Africa, Asia, North America

SSNDs at U.S.-Mexico border honor those who died crossing the desert

Lent is often referred to as a “desert time.” We remember the suffering, death and new life of Jesus. We contemplate how in the “Body of Christ” today Jesus’ suffering continues, and life comes from death."

Migrant deaths in the desert


Sister Lucy Nigh, SSND


Sister Judy Bourg, SSND


The group gathers around the crosses after a prayer ceremony in February remembering the two women found in the desert.

For 16 years, the names of those who lost their lives crossing the desert of Cochise County, Arizona, have been remembered weekly in the Healing Our Borders Vigil in Douglas. The number of those known and discovered in those years has surpassed 270.

Sister Judy Bourg, SSND, often walks with the Tucson Samaritans whose mission is saving lives in the desert. From them she learned of the practice initiated by Alvaro Enciso, a local artist who began making crosses and placing them at the GPS coordinates of a recorded death in the deserts south and west of Tucson.  Recently, Douglas/Agua Prieta area residents, as well as many visitors, have begun to “plant” a cross at the death location of migrants found in Cochise County, thanks to the research and organizing of Sister Judy and the carpentry of Tom Fleming and Richard Wekerle. 

Planting crosses to mark the dead

On Feb. 23, a group of local Arizona and Mexico folks (along with visitors from Washington, California, Missouri, Maryland, Ohio, Idaho and West Virginia) traveled to a desert hill to plant two crosses – one for Maria de la Luz Ramirez Orozco and another for her female companion, whose identity is unknown.  The only information we have is that their bodies were found together near the highway.

As we prepared holes in the ground for this “planting” and gathered stones to secure the crosses, we could only imagine the stories these women would tell us of their lives, their families and the hopes they carried on a journey that ended with them dying together. Perhaps, they were two mothers, possibly related, or maybe they were strangers before meeting each other on this shared desert journey. Perhaps, one sacrificed a successful reunion with family in the United States to stay behind with her sick companion.

Gathering to remember, pray

We gathered in a circle to remember them. With a Native American prayer ceremony, we honored their lives, celebrated the gift of love they must have been to their families and prayed for their living relatives. We trusted that our gathering to pray would somehow bring a blessing of healing and hope to the families of these women and countless others who have suffered the same fate.

A synchronistical gathering of folks from so many different places – probably never to be together again – we were grace to each other, touched by this needless tragedy of death in the desert, strengthened toward increasing awareness of this border reality.

Is there truth in the biblical Song of Solomon claim that “love is stronger than death?” (Solomon 8:6) What is it that can grow from the planting a cross?

Twenty-three people of diverse religious and political persuasions, united in concern for life in our human family, gathered on a desert hill along Arizona Highway 80. We look to Isaiah’s promise that: “The desert will rejoice, and flowers will bloom in the wastelands. ... Wilderness and dry land shall be glad, and desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.” (Isaiah 35:1)

We commit ourselves to being men and women who love, who trust that death can give birth to new life!

- Sister Lucy Nigh, SSND
​March 11, 2016

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