I spent last week in McAllen, Texas at our southern border. I volunteered at the Humanitarian Respite Center which is affiliated with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Staffed by dedicated personnel as well as volunteers and supported by donations, the center provides a place for the countless refugees and asylum seekers, who have entered our country legally, to rest, have a meal, a change of clothes, and receive medicine and other supplies. Most families are at the center only 24 hours before continuing on their journey into the United States. They travel by plane or bus to their host family destinations.
There is so much reported on cable news shows about the “crisis” at the border that I wanted to see it for myself. I did and I am changed. I was overwhelmed by the need, but even more so by the gratitude and love shared from those we served. Each small act of kindness was followed by countless “gracias”.
I traveled with my friend Bob, who is veteran of service at the Respite Center. I’m certain I would not have survived without Bob’s tutelage. We stayed at a hotel in San Juan, Texas which is next door to a beautiful Basilica which reminded me of The Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City and provided meditation, prayer and worship with a mariachi band thrown in for good measure. I was feeling anxious about my poor Spanish skills and reached out to my friend Alberto in Mexico. He assured that if I just said “bienvenido” my actions would speak the rest. He was right! (Alberto mi hermano te amo)
Sometimes you just have to jump into the deep end headfirst. And I did. On Day One we served lunch to about 75 persons. The Haitians would thank us with “gracias” although clearly not their native tongue. There was one little girl about 2 or 3 who would shyly smile at me every time we met. I wanted to squeeze her and tell her that all would be alright but who knows? Walking a man to the bus station, he thanked me for my kindness and then he put his arm around me and took a selfie of us. Smiles all around! I was touched by an angel.
On Day Two we met a young man (probably a teenager) who needed his knees bandaged and was all alone. We learned that he had been abducted by a gang and had somehow escaped. No way to know what he had endured. A little boy named David about 6 years old asked me to throw a paper airplane. We played for at least 30 minutes. His joy was contagious. It was like playing whiffle ball with my grandson Noah. He asked my name and thanked me. His grin was from ear to ear.
Day Three was much busier. 300+ people served. We served families from Cuba, Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela, Haiti, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Chile. “Mucho gracias” from every smiling face. Parents looked exhausted. Kids were always ready to play. Highlight of the day was meeting Sr. Norma Pimentel. She is the Executive Director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley and the founder of the HRC. She was named one of Time’s Most Influential People in 2020. She was so down-to-earth and so welcoming. Later that day, I attempted to help a man from China get cash for his taxi ride to the airport. We tried several things but to no avail. I was relieved to learn the following morning that somehow, he was successful.
Day Four was another very busy start to the day. We ran out of Pedialyte and baby bottles but a volunteer family from Kansas went and bought some more. Often as supplies are depleted, they miraculously reappear. I filled two emergency clothing orders. One was a family with a 2-year-old boy and a 3 three-year-old girl. I found a brand-new outfit for the girl. The mother couldn’t stop thanking me. Another mother had an 18-month-old who was completely naked. I gave him more than I was supposed to. This one brought me to tears. A woman prayed for the longest time at the image of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Perhaps she was praying for a better life or thanking God for getting her this far.
On Day Five a little girl from Honduras tried to teach me Spanish while I tried to teach her English. She was the better student. We had some late arrivals that day. Managed to get them settled in and served a late lunch. A little girl who suffered a seizure was taken to the hospital as we were leaving that night.
On my last day we delivered 35 meals to the Siesta Inn, a hotel that is housing men traveling alone and anyone who had tested positive for Covid-19 (yes, it’s still out there for the unvaccinated). I put together care packages of toiletries and I packed lunches for air or bus travel.
Each day as the immigrants arrived, I remembered my “Bienvenido” and each day as they departed, I offered a “Via con Dios.” I prayed every night their journeys might bring them safely to a new life. I will continue to pray for each of them as I see their faces in my mind. I wonder if they are well and welcomed.
During each day there were plenty of “Que necesitas?” And as I struggled with each request, I was supported by some of the most amazing volunteers that I have ever met. Of course, I am blessed to know my good friend (and traveling companion) Bob. Also blessed by, Lara, Philip, Cecilia, Pat and Mary: all local volunteers, Joe from Notre Dame, Nick from D.C, Julie from Kansas, and Dan from Colorado, Father Patrick Russell, the students and administrators from Saint Dominic High School in my hometown, the Jesuits who said mass on Tuesday and Thursday at the Center, and countless others. They gave of themselves effortlessly, with compassion and joy. They were truly the hands and feet of Christ. I am humbled by their witness.
I pray that these weary travelers we served were offered a glimmer of hope and a glimpse of heaven.
Bienvenido – thanks for the advice, Alberto! It served me well.