“The U.S.-Mexico borderlands is a place where the Earth just swallows up bodies,” said Leo Guardado, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Theology.

Guardado is teaching “Christian Mystical Texts” at Fordham College at Lincoln Center and will be teaching a doctoral seminar in the fall. He is also developing a course for next year on migration and theology that will include a visit to the border.

He doesn’t mince words when it comes to his thoughts about the humanitarian crisis at the border. He knows all too well the pain families suffer when making the dangerous and painful decision to leave their home countries and migrate to the U.S. He made the nearly 3,000-mile trek when he was just 10 years old.

“Every year we have hundreds of remains that are recovered from there and so I have problems with the indifference of the church on this issue,” he said. “And by church, I mean the people of God, I mean the institutional church, but I also mean more than just Catholics. I mean the body of Christ in history that we claim to be—all of it.”

As the federal government sits in a stalemate about the fate of the border, each side claiming humanitarian concerns, Guardado views the crisis as a theological issue, not a political abstraction. He has spent years returning to help migrants in an area he knows all too well from his childhood. It’s a journey that propelled him from Los Angeles to the cloisters of a Trappist monastery, and now, to the halls of academia. But, in the end, he’s never really left the border.

“There are just so many forces coalescing at the border and such a rawness of the human experience that those are some of those questions I ended up taking to the monastery, and I think in the monastery those questions perhaps pressed themselves more fully upon me,” said Guardado, who started at Fordham last spring. “And that indirectly led me back to consider that maybe I have a lot more learning to do about deep questions of how the mystery of God, church, and faith intersect and can shine light upon of some of the ills of our world.”

The Journey

Guardado was born in El Salvador in the midst of the country’s civil war. As he approached the age of 10, his mother knew full well that he could be conscripted by either the army or the guerrillas. She was determined to move him from harm’s way. He said his grandfather probably sold what little cattle they had to pay for the journey, along with other monies lent by family in the U.S. He remembers his grandfather crying as they said their goodbyes, both knowing they might never see each other again. They never did; his grandfather died in the years that followed.

“We got on a bus and I counted palm trees, said goodbye to family, a lot of tears,” he said. “I knew two phrases that my mom knew: Thank you. I’m sorry. How to be grateful and how to ask for forgiveness. These were the only two phrases that I had in my English vocabulary leaving El Salvador.”

He said he thinks he counted palm trees as a way of remembering his country. By the time he got into the hundreds, he fell asleep and woke in Guatemala. From there his memory skips through a series of glimpses, built mostly of walking: “A lot. Many days. Under the moonlight.” The group of about 15 migrants followed a paid guide known as a “coyote,” or “coyota” in their case, as she was a woman. She stayed with them for the length of the journey. It’s a model of migration that no longer exists, he said. Today’s migrants are passed from one person to another, a series of small transactions on a journey through the hemisphere.

“It’s much more dangerous in that sense [today]and on many other levels,” he said. “That lady was with us, even if she would leave for a day or so, she would be back the next day and arrange the next stage of the journey.”

The group crammed into false compartments of trailers packed together “like sardines” for five hours at a time “hoping that thing doesn’t turn over because if it does you’re probably not going to make it out alive.” They spent a night in jail and were bailed out by the coyota.

“You paid people along the way, as needed. The federal officers, the police. They understand that you’re leaving and why you’re leaving,” he said.

In Tijuana, they crossed beneath barbed wired patrolled by jeeps. At 2 a.m. they jammed into a small taxi like a “clown car.” They traveled through backroads to a white van. Finally, Guardado got to sit up front and ride shotgun because “no one will think anything of it, he’s just like a U.S. boy.” Soon he saw Los Angeles.

“My closest neighbor in our Salvadoran village was a quarter mile away and in between were hundreds of trees and wilderness. So, arriving in L.A., where every so often there’s a street light and each house has the same amount of space between it, it just felt so artificial. It just felt like, ‘Wow. Where’s the beauty of the chaos?’”

The Calling to Monastic Life

Guardado was educated by De La Salle Christian Brothers in L.A. and then moved on to St. Mary’s College of California. The college was not far from the Abbey of Our Lady of New Clairvaux, a Trappist monastery whose abbot at the time was formed by Thomas Merton, the prolific writer and Catholic theologian. The abbot, Thomas Davis, O.C.S.O., had structured the monastery around the teachings of Merton.

“He [Merton] had this cultural and artistic sensitivity, intellectual sensitivity, and curiosity that he passed on to someone like Father Thomas Davis, so I fell in love with that vision of the monastery,” he said.

Guardado began to view the abbey as a way to question the commodified society surrounding him. To this day he cannot explain his calling. “It was a mystery,” he said. But he added that the simplicity of monastic life was “a form of resistance to U.S. values that emphasize upward mobility.”

“It’s less about being in charge of the reflection, but just allowing for a deconstruction of the self, and what emerges is something else,” he said of the prayerful silence.

After an initial year at the monastery, he began a journey that took him to the University of Notre Dame to get a master’s degree in theology and then back to his alma mater, St. Mary’s, where he served as assistant director of justice education. He returned to the borderlands as director of social justice ministry at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, a progressive parish in Tucson, Arizona. Back at the border, in many Catholic churches he witnessed a “vast indifference” to the suffering he saw. After two years, he went back to the monastery for what he thought would be the rest of his life. But there, in isolation, ideas began to “percolate.”

His mentor knew more was in store for him.

“This place is too small for you, Leo,’” he said Davis told him. “I think you need to be open to the possibility that God may be calling you to a new place.”

He soon applied and was accepted back at Notre Dame for his doctorate.

“I didn’t want to live life wondering, ‘Should I have gone?’” he said, so he left the monastery.

Theological Reflection and Supporting Sanctuary

At Notre Dame, he began studying patristics—early church studies that reflected the readings that he immersed himself in at the abbey. But his focus changed after he took a course with Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., the father of liberation theology, which encourages the study of theology from the perspective of the poor. Guardado would go on to become an assistant to Father Gutiérrez.

“For a boy from Chalatenango, a village of El Salvador, I’ve found myself in pretty amazing circles,” he said.

With Gutiérrez, he took a doctoral seminar on Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican friar who stood up to the Spanish government and the church in defense of the indigenous peoples.

“In this class, for the first time really, I would say, I got vocabulary about my own history growing up poor in a village in the mountains, without electricity, without running water, in the middle of a civil war in the midst of violence,” he said.

He began to examine the distinction between the early patristic church he had come to understand at the monastery and the 16th-century church of empire, war, and “commodification of bodies”—a church that even questioned the humanity of indigenous people. The class helped him question what theology is and what it could be.

“I began to crack open the possibility that my own experience, my community’s experience, and the historical reality of Latin America—poverty, oppression, war, violence—that all of this was raw material out of which I could do theological reflection.”

His dissertation, which informs a chapter he wrote for a forthcoming book, An Ethic of Just Peace (Georgetown University Press, 2019), examines the concept of sanctuary alongside theories of nonviolence. His primary focus is on the root of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s when hundreds of Catholic churches provided sanctuary to Salvadorian refugees. Today, he said, only a handful of churches in the U.S. are willing to take the risk. He said that bishops will often say providing sanctuary is illegal or too political.

Guardado said that his research attempts to provide theological justification for “sanctuary as an ecclesial practice.”

“The term sanctuary often mistakenly gets reduced to politics,” he said. “In light of human displacement worldwide and 11 million undocumented here in the U.S., if we’re to be a church of and for the poor, then you can’t just say, ‘No.’ You have to engage with the question theologically. Otherwise, one can argue that it’s an ecclesial sin of omission.”

But even here, Guardado taps the patristic period to back his arguments for sanctuary. He noted that the earliest mention of bishops providing sanctuary goes back to 343 at the Council of Serdica. Later that century in 399 the archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, gave shelter to a man named Eutropius who, ironically, had been a critic of sanctuary. The archbishop gave a sermon that took a jab at Eutropius and argued for sanctuary.

“You never know when you’re going to be the one who needs sanctuary,” Guardado said, knowingly.

“I understand this from my experience as a boy in El Salvador, but also my experience as a product of Latin America and its relationship to the U.S. and the world now.”

Those relationships are as fraught today as when he arrived, he said. And he acknowledges that it’s as impossible as ever to speak of the Latin American poor theologically without speaking about them politically.

“It is politics that creates the very structures that keep people down and that keep them dying out of injustice and other means, like lack of food,” he said. “You cannot deal, genuinely with the poor if you don’t deal with politics.”

Guardado said that the kind of theological work he does and wants to teach his students at Fordham is the kind of that deals with contemporary issues head-on.

“I want my students to ask: How does theological thinking change the world? How does it change history? How does it leave an impact so that it’s not just thinking about God, but actually aims to transform the world?”

He said that is the point of liberation theology, as well as a Jesuit education.

Echoing Gutiérrez’s words, Guardado says, “‘The point is not to do religious metaphysics. It is to figure out and to really reflect out of lived accompaniment with the poor, with the margins. How does our faith connect with that and how does it transform that reality?’”.


Tom Stoelker is senior staff writer and visual media coordinator for Fordham News. After fifteen years as a freelance designer, Tom shifted his focus to writing and photography. He graduated from Lehman College, CUNY where he majored in English literature and photography and he received his master's in journalism from Columbia University. His work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, and The Architect's Newspaper, where he was associate editor.