidified my belief that we need to do everything we can as they arrive at our borders, because they have already made heart-rending decisions to leave family.

“So, once they get here, we as the Church need to do everything we can to help make their crossing and movement into our country as painless and as easy as possible.”

For Father Goodson, the experience helped him understand better the immigrants he ministers to—and with—in his parish.

“A lot of our [immigrant] communities struggle with things,” he said. “But, by and large, the people I work with on a regular basis are relatively stable. So, it made me a lot more empathetic to what they had to do to get where they are. A bigger perspective for me personally.”

The priests wish that the federal government would broaden the criteria for which immigrants could qualify for asylum.

“There’s a real case for quite a few people to have peace and security in their lives,” Father Goodson said. “That’s why they’re fleeing their countries.”

Father McCaslin expressed frustration over the lack of progress in reforming immigration laws and policies.

“It’s hard to kick the can down the road when you see a mom with a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old who have traveled across much if not all of Mexico from maybe Honduras or Guatemala,” he said.

This inaction is due in part, he said, to common misinformation about immigrants.

“There’s so much false information in general that we don’t understand why immigration is happening,” Father McCaslin said. “And we’re not looking holistically about both the gift of immigrants to our nation and why it’s happening.

“So, instead of really addressing significant human suffering that’s happening as well as the normal human experience of movement, we have dehumanized [immigrants] and built walls. That doesn’t address what’s going on.”

All three priests have been trying to set the record straight in presentations they have given at their parishes on their experiences. They’re also open to speaking on the topic in other faith communities.

“It’s offered opportunities for conversations,” said Father Wadelton of his presentation. “A lot of people who didn’t see a need to address [immigration issues] are asking questions now. People are basically good, and they want to do what’s right. So, if we can dispel the untruths, then they can help in an effective way.”

“Remember that undocumented immigrants are human beings who are looking for a better life,” Father Goodson said. “I really don’t think they’re doing anything different than you or I would do if we were in their situation.” †

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