Respite at the Border: Many Faces with Many Voices
Told by Michele Goff, Scott Hurst, Tom Laney, Claudia Morgan-Gray, Kathy Porter and John Tieken
In February six mission trip participants from First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, traveled to known border community, McAllen, Texas, to assist at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center. Three of us have worked at the center before. For the other three, this was their first journey on this mission adventure.
Whether the third journey or the first, there is a real and stark awakening that occurs. A physical, spiritual, emotional, educational and even political awakening takes place. Come on the journey with us through our eyes, hearts, and minds.
The respite center on Hackberry Avenue is quiet on the outside – but behind the door you step into a 1950s era abandoned nursing home full of Spanish and English-speaking people, some organized and some not-so-organized chaos, and a sea of God’s people (some helping, some being helped.) Amid the chaos, fear, fatigue and uncertainty, we also found God’s grace.
For this journey, let’s set aside the politics and focus on the human and spiritual elements.
Retrospect: We wonder if we would be as gracious as those who passed through the respite center while we were there. Honestly, we’re not sure. Their journeys are long and hard, their destinations unknown and unfamiliar, and their reception is uncertain and, in many ways, unwelcoming. And yet… they journey, they hope, they pray, they appreciate and they believe.
For our part, whether it was comforting a small girl who is scared, crying and holding tight to two sheets of the foil blankets that are now her only belongings, or being there for a worried and caring father who wants to express his deep appreciation to you taking time to help his young daughter, or the absolute wave of gratitude when a young girl about 3 or 4, wraps her little arms around your legs to give you a hug to say, “Gracias” with her whole being – there is no part of your soul that is not touched during this journey.
Little things are important to these travelers: shoelaces, bars of chocolate, a shower and clean warm towel, a meal, a friendly face, a smile, a kind word or gentle touch. We help free these travelers of the physical evidence of their detention. Yes, we give them tangible items like shoestrings, belts and hair ties – but truly we are giving them more non-tangible things like identity, dignity, compassion, and human assistance.
But it was more than that. There were many Holy Spirit moments of connection. One among us came with an open-mind and a backpack full of candy. He returned with a full heart and an empty backpack. Our effort to communicate in their language was appreciated and amusing, but they laughed with us (not at us) and the laughter filled other voids.
Holy Spirit moments are when an ever-so-insignificant act of kindness became ever-so-significant, and moments when through act/deed/word we let another person know that they are welcomed, safe from the current storm, seen and loved. Yes, Holy Spirit moments.
It didn’t take long to move beyond the labels of immigrant and refugee and simply see a stream of dislocated and desperate humanity – mothers from Honduras and fathers and children from Guatemala.
So, we ask you, “What conditions would necessitate this kind of journey for you?”
“How unbearable/dangerous would things have to be before you would be courageous enough to take this same journey?”
The center truly provides respite for these men, women, and children when they need it most. Directly from detention centers, many of them are fearful when they arrive. It was a little surprising how quickly that fear gave way to the calm release of unexpected joy with a smile, a nod or sharing a piece of chocolate!
We did our best to help where needed and fill in the gaps along with other volunteers.
We met people from Seattle, Wisconsin, Florida and California. But this and other respite centers stay afloat because of the very dedicated local volunteers who have made it their calling, their mission and their vocation. They are ever-present, welcoming the refugees with warm smiles, joyful hearts and assisting them. Their dedication, determination and grit have put a process in place that works. They labor tirelessly, and it is without question inspired by God.
As long as there is a need for these respite centers, we will continue to go and help. Want us to save you a seat?