Totino-Grace students give and receive through service immersion trips

| Debbie Musser | February 7, 2020 | 0 Comments

Juniors Madelyn Edlund, left, and Jessica Schroeder of Totino-Grace carry clothes and shoes representing children who have tried to cross the Mexican border into the United States in search of hope and safety. With them in the opening procession of a Nov. 2 border Mass are theology teacher Holly Hoey Germann and school counselor Joe Morcomb. Courtesy Fernie Ceniceros | Diocese of El Paso

The Rio Grande River canal, near the Santa Fe Bridge, is where El Paso, Texas, meets Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. This is the site of an annual border Mass, bringing together those on both sides of the border to share in the Eucharist.

Grace Marchek, a senior at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, was there at the river for the Mass this past November, along with 11 other students on a service immersion trip.

“We participated in the Mass by holding clothes worn by immigrants as they crossed the border, flags of the South American countries whose citizens have migrated to our country, and crosses for the children whose lives were lost in American detention centers,” Marchek said.

“It was difficult. I was rendered speechless seeing the Rio Grande up close, the river where hundreds of immigrants have lost their lives, trying to find a better life.”

The border Mass, hosted by the dioceses of El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and Las Cruces, New Mexico, also impacted Holly Hoey Germann, a theology teacher at Totino-Grace, one of two trip chaperones.

“After sharing the sign of peace with those near me, I felt a jolt of shock when I realized I couldn’t shake hands or hug my brothers and sisters across the Rio Grande who were also participating in the Mass,” Germann said. “Never have I had such a profound simultaneous feeling of community and segregation.”

Germann said these kinds of experiences offer students the opportunity to make theological concepts concrete.

“Although they have received sacraments and been through religious education, these trips change their hearts and minds,” she said. “Our faith moves beyond facts to a lived reality.”

For the past five years, Totino-Grace students have traveled to Texas for El Otro Lado, a five-day border immersion program hosted by Cathedral High School in El Paso. Schools come from throughout the U.S. to learn about life at the border, visiting Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, the Border Network for Human Rights and immigrant shelters. 

The trip is part of Totino-Grace’s service immersion trip program. Since its start in 1989, it has sent over 2,000 students on more than 100 trips. In addition to El Paso, 15 trips this school year include a week in New Orleans, learning about homelessness and poverty while restoring homes, and traveling to Washington, D.C., tutoring students to gain a better understanding of the country’s education gap.

Other Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis also offer service immersion trips. They include Holy Family in Victoria, which offers spring break and summer trips to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ethiopia and Costa Rica as well as domestic locations. And students at DeLaSalle in Minneaplis serve throughout the school year and summer in Chicago, Jamaica and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Totino-Grace’s program is “dedicated to living out our Catholic, Lasallian and School Sisters of Notre Dame values, striving to improve the quality of life within our local and global community by acting on the natural human instinct to help each other and live the Gospel,” said Traci Bennington, service immersion trip coordinator and a campus minister at Totino-Grace.

Interested Totino-Grace students, along with a parent or guardian, must attend an information night for its immersion program hosted each September. 

“We usually have close to 250 families attend, and we select students based on their desires and goals, what year in school they are and their availability,” said Bennington, herself a trip participant as a Totino-Grace student.

“My trips were life-changing events, and for me, they made my faith tangible. They opened my eyes up to a world outside my own, and truly made me a better person.”

Avena Fromayan, a Totino-Grace senior, said she’ll forever remember a moment from her time in El Paso.

“Touching the border fence, which signifies the line between opportunity and lack of opportunity, was so profound that the effect will be everlasting,” she said.

“The ability to meet, eat and speak with each individual was a blessing, but hearing their stories and watching their pain was agonizing,” she continued. “The trip also provided an appreciation of the challenges the border patrol faces on a daily basis.”

Joe Morcomb, trip chaperone and a licensed school counselor at Totino-Grace, helped students process each day’s experiences with reflection, discussion and journaling.

“The highlight of every mission trip is watching students be challenged and grow in their maturity, compassion and faith,” Morcomb said. “I advocate for students to find a way to experience at least one trip in high school.”

“El Paso will definitely be one of my top high school experiences,” Marchek said. “I plan to return there this summer to volunteer and also seek out ways to help in Minnesota.”

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