Fr. Luis Lopez

Ministry offers lifeline for desperate migrants

  • August 30, 2020

It’s the afternoon of July 20 in Honduras, and Fr. Luis Lopez is travelling in a car packed with food, clothing and supplies to meet a group of 80 Nicaraguan migrants stranded at the border between Honduras and Guatemala.

After two decades in global social justice ministry, for Lopez it’s just another Monday.

Born in El Salvador but raised in Ottawa, Lopez was ordained a priest with Scarboro Missions in 2015. With the order’s support, Lopez has been working with the Pastoral de Movilidad Humana (PMH) ministry in Honduras serving migrant communities in Central America for close to four years. With the borders closed and the nation on lockdown, COVID-19 has only exasperated an already desperate situation for the thousands looking to make their way north toward the United States and a better life.

In Honduras, as in much of the developing world, the pandemic has compounded an already challenging economic situation. But for these prospective migrants, the dangerous gamble is still worth the risk.

“The whole situation of unemployment and food (shortage) has gotten really bad,” said Lopez in a phone interview during his 10-hour drive to the border. “Even in the midst of the pandemic people are saying, ‘I can either leave and risk dying of the virus or die of hunger here.’ It tells you the incredible situation that people are in here.”

Lopez, who also serves the Parish Virgen de Los Remedios in Sonaguera, Colon, in the Diocese of Trujillo, makes sure migrants’ basic needs for food, clothing and other supplies are met, finding temporary shelter and sharing pertinent information to help keep them alive on the journey. The PMH also assists families dealing with the psychological trauma of having loved ones who have disappeared and providing help for those who return injured or suffering from depression.

Over the past two years the nation has regularly seen caravans of between 500 to 5,000 Hondurans attempting to cross borders through to Mexico, with the goal of making it into the U.S. Lopez estimates that for every 100 people who set out, only five or six reach their destination.

Lopez also works with migrants from other Central American and developing nations, including a group stranded at the Guatemalan border with travellers from Haiti, Cuba and nations throughout Africa and the Middle East.

Lopez says because many of these countries don’t require a visa to travel to Brazil, migrants fly there and upon arrival pay traffickers large sums of money to smuggle them into the United States. The journey north from Brazil to Honduras alone can take between six to seven months of illegal entry into countries through “blind spots” along the borders. With human traffickers also involved in drug and sex networks, many are victimized in all sorts of ways, which mostly go unreported.

“They’re afraid that if they go to the police, they are going to be deported which is not necessarily the case,” said Lopez.   

“Even without documents to stay in this country officially, as immigrants, they do have rights — human rights. So that’s what we do, we counsel them and try to get them as much help as we can.”

Lopez’s family emigrated to Canada in the 1980s when he was 12 years old. He began his journey into mission work in the early 2000s as a volunteer with an NGO in Nicaragua teaching oil painting to street children. He joined a seminary in Chicago soon afterwards and has embarked on various missions which have taken him to Cambodia and Guyana.

While working with persons with disabilities in Nova Scotia he learned about the Scarboro Missions and moved to Toronto to complete his studies at Regis College, the theological seminary school at the University of Toronto.

“It’s the ministry he has wanted to be involved in and we gladly support him in this work,” said Fr. John Carten, councillor and treasurer general of the Toronto-based Scarboro Missions.

Lopez says his job is to share the love of Christ not only by supporting the basic needs of migrants but by offering prayer and connecting with undocumented persons with the warmth and respect everyone deserves.

“Having a place to sleep is good, but to be listened to means so much more,” said Lopez. “You don’t always change somebody’s life, but you can change somebody’s moment when you allow them to see themselves fully again as a human being.”

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