It’s not true that there’s no joy in Juárez. It is 9 o’clock on an unusually cold Friday morning in January. More than 100 people who have learned to endure triple-digit desert heat are bundled up in coats and scarves, shivering even inside the protection of their church.

This Roman Catholic church is called Las Alas, or The Wings. Once upon a time it was entirely a Juárez church, but in the 1960s the Rio Grande shifted its course and so did the international border, leaving the main church in the U.S. and most of its parishioners in Mexico. Today this binational, bilingual church is special. Using its facilities in El Paso as a base, it raises money and fields volunteers to help the impoverished people to the south.

In Juárez about 15 years ago, the church’s priest, Father Thomas, was able to purchase a barren hilltop location. He tapped into an underground aquifer, the Deming Strain, that ends here after a long journey from New Mexico’s Gila Mountains. For years, the tank on the hill was the only source of water for the surrounding barrios and residents used to form long lines to fill their plastic pails. Today the area is part of the city of Juárez and is hooked up to the municipal water system. Next to the water tower the priest built a school, a library, a warehouse, the Lord’s Food Bank, a dental clinic and a medical clinic. There is still a lot of space where kids kick a soccer ball in the unused gravel parking lot.

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Pastor José Antonio Galván (wearing purple jacket and hat) with inmates of Vision in Action. Photo by Morgan Smith.

The hill overlooks a vast panorama of the gray, gritty slums of densely packed Juárez, with a smudge of brown pollution to the east and the high rise buildings of downtown El Paso to the north. It is a stunning view, blocked only to the south where brown desert mountains rise almost vertically with knots of huts clinging precariously to their flanks.

Father Pedro is late, but no one complains, no one leaves. The atmosphere is so peaceful that Father Jack, an elderly Anglo priest from El Paso, is able to joke about it. “Did you wear your bullet-proof vest?” he asks me.

Worshipers march and sing and dance. A six-piece band, including two guitars and a drum set, plays, and parishioners join hands in a huge circlE that wncompasses the entire church. They sing loudly, and surprisingly tunefully and sweetly, as they circle the room again and again and again. And they smile. They are happy.

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At least most are. Just outside the door, where a small overflow crowd has gathered, a woman sheds tears. Inside, some of the smiles seem to be layered on something else deeper and sadder.

Overlooking the crowd, on the wall behind where the priest will lead the Mass, there is a large poster with a message. It is titled, “Oración por la Paz,” a prayer for peace. It asks, begs, almost demands, relief from pain and suffering and, most of all, from violence. In my English translation, it says, “Take the heart of those who forget we are brothers and sisters and provoke suffering and death.”

“Many have died,” Jim Gallagher, an El Paso lawyer and longtime church volunteer, said.

After the Mass, the parishioners all joined hands in a huge circle. A woman on each side of me held out their hand and I took them. I am not a Catholic, but sometimes standing shoulder to shoulder, holding hands, just being present is all you can do, so you do it.

La Violencia, as it is often called, has affected just about everyone here. Since it erupted in 2006, Juárez has lost 12,000 businesses. There are 116,000 abandoned homes. An estimated 450,000 people have fled the city, a third of its population. At least 40,000 people have been killed.

Most of the time, nobody knows who the perpetrators are. The police, the army, the drug cartels, common criminals, vigilantes, those seeking revenge for past atrocities? All of the above. And no one who knows would say anyway. The journalists who tried to find out were killed or driven out of town.

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In addition to those killed, thousands of others were wounded and maimed, often with injuries that will handicap them the rest of their lives. Pastor José Antonio Galván, head of the informal church called Vision in Action, estimates that for every person killed six others were directly affected. The number indirectly affected is incalculable, unimaginable. La Violencia has ripped the heart out of this society. After two days here, I wonder if it will ever recover.

Times are better now. The killings have dropped by more than 90 percent annually, from 3,400 to about 300 last year. (In comparison, Albuquerque, one of the most violent cities in the U.S. with less than half the population of Juárez, has about 50 killings a year.)

Crowds, however, like the one at the church, are still unusual. Crowds of any kind are unusual. The day before the church service Morgan Smith and I drove through a colonia, an unincorporated slum on the western edge of the city. (Smith, a Santa Fean who is a retired lawyer, photographer and volunteer helper, is not religious, but like a number of others involved in helping the poor of Juárez, works through the Catholic church because, in the absence of nonreligious charities and foreign aid groups, it is essentially the only game in town.) We drove along miles and miles of dirt roads, all of them deserted. The narrow roads were lined with tiny shacks of plywood and plastic and cardboard, and there was hardly a person to be seen. Women and children were huddled inside, their men dead or gone.

We visited a family in their shack, a bizarre scene. The floor was packed dirt. The roof was pieces of plywood so badly fitted that there were large gaps that let in rain. But a large refrigerator-freezer squatted on a wooden platform and on a counter loomed a big flat-screen color TV—an election-time gift from a politician, I was told. We delivered bags of clothes and beans and rice to sustain Elvira, the middle-aged woman, her grandson, her granddaughter and an unrelated teenager whose own extended family had so badly disintegrated that he had no other place to stay.

Jim Gallagher making a handicapped woman smile in her home in Juárez. Photo by Morgan Smith.

Jim Gallagher making a handicapped woman smile in her home in Juárez. Photo by Morgan Smith.

In the traditional Mexico, as in the rest of the Third World, the extended family is the mainstay of life, doing for its members what corrupt, incompetent governments don’t. Although Mexico is far richer than most Third World countries (so rich that many experts refuse to classify it any longer as Third World), to my continuing puzzlement, it does worse than almost any other country in caring for its people. “The government won’t do it so we have to,” Gallagher remarked with a sad grimace while we were helping him deliver money and food to shut-in families in a barrio near the church.

Pastor Galván’s Vision in Action is in the open desert miles to the west of Juárez. One of only three mental institutions in the State of Chihuahua, it houses about 120 of the neediest, most desperate people in Mexico. “Es un manicomio,” he told Smith. It’s a madhouse. “We’re crazies helping crazies.”

Smith has been helping him for years with money and supplies. Galván calls him one of his “angels of the desert.”

“I came from the streets,” Galván tells me. He used to live in the United States. He did drugs and served time in jail. “We believe in miracles,” he says, and his own life up from the streets to a position of responsibility for the lives of many others is a case in point.

Vision in Action can be a tough place, the kind of place that makes a visitor nervous. Smith took his 50-year-old son-in-law there on one of the scores of visits he has made. The younger man at one point rushed up to Smith and said, “That man just tried to kill me.” The accused was a short, plump, young and nearly incoherent man named Yogi. “He was just saying hello,” Smith responded. “He always yells like that.”

During our visit, some of the inmates are socializing in a cement courtyard while others are huddled in 3-foot-by-10-foot cells. Lying in a cell is a woman named Petra. “She had a psychic break,” Smith tells me, “and jumped in front of a train. Both her legs and one arm were cut off. She doesn’t need to stay here now but she has nowhere else to go. Her family can’t take care of her.”

An artist lies in bed with a cast on her leg. She is here because she can’t get around. In a makeshift infirmary, a man lies in bed with two pins in his leg. He is in excruciating pain. He is attended by Josué, a man in a white jacket who is himself a patient. He was deported from the U.S. after serving nine years in federal prisons. Now he is going to a nursing school in Juárez.

Some men and women patients try to escape, and some succeed. A patient walks atop the walls to look out for anyone fleeing. But most seem glad to be here, or at least resigned to their fate.

Some cells are locked but more are not. Some of these inmates are free to leave and others are not. Some came here voluntarily while others were brought in by the police or sent here by the courts. One guy who greeted me with a friendly handshake has killed several people. Smith took a photo of a killer shaving another inmate with a razor, and making a careful and gentle job of it. “Imagine giving a killer a razor in a prison,” Smith marvels, “but it works.”

Vision in Action is only in part a facility for dangerous criminals; it is also an insane asylum isolating those totally out of touch with reality as well as a hostel for the homeless and hopeless. I’ve never seen a place like it, but as Smith said, it does seem to work,

Many would leave if there were any place for them to go. For them, there are no families left intact, no one to turn to, no help available. The triple threat of violence, economic collapse (the peso has dropped from eight to 18 to the dollar) and the tightening U.S. border (ending the hoary practice of illegal migrants returning home to celebrate holidays and visit relatives) has so eroded families that they are often of no help at all. The arteries of life are clogged.

Worsening the problem, many Juárez residents came here from elsewhere in Mexico to join the 250,000 Mexicans working at the 320 maquiladoras on the U.S. border. These assembly plants, some with thousands of workers, import components from the U.S. and export finished goods, paying workers typically between $4 (the Mexican minimum wage) and $8 a day.

We meet a man named Carlos in El Paso. His brother-in-law has four bagel shops in the El Paso area, and each shop contributes a big bag of bagels several times a week to the poor in Juárez. “Over here,” Carlos says, “the government takes care of people. Over there no one takes care of them except us.”

When they can’t find work at the plants, people look elsewhere for income, as does the group of colorfully dressed Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca, 1,400 miles away, who hang out in the no-man’s land between the U.S. and Mexican immigration booths at Santa Teresa. Smith and I drop off several bags of clothes for them to resell. Smith gave the clothes to the first Indians to approach us with the idea that they would share the treasure. Then a second group approached us, asking for their own clothes and condemning the first group as “malo,” bad. Desperation and collegiality are not easy companions.

Using his contacts, Smith has raised a lot of money to support Galván and his mental institution. At Christmas time he collected $6,000, and he tries to come up with at least $500 a month. In addition, he always brings candies and cigarettes for the patients.

The woman we visited living in a shack said she has been separated from her son in San Antonio for 19 years. With tears running down her cheeks, she pleads with Smith for an airline ticket to bring him home to her. “I don’t even know if he wants to go home,” Smith tells me. Describing some of the people he has tried to help, Smith laments, “It’s like peeling an onion. You deal with one problem and then there are more. It’s depressing.” He sighs and seems tired. “It’s hard.”

Gallagher is not a priest but he is a man of abundant empathy. In home after home, he offers a few dollars, kind words, an embrace and a prayer. An elderly woman has bandages on her head and arm. Her daughter, a woman in her 40s with the face of a child, is severely handicapped, developmentally disabled and confined to a wheelchair. When we enter the home, she shows no reaction, no sign of life, of even knowing we are there. Gallagher sits down beside her, talks quietly, soothingly. Soon the daughter is smiling. She is a madonna with one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen. We have brought a jug of water, a bag of potatoes, cabbages and carrots, and for just a moment or two a bit of cheer into a cheerless life.

In the last home we visit, a woman in her 90s lives alone. She is diminutive and bent over but surprisingly healthy. We give her food and water, and she chats vivaciously with us for a few minutes. Gallagher says, “ She has been on the church’s list for years. She’s been old for at least 15 years but she still walks to the food bank, to church. She’s strong.”

In many ways the U.S. has made the problems of the poor in Juárez even worse than they would otherwise be. Gallagher, the El Paso lawyer, has been working on both sides of the border for 13 years to help Mexico’s neediest people. One of his achievements was to arrange free medical care in El Paso for those with serious illnesses. He would transport them across the border for the day, find volunteer doctors to treat them without charge and then take them back across the border. Then about 2009 the Obama administration stopped allowing patients to enter the U.S. Border officials insisted they must have visas. They have to pay for them and collect all the proper paperwork, including a permanent address in the area and utility bills to prove it. It became a hopeless bureaucratic morass for Mexicans except for the relatively wealthy, and the program of free medical care collapsed.

While Gallagher has learned to be resigned in the face of much of the mistreatment of the Mexican poor, this one he cannot accept. “I am still angry,” he says. “There is no excuse for it. None at all.”

Juárez is a Catholic city in a Catholic country. For many the charitable help of the church and the escape into the joy of ritual are all that stand between them and total despair. The visit of Pope Francis to Juárez on Feb. 17 was the biggest thing to happen to the city in a long time. For many in this beleaguered society it was also the best. But not for everybody. Galván for one laments that the Mexican government spent money on the Pope’s visit that it should be spending helping the poor. During my two days in Juárez I wondered how many of the 450,000 who greeted the Pope would agree with this preacher who has come up from the streets.

The problems here are not easy or temporary or superficial. We worry about our soldiers who suffer from PTSD after a tour of duty in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan, but the people of Juárez have been inundated by extreme violence every day for nearly a decade. I don’t know how they have endured. Perhaps people endure when enduring is their only choice.