Father Javier Calvillo Salazar arrived at the site of Pope Francis' upcoming appearance carrying an unusual offering: a box full of migrants’ old shoes, worn and dirty.
“This is a monument dedicated to immigrants,” Calvillo said after removing his own sandals to ascend onto a cement platform and arrange more than a half dozen pairs of shoes at the foot of an enormous cross facing the bridges that span the Rio Grande.
Among them: a man’s dust-covered black and red slip-ons, the pink-and-white sneakers of a woman and another red-and-blue pair, child-size.
“The Holy Father has said that he is coming to see this to console the people,” the priest said after descending the platform where the pope is expected to deliver a blessing before Mass on Wednesday. “What could be better than when he comes up here and sees lots of symbols, lots of signs of those who most need this love and care?”
Calvillo runs the local diocese’s Casa del Migrante, a refuge for deportees from the United States, and migrants from the interior of Mexico, and from Central America.
Beside the shoes, Calvillo and those who have worked on the monument placed three three-foot-tall replicas of the 33- by 10-foot cross.
These will be blessed by the pope and given to the three local dioceses, he said: Juarez, Mexico; Las Cruces, N.M.; and El Paso.
Each bears the silhouetted image of a migrant family in transit, the father leading the pregnant mother on horseback just as Joseph led Mary, he said.
During the pope’s visit here, close by the U.S.-Mexican border, the bishop of Juarez will also give him a small metal shoe engraved with a message from migrants, Calvillo said: “Thank you for coming to see us. Thank you for having us in your heart.”
Migrants’ shoes not only symbolize their journey, Calvillo said. They have added significance because when migrants arrive at the Casa del Migrante, volunteers offer to remove their shoes and wash their feet, a ceremonial Roman Catholic practice of humility favored by Pope Francis that hearkens back to Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
At first, the priest said, immigrants hesitate, ashamed of their rough feet, worried they have to pay for pedicures. But once volunteers start washing and trimming their nails, they relax, he said, and begin to tell the stories of their harrowing journeys north.
“This is why Jesus washed the feet of his disciples,” Calvillo said, “In that moment, he saw all that was inside them and restored their dignity. It’s a therapy that helps open them up. They talk about what happened to them, what they lost.”
The center opened 35 years ago and there were 50 migrants there Tuesday. Their ranks have grown in recent years: they served 6,453 last year, about a thousand more than the year before.
When Pope Francis celebrates Mass here, 2,100 migrants will attend, including 100 from the center, Calvillo said.
Presenting the gifts of wine and Communion during the Mass will be an indigenous migrant family--a couple from the southern state of Oaxaca with a young son and teenage daughter, who came to Juarez about a decade ago, he said.
“They have roots in a state where a lot of indigenous people are struggling,” Calvillo said.
Some of the people Calvillo works with may get to meet the pope. There is a plan in the offing for Calvillo to join Pope Francis at the cross with three representatives of the center: a deportee, a Central American and a Mexican migrant.
“This is just a miracle that could happen,” Calvillo said.
He said he doesn’t have a message for the pope, that he has faith the pope will carry migrants’ messages wherever he goes, especially to the seats of power, as he has so far during his speeches to leaders in the U.S. and Mexico.
“This is a pope who has us in his heart and on his lips,” he said, “He knows where he is. What he wants is for the world to know.”