Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Every other summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals across the United States. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora.
The next project is scheduled for the summer of 2020 and will focus on deforestation in Eastern Africa.
Lately, I keep thinking of Fr. Sobrino’s speech to the graduating class at Regis. He talked about the Jesuits who were murdered in El Salvador. Those Jesuits were scholastically decorated. They were very successful intellectuals, but Sobrino did not mention any of it. Instead, he talked about how they were truly human. He defined human by one who “lives in the reality of the world.” The Jesuits who lived in El Salvador lived in a dangerous place. Sobrino said that because they were murdered just as the other El Salvadorians were, they were truly human. They were not treated any different because they were from a different place, and they did not hide from the reality they joined. They truly lived and died as El Salvadorians. He then compared them to Jesus. Jesus came to earth, and lived and died as a human. He did not save himself to remove himself from the reality of earth.
I think this comparison is really cool, but it evokes difficult questions. If I am to be truly human, am I called to go move to a place where the reality of the world is more present?
I think some people actually are called to that extreme life, but I don’t think I am one of them. I think I am called to live in the reality in different ways. I am still trying to discern what those ways are, but I think there are multiple ways to be truly human. This experience in Nogales has opened my mind to so many things to think about I have never considered before, and I am so grateful for that.
There is always a question that remains when I leave a retreat, a mission trip, or a pilgrimage: what now? It’s so easy to ponder and pray about these big picture problems when I’m immersed in the problems directly, but then I go home, and I am pulled right back into the old cycle of my daily life. Usually, it is hard for me to adjust.
Obviously, I can’t serve migrants breakfast from Omaha, so I focused on finding something that I could bring back. I’ve touched on this idea before, but I think it’s something that is always relevant, so I will mention it again. Compassion and mercy are not complicated. Migrants are technically breaking laws. Now, they are breaking laws that I don’t think are fair and will hopefully change, but they are breaking laws. If I look at these people as criminals without learning who they are or why they did what they did, I am missing the heart of the example Jesus set for us. He did not find the righteous and pat them on the back. He sought out the sinners, and showed they mercy and compassion. We are called to do the same. This extends past the migrant. This applies to every human we encounter.
I’ve kept this concept in the back of my mind on our journey home, and I hope the more I work at it, the more I can emulate Jesus.
Now that we are back in Omaha, some of the readers might be wondering what we are doing. Let me shed some light on the post-filming action.
The first day back in the classroom was transcribing day. We had footage of 12 interviews, and each of us were assigned to type up the script of what was said in the interviews. Some had lengthier interviews than others. (Sorry Corpuz) This process took most of the day. Each interview equated to roughly 10-12 pages of script. I would consider myself a competent typist, but this task took me so long. Eventually, Aly came and took over for me. Much appreciated Aly.
On the second day, we split into two groups of six. The students with journalism backgrounds took the scripts and highlighted chunks of text that we could potentially use in the film. They gave the other six of us the highlighted packets, and we would find the quotes on the video and keyword them into categories so that they would be easier to find when we started assembling the pieces. For example: Fr. Neeley has a great quote about the wall. If we wanted to use that quote, we just have to go to the “wall” folder, and his quote would be in there, along with any other quotes about the wall.
On the third day, the group of journalists cut up the scripts and taped them onto a timeline. They tried to assemble the beginning of some sort of comprehensible order of subtopics. Nico, Maria, AJ, and I received the timelines, found the quotes on the computer, and assembled the timeline into the video sequence. This sequence was an hour and ten minutes long. (Our film is supposed to be around 20-25 minutes)
The next day, we watched what we had. It was very jumbled, so we had a meeting to edit, rearrange, and cut. Nico took our notes and went off to Nicoland to work on it. The rest of us stayed behind to take care of the academic portion of the program which is apparently really important or something.
The next morning, Nico brought back the his edit of the script. Keep in mind that at this point, all we have is talking heads. We are only trying to piece together the story. Somehow Nico got it down to 37 minutes. It actually made a little bit of sense this time. We had another meeting to cut it down further rearrange our storyline.
The creative juices are flowing, and I am really excited to see what we have tomorrow morning. As for tonight, I need to finish my essay for John’s class and my profile for Carol’s class. This whole concept of summer papers is really pretty nauseating, but if I have to write them in order to participate in this program, well I think it is more than worth it.
*** I have been told that the theme of my blogs has been too reflective and serious, so if you are wondering why I just hit you with a blog about my favorite foods, wonder no more. I was just trying to shake it up a little bit.
You might have noticed, but the guy to girl ratio for this team is way out of proportion. There are 3 guys and 9 girls. You may be thinking to yourself, “Wow. That would stink to be one of the three boys.”
Think again blog reader. Girls very rarely eat all of the food on their plate. I quickly became the garbage disposal of CUBackpack 2016. Everywhere we went, I’d finish my meal then three or four of the girls’ leftovers. I legitimately gained seven pounds in two weeks. To honor all the great food I got to have so much of, I thought I’d rank my favorite meals from the trip.
Chimichanga at restaurant in New Mexico
Chimichanga at La Roca
Monument of Nachos
Steak Burrito at Qdoba (I know. Disappointing. But I love me some free queso)
La Has from the Mexican Mall
Corpuz’s quesadilla from the restaurant in the Mexican Mall
One thing I have always loved about the Catholic Church is that it is universal. Wherever you go, Mass is the same. It may be in different languages, with different traditions, but the liturgy is always the same. This held true for the Mass we experienced in Arivaca, Arizona, a town of about 700 near the border. We went to the small Catholic Church and filled up the rear 1/3 of the pews by ourselves. Fr. Pete warned us that the patrons of this church called themselves Arivaca Catholics. He explained himself by telling a story of the marriage of a gay couple in the church. Padre said it didn’t count in the Catholic Church, but it didn’t matter because everyone acted as though it did. I was excited to see what this Mass was going to be like. A “slice of life” as John says.
Almost immediately after sitting down, 4′ 8″ Super Sue came to recruit us to the choir. AJ and I were glad to participate. Mass started, and we sung the opening hymn. It became very clear to me that I had not mentally prepared myself for my choir debut. The petite choir director had the intensity of a small army. I was NOT ready. Sue was belting out the song, holding notes for 3x longer than intended, and scolding the lady to my right who kept missing the beat. I wasn’t singing very well because I was trying not to laugh. I looked over at AJ, and he had his head buried in his book, almost crying of laughter. Our choir experience was priceless. Thank you Super Sue.
There were two baptisms and a first communion that Sunday. The place was packed. Padre gave an awesome homily about the prophet, priest, and King nature of the sacraments. He mentioned the baptismal candle, and turned to point to it. In typical Arivaca fashion, the candle was not there. Padre smiled and said, “and it seems as though we have forgotten to put out the baptismal candle.” We all laughed.
When it came time for Eucharist, I was asked to be a Eucharistic Minister. I knew there was going to be a first communion, but I assumed padre would do it himself. He whispered to me that I was to grab the cup and follow his lead as he gave this child his first encounter with the body of Christ. I said, “The Blood of Christ,” and handed the boy the chalice. As he sipped, I felt so humbled to be used in this beautiful sacrament. It was an amazing experience. After that, I got to share the blood with the rest of the congregation and my team. There is something so special about being a Eucharistic minister. I love it. Giving that little boy his first taste of the Lord was something I will never forget, and I am so humbled to be a part of that child’s experience.
If you’ve read my other blogs, you know that theology drew me to this trip, but theology is not only component of this program. Journalism and filmmaking are the vehicles through which the theology can be expressed. Cameras intrigue me. I enjoy the art they can capture, but more specifically, I like how they can filter out the noise surrounding any particular object and isolate its individual beauty. Standing in a space and observing with my eyes can be overwhelming. My mind tries to absorb every aspect of the space I am in. It’s too much. This week, I’ve experienced life through the lens of a camera, and it forced me to observe differently.
Monday morning, a group of us crossed over to film breakfast at the comedor. Nico told me to get shots of people’s faces and emotions. I set up my tripod at the end of the table and peered into my camera. I found a man to focus on. I set up my color balance, fixated the camera to meet my rule of thirds, and focused the lens on his face. I clicked the record button and just watched. I was so focused on making the shot look good that I hadn’t even looked at what I was filming. Looking at my screen, the only thing I could see was this man’s face. Nothing else. My eyes weren’t distracted by any outside commotion because my camera forced me to look only at the man’s face. He was tired. He was sad. He was hungry. It’s hard to articulate, but I could feel his emotions through the screen, and it was profound. It was heavy. It affected me.
This issue of immigration is so complicated. The system is either broken or nonexistent. After speaking with an Arizona judge, who seemed to be just as frustrated as I was, I realized that this is no quick fix. There are layers. It’s complicated. How do we fix this injustice? It’s so messy. Then I thought back to my experience with the man I filmed. When I thought of him, as a suffering person, I was filled with compassion. I came to a conclusion: politics is complicated, compassion is not. You don’t need any sort of “policy” to stretch out a hand to a marginalized brother. You don’t need to lobby for the cause of feeding a hungry sister. Compassion is simple. Compassion is human. It can be practiced at any moment by any person. All it requires is a love of God, for one who loves God, loves His creation. It’s bigger than politics.
It’s funny to me. This understanding of an overarching concept of faith was realized through the narrowed lens of a camera.
For those who do not know, we were assigned into groups of two for our time filming in Nogales. I was matched with Maria Watson. At first, she was just one of the three Marias to me, but we have gotten to know each other quite well. She turned out to be the perfect partner. I just finished my first year, and she just finished her last year, so I knew there was a lot I could learn from my charismatic teammate. When we started out, what I learned mostly pertained to cameras. She taught me how to adjust the frames and fix lighting. Everything I now know about cameras can be attributed to Nico and Maria.
I had not anticipated the amount of walking we would be doing on this trip. We walk A LOT. It’s not a bad thing though, because there is a lot of time to contemplate and talk with others. Yesterday, after a successful quest for B-Roll, Maria and I were walking back to the Comedor. On this walk, I learned more from my teammate. I asked about why she decided to work as a volunteer next year. Her answer was filled with passion and a genuine desire to do good work. She does not want to be just a journalist. She wants to help people. She wants to get at the heart the Jesuit mission to care for th marginalized. Her motivation was so authentic when she spoke. She inspired me to not settle into a career that promises stability and security at the cost of missing out on what stirs my heart. Social justice stirs her heart. It moves her, so she followed it even though it took her away from success that the world deems important.
I’ve learned a lot from Maria, and I’m so glad I’ve gotten to know her as well as I have. We have a secret handshake. It’s dope. We have a team name: Team. And we have a common passion for finding Christ around us. God knew what he was doing when he guided Nico’s hand as he randomly grouped us into twos.
Today was a contrast for me. From a filming standpoint, everything unfolded beautifully. Interviews went perfectly, and Natalia was wonderful. Things just kind of unfolded for us. As John would say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” So, for all of that I am excited and so grateful.
On the other hand, I witnessed some things that I cannot shake. I saw real hardship and suffering. Real people with real stories about real things that happened to them. My immediate reaction to witnessing this was, “How can I fix that?” As we continued to walk through Nogales, I got more and more overwhelmed. Actually a better word would be discouraged. I was discouraged. I walked by so many people in need of help, and I couldn’t do anything. I looked at these people, likely recently deported, made eye contact with them, then had to just keep walking. It was so hard. We are here to help this cause, yet I have to walk by and do nothing in so many situations. The issue is so much more than simple poverty. There are layers — constructed by a culture of greed. It’s bigger than me. I don’t know what to do.
As my mother has ingrained in me my over my life, when you don’t know what to do, pray. Pray for those I meet. Pray for the governments who control this environment. Pray for those who don’t know what step to take next in their efforts to aid. Pray, and in the midst of prayer, advocate for the suffering. Stand with. Be a compassionate human towards the marginalized. Be a source of hope and a ray of joy. It means I have to let go of this notion in my head that everything has a solution. Sometimes all you can do is be present and pray. Pray. Advocate. Pray.
God, work through me. Help me stand with. Help me be a source of hope. And give me the faith to trust that you take care of your children. Amen.
As one of the two freshmen on the team, the memories of being a brand new college student are still fresh in my mind. It was a huge adjustment. I was in a new place with new people and new independence. It was uncomfortable. Nothing was familiar. Now that I have finished my freshman year, I can look back and see how much I have grown because of the discomfort I experienced. I was forced to adjust and embrace my new world.
I LOVED my first year of college. I am not afraid of new experiences or uncomfortable situations because they force growth. That’s why I am so excited to film this documentary and experience new things. As John taught me, the Church is global; it is everywhere. I am excited to see how Christ works here- through the people towards me and through me towards the people. I pray my heart is open to embrace this new experience.