Packed into the lobby of a Motel 8 in Indio on a sweltering September afternoon, a Diocesan delegation led by Bishop Alberto Rojas listened to powerful stories from families who had made desperate journeys to the United States in recent weeks.
A family of three from Venezuela described their northward trip through six countries, during which they experienced extortion, a brief separation from their 12-year-old daughter and constant threats of violence.
“In spite of it all, it was good for us,” said the father, speaking in Spanish. “We made it ... but some didn’t.”
Bishop Rojas led a brief prayer service with the families and offered them his customary fist bump. “Welcome to the United States. We are your brothers and sisters. We are here to help you,” he told them.
The families that offered testimonials, who came from places like Haiti, Chile and Brazil, were among the many assisted by ministers from the Galilee Center, a non-profit organization based in Mecca. Its founders, Gloria Gomez and Claudia Castorena, were inspired by their Catholic faith to start this ministry to migrants and asylum seekers in 2010.
Prior to visiting the Motel 8, the Diocesan delegation stopped at the Galilee Center, where they heard testimonials from employees there along with deacons who have been providing pastoral support to asylum seekers at the center. A common theme of the testimonials was the mutual evangelization that takes place between the ministers and the migrants.
“When you give you receive,” said Deacon Fernando Heredia. “That is completely true with the asylum seekers.”
In some brief remarks at the Galilee Center, Bishop Rojas described it as “a place where miracles take place.” Families stay an average of 24 hours at the center, where they can rest, clean up, have a meal and pray with the ministers there. They are also assisted in making travel arrangements to stay with family in the United States, pending their court hearing for political asylum.
The shelter has 150 beds to accommodate those needing an overnight stay. But the large numbers of people who have come to the southern border of the U.S. in California and Arizona seeking political asylum has prompted the Galilee Center to secure and pay for other temporary shelter locations, like the Motel 8 in Indio. The Galilee Center has helped to put up more than 3,000 asylum seekers in local motels.
The Sept. 15 visit of the Diocesan delegation, which, along with Bishop Rojas and Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Rutilio del Riego, included 21 priests, four deacon couples and three diocesan lay ministers, came during the annual Priests’ Convocation. Primary topics of discussion during the Convocation were “accompaniment” and “practical theology.” Bishop Rojas said the visit to Mecca was a perfect example of those themes. “Practical theology looks like this,” he said.
Many of the priests who attended the visit said they were deeply moved by the stories shared by the families seeking asylum. Father Paul Schmidt, SVD, Chaplain at Notre Dame High School, said of the students he serves, “they need to hear this.”
Father Fidel Rivero, Administrator of Corpus Christi Parish in Corona, said he was moved by the faith of the families.
“What impacted me most was that they are struggling for something that’s not guaranteed,” Fr. Rivero said. “They risk their lives to come to this country and they can end up in jail.”
Fr. Rivero said he has and will continue to preach about the dysfunction of the current federal immigration system, even though some in his congregation have expressed discomfort with him broaching the subject.
“It’s a situation that we have to deal with,” he said of the country’s broken immigration system. “I don’t see the Democrats or the Republicans dealing with this issue.”