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Jesuit Father Richard Sotelo is a chaplain at the Service Processing Center for detained undocumented immigrants in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Father Richard Sotelo, SJ: Accompanying the Voiceless

January 17, 2014 — Jesuit Father Richard Sotelo serves a diverse and ever-changing group of people as Jesuit Refugee Service/USA’s (JRS/USA) Religious Services Coordinator for the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement detention facility in El Paso, Texas. But his goal is simple: “Accompanying people through the journey of their lived lives.” Fr. Sotelo counts his work with JRS/USA, where he’s been serving since 1999, as one of the most memorable ministries in his Jesuit life — a life he says God chose for him.

Born in San Pedro, Calif., Fr. Sotelo grew up in Europe and Asia, where his father’s work as an engineer and naval architect took the family. Fr. Sotelo came back to the States for college, receiving a history degree from Wofford College in South Carolina and a law degree from Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

He then practiced law for five years before joining the Maryland Province Jesuits in 1978. While he felt he had a calling to the Benedictines, Fr. Sotelo says, “The Society of Jesus was God’s first choice for me. It’s where I belong, and it makes sense to me. It’s given me life and everything else.”

As a Jesuit, Fr. Sotelo followed a traditional path of formation: he entered the novitiate in Wernersville, Pa.; taught at Loyola High School in Maryland (now Loyola Blakefield); and studied philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx and theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif. But it was his assignment as Master of Novices in Jamaica that Fr. Sotelo points to as his most memorable formation experience.

“You don’t learn a subject until you teach it,” he says. “One day I was sitting at our dining room table and I had all the foundational documents since Vatican II out in front of me and I thought, ‘Here I am still doing novitiate work, and all my peers are out there doing apostolic work.’ But then I realized: I’m the one who’s being formed here.”

After serving as novice master in Jamaica for several years, Fr. Sotelo returned to the U.S., took a sabbatical and began his assignment with Jesuit Refugee Service/USA at the detention center in El Paso, where he’s been for the past 15 years.

“Being detained is what we call them, but it’s really being incarcerated,” says Fr. Sotelo of those he ministers to. “I think a lot of time what happens is we go back to the faith of our childhood that gave us comfort — finding that as a source of life.”

Fr. Sotelo describes his job as being the “pastor” of 900 souls. These individuals come from between 80 to 90 different nations, representing hundreds of different cultures and an array of religions: Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Jewish people, Santería and even devil worship.

“Fundamentally what we do here is we accompany people on their spiritual journeys so that they can have life, life according to their own spiritual realities,” says Fr. Sotelo.

Those who pass through the facility as detainees are there for 27 to 30 days on average, with about 10,000 people passing through the center each year.

Ministering to so many different people, with such varied spiritual lives, requires Fr. Sotelo to be inquisitive and open to learning — though for some things he relies on the experts. “I will never understand the intricacies of kosher food, so I trust the rabbi,” he says laughing.

The most frequent requests Fr. Sotelo gets from the detainees is for religious literature and spiritual conversation. “We depend 100 percent on donated literature; we have a limited budget. We’ll never have enough Bibles,” he says.

While the literature and conversation may be tangible, the most life-giving part of Fr. Sotelo’s ministry is accompaniment. For Fr. Sotelo, being pro-life doesn’t stop at birth: “It’s that middle section from the moment you’re born to the moment you die that we are accompanying people through life.”

Father Pedro Arrupe, the 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus and the founder of JRS, and Pope Francis are two Jesuits whose examples Fr. Sotelo looks to in his work.

“I think that the gifts Fr. Arrupe gave to the Society of Jesus are JRS and this sense of accompanying the voiceless,” he explains.

“These people at the detention center are clearly caught up in a systemic reality that is beyond our government to do anything about it. We don’t have the political will to do anything,” says Fr. Sotelo. “These people often are caught in horrific situations prior to entering detention.”

For instance, he notes that a large number of women detainees have been sexually assaulted and abused. In addition to spiritual care, they’ve introduced a wellness program at the center called Capacitar. “Hopefully we’re giving people a tool through our ministry that not only gives them some sort of consolation here, but also gives them a way of better living their lives and is a model of self-empowerment,” Fr. Sotelo says.

Fr. Sotelo has also been reflecting on the words of Pope Francis. “In pastoral ministry what we’re asked to look at is what are the smells of our sheep. That’s a phrase I picked up from the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. It’s a wonderful line and it puts the focus on others, rather than ourselves.

“Really this is a true field hospital,” Fr. Sotelo says of his ministry, echoing Pope Francis’ words about the Church. “And it’s a field hospital beyond our denominational realities.”

For his own spiritual needs, Fr. Sotelo works at two parishes on weekends. “That’s what gives me spiritual life, so that I can give it to them, according to their needs and not my needs,” he explains.

Fr. Sotelo sees the urgency of accompanying detainees in their lives and assisting them with their spiritual lives. “This is at the forefront. We don’t need to go abroad. It’s here in our midst.” 

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