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March 22, 2018

Rev. John Fife: The Last Known Cowboy

By Samantha Schlageter (NHS'21)

Over spring break, I was fortunate to participate in an Georgetown University Alternative Breaks Program trip (ABP) which explored immigration issues on the Arizona-Mexico border. During that week, we crossed into Mexico, served meals to migrants, visited a detention center, spoke with the U.S. Border Patrol, listened to federal court hearings, and participated in several other adventures, making our trip both emotionally draining and stimulating. One of the most impactful experiences, however, did not require a long car ride to a significant landmark. I was most impacted by a simple conversation with Rev. John Fife, or as my leader liked to call him, "the last known cowboy."

Fife was wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots as he nonchalantly walked into Most Holy Trinity Church, the location where we were living. Our student leaders immediately greeted him, acknowledging his importance, but I reluctantly left my half-finished sandwich to join our next speaker. I thought that Fife was another community partner who would recite vaguely similar comments on immigration. His story, however, imparted a refreshing view. 

Fife told us about his work with the Sanctuary Movement and No More Deaths, which are two organizations that try to preserve migrants’ dignity. The Sanctuary Movement provides safe havens for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict, while No More Deaths provides food, water, and medical aid for immigrants who are trekking across Arizona’s harsh desert. When Fife began his work with the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s, obtaining asylum for Central Americans was made difficult by federal immigration policies. Fife and his colleagues were prosecuted for allegedly smuggling Central Americans into the United States, but the most serious charges were dropped after a six-month court case. Fife also clashed with U.S. Border Patrol during his work with No More Deaths as video footage was captured in 2011 of Border Patrol agents slashing water on migrant trails. Even though Fife’s work with the Sanctuary Movement and No More Deaths conflicts with the position of the U.S. government, Fife said that his “human card” depends on it. Fife does not intend to defy institutions but rather fights for what is right.

Rev. Fife is an example of someone who strives to “Share the Journey,” as Pope Francis has called on us to do with migrants and refugees. The work Rev. Fife does to preserve the human dignity of migrants is critical to achieving this mission.

As he wrapped up his story, Fife pulled out a tin of dipping tobacco from his cowboy boot and placed a pinch in his lower lip—he was so casual, so unscripted, and so human. Nothing about his demeanor screamed “hero,” but his work has saved thousands of lives. Even though my ABP group thinks of him as the last known cowboy, he proved that helping people is not an act of the past.

Samantha Schlageter (NHS'21) is a freshman in the School of Nursing and Health Studies.