National Catholic Reporter Spotlights EPISO's Preparation of 222 to Lead Synodal Conversations in El Paso
In preparation for the synod, EPISO/Border Interfaith and Bishop Mark Seitz of the El Paso Catholic Diocese convened 222 ministry leaders from 39 parishes for two days of training in how to lead effective conversations.
Sponsored by CCHD, Mission & Ministry Impact, EPISO/Border Interfaith, and Organizers Institute, Recognizing the Stranger prepares trainees to put their faith in action through institutional organizing practices designed to strengthen their parishes. Teachings from Ezra and Nehemiah were recently integrated to support synodal strategies.
In the colonias, or unincorporated communities, surrounding El Paso, Texas, volunteers are knocking on doors, asking residents how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted them, and how the church can help them regroup and get back on their feet.
"It takes a lot of initiative to meet with people who aren't already in your [social and church] circles," said Surya Kalra, a lead organizer with the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, which is working with the Diocese of El Paso to listen to local voices for the synod.
"If you're doing a consultation with the people who are already in the pews, who are already coming to church, that's great, and helpful," Kalra told NCR. "The difficult part is figuring out how to reach out to people we don't see [in church], who used to be here, or would be here if we were different. That requires much more persistence and creativity."
Pope Francis Says Synod Should Hear 'Excluded' Voices, National Catholic Reporter [pdf] [pdf]
Project ARRIBA has been quietly working with El Paso leaders to help hundreds of mostly Hispanic students from poor families through nursing school and drastically changing their lives since 1998. They’ve been at it so quietly they barely get noticed publicly anymore. But they have been busy.
The Hunt Institute of Global Competitiveness at the University of Texas at El Paso released a study last month that found for every dollar invested in Project ARRIBA, $28 is returned to the region. ARRIBA has added $893 million to El Paso’s economy in earnings by the program’s graduates since 1995, the report says.
The nonprofit recently received a $250,000 Bank of America grant for regional workforce development to address “a shortage of healthcare workers at a critical time.” The El Paso region has long suffered an acute shortage of nurses, but since the novel coronavirus made its debut, the shortage has worsened. And hospitals in El Paso, like many others across America, are short on registered nurses by the hundreds.
El Paso businessman Woody Hunt endorsed the organization in the announcement, saying,
“Project ARRIBA has become a crucial community partner that is helping build the next generation of healthcare workers who come from and understand the unique needs of our region...."
ARRIBA sprang from a social justice organization that El Paso’s Catholic Diocese formed in 1985 known as the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, or EPISO. It’s now called EPISO-Border Interfaith because churches of other denominations have joined.
[In photo: Roman Ortiz, Executive Director of ARRIBA. Photo Credit: David Crowder, El Paso Inc.]
For four decades, the Rev. Ed Roden-Lucero has influenced El Paso far beyond the walls of the parishes he pastored. He has been a key part of efforts to bring water and sewer services to tens of thousands of homes, and train hundreds of El Pasoans for jobs that paid a living wage and altered lives....
Those who worked with him said he fought poverty and injustice wherever he saw it. EPISO was involved in efforts to build El Paso Children’s Hospital and expand University Medical Center clinics across the county so that more people would have access to health care.
While Roden-Lucero served as pastor of San Juan Diego Catholic Church in Montana Vista, EPISO led an effort to divide the Clint Independent School District Board of Trustees into single-member districts so that power and resources were more evenly divided.
Roden-Lucero arrived in El Paso a couple of years after a group of mostly Catholic churches formed the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, or EPISO, a nonprofit organization that trained community-based leaders to advocate for issues important to them. He had received training from the Industrial Areas Foundation, EPISO’s parent organization, before coming to El Paso.
EPISO leaders quickly focused on the dire situation in colonias, neighborhoods along the U.S.-Mexico border that had been developed without the most basic human services. By the mid-1980s, more than 80,000 El Paso County residents lived in homes without water or wastewater services. Many of them developed hepatitis A because they drank from water wells dug next to septic tanks.
State and local leaders had shown little interest in addressing the growing crisis. So EPISO and other IAF affiliates across Texas organized and turned up the heat, bringing national media attention to shameful conditions along the border.
Dolores DeAvila, an educator in El Paso’s Lower Valley and EPISO member, met Roden-Lucero in the early 1980s and was part of the fight to bring water to the colonias.
“I have learned a lot from him in terms of his being very courageous, acting on his beliefs and working with his parishioners, engaging them in their needs,” she said.
Years of lobbying and public pressure by EPISO and its sister organizations paid off in 1989, when Texas voters passed a bond issue to begin the process of providing water and wastewater infrastructure to border colonias....
[Photo Credit: Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters]
The Priest Who Spent 40 Years Fighting to Reshape El Paso, El Paso Matters [pdf]
El Paso County commissioners on Monday approved contributing $275,000 to a partnership that will provide emergency financial assistance to El Pasoans, with a focus on helping people excluded from earlier pandemic stimulus funds.
The Woody and Gayle Hunt Family Foundation is offering a five-year, $500,000 match for the program, and unnamed national funders are contributing $150,000, organizers said. Other key partners are El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO)/Border Interfaith and the Family Independence Initiative.
At least 1,000 El Paso County families this year will benefit from cash grants of up to $500, which they can use to cover any expense or financial obligation. The partnership especially wants to reach undocumented and mixed immigration status households that were barred from receiving $1,200 stimulus checks and other COVID-19 relief help approved by Congress.
“They were already in the shadows and now even more in the sense that their poverty became even bigger poverty in the sense of things were not moving,” said Rev. Pablo Matta, a Catholic priest and a leader with EPISO/Border Interfaith, which will assist FII in reaching families in need of assistance. “They work so hard and they’re a big part of the economy of El Paso and all throughout the U.S., but never very much taken into account at all.”
Woody Hunt, the El Paso businessman who chairs his family’s philanthropic foundation, said the $500,000 donation builds off of efforts in the spring to shore up the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank in the early stages of the pandemic.
“And during that time period, I had some discussions with EPISO, which I’ve kind of met with regularly over a very long period of time, and I know they had concerns about those within the community that were at the very bottom end that in some cases didn’t qualify for some of the federal programs that were coming out,” Hunt said.
“FII has a platform, they’ve been doing it for 20 years, they’ve got the technology to do it. They need local partners like an EPISO who can really identify either directly or through the Catholic Church that they work with, those that really have the greatest need,” Hunt said.
Many low-income families in El Paso face cumbersome application processes and a lack of access to computers and other technology to apply for assistance, said Dolores De Avila, a longtime leader with EPISO.
[Photo Credit: Robert Moore/El Paso Matters]
Low-Income El Pasoans Can Get Emergency Financial Help From New Partnership, El Paso Matters [pdf]
On a cloudy November day, EPISO/Border Interfaith celebrated the initiation of a $13 Million project that will provide 816 Montana Vista residents with water and wastewater services in a colonia far east of El Paso. El Paso Water Utilities publicly recognized the organization for its leadership in ensuring that residents have access to these essential services.
For years, Montana Vista felt like a forgotten community due to poverty, isolation and a lack of relationships with elected officials. Residents appealed to their then-priest at San Juan Diego Catholic for support in getting much needed basic streets, parks and wastewater services. A longtime leader and co-chair of EPISO, Father Ed Roden-Lucero and EPISO organizers worked with resident leaders, guiding them in their efforts to seek essential infrastructure.
Part of those efforts included community education about the Economically Distressed Areas Program, a program created in 1989 by EPISO/Border Interfaith and sister Texas IAF organizations to address lack of infrastructure in the colonias. That same year, EPISO/BI and Texas IAF organizations got out the vote to amend the Texas Constitution to provide the Texas Water Development Board $200 million dollars to issue grants and loans to install water and wastewater infrastructure in colonias and economically distressed areas. Since 1989, over $1 Billion dollars have been invested in colonias and economically distressed areas across Texas.
Change is coming to Montana Vista. In January, a long-fought for (and separately funded) road extension was newly opened, with four lanes, bike routes, sidewalks, lighting, and landscaping. Now, to community acclaim, El Paso Water is breaking ground for Phase 1 of its water and wastewater project -- scheduled for completion within 18 months.
Included in recent TIME reporting was an assembly organized by EPISO/Border Interfaith in which 300 institutional leaders gathered alongside 12 local, state and congressional leaders who all pledged to reassure the community -- especially its most vulnerable members.
At one point, the assembly intentionally broke out into small group check-ins responding to the questions: "How are you doing? What do you need?" Heartfelt conversations around the room elicited emotional stories from attendees, public officials, and even media covering the gathering.
In the assembly, Texas State Representative Cesar Blanco committed to working with the Texas IAF network to identify state emergency resources for counseling and professional services for El Paso schools. He also committed to developing a plan for state legislation promoting gun safety, including bans on assault rifles, universal background checks, and red flag alerts.
At the urging of EPISO/Border Interfaith leaders, school officials agreed to coordinate direct support for families most in need of care to process the shooting.
Leaders are continuing to focus public officials on a mental health response, as part of a comprehensive approach to recent shootings.
'Trauma Doesn't Go Away By Itself.' How El Paso is Tackling Mental Health Stigma After the Walmart Mass Shooting, TIME Magazine [pdf]
EPISO Leaders Rev. Matta & De Avila: We Must Not Let Fear Succeed in Creating Distrust, Hateful Fear
On Aug. 3, our El Paso community was viciously attacked, and we are experiencing deep grief. Yes, we need to take the necessary time to process this pain and publicly lament together. But soon we must also begin to channel this sense of loss to reclaim a sense of community that we will all be proud of.
Terrorism wants to create mistrust and deep hateful fear. Such fear works to drive people away from one another. It scapegoats the immigrant, people of color, those of different faith traditions, people of a different culture and language. It twists and turns us to make others seem not human.
That is not El Paso, and we must not let fear succeed....
We Must Not Let Fear Succeed in Creating Distrust, Hateful Fear, El Paso Times [pdf]
Just days after the shooting that targeted Latinos in El Paso, 300 EPISO/Border Interfaith leaders and clergy gathered to "stand against fear" and begin a community-wide healing process alongside 12 local, state and congressional leaders who all pledged to reassure the community -- especially its most vulnerable members.
“We must understand that terrorism wants to create fear and division that promotes misunderstanding, mistrust and violence,” said Fr. Pablo Matta, EPISO/Border Interfaith co-chair and pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church in El Paso. “That is not El Paso, and we must not let fear succeed.”
Leaders in the pews made commitments to launch parish-based listening sessions throughout El Paso to reach those feeling most anxious and isolated, to secure additional emergency counseling and mental health services and to actively support legislation to curb gun violence.
“I’m ready to walk with you,” said US Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, asserting that the attack goes deeper than a permissive gun culture. "You all are about accountability. We have to be accountable with the people who use language that inspires hate."
Similarly, Catholic Bishop Mark Seitz and Episcopal Bishop Michael Buerkel Hunn urged leaders to actively engage those feeling uneasy and isolated and to elicit their stories and concerns. “El Paso is a special community,” said Bishop Seitz. “We have an opportunity to do this for the rest of the country.”
The assembly broke out into small group conversations, responding to the questions: "How are you doing? What do you need?" Heartfelt conversations around the room elicited emotional stories -- and many tears -- from attendees, public officials, and even media covering the gathering.
Other officials in attendance included State Representative Cesar Blanco, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, County Commissioners Vince Perez and David Stout, City Representatives Cassandra Hernandez and Claudia Ordaz Perez, City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, Ysleta ISD Superintendent Xavier De La Torre and El Paso ISD School Board Trustee Freddy Kayel-Avalos.
Representative Blanco committed to work with the Texas IAF network around developing a plan for state legislation promoting gun safety, including bans on assault rifles, universal background checks, and red flag alerts. He also committed to working with leaders to identify state emergency resources for counseling and professional services for El Paso schools. City and County officials agreed to develop a strategy to reassure immigrant families and their children, encouraging them not to be afraid of local law enforcement nor of public services. School officials agreed to coordinate direct support for families most in need of care to process the shooting.
[Photo Credit: Briana Sanchez, El Paso Times]
Standing Against Fear: Catholic Church Hosts Interfaith Gathering After Mass Shooting, El Paso Times [pdf]
Multiethnic Group Holds Vigil to Remember Victims of El Paso Shooting, FOX News
What Next? El Paso Faith Community Shares Stories of Fear and Anger in Shooting Aftermath, America Magazine [pdf]
[Excerpts from America Magazine below...]
The Rev. Pablo Matta was one of a number of priests who visited El Paso hospitals in the hours after a gunman with a high-powered rifle opened fire Aug. 3 in a Walmart massacre that took 22 lives....“I saw a lot of the people that died,” Father Matta said....
“There’s a lot of grief,” [Dolores DeAvila] said. Ms. DeAvila, a leader with El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization/Border Interfaith, has spoken with many who lost loved ones in the shooting or were in the vicinity. She described the panic that ensued in nearby restaurants, including one where people hid in a walk-in cooler. “We say we’re prepared [for a mass shooting], but we’re not,” she said.
EPISO/Border Interfaith is organizing a community event on Aug. 8 at St. Paul Church, where Father Matta is pastor. In addition to fear, Ms. DeAvila said there is a lot of anger around assault weapons.
“This is a community that was attacked and they understand that,” Joe Rubio, director of the West/Southwest Industrial Area Foundation, a network of community organizations, said of the attack.
“There is incredible grief, and it’s starting to turn into anger. People are starting to look for someone to blame for this,” Mr. Rubio said. “The church can take part in helping to shape people’s reaction to this. Not just by having a vigil, but in a way people can create public accountability for who bears responsibility for unleashing this kind of destruction and hate.”
Mr. Rubio believes there should be an organized response supporting restrictions on assault rifles and background checks for individuals seeking to purchase firearms. “There’s a prophetic role for the church to play in this conversation,” he said. “We’re going to either proactively save people or they’re going to pay with their lives.”
What Next? El Paso Faith Community Shares Stories of Fear and Anger in Shooting Aftermath, America Magazine [pdf]
FIGHTING AGAINST FEAR
Our Neighborhoods, Our Strength
We are deeply saddened by the horrific shootings in El Paso and Dayton over the past 48 hours. Our hearts go out to those murdered, those injured, their families and these entire communities. We also stand in support of our IAF sister organization EPISO/Border Interfaith and its workforce training organization Project ARRIBA, whose work has been deeply embedded in the El Paso community for decades.
This Thursday, August 8th at 7pm at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, EPISO/Border Interfaith (BI) leaders will assemble to demonstrate that this hate-filled act has no place in El Paso. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders representing 19 local institutions from all walks of life will stand united to grieve and rebuild the bonds of trust to overcome fear and hate.
Because El Paso is the largest US city on the border, and among the safest in our country, EPISO/BI leaders will not let this senseless act of violence define its border community. This week EPISO/BI recommits to its long-term political work of building vital public relationships, rooted in trust.
The story of the Good Samaritan challenges us all to see the humanity in those we have been taught to despise and to practice neighborliness, not to be divided by senseless acts of violence. We urge all people to reach out to those who might feel isolated or fearful and seek fruitful relationships not just in the coming days and weeks, but for the long term. Those kinds of efforts can lay a foundation for relationships with people who are different, and collaborative strategies for long-term solutions.
We must do all we can to combat the culture of violence and hate which contributes to tragedies like these.