Service Immersion Trips
Totino-Grace High School's service immersion trip program encompasses the core values of the Lasallian mission while providing students with unique opportunities to learn about different cultures and poverty issues locally and internationally. Partnering with Lasallian communities, schools, and ministries allows us to do this most effectively. Our students have truly enjoyed these learning opportunities with the Christian Brothers, Lasallian Volunteers and other various ministries. These students have the opportunity to travel with Totino-Grace each year, living out the Gospel as Jesus calls us to do.
Arizona Immersion Trip Highlight 2023
Six Day Trip to Arizona
Nine seniors and teachers Bill Vance and Nora Flom traveled to Arizona. Upon arrival, they met their host, Xa, who graciously welcomed them and brought them to their lodging, about five minutes away from San Miguel High School—the sponsor of the El Otro Lado program. The group then set off for the Newman Center at the University of Arizona for Mass. Father John Paul Forté began his homily by singing This Little Light of Mine and said God wants everyone to share their light with the world.
After Mass, the group traveled to the Christian Brothers community in Tucson to meet Br. Jack, Br. Jesús, and Br. Martin for dinner. Fellowship and food are staples of the Lasallian ministry around the globe. The night sky was peppered with stars, the moon was full, and the temperature allowed the group to eat outside. After a grateful farewell, they returned and had evening prayer where they discussed what they expected from the week. Prompts included:
- How can you be God’s light this week?
- What is a hope you have for the trip?
- How can we be open to the experience of the week?
- What are you grateful for so far?
The group headed to a Franciscan mission 20 miles north of the border on Tohono O’odham land. It is the second largest reservation in the United States: 1.2 million acres—about the size of Connecticut. The welcome by Franciscan Friar Fr. John included a song he played on his guitar with the refrain of "Bind us together Lord, bind us together with love." Students sat and prayed in a chapel that was 100 years old before returning to the pastoral center to listen to Fr. John’s witness of how their mission can be a place of refuge for immigrants. Fr. John reminded them that, after his conversion, St. Francis of Assisi found deep joy in living simply and serving the poor, despite being raised as a fairly well-to-do young man.
The group then learned about the complexity of the native people’s relationship with the US - Mexico border running directly through their sovereign nation. Kendall José shared an insightful and detailed explanation of the history of his people, their relationship with the border patrol, and what he is doing as vice chair of the Chukut Kuk district. He spoke in detail of the love-hate relationship with the border patrol, the traditions and ceremonies celebrated by his people, and the complexities of being a sovereign nation and simultaneously working with the federal government. Following his slideshow, they group drove to the San Miguel Gate. It used to be a checkpoint but can now only be used by local native residents. While he was explaining the significance of the site, the group noticed a young woman carrying a child along the US side of the border fence. When she was less than 100 yards away, a border patrol officer approached her. The group's host, Xa, walked toward both of them in respectful solidarity. The officer asked a few questions and then accompanied the woman to his truck.
At the end of the day, students processed the myriad feelings, questions, and observations they experienced during that few minute encounter. After leaving San Miguel’s Gate, students returned to Tucson where Xa led them through a process of reflection and then three students led everyone in prayer.
The group headed south toward Arivaca to meet with their Samaritan hosts. The Samaritan organization’s mission is to save lives and provide humanitarian aid to those along the Arizona borderlands. They load up SUVs with supplies and drive in remote areas along the border offering aid (water, food packs, clothing, socks, hats and other items they offer immigrants they might encounter). They showed the students a map of sites where over 3,400 human remains have been found over the past 20 years. Some estimates say that is 10% of the lives lost in attempts to cross the border over the past 20+ years.
While driving, the group couldn’t help but notice that nearly 50% of the vehicles they passed were border patrol vehicles. The first stop was at a green cross where the remains of a man named Norberto were found in the summer of 2009. The group then stopped at a blue flag, waving high in the air. Humane Borders, another organization, makes it their mission to provide drinkable water along the border. Samaritans will sometimes find such sites vandalized. The students then traveled to a valley where they took a 30 minute hike along a path immigrants may travel as they head north. They were invited to use their imaginations to navigate this path in the dark, with only a headlamp lighting the way--the rocks, the thorns, the drop-offs, and the steep climbs made it a challenge in sunlight and 40 degree weather. Traveling at night under such conditions felt treacherous.
After the hike, they made their way to Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge. There, they learned a little about the habitat, made a rare sighting of a herd of pronghorns--the second fastest land animal. After that they drove toward the border - a 40 foot steel wall along what is a 60 foot wide road known as the Roosevelt Easement. They then spotted a group crossing over of five mothers and nine children. Their faces revealed both resolve and trepidation. The initial offerings (made by the Samaritans while the TG group stayed in the car to not be overwhelming) of water, tea and food were cautiously accepted by a few. The Samaritans explain their role and offer sustenance and the immigrants state whether they would like to surrender to the border patrol or keep moving on. The Samaritans may not do anything more than simple first aid and sharing food and water. Should they transport immigrants, they would be aiding and abetting--a felony.
This group shared their intention to surrender to the border patrol. They did not begin the journey together. They began walking together just recently. One mom and her two young children took a bus from Guatemala and spent the last 10 days walking. They were crying and their sighs of gracias were prayers whose endgame is yet to be determined. The Samaritan called the border patrol, identified himself, and asked for an agent to come pick them up. Once picked up they would be processed at a nearby facility. Depending on their situations they could be deported, they could be detained awaiting resolution, or they could be sent to their hopeful destination. These families were headed to Arkansas, Chicago, New York, and beyond.
It was intense witnessing their plight--cold and hungry, worried and protective, exhausted and hopeful. The Samaritans stay with the people they offer assistance to--in solidarity, in support, as a witness to their humanity and for their safety. For a short while before they were picked up, a few of TG students were able to visit with them. It was a heart-wrenching honor to connect. The group headed on and encountered 13 more people, mothers with their children. Their nervous and grateful demeanor evolved into a sacramental interaction. Our students were able to sit down and visit. The table was a dusty road. The loaves and fishes were snacks and protein packets. Liturgy is translated as 'the people's work' and this breaking of bread was a resounding reflection of 'where two or more are gathered in My name'--Christ was present. The smiles on the children, the mothers embodying their concern of what was next, and the commitment to let the moms and children know they aren't alone by the Samaritans present were all profound. The students felt an ache, were overwhelmed and humbled.
At night, student prepared dinner and prayed. The group pondered what the circumstances would be that would lead one to risk their own life, the life of their family, crossing the US - Mexico border in hopes of a better life.
So far, the group had been experiencing, asking, enduring, and contemplating much. They asked themselves, "What are the essentials needed for a life lived with meaning and purpose?"
The group headed off to the Sasabe port of entry and drove into Mexico. About 500 yards past the gate sits Casa de Esperanza, a former restaurant. The structure now welcomes anyone who might be in need of services. It is only a few years old, but was founded because, at the height of the pandemic, up to 100+ people per day were being delivered there from both sides of the Mexico-US border. Sasabe, MX is a town of about 1,700 residents that swelled to over 2,500 because of the overwhelming number of migrants being processed. The town had no resources to support the amounts of people that were ending up there. The closest shelter for migrants was two hours away.
The women who runs Casa de Esperanza, Blanca, shared that “everyone is welcome and everyone will receive attention.” They have containers of donated items that travelers may need: shoes, clothing, food, a life straw, as well as legal and medical help. It is all free. It reminded the group of Mary's Place here in Minneapolis, an unconditional love for the human in need in front of her. One of the volunteers shared that Sasabe was getting migrants dropped off at 2 a.m. with literally nowhere to turn. Blanca reminded the group that it is never illegal to offer humanitarian aid to a person in need.
The students walked up the hill to look at the wall and the border point of entry from the side of Mexico. Wall to the left, wall to the right. Mexican and US customs and border agents directly in front of them. They then drove to Nogales, where the border literally was built through the town center. They parked on the US side and walked across to Nogales, Mexico where they explored the city and made a point to view a mural of a 15 year old boy who was shot and killed by border patrol.
Back at their lodging, the group had a reflective prayer ritual thinking about each day of their trip thus far and students were given more time to journal. During reflection, one student pointed out the fact that the group went back and forth into Mexico twice, within the span of a few hours, with ease because they are American citizens, while there are thousands of people who have sacrificed literally everything to get the opportunity to try to cross the border, to try to plead their case for asylum, to try to make a new beginning, and do not survive. The students learning and observation of the other side strengthened their resolve to try to create a world where every suffering human being is given the grace and dignity they deserve.
The evening closed with the prayer below, written by three students:
"Dear Lord, As we continue to learn, observe, and serve this week, help us to see You in the people we meet and the places we go. We thank You for giving us the opportunity to learn from selfless, courageous, and hardworking people such as Xa, Fr. John, Kendall, Paul and Laurel, Neal, Blanca, Gail and the many migrants we encountered at the border. Let Your light shine through us as it does through them. Remind us to be grateful for our opportunities and act justly, live mercifully, and walk humbly with You."
The group headed back to Nogales where they met Iñigo, their host and a full-time volunteer with Kino Border Initiative, an organization whose vision is migration with dignity. Students went across the border for the third time in two days to serve and see firsthand the plight of the most vulnerable. They spent the morning serving about 80 guests currently residing at a temporary shelter in the community dining area, as well as over 50 people who were not staying at the shelter but seeking food and help. They served young and old, families and single adults. They served with Jesuits, Sisters of Notre Dame De Namur of Phoenix, as well as other young adult volunteers.
TG students played basketball, practiced teaching English, and used their Spanish language skills in interacting with the guests. One gentleman shared that he hadn’t eaten in a couple of days. The energy of the site reflected hope and hospitality. When forced to decide who gets selected for support and help when the numbers are too overwhelming, Kino’s first priority is assisting the most vulnerable. The students again named the thread that runs through so many of the organizations they worked with and learned from: a foundation of faith and God is the source. After serving meals, they took a tour and learned more about the ministry. One practical, tangible takeaway that one of the students voiced was the truth of how important it is that people know they are not alone–at the border, in Ukraine, in Turkey, in Fridley, in your own home.
Afterwards, the group drove to the Federal Court building in Tucson. They were welcomed by Supervising Attorney, Eric Rau, who spent the next two hours explaining the court system and his role as a public defender. The students asked excellent questions and, while the complexities of the issue of immigration were not magically untangled, they did get a sense of the numerous challenges anyone trying to gain access to working and living in the United States experiences at this time.
The group talked about how they sat and listened to, walked and accompanied, fed and were blessed by fellow human beings who find themselves in the precarious position of waiting for answers regarding their quest for a better life, a new beginning. They learned about the risks of undocumented immigrants being taken advantage of, such as not reporting human rights abuses for fear of being deported. It challenged them to explore the ‘why’ behind the current laws and interpretation of laws. The attorney suggested creating a guest worker program and revamping US immigration policy to make it more understandable and pragmatic.
At night, the students reflected on the following questions:
- What is justice?
- What are basic human rights?
- What are minimum living conditions for human beings?
They were invited to be curious, to spread the word about what they have learned and to continue to nourish the seeds of justice that are being planted. They were asked to reflect on what image they will take with them from the week. They were also asked to think about what they want to change in regard to immigration policy and practices in the US.
On the last day of the trip, the group went to the federal courthouse in Tucson to observe proceedings in regards to several misdemeanor and felony charges related to unlawful entry and re-entry. While the group was waiting for their contact, the security detail at the court assumed they were there to witness the naturalization ceremony. Numerous employees told them that it was a happy day because people were becoming US citizens. The group pondered the juxtaposition; they arrived to watch what happens when one is charged with a felony and misdemeanor and the vast majority of people visiting were there to celebrate oaths that will be taken for people becoming citizens. It was the tightrope they walked all week–the ideals and values that make America so great, next to the practices and politics that have fractured the nation.
Once in the courtroom, US Marshals escorted 14 men and one woman into the front row facing the bench where the Honorable Bruce McDonald would soon enter the court. They were ushered into a single row in orange jumpsuits and shackles around the waists. The shift in atmospheres was jarring–a harsh reminder of the antithesis of celebrating citizenship. The clinking of the chains was more pronounced than one might imagine, the slouched shoulders of the defendants was emotional for the group. They were in this court hearing because they tried to enter the country (or re-enter) without permission. Two floors and two courtrooms. One courtroom filled with revelry and pride. One courtroom starkly displaying consequences for misdemeanors and felonies related to 8 U.S.C. Section 1326: Illegal Reentry After Deportation.
Public Defender Rau had five clients who all pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in exchange for their felony charge to be dropped. The maximum penalty for the felony of unlawful entry is 10 years in prison. The US government accepted their pleas and gave them the lesser charge. They were sentenced to 30-120 day sentences depending on their previous records. His departing words were: “You are rendered to the custody of the US Marshals and we wish you the best of luck.” It was a challenging phrase to hear while wondering what each person’s future holds. Judge McDonald kindly met with the TG group after the hearing and said what they heard and experience all week. Immigration is complicated.
When the Q and A began, Xa (the group's guide for the week) asked if the chained shackles were required. Judge McDonald pointed out that they are required in all felony hearings according to the US Marshals. He said while it is never a good deal to go to prison, these 14 men and one woman got a good deal. He said that the legal and economic sides of immigration can be sorted out but the political side is what prevents solutions. He apologized to the TG students for leaving this problem for their generation to fix. He was grateful for their visit and they thanked him for the dignity with which he reverenced each human being present in his courtroom. He stated that every person deserves dignity and respect.
The group then back to San Miguel High School for a tour and to learn about their unique weekly model. All students at San Miguel go to school four days a week and then work at a job one day a week. Employers include numerous corporations as well as the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. TG students went to a biology class, where several of them held a snake. After returning and packing up, Xa challenged the group to live out social justice every day.
Imagining the real-life experience of all of the people they connected with this week is one aspect of the immersion experience. Imagine the circumstances that lead someone to travel a few thousand miles from South and Central America in search of a better life. Imagine the role as a border patrol officer, tasked often as a first responder and responsible for securing the US-Mexico border. Imagine being a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose ancestors were living on this land long before borders intersected it. Imagine being a Samaritan traveling in remote parts of Arizona in hopes of bringing aid to people in search of a new beginning. Imagine being a Franciscan friar living at a mission in Arizona along a migrant route. Imagine not eating for a few days.
Our faith calls us to act, to choose to be a light to the world. The group learned this week that there are all sorts of ways to raise awareness, to influence change, to walk in solidarity and accompaniment. They were reminded that everyone truly is one human family and there is a responsibility to each other.
TG is grateful for the El Otro Lado program.
Past Service Immersion Trips
- Twin Cities Urban Experience
- Winona, Minnesota
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Kansas City, Missouri
- Chicago, Illinois
- Washington, D.C.
- El Paso, Texas
- Anniston, Alabama
- New York City, New York
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Browning, Montana
Twin Cities Urban Experience
The Urban Experience mission trip is a two day, fast paced, intense learning experience right here in Minneapolis. Students learn about homelessness and poverty in the Twin Cities by walking a day in the life of someone experiencing homelessness. Throughout the day, they will visit with and explore different resource centers (such as Catholic Charities and Salvation Army) in the area. Students also have the ability to serve those who are suffering from homelessness by providing a meal and volunteering time at a local food bank.
The Winona mission trip is a three day Habitat for Humanity trip. Students work with a local chapter of Habitat for Humanity in Winona. During the trip students participate in a variety of Habitat projects such as painting, siding, or yard clean up to help provide a home for a family in need. Students also have the opportunity to visit St. Mary’s University and explore all that Winona has to offer.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Kansas City, Missouri
The Kansas City mission trip is a six day experience where students live and work at Jerusalem Farm. Jerusalem Farm is a Catholic Intentional community built on the four cornerstones of Prayer, Community, Service and Simplicity. Each day students experience sustainable living and help the greater community through restoring homes.
The Chicago mission trip is a five day trip in which students take part in a unique learning and immersion opportunity that explore issues of social justice (such as poverty, the Chicago education system, food insecurity, or mass incarceration) through the lens of Christian social teachings of peace, justice and respect for human dignity and the environment. The group works with elementary students, shelters, and other organizations that provide for those less fortunate.
In partnership with our Lasallian family, students will spend their days learning about poverty in our nation's capital by working at a variety of ministries. In addition, students will tutor students at San Miguel Middle School to gain a better understanding of the education gap happening in our country.
El Paso, Texas
New York City, New York
Social Justice and Catholic Social Teaching
Education and Experiences at TG
Social teaching is a central element of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic and Lasallian community we place emphasis on social justice education and action through our mission, curriculum and campus ministry programming.
There are seven themes of Catholic social teaching:
- Life and Dignity of the Human Person
- Call to Family, Community and Participation
- Rights and Responsibilities
- Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
- The Dignight of Work and Rights of Workers
- Care for God's Creation
More can be found on the USCCB website.
Totino-Grace is committed to bringing social justice teaching topics and experiences to our students. Our faculty, staff, coaches and moderators help strengthen students' awareness of social justice systems and provide charity opportunities in a variety of ways throughout the school year. Examples include: mission trip experiences, lasallian youth service projects, respect life group opportunities, mission collection and donation opportunities through campus ministry and co-curricular group initiatives, partnership with Common Hope and St. Josephs in Keren, Eritrea.
Our Religion Department offers a Social Justice elective course that includes examines how we are called to address systems and do charitable work.