Welcoming the Stranger
When the influx of asylum seekers reaching the United States – Mexico border increased recently, Susan Gatz, SCN, was sent by the SCN Community to offer assistance. In early 2019, Sister Susan traveled to El Paso, Texas, to volunteer at a place that has been home to thousands of refugees and migrant poor. It is a sanctuary home of hospitality known as Annunciation House.
“We couldn’t do everything, but we could provide a safe place, a place to sleep, warm meals and help to get to the next stage of their journey in a loving and compassionate way,” recalls Sister Susan of her time there.
Hospitality under pressure
In El Paso, Sister Susan saw first-hand the influx of people coming across the border and the money that desperate people are willing to scrape together to get to the U.S. “Hectic,” that is how Sister Susan describes the situation.
Hectic because the shelter where she volunteered was designed for 150 people, but many more than that arrive each day. And though there are several volunteers working hard every day, more are needed.
The main objective is to show the asylum seekers who arrive each day hospitality with food and rest, then help connect them with a family member or friend somewhere within the U.S.
The simple things matter the most. Here, the weary travelers receive a hot meal, a shower, and a cot to sleep on versus a concrete floor. Though simple, it is wonderful compared to the detention centers from which they come. Small things like shoelaces are a commodity because they are taken from them by border security upon arrival.When asked if it had been what she expected Sister Susan says, “To be perfectly honest, I had nothing in my head about what it would be like. It was unbelievably hectic … and much of that is because of the number of immigrants who are coming in. Way more than before.”
One woman she helped was in search of relief for her child. He had an infection and needed attention from the hospital. When they couldn’t fill the prescription given to them, Sister Susan filled it for them at the local grocery store.
“This woman had no capacity to do anything about her child’s illness and needs. They were totally at the mercy of those who could help them,” says Sister Susan.
Sister Susan was surprised to see the number of men who were bringing their daughters. This illustrated a harsher side of the treacherous expedition to those seeking asylum. One couple’s decision to bring their daughter across the border was extremely hard.
Carlos and Claudia always dreamed of an easier life for their daughter Heyli, away from the grinding poverty of Honduras. With earning only $13 a day as a construction worker, Carlos could barely afford to take care of his wife and daughter. So he did what most Hondurans do when it’s time to get out, he approached a local smuggler.
The smuggler gave him a price, $7,000. Carlos would have to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum. He took his daughter and after crossing, they surrendered to the U.S. Border Patrol. Thousands of Central Americans make this same decision every month.
The family had no idea what to expect. They didn’t know immigration officials were separating children from their parents at the U.S. border. Carlos and Heyli were separated for nearly two months.
Sister Susan saw this scenario play out many times among those she met. She saw many families hold close to each other. At other times she saw families in search of those who had become separated.
There was one moment that left a deep impression upon Sister Susan’s heart. As she passed through a room where a small prayer table had been set up, she saw a father with his son quietly kneeling and praying in front of a crucifix. She says it was a touching reminder to her of Christ in our midst.
Sister Susan experienced the prayers from the Congregation during her time and felt privileged to be on the border. “I so admire the long term volunteers who have been doing this work for years. Volunteers who work at the center. Volunteer drivers. Volunteers who cook meals for over 100 people three times a day. Volunteers who wash the linens and clean the showers. People who bring supplies,” she says.
“The capacity to help those in need at the border in El Paso is being pushed to the limit. We didn’t always have everything that was needed at any given moment, but we did the best we could with what we did have and it all worked out. It was a real gift – to serve and to have the support of the Community to do so.”
In the Vincentian tradition, collaboration on the border is happening across the Sisters of Charity Federation to make the best use of resources and better serve those in need. As a true example of the sharing of resources across the Charity Federation, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati shared with Sister Susan their home in New Mexico and even a vehicle for her to drive during her time at the border as a volunteer.
All over the U.S., Sisters of Charity of Nazareth are ministering to immigrants and refugees. In Louisville, Kentucky, SCNs Julie Driscoll and Maggie Cooper wait at the Greyhound bus station to welcome and provide basic support to weary travelers with clothing, food and a smile. They serve as part of the national group called, Grannies Respond. The SCN ministry, Doors to Hope, is creating learning opportunities, encouraging community involvement, and engaging in advocacy for immigrant women and families.
In Memphis, Tennessee, Trudy Foster, SCN, regularly teaches English to those who speak only Spanish.
At the Motherhouse in Nazareth, Kentucky, Mary Assumpta Dwyer, SCN, places collection boxes on dining tables each day to raise money to support traveling immigrants. Paschal Maria Fernicola, SCN, knits clothing for them. Sisters raise awareness with vigils held in public spaces. The Office of Social and Environmental Justice promotes systemic change that is rooted in the Gospel and emphasizes justice and the dignity of all in the shared abundance of God’s creation.
Associates advocate for the rights of immigrant workers. Felix Garza, SCNA, joined farmworkers in Washington state during a walk of 12 hours – the length of a farm worker’s day. The walk was both a prayer for recognition of the human dignity of farmworkers and a protest against the violation of their human rights.
In Quincy, Massachusetts, Martha Walsh, SCN, ministers to Asian immigrants. In Boston, SCNs Tess Browne, Anne Marie O’Shea, and Ann Whittaker are mobilizing groups and protesting for the rights of migrant brothers and sisters.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sisters welcome refugee families into temporary housing where those in need may take up residence for periods of up to three months. SCNs Tonya Severin and Barbara Maynard are using their educational backgrounds to tutor immigrants.
Standing in solidarity
All across the Congregation Sisters work together to address challenging issues as they have done in the past. They promote compassionate legislation that meets the needs of vulnerable immigrants and refugees who are seeking a safe haven for themselves and their children. Facing the needs as they present themselves and as they change, Sisters of Charity of Nazareth educate and advocate to make positive changes to the systems that impact immigrants. Around the community, they join together in prayer as they work for peace and justice.