The other side of the border

By Elisabeth Román

With thousands murdered every year by drug cartels, Ciudad Juárez has been called the most dangerous city in the hemisphere. It is a place where residents and businesses pay up or their properties are burned, and where violence and extortion has drained the economy. Juárez is also the site where Father Bill Morton, a Columban missionary, went to live and serve.

Morton is the Columban Fathers’ vocation director, serves on the regional council, gives retreats, preaches, and works with a shelter for people seeking asylum. While living in Dallas in the 1990s, where he did mission in education, justice, and peace, a friend approached him to go with young people to the Mexican border in Matamoros.

“I started thinking it would be great to have a mission in the U.S.-Mexico border; I got permission from our regional superior and, in 1996, initiated Columban Border Ministries. From the beginning we did immersion experiences.

Getting to know the Mexican side of the border, Morton became friends with a priest and started helping in his Juárez parish. It didn’t take long before the Columbans purchased land in the western part of the diocese. Despite the risks, many positive things have grown from the border ministry. One is an afterschool program Morton began with a neighbor, Christina Estrada.

Although Estrada had only a fourth-grade education, she was enthusiastic about educating children and helping the community. They fixed a property behind her home with donations, and today nearly 400 students receive scholarship and educational assistance from the program. “We help them from kindergarten to college. We help pay for tuition, uniforms, shoes, backpacks, and school supplies.”

In 2006 Morton was forced to leave Mexico. The Zaragozas, a powerful family in Juárez, began seizing properties, evicting residents, dismantling the electrical grid, building barbwire fences, and posting armed guards. Homes were bulldozed and burned, and three people killed, two of them children who perished when their house was burned. At the time there were over 300 families living in the Lomas de Poleo neighborhood, where Morton worked in a small chapel. Only about eight families remain.

“I really didn’t do anything politically, but advocated for the people. The Columban Fathers’ Justice and Peace Office in Washington, D.C. also helped. I was asked to testify at the office of the Mexican Attorney General in 2006. Afterwards I received a citation from the immigration office, was fined 1,000 pesos for working without a permit, and ordered to leave within 24 hours. I asked the immigration official who had filed the complaint against me; he said it was the Zaragozas’ lawyer.”

Morton now lives in El Paso and crosses the border once a week, to coordinate fundraising for the scholarship program, keeps a very low profile, and does not celebrate Mass or do public ministry.



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