During spring break, 10 to 12 Loyola Marymount University students will spend time speaking with migrant workers forced to cross a border and leave the only place most have ever known as home. In this case, however, the border is between the Dominican Republic and Haiti on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which those nations share, not the border between the United States and Mexico.
The nine-day experience, from Feb. 26 to March 7, is part of a faith-based immersion experience called Ignacio Companions, sponsored by the Campus Ministry office. Students will hear presentations from local representatives on both sides of the border with Haiti, while living among people who are directly affected by an unstable economy.
Participants also will consider the role racism and native origin plays in deportations. The Dominican Republic has been criticized internationally for its deportation policy, particularly with regard to deporting Dominicans of Haitian descent. Haitians tend to be darker skinned than Dominicans. Some are French speaking (Haiti was originally a French colony), while the native language in the Dominican Republic is Spanish. Even though this particular IC trip is based on immersing the students in political and economic issues, the group will learn about more than just current issues. Students will work side-by-side with members of the community and participate in prayer and faith-based reflection about their experience.
The Dominican Republic/Haiti IC program will be the fourth for LMU senior Joaquin Loustau, one of two student leaders on this trip. A computer science and theological studies double major, Loustau says he has “witnessed fellow students leave the comfort of this green lush campus and spend a week with those whose stories don't make the news, with those often forgotten or ignored by society. And because of these encounters, many fellow students have changed their academic paths, their careers and even decided to give the first few years of post-graduate life to service for others.” But the program has changed Loustau himself as well. “Ignacio Companions has opened my heart and made me sensitive to the struggles of people in the world. I am now more in tune to everyone’s life.”
The IC program began at Loyola Marymount in 2010 with the urging of James Erps, S.J., director of Campus Ministry. Upon returning to LMU in 2009 from a campus ministry assignment at Boston College, Erps saw that the Campus Ministry office was sponsoring a very successful and popular service program, De Colores, that by then had been operating in Tijuana, Mexico, for about 25 years. Erps wanted to extend service immersion programs farther, even to distant lands, and he believed the clear faith element of De Colores would be essential to other Campus Ministry service immersion opportunities as well.
“A faith component is important,” Erps says, “because it derives from our Catholic and Jesuit traditions and mission at LMU. The unique thing, really, is that Ignacio Companion trips are not simply fact-finding missions but are community-based, community-focused.” LMU students are able to engage in deep and meaningful ways in the places and with the people they visit, including connecting with their vibrant faith life.
The program’s Catholic foundation is embodied in daily prayer and reflection, and Mass is celebrated at least once on each trip. “You don’t have to be Catholic or a person of strong faith to be part of Ignacio Companions, but you have to be open to conversations about faith and the spirituality of the local culture,” says Erps.
Students who participate in the IC program come from various academic majors. Presently there are about two applicants for every spot available on an IC trip. Interested students fill out an application and are interviewed in person by a campus minister to determine selection. Prior to leaving on the trip, the students prepare with an orientation session at LMU. Many of the participants already are fluent in Spanish, which is helpful. Students usually stay in or near existing Jesuit centers in the area and the local Jesuit teams are intimately involved with the students’ outreach in the area and their personal safety. During the current academic year, trips are scheduled for Chile, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Ecuador and Belize.
Loustau, who also participated in IC trips in Jamaica and El Salvador, says that one conversation he had with a man from San Salvador is most memorable. “He told us, ‘We don’t need your labor force. We have plenty of people to do the work. We need you to carry our stories back home.’ By listening to their stories and by sharing them, Ignacio Companions is helping to build a larger community of kinship. Really, Ignacio Companions is the key part of the LMU experience and a very concrete way the university lives out its mission.”