Border mission instills education and hope in poor

Denver priest’s Miguel Pro Mission continues vital 35-year ministry in Juarez

Roxanne King

Long before migrant caravans and controversial Trump administration immigration policies began dominating headlines last year, a Catholic mission in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, led by a humble Denver priest, was tirelessly working to prevent the forced migration of the young poor who Pope Francis said “are persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs” prevalent in their impoverished communities.

Inspired by the work of others, Father Peter Urban, 89, founded Miguel Pro Mission in 2010. The Colorado nonprofit offers scholarships and tutoring to children in Juarez to help them attend school from kindergarten through college. Recently, the mission also began building eco-friendly, energy efficient homes for the poor.

While an education makes a brighter future possible, the homebuilding and repair assistance provides safe, dignified dwellings. Both efforts foster hope, which is the mission’s goal, Father Urban said.

“Five of our students have graduated from college,” he told the Denver Catholic. “Seventeen are enrolled at a university. More than 30 are in middle school and high school.”

The scholarships are vital, Father Urban said, as free education in Mexico only goes through the sixth grade.

“Then they are out and may be tempted to listen to narcos and sell drugs to make a living,” he said.

The youths are also vulnerable to other criminal activities. Some try to flee the wretched poverty and violence of their city by seeking a better life across the border.

Once considered the most dangerous city outside a war zone, the homicide rate in Juarez began dropping in 2012 but last year reported “1,247 homicides, a number comparable to the most violent era for the city from 2008 to 2011,” according to El Diario de Juarez. The increase, the newspaper said, is attributed to cartels fighting for control of the city’s lucrative drug-smuggling routes.

Physical education teacher Oscar Sandoval was able to earn his college degree thanks to Miguel Pro Mission scholarships. Today, he teaches at two schools in Juarez and, with a promising future, recently married.

“He got married in the Catholic Church because of his background,” Father Urban said, referring to Sandoval’s experience with the mission, which nurtured him both academically and spiritually. “Now he can impart knowledge not only about physical health, but also his faith.”

A heavily industrialized city boasting some 300 factories, nearly a third of Juarez’s population is comprised of people who relocated from elsewhere, primarily from other parts of Mexico, but also from other Central American countries.

“They hear there is work,” Father Urban said. “They come and find rocks, cardboard and some kind of roofing and put it together to house their family. They work long hours at maquiladoras, factories, for 20 to 40 dollars a week. That’s not poverty — that’s misery.”

Last year, the mission built a home for a woman raising her three children and battling cancer after being abandoned by her husband. In 2017, the mission helped complete a residence and chapel for the Tonantzin Sisters, consecrated women who partner with the mission and staff four community centers around Juarez where they offer child care to working parents, provide tutoring to children, and offer catechesis and counseling to families.

Deacon Paul Zajac, who serves on the Miguel Pro Mission board of directors and ministers at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Denver where Father Urban resides, helped build the residences.

“It was a good experience,” Deacon Zajac said. “Miguel Pro Mission’s focus is to help those most in need in a manner that helps them the most. It lives out the Gospel precept that when you care for your neighbor you care for Christ.”

Not only does the mission uplift people by helping them to acquire an education and a proper dwelling, the deacon said, but it involves them in those efforts and gives witness that God loves them.

“It helps them to know that God created them with a mission and a purpose,” Deacon Zajac said. “It tells them God cares so much that he sent people who live 800 miles away to help them.

“The people have such a sense of gratitude. It was important to them to share with us what they had in return. It was like being with the community of the early Church.”

In addition to helping residents build energy efficient adobe homes that include dry ecological toilets, which turn waste into fertilizer (a lack of water and sandy soil are issues in Juarez), the mission encourages the people to become self-sufficient by growing a garden for vegetables, and raising chickens and perhaps a goat for eggs and milk.

“If you have that, you may be poor but you have a dignified poverty,” Father Urban said, likening it to what Christ described when he said, “Blessed are the poor.”

Father Urban got involved with the poor in Juarez in 1994 through Father Stan Martinka, a former U.S. Army chaplain who knew the Tonantzin Sisters and had started an apostolate 10 years prior to help them build community centers and provide financial aid to families to keep their children in school. Later, Deacon Michael Howard assisted their work with a house-building effort.

Both Father Martinka and Deacon Howard died in 2011. Father Urban credits the two men and the Tonantzin Sisters with inspiring Miguel Pro Mission, which he established with the help of his friend Dan Schell after some 16 years supporting the ministry both on site in Juarez and from afar in Denver.

Today, even as the mission explores adding new technology to teach children English at a younger age via educational computer games to aid fluency and enhance their ability to get better paying jobs, the idea is rooted in its foundational goal: to instill hope for a better future.

“We like to do education more than anything,” Father Urban said. “We plan to build two more homes this year and many, many more over the next 20 years. But our main focus is education.”

It costs just $30 a month to provide a scholarship. The cost to build a home, too, is minimal at about $20,000.

Additionally, organizers are planning a grand event to celebrate Father Urban’s 90th birthday and benefit the mission in August, said Mary Ann Hand, secretary of the mission’s board of directors.

“We’re excited about the work going on,” she said, “and the good things happening through the mission.”

“It gives people a dignified life,” said Deacon Zajac. “And they can see a greater future.”

COMING UP: The shock of forgiveness

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Every so often, the media will pick up a story that serves as a potent reminder of what it means to be a Christian. That’s because living as a Christian in today’s post-Christian society is an unusual way of living, contrary to what the rest of society might say about it. It is not “outdated.” It is not “irrelevant.” It is radical, countercultural and, to some, even incomprehensible.

On Oct. 2, the trial of Amber Guyger came to a close. Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was charged with the murder of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who lived in the same apartment complex as Guyger. On Sept. 6, 2018, she walked into Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, saw Jean sitting there on the couch, and after giving verbal commands, shot him twice, killing him. It was an absolute tragedy and played into the ongoing national conversation about police behavior toward people of color (Guyger is white; Jean is black).

What I want to focus on is a particular moment that came at the end of Guyger’s trial, after she had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Jean’s younger brother Brandt took to the witness stand to address his brother’s killer directly. He wasn’t planning on saying anything during the trial but changed his mind at the last minute. A prompting of the Holy Spirit? I think yes, based on what happened next.

“I hope you go to God with all the guilt, all the bad things you may have done in the past,” Brandt told Guyger. “If you are truly sorry … I forgive you. If you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.” He continued, “I’m not going to say I hope you die … I personally want the best for you … I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want … and the best would be: give your life to Christ. Giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.”

But it didn’t stop there. Brandt was bold enough to ask the judge if he had permission to give Guyger a hug. He was granted it, and they embraced for over a minute, Guyger weeping into Brandt’s shoulder, just as some of us might do were we to be embraced by Christ.

Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt Jean hugs former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger after delivering his impact statement to her in Dallas, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Guyger has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing her black neighbor in his apartment, which she said she mistook for her own unit one floor below. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Brandt has every reason to hate Guyger. This woman gunned down his innocent brother who had his whole life ahead of him and was given a lighter sentence than what she originally faced. Those in the courtroom and watching on TV wouldn’t have been shocked to hear Brandt tell Guyger that he hopes she rots in hell. No, the shock from those in the courtroom – and subsequently, the rest of the nation – came when Brandt did the exact opposite.

With those words and the simple act of embracing his brother’s killer, Brandt gave the world an incredible witness to the forgiveness Christ calls us to live as Christians. Of course, you can count on the bickering voices of social media and pundits to take this powerful moment and exploit it for their own agenda, but that’s because many of them don’t understand. It is not normal in our culture to forgive. It is also not easy. And that’s what makes witnessing something like this so shocking. It was not supposed to happen, but it did. It defied every expectation. Make no mistake about it: Brandt was living his call to be more like Christ in that moment. And it is exactly this moment – this shocking moment – that we are able to get a glimpse of what it is to be a Christian.

Following Jesus does make for quite a shock. And it is that shock that we are called to bring to the rest of the world, just as Brandt Jean did.