Sister Rebeca Spires has lived 48 years in Brazil, 40 based in the frontier town of Oiapoque. She has lived there so long that sometimes her speech drifts from English to Portuguese to English again without her even noticing.
For most of her time in Oiapoque, she has worked with the indigenous peoples living in the surrounding rainforest. She’s helped create alphabets and written forms of languages that before had only been oral. She’s trained teachers, developed religious formation programs, translated instructional materials, fought for subsistence farmers and advocated for territorial rights.
Though her home was Oiapoque, her focus was in the rainforest.
Until a few years ago, when this focus began to change.
Because Oiapoque began to change.
Oiapoque, six degrees off the equator, on the northern rim of the Amazon jungle, is almost 400 miles from the nearest city. It’s a river town — on the broad Oyapock River — and a border town. Across the river is French Guiana, or simply France as the people of Oiapoque call it.
And it’s due to this border status, and an illegal gold rush on the French side begun during the financial meltdown in the developed world, that Oiapoque has become a through-point for migrants, many of them garimpeiros, or gold miners. With the garimpeiros are the laborers to dig the pits for the mines, the people-smuggling ‘coyotes,’ the suppliers and conveyors of fuel and equipment, the young women dreaming of a husband and a better life — in short — the whole camp-following apparatus that follows a mass movement of human beings. Even indigenous peoples, now that the migration pipeline has opened, go if not to the mines then to the plantations in neighboring Guyana and Suriname.
Commensurate with the influx of people is the physical change to the town, grown from 7,000 people a few years ago to over 20,000 now. On the streets, compras de ouro — gold buying shops — come one after the other, some legal some not, as do the vendors of pumps and hoses and the deadly mercury used to bind gold. Then down from the shops, on the mud beaches, are the barracuda-shaped skiffs — the pirogues— that wait for nightfall when they’ll make the lantern-less crossing over the Oyapock ferrying people and contraband.
“But all those we’re seeing,” says Sister Rebeca, “they dream of having a job, that’s all. They dream of seeing their children grow up, and dream of having enough to eat, and dream of having a roof. We have to be there for these among us. How will they know God’s goodness if we don’t show it to them?”
This showing to them God’s goodness is a primary reason Sister Rebeca has redirected much of her time from the indigenous people in the rainforest to the migrating
people in the town.
Responding to what she herself has seen, and responding to the call of Pope Francis to ‘go to the borders,’ Sister Rebeca along with two Brazilian Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Sister of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, and three lay women volunteers initiated Missão nas Fronteiras, Mission at the Borders, in 2015.
Missão nas Fronteiras first ministered from quarters leased from the local parish. Then, on land donated by a townsman, and with the help of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a way station was constructed. There, Sister Rebeca, the other Sisters and the lay volunteers offer meals, showers, a hammock for a night or two, and a Christian presence to migrants on the move. They also provide education, especially to women and young girls (both migrants and those residing in the town), as to the danger signs of trafficking and/or sexual exploitation. They help connect those in need with existing social service supports. And they collaborate with law enforcement in identifying the corrupt and illegal activities related to trafficking and exploitation.
By doing so, says Sister Rebeca, they are addressing human needs of the suffering on an individual basis while at the same time working for more systemic change.
“Our mission is for those people who aren’t seen or heard by anyone else,” she says. “It’s this Jesus thing. No one can be invisible, everyone has to be seen and heard and cared for.”
Counted too in her in ministry are not only those migrants going north, but those returning, usually in much worse condition. Some have been arrested by the French gendarme who as a matter of practice burn migrants’ clothes and all their possessions (even their boots) before dumping them unceremoniously over the river into Oiapoque.
Some, too, have managed to trek back on their own through the jungle despite the dangers of jaguars, 500-pound anacondas and an array of poisonous insects and spiders. Some, sticking to the roads, have been accosted and beaten by robbers. And still others, never again seen in Oiapoque — or anywhere — step onto a truck or a bus thinking they are heading toward the border, only for the bus to halt in some desolate spot there to be boarded by sicários, or hitmen.
Of those who do make it back to Oiapoque, on their own or forcibly, almost all are penniless, hollow-eyed, and embarrassed over their plight.
“They thought they were improving their lives,” Sister Rebeca says. “But they fell into traps of illusion.”
These people, the returnees, you see down by the ‘seaside’ — so called because of the river’s breadth — living along the seawall or beneath the docks, stranded and half-starved. Often, as Sister Rebeca says, “they are just there forever.”
The Sisters and lay volunteers visit them. They share some of their own food bought with their stipends. They try to get messages home to their loved ones. They offer showers and clothing. Just as with those crossing north, still with hope, they offer a Christian presence to those returning, who often have little. If the Sisters could, they would buy the bus tickets necessary to send everyone home. But they are too few and the stranded too many. It’s such a hard call, says Sister Rebeca. “Jesus never overlooked anyone,” she says. “Never!”
For three years, the work of Missão nas Fronteiras has been made possible because four religious Sisters and three lay women have labored for stipend wages. “Volunteers make it happen,” Sister Rebeca says, “and we need them to stay.” Among her highest priorities is to keep her team together.
“Those we're encountering," she says, “they’re not trying to be wealthy. They just want a decent life.”
On any given day, you’ll see Sister Rebeca and the other Sisters and lay volunteers, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone, coming and going from the way station for migrants arriving, or down on the seaside among those who have returned. You’ll see them by their umbrellas they hold against the equatorial sun.
In the meantime, the gold mining in French Guiana continues, as does the migration across the Oyapock. If anything the migration is increasing. The two countries — Brazil and France — talk occasionally of cooperation but little happens. The price of gold goes up then down on international markets, investors sell and buy, and thousands of miles away the Wild West atmosphere continues in remote Oiapoque.
“I came to the realization this was happening under my nose,” says Sister Rebeca. “And I had to respond.”