NOGALES, Sonora, Mexico – In the tin-roofed soup kitchen just across the border, about 50 immigrants bow their heads in prayer. The eyes on their suntanned faces close in concentration, and they prop clasped hands on rows of metal picnic tables.
The man leading the prayer asks in Spanish for the safety of the immigrants’ families because most here have been recently deported from the U.S.
Volunteers at the Kino Border Initiative circulate to serve hot meals and fill glasses with milk. Among them are Luis Donaldo Ramos and Carolina Siulok Aguirre, both seniors from Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales, Arizona.
They are members of Kino Teens, a branch of the binational humanitarian initiative that recently got recognition from the biggest name in Catholicism: Pope Francis. The students sent letters and a video to the pope in October, describing their experiences on the border and the plight of the people they see on their regular visits to the shelter.
What was anything but regular was the letter they then received from the Vatican.
“(The letters) of these students from Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales have touched my heart because of the drama they describe, but also because of the hope they manifest,” Francis wrote in Spanish.
The pontiff’s letter, dated Dec. 19, was made public last week.
“These young people, who have come to learn how to strive against the propagation of stereotypes, from people who only see in immigration a source of illegality, social conflict and violence, can contribute much to show the world a Church … that extends to the world the culture of solidarity and care for the people and families that are affected many times by heart-rendering circumstances,” Francis wrote.
Jorge Tello, one of the Kino Teens, said he was in disbelief.
“It surprised me that this group from Nogales, this tiny little town, got a response from the pope, who is one of the most important figures in the church,” Tello said. “Just knowing that he knows that we’re doing something is really cool for me.”
Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, said he wasn’t as shocked as the students because of the outreaching personality Pop Francis seems to have.
“The fact that he wrote us is a great honor but not very surprising, because I think he is someone who is attentive to the human person,” he said.
This attitude of care is something his organization tries to live out, Carroll said.
“I think one powerful way we do that is not only in the services we provide but also by the way we serve people,” he said. “In our center … there’s no soup line. So the migrants don’t get up and get in line and receive a meal. We serve them, our staff serves them, our volunteers serve them, the Kino Teens serve them, and not only serve them but also sit with them, accompany them, listen to them and support them.”
The Nogales center, besides serving food twice a day, also gives immigrants donated clothing, first aid, hygiene items, referrals to government resources and counseling. Last year, volunteers served more than 38,000 meals, Carroll said.
Alex Buranday, a Kino Teen who wrote one of the letters, said the connection between Catholicism and border issues is closer than some might think.
“Catholicism is really about being kind to one another and just helping humankind overall,” she said. “Just by helping the migrants with food, clothing and moral support, I think it’s a very minute way of helping mankind in general.”
Jesus Espinosa lives “across the line” in Nogales, Mexico, and crosses the border every day with a student visa to go to Lourdes. School officials said about 30 percent of their students live in Mexico.
Espinosa said in his letter that he wanted the pope to know the stereotypes about his border community simply aren’t true.
“I see two cities with great economic opportunity and with enormous culture and diversity,” he said. “There’s so many sides to these cities … that people don’t know about.”
Tello said his letter encouraged Francis to visit Nogales because he wants him to bring attention to the struggles of the people in the border community.
“I really emphasized that if he came to the border it would be so helpful to bring attention to this huge problem that these people face,” he said. “I also said that the border is a very special community, and I would love if he experienced this type of community that’s like two countries sharing one type of life.”
Dodging a dusty tabby who frequents the shelter, the Kino Teens bustled around the room and delivered valentines as the immigrants smiled.
Through the chain-link openings in the shelter building, one could see the “Charros,” or gang members, standing on a hill, looking down at the soup kitchen and the surrounding area. The presence of these men is one of the reasons Nogales can be dangerous for the vulnerable immigrants.
Tello, who lives in Mexico, said the his involvement with the Kino Teens has taught him invaluable lessons about those who aren’t as lucky to legally cross into the U.S. every day.
“These people aren’t here to damage the country; that isn’t their intent,” he said of the immigrants. “That’s something that the Kino Teens made me think about: There’s a lot of good people getting treated badly. They’re trying to make their life better.”