Immersion Trip: Encountering Migrants in California
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A Maryknoll immersion trip takes young adults to the San Francisco Bay Area to deepen their understanding of migration issues.

With our eyes still heavy from an early flight, we settled into our seats in a warmly lit room. The air was still, and the palm trees outside the windows just barely swayed in the breeze. The world shrunk to the size of that room and the spirit flowed through each and every one of our hearts. This is how we spent our spring break, myself and six other Yale University students from the Saint Thomas More Campus Ministry, taking part in a Maryknoll immersion trip to the San Francisco Bay Area to explore immigration.

We were welcomed by the Los Altos Maryknoll community and surrounded by missioners who had dedicated their lives to providing for others and learning from them as well. At the first meeting, Maryknoll Father David Schwinghamer, who served in Africa for more than two decades, invited us to step into the week by following the three steps God gave Moses through the burning bush: come and see; be transformed; and go and tell. And that is exactly what we did.

We sat with a disturbance in our hearts as we learned about the poverty specific to the San Francisco Bay Area that had led to the creation of a large homeless population and an unwelcomed migrant community.

We went hiking in the Rancho San Antonio State Park, sharing our own immigration stories with each other in an effort to become familiar with each other and in our own shoes before we could, as the saying goes, walk in the shoes of another. It made me reflect on being a second-generation American. My dad immigrated from Trinidad with his family when he was 12 years old and my mother’s parents had migrated from Puerto Rico.

Our immersion experience deepened when we encountered migrants. The first place we visited was the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association farm, where migrant farmers pursue the dream of owning a farm here or prepare for possible careers in organic agriculture. We tugged at the earth with the sun blazing on our necks as we assisted a farm worker weeding his crops. We helped in the parsley field and learned about sustainable organic farming.

We worked alongside volunteers at the Santa Maria Urban Ministry, putting out clothing on display for people to choose from. I can’t forget the little girl, who came with her mom and her sister, and while they went to get clothes, she started playing hide and seek with the volunteers. There was joy in her to share. The value and gift in play is a blessing often overlooked.

Then we visited the Oakland Catholic Worker house, a transitional shelter and accompaniment project for recently arrived Latin American migrants. There we chopped carrots and tossed salads beside migrants who shared stories of love and resilience.

One woman told us about her son, who was extremely ill when they crossed the border. As she spoke, remembering, she had to pause and take a deep breath. When they arrived to the States, her son was hospitalized, and she and her husband were worried and afraid. With help and prayers from the Catholic Worker community, their son recovered.

We went to see the Angel Island barracks, where we stared in amazement at the poetry immigrants had carved into the walls. We felt the sprinkle of juice as we quartered oranges at Martha’s Kitchen, and breathed in the seasoned blends of perfection in the dishes at La Cocina, which provides opportunities to women, immigrants and people of color to learn how to run their own restaurants.

What struck me the most was just being able to speak Spanish with people who didn’t speak English. Those moments were transformative for me, because it allowed them to feel comfortable relating their experiences to me, and then for me to share with them a little about myself.

Thanks to the immersion trip, I became more aware of my own immigration story, and how much it has to do with the sacrifices my family members made and the importance of their emphasis on education. I thought about my father, who worked his way through public state college in order to get a degree. And I remembered his father, my grandfather, who passed away last fall, never having been able to go back to Trinidad.

Throughout the Maryknoll immersion trip, we bore witness to the plight of people on the move and, instead of turning our backs on them, resolved to discern what God would want us to do in this place. We all asked how we could care for one another with full hearts, bodies, minds and souls — regardless of anyone’s place of origin.

Visit here for more information about immersion trips with Maryknoll.

Featured Image: As part of a Maryknoll immersion trip for young adults, students and Catholic campus ministry chaplains from Yale University visit the immigration station museum at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay Area. Shown are (top row, left to right) Jessica Ainoonson, Nevin George, Katie Painter, David Rivera and Sister Jennifer Schaaf; (bottom row, left to right) Rachel Brown, Dana Joseph, Kristen St. Louis and Sister Thi Kim Uyen Do. (Courtesy of Jenn Schaaf/U.S.) 


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About the author

Kristen St. Louis

Kristen St. Louis, from New York, is a student at Yale University where she studies English, history, and performance studies. She is an active member of the Saint Thomas More Chapel community in New Haven, Connecticut.