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Jornada por la Justicia: Enacting a Catholic “Advocacy-Learning”

A bus caravan of 70 Jornada participants, organized by the Chicago-based Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, made the journey to El Paso of more than 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) to accompany migrants at the USA/MEX border.[1]

I recently led a delegation from St. John’s University in New York City (USA) to the Jornada por la Justicia (Pilgrimage for Justice) held from October 11-13, 2019, the “liturgically contested” weekend of Indigenous People’s Day, El Día de la Raza, and Columbus Day (October 12), in the “sister cities” of El Paso, Texas (USA) and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua (MEX).[2]  Catholic institutions from across the U.S.A. sent delegations to participate, with some traveling nearly 4,000 km (2,485 miles).  In total, nearly 400 people participated in the Jornada, including students from Catholic universities and many other young adults.  The Jornada encompassed both a “teach-in” with educational workshops—focused on topics of migration and racism, Catholic social teaching, borderland spiritual practices, and methods for providing humanitarian assistance and pursuing social justice—and a border action aimed at ensuring that government agencies respect the legal and human rights of asylum seekers.  As “pilgrims for justice,” participants became part of a long tradition of linking this popular religious practice with collective actions for social advancement.[3]  The Jornada was hosted by the Hope Border Institute,[4] an El Paso-based organization animated by Catholic social teaching, and drew its leadership from Latinx[5] Catholics, including me, many of whom have also been discussing our desires to form a national Latinx Catholic leadership network.[6]

The Jornada was a response to persistent manifestations of xenophobia and racism in the U.S.A.: lethal and costly militarization of the border, the likely illegal[7] “Remain in Mexico” policy (MPP) that keeps non-Mexicans struggling to live in dangerous conditions in México while awaiting the outcome of their U.S. asylum applications, the also likely illegal[8] practice of “metering” which delays asylum seekers and migrants from exercising their legal rights to apply for asylum, deplorable migrant detention conditions, and the fracturing of migrant families via inhumane deportation practices and state-facilitated adoptions of migrant children without parental consent.  The August 3rd massacre of twenty-two people in El Paso also took place during the planning for the Jornada—the victims were targeted by a domestic terrorist desiring to kill as many Mexicans as possible to suppress an imagined “Hispanic invasion” of Texas.[9]  In this massacre, one could recognize links between xenophobic rhetoric used to justify violent border policies and rising numbers of hate crimes against members of minoritized racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and sexuality groups in the U.S.A.—a horrific “sign of the times” here.[10]

The Jornada’s keynote address was delivered by Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas,[11] a Chicano Catholic priest and forerunner of Latinx borderland theologies.[12]  Bañuelas also co-founded the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS)[13] and several ministry initiatives—including the Hope Border Institute.  In his address, Bañuelas reflected on links between white supremacism and xenophobia in El Paso, and on the power of kinship and solidarity “at the foot of the cross” and in the borderlands today.  In addition, several panelists also framed key teach-in themes of vulnerability, anti-racism, and risk-taking public discipleship.  Among these, Neomi De Anda, a theologian from El Paso and the current president of ACHTUS, emphasized a trauma-informed praxis by calling participants to “care for the extreme fragility of life.”[14]  Michael Okińczyc-Cruz,[15] a Chicago-based community organizer and a key Jornada leader, emphasized the dual necessities of shared sacrifice and of overcoming emotional discomfort with conflict, in the pursuit of social justice.  Marisa Limón Garza, Deputy Director of the Hope Border Institute, closed the Jornada’s final panel discussion by naming the need for vigilance about internalized racism, whereby persons of color harmfully view ourselves and reproduce false depictions of ourselves created by those who racially dominate us.

The Jornada also included actions to bless and prayerfully reclaim as “the people’s bridge” the Paso Del Norte International Bridge, which connects the U.S.A. and México, and to bear witness to the sacredness of life amid institutionalized violence inflicted upon asylum seekers and other migrants.  Specifically, the public action components of the Jornada included processions and prayer on both sides of the expanding U.S. border wall, a ritual blessing of the Paso Del Norte International Bridge amid heavy surveillance and control by U.S. federal agents, and conversations with asylum seekers relegated to living in deplorable conditions in tent encampments in Ciudad Juárez.  The public action concluded with a delegation of Jornada participants accompanying three Mexican families (fifteen people in total) in their successful attempt to enter the U.S. asylum process at the apex of the bridge.⁠.  According to verbal reports from local advocates, prior to acceptance of these three asylum-seeking families, United States Customs and Border Protection had not previously admitted any asylum applicants at this port of entry for five days.  This is noteworthy because recent reports indicated that thousands of people had been stuck on “metering” lists in Ciudad Juárez, denied recognition of their rights to apply for asylum.[16]  Simultaneously, several Catholic groups and organizations hosted satellite vigils and protests around the country to draw attention to our actions on the bridge.[17]  Extending the energy of the action, upon returning to their home cities, many Jornada participants engaged in a phone lobbying initiative focused on the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees agencies responsible for migration and border enforcement policies and practices.  Moreover, throughout the Jornada, participants were invited to continue sustained reflection and encouraged to undertake strategic planning and action in solidarity with migrants in their home cities.

Finally, the formal Jornada program ended on Sunday with a mass presided over by Bishop Mark J. Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso and with a signing ceremony that amplified his noteworthy pastoral letter concerning a borderland Catholic response to growing white nationalism in the U.S.A.[18]  Bishop Seitz’s pastoral letter echoed decades of constructive Mexican-American theological reflection in the borderlands, apparently incorporating ideas from theological forerunners like the late Fr. Virgilio Elizondo and Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas.[19]

By leading the Jornada with the Hope Border Institute, Latinx Catholics affirmed our own capacities for effective collective action, even as we are severely underrepresented within decision-making positions in dominant Catholic institutions, relative to the demographics of the Catholic Church in the U.S.A.  Thus, the Jornada countered narratives that characterize Latinx Catholics as socially powerless or as merely passive recipients of church or state benevolence. Moreover, in our encounters with asylum seekers at the border I and other Jornada participants deepened our understanding of asylum-seekers’ own social leadership and mutual aid.

Through our leadership in the Jornada, Latinx Catholic leaders also expressed confidence that our fellow Catholics and Catholic institutions are capable of mobilizing more prophetic and confrontational action against grave injustices than has occurred in recent decades.  Too often, Catholic institutions are for us—providing aid and services—but not with us in the struggle for justice.[20]  Further, in the U.S. context, when not attempting to avoid politics entirely, politically-engaged Catholic academia too often takes the form of elite Catholic universities sponsoring performances of “dialogue” with state elites.[21]  These “dialogues” frequently amount to an exchange of honors and social legitimacy between elite Catholic institutions and the state while accomplishing little to advance knowledge production or to effectively defend vulnerable populations.  By contrast, a very different kind of civic learning and formative “dialogue” with the state was experienced by people who accompanied and stood with desperate yet courageous asylum seekers.

Therefore, the Jornada was “something different.”  Several people, including students, expressed this sentiment and hoped that other people would be able to experience the work of Catholic education and churches in similar ways.  In my view, as a Catholic university professor, the Jornada’s approach to learning and civic engagement was unique in its blending of cross-cultural encounter, accompaniment, prayer, and political solidarity with people who are most violated and vulnerable.  The image of Catholic education on the bridge, influencing a key moment of social conflict, is one of several gifts that I carry with me.  The Jornada reinforced my belief that Catholic education can be immersive, multi-sensory, highly interpersonal, affective, spirit-centered, and positioned at the foot of the cross (or the apex of a transnational bridge), accompanying those who cling to life.  Catholic education can be much more confrontational and can embrace institutional (and even personal) risk-taking, developing a form of advocacy-learning that teaches people to form social networks, mobilize their capacities to defend life, and to create the pressure necessary to build institutions that make flourishing in community possible.  I am grateful for my experiences in planning and participating in the Jornada por la Justicia, and hope that these might contribute positively to plans by the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC)- North American region for a cross-border conference from January 3-5, 2022 at the Universidad Iberoamericana Tijuana in Baja California (MEX).

[1]  “The El Paso Pilgrimage,” Grotto Network, accessed December 26, 2019,

[2] “Students, Faculty, and Administrators Join Pilgrimage for Justice at US/Mexico Border,” St. John’s University, November 26, 2019,; ISN Staff, “Latinx Catholic Leaders Organize Prophetic National Pilgrimage to Demand Justice at the Border,” Ignatian Solidarity Network, December 26, 2019,

[3] Among Latinx Catholics, such civically-engaged pilgrimage is perhaps most closely identified with a consequential journey in 1966 when California farmworkers marched 547 kilometers (340 miles) in a successful effort to build farmworker bargaining power and improve labor conditions.  See “UFW Chronology,” United Farm Workers, accessed December 26, 2019,

[4] “The Teach-In 2019: Jornada Por La Justicia,” Hope Border Institute, accessed December 26, 2019,

[5] “Latinx” or “Latine” are increasingly used as gender-inclusive alternatives to the masculine-centered group identity term “Latino.”

[6] For purposes of the Jornada, we provisionally called ourselves the Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition. Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition, accessed December 26, 2019,

[7] Sarah Madigan, “Remain in Mexico’ Policy Remains in Effect for Now,” The Regulatory Review, May 13, 2019,

[8] Anna-Catherine Brigida, “Mexican Asylum Seekers Are Facing Long Waits at the U.S. Border. Advocates Say That’s Illegal,” Time, October 16, 2019,

[9] Chas Danner, “Everything We Know About the El Paso Walmart Massacre,” New York Magazine, August 7, 2019,

[10] Associated Press, “Experts Expose ‘Significant Correlation’ Between Political Rhetoric, Rise in Hate Crimes,” New York Post, August 8, 2019,

[11] “Arturo J. Bañuelas,” National Catholic Reporter, accessed December 26, 2019,

[12] Arturo J. Bañuelas (ed.), Mestizo Christianity: Theology from the Latino Perspective,  (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995).

[13] Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the United States (ACHTUS), accessed December 26, 2019,

[14] Neomi De Anda, “What Does Poder Político Look Like in Lo Cotidiano? My Eight-Minute Contribution,” University of Dayton, October 12, 2019,

[15] Michael N. Okińczyc-Cruz, Coalition for Spiritual & Public Leadership, accessed December 26, 2019,

[16] Brigida, “Mexican Asylum Seekers Are Facing Long Waits at the U.S. Border.”

[17] “Catholics Take Action for Immigrant Children,” Franciscan Action Network, accessed November 4, 2019,

[18] Mark J. Seitz, “Night Will Be No More,” Hope Border Institute, accessed December 26, 2019,

[19] For one example, compare “Night Will Be No More” #58 with Virgil Elizondo, Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 129. For another example, compare “Night Will Be No More” #59 with Arturo J. Bañuelas, “Borderland Spirituality: ‘Tu eres mi otro yo’,” Center for Migration Studies, March 12, 2019, Cf. Carmen Nanko-Fernández, “A Legacy of Latin@́s Theologizing on Borderlands,” National Catholic Reporter, October 18, 2019,

[20] As a noteworthy exception, concurrent with our months of Jornada planning, some prominent national Catholic organizations began mobilizing civil disobedience to challenge anti-migrant policies.  However, Latinx Catholic leaders in our emerging network knew nothing about these actions until after they occurred in the nation’s capital and received media attention.  This communication gap highlighted entrenched power asymmetries among Catholics in the U.S.A. and underscored the need to develop new partnerships.  See Jason Silverstein, “70 Catholic Protesters Arrested in D.C. Demonstration Against Trump’s Immigration Policies,” CBS News, July 18, 2019,

[21] A recent disruptive action at Georgetown University brought media attention and prompted conversation about the ethics of this approach to civic engagement by Catholic universities. See Nick Visser, “Kevin McAleenan, Homeland Security Chief, Shouted Off Stage At Georgetown Event,” Huffington Post, October 7, 2019,