The following article was printed in the Las Cruces Sun-News (part of the USA Today network) on January 7, 2017. Thank you to Carlos Andres Lopez for his excellent research and writing. And thank you, dear Sisters, for all that you're living!
MOVERS & SHAKERS: CHAPARRAL NUNS 'SPIRITS OF JUSTICE'
CHAPARRAL — Sister Chabela Galbe can still recall the fear that paralyzed this dusty southern New Mexico colonia in 2007 in the aftermath of raids that resulted in the arrests of dozens of immigrants who had crossed the border illegally.
“We had a dramatic, dramatic, dramatic experience with raids in Chaparral,” said Galbe, 69, one of four sisters of the Religious of Assumption who founded the Flor y Canto convent in the heart of Chaparral, an unincorporated community that straddles both Doña Ana and Otero counties.
Speaking in a serious tone, she said the raids had devastating effects on families and “left many children without parents.”
According to Sun-News reports from September 2007, 28 immigrants in Chaparral, including 11 schoolchildren, were detained on Sept. 10 alone, as local authorities began to carry out the federally funded “Operation Stonegarden.”
Panic filled the community, Galbe recalled, as students were removed from schools and parents were forced to leave behind American-born children.
That’s when Galbe and her fellow sisters stepped in. With open arms, they welcomed the children whose parents were deported into their convent, providing shelter, sanctuary and stability in a time of grave uncertainty.
“We became their families,” Galbe said, gesturing to herself and the other sisters: Sister Diana Wauters, 74, Sister Evelyn Strahl, 69, and Sister Akeneta Lalakobouma, 55.
“They took in children that were left literally alone because their parents were detained and deported. That has had a long-lasting generational impact on the community of Chaparral,” said Sarah Silva, executive director of NM Comunidades en Acción y de Fé, a faith-based community action organization that works closely with the sisters. “If it weren’t for those sisters, I don’t know where some of those children would be today.”
Because of their work and efforts in Chaparral, the four sisters – who Silva recently described as “the most ferocious spirits of justice” – have been selected by the Sun-News as Movers & Shakers for 2017, a group of leaders expected to have significant influence in the community over the next 12 months.
This year, the sisters’ work may prove even more critical as Donald Trump, the Republican businessman and former reality TV personality, takes office as the 45th president of the Unites States.
Trump has stoked fears with his brash rhetoric and controversial immigration proposals that include building a wall along the U.S-Mexico border and ramping up deportations of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. More recently, he has vowed to swiftly deport 2 million to 3 million dangerous criminals.
In Chaparral, the anxiety is visible, according to the Assumption sisters, who worry that immigration raids like those in 2007 will be carried out during the Trump administration.
“The fear, anguish, insecurity of the people since the election is noticeable,” Galbe said.
Going forward, Wauters said, the sisters will pray that the U.S. remains a welcoming nation of hospitality. But they also vowed to staunchly adhere to their Christian values.
“There might come a time when there’s going to be a need for resistance,” Wauters said.
Silva shares the same concerns. “I hope we don’t see a repeat of increased raids and detentions that leave children abandoned, but that may happen,” she said. And because of that possibility, she added, the sisters’ work “is going to be critically important this year and in the coming years.”
“As residents of southern New Mexico, it’s going to be our collective responsibility to support the sisters in doing this really good work,” she said.
Galbe described their work with the immigrant community as “sacred” because, she said, “it touches the integrity of the family and the security of children.”
In truth, however, their work in Chaparral extends far beyond immigrants. Since the Flor y Canto convent opened its doors in 2001, the sisters have worked tirelessly to address the diverse societal needs of the entire colonia.
In addition to advocating for immigrant rights, they actively push for more educational services and outreach programs for children in Chaparral. They strongly supported the construction of Chaparral High School, which dramatically reduced busing time for children in the community. And each summer, they host camps for schoolchildren as a means of developing leadership skills and creating a culture of community service.
Sister Strahl also regularly teaches ESL classes at the Doña Ana Community College branch in Chaparral.
Over the years, the sisters have spoken out against certain projects, including a proposed landfill near Chaparral. They also routinely work in collaboration with organizations such as NM CAFé, the American Civil Liberties Union and Catholic Charities. And they offer spiritual support to the incarnated at nearby prisons and detention centers.
Their convent is one four Assumption communities in the United States.
It was born out of the sisters’ desire to heed the call from U.S. bishops to care for immigrant communities in the Southwest along the border.
In 1996, Chalbe said, the Southwest convent was approved by the U.S. province of the Assumption. By January 2000, the sisters had settled on Chaparral as the location, and by the following January, the three-building, energy-efficient convent made of straw bales was up and running.
Galbe and Wauters were among the convent’s four founding sisters. Sisters Strahl and Lalakobouma joined the convent several years after it opened.
The sisters, who hail from places like Spain, Germany, Fiji and the U.S., entered the Assumption at different stages of their lives. Today, they are among more than 1,000 sisters in the Religious of the Assumption, a worldwide congregation that was founded in Paris in 1839 by Anne Eugénie Milleret, who was canonized in 2007.
In Chaparral, the "hub" of the convent, as Wauters calls it, is its chapel, which is always open to the community.
It features an altar that is adorn with images of refugees and immigrants. Next to words like “Aleppo,” “Honduras” and “Mexico,” the images serve as haunting reminders of the plight many face when they flee their homelands.
"There are places not too far from here where there are as many as 1,500 unaccompanied minors between the ages of 13 and 17 who have come over the border to flee violence," Wauters said. "Immigration, today, seem to be a lot different from when we first came in 2001.”
For Silva, who is Catholic, nuns have historically served as a pillar of “righteous justice.”
“The best models for righteous justice and faith in action have always been community of nuns,” she said, “and the Assumption sisters are no different.”
For more information about the sisters, visit http://www.assumptionsisters.org/.
Carlos Andres López can be reached 575-541-5453, firstname.lastname@example.org or @carlopez_los on Twitter.