In a migrant camp, liturgy is an act of bricolage.
It’s Holy Thursday. I am in Brownsville, Texas, spending Holy Week with a community of Jesuits who minister to migrants throughout the Rio Grande Valley. The three of them—Brian Strassburger, Louie Hotop, and Flavio Bravo—live in a small, tidy house in the colonia of Cameron Park that they’ve named for Miguel Pro, the joyful Jesuit martyr executed during Mexico’s Cristero War.
Our car inches across Gateway International Bridge toward Matamoros, Brownsville’s Mexican sister city. Hemispheric political crises, coupled with restrictive, constantly changing U.S. immigration policies, have transformed border cities like Matamoros into sites of desperation for migrants driven from home by gang violence and economic collapse. The migrant camp first appeared there in 2018 and disbanded in 2021, after the termination of the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program. But near the end of 2022, the priests began to hear rumors that the Matamoros camp had reappeared. They drove across the border to find out. The rumors were true: the camp was back. But conditions had shifted. Though far from comfortable, the first camp had basic infrastructure. A trans-border network of NGOs and faith-based organizations, including Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley, collaborated with Mexican authorities to provide access to showers, toilets, medical services, clothes-washing stations, food, and water. But government officials had lost patience with the camp. Prohibited from pitching tents in the plaza, migrants slept on sidewalks. Four months later, thousands are surviving in makeshift shelters down a steep embankment covered with mesquite trees and trash along the muddy bank of the Rio Grande.
The car is packed full of liturgical things and things made liturgical. A monstrance on loan from another church is zipped into the laptop pocket of a backpack. A brass thurible, borrowed and patinated with age, is nestled into a bright red HEB bag, and the bells adorning its chains jingle every time we hit a bump. The trunk holds other treasures: a stack of bilingual hymnals; metal folding chairs; a suitcase filled with vestments, an altar cloth, and tiny vials of water and wine; a giant speaker; sliced bread and bags full of grapes; a basket of white pipe-cleaner bracelets that Brian and Louie have strung with craft-store jingle bells for people to ring during the Gloria.
In the camp, wooden pallets stacked beneath a twisted mesquite tree become an altar. Extension cords run like rivers down from the base of each streetlight and fan out into deltas of cords on cords, and Flavio hooks up the speaker to the web of pirated electricity. We arrange the folding chairs next to the altar for the washing of the feet.
At this point we realize we’ve forgotten a critical element: water. Under normal circumstances, we’d just turn on the tap. But in a migrant camp, water is a fiercely guarded commodity. We hear about a fight that broke out over water the night before. Someone was stabbed. There are tanks throughout the camp, but some people say that the water makes them sick. Others try to drink from the river, but that makes them even sicker. “¿Quién tiene agua?” Flavio calls out in a voice that sounds more like an invitation than a request. Who has water? Someone comes forward with their jug and a plastic ladle. It’s the ultimate act of generosity—an act of holy waste. Water is precious because it is scarce, and here we are, Mary of Bethany, anointing people’s feet with it one ladle at a time. A grinning seven-year-old girl hops into the chair first, wiggling off her shoes and swinging her legs. A young woman with a toddler takes the seat beside her and the people around her help remove the little boy’s shoes as she removes her own. The priests bend low to wash, dry, and kiss each pair of feet.
That night it rains ferociously. The littered earth becomes mud, and no one sleeps. People dig trenches around their tents to try to divert the water, but nothing can stop the rain from lashing apart shelters. The next morning, the road into Matamoros is flooded and chaotic. In the camp, people stand huddled with their arms pulled into their shirts. A mother named Yanetzy sits on an overturned bucket, her three-year-old daughter curled in a damp blanket on her lap. Yanetzy’s cherry-red hair is streaked with brown, and I can tell how long ago she left home in Venezuela by how far her roots have grown out. All I can think is that she is the most tired person I have ever seen.