John Heid is speaking at a forum in Duluth tonight to address what he calls a “culture of unknowing.”

Heid, a member of the Duluth Loaves and Fishes community during the 1990s, now lives in the small desert town of Ajo, Arizona, where he spends much of his time leaving food and water for migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert on foot.

Heid will be the featured speaker at a forum on migration sponsored by the Interfaith Committee for Migrant Justice.

“We live ‘up north,’ but what is happening at our southern border reflects on all of us who are citizens and residents of the United States,” said the Rev. Charlotte Frantz, a founding member of the committee. “John Heid’s firsthand account will give us a glimpse we are not likely to see through popular media.”

But in a telephone interview, Heid, 64, said even people who hear from him don’t really understand until they’ve seen for themselves.

“You didn’t smell your own sweat,” he said. “You didn’t get jabbed by the cactus. You didn’t hear the helicopters flying low overhead.”

Abigail Blonigen experienced some of that in March.

“We were going through the morgue,” Blonigen said. “That was the first piece of the trip.”

Blonigen, now working as an Americorps volunteer at Zeitgeist, was on a trip to the border area for her senior spring break at The College of St. Scholastica. Students were accompanied by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who had a close relationship with Heid, so he and Blonigen became acquainted.

Heid mentioned that he’d be in Duluth in late August for the 30th anniversary of Loaves and Fishes, and Blonigen — who was becoming involved with the Interfaith Committee for Migrant Justice — later asked if he’d be willing to speak.

Blonigen’s experience at the morgue was with the Colibri Center for Human Rights, which has a team that seeks to identify the remains of migrants found in the desert in hopes of returning them to their loved ones.

The rate at which migrants are dying is not appreciated elsewhere, Heid said.

“In my town, 56 bodies have been recovered since Jan. 1,” he said. “If that happened around Duluth, that would be national news. There would be people up here asking, ‘What in the world is going on?’ ”

Heid moved to Ajo in 2009 after first visiting the border region in 2005. He serves as a “water carrier” for three groups — No More Deaths, Humane Borders and the Ajo Samaritans. They’ll drive as far as they can, then proceed on foot — sometimes a few hundred yards, sometimes a trek of 12-15 miles. No one ever travels alone, he said.

When he left the area last week, the temperature had been above 105 for a number of days.

On rare occasions, he encounters the people he’s serving. He’s struck by their courage — leaving difficult, dangerous situations and coming into a country where they know they’re not likely to be well-received, Heid said.

He’s in contact with another group of people as well.

“Most of my encounters with Border Patrol have been, I would say, positive,” Heid said. “But there have been times when I’ve been apprehended or harassed … and arrested.”

He can’t leave Ajo, Heid said, without going through a military checkpoint.

“The world that I live in is a very multicultural world, a very hot world, temperature-wise and politically,” he said. “Our world, we’re living in a zone of conflict. That’s hard to translate up here.”



If you go

What: Community forum on migration

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Duluth-Superior Friends meeting house, 1802 E. First St.

Cost: Free