Day Three: Responding with Grace 

Throughout the season of Lent, my church has been reflecting on what “not to give up” during Lent. We have considered not giving up community, not giving up hope, and recently – not giving up grace. Grace, to me, is a preemptive recognition of our own humanness; a partner virtue of “forgiveness” without judgement attached. Grace requires empathy. Late yesterday, while moving around some supplies in our residency, a longer-term volunteer from a local Lutheran church advised us – “don’t forget the humanity”. She shared that it is easy to lose sight of the human beings in front of us when there is so much to worry about: preparing meals, having enough basic supplies, arranging travel, etc. I like to think that I do a good job of “not forgetting the humanity”, but I think we can all get lost in our day-to-day anxieties now and then. I believe that refusing to lose sight of each other’s dignity and humanity and being patient with our own shortcomings as a result of our humanity, requires grace.

Earlier this morning I encountered the most powerful example of grace that I’ve experienced in quite some time. Last night, we had taken a family of four (mom, dad, a young daughter, and a baby) to the airport for their early flight this morning. As a note, (and to my and many volunteers dismay), Annunciation House only drives our immigrants and refugees to their airport from roughly 7am-10pm, so this family had to spend the night in the airport. I’ve come to understand that the organization does this because we have limited drivers available, and many families to transport. It’s so difficult to cater to everyone’s needs with such short supplies/staff, and the org. likes to support to individual’s needs by accompanying them to the ticket counters, securing tickets, and sending them on their way (because many times folks can’t understand immigrants, or immigrants are profiled and given a hard time, you name it). Dedicating this amount of time to each person/family means that the org. can’t have staff available for 24/7 runs, and they encourage families to secure tickets during our operating hours (though this doesn’t always happen).

Needless to say, we were already feeling bad about this family (with an 11-month-old in tow) spending the night at the airport, but we prepared for them a care baggie (stocked with diapers, sandwiches, snacks, masks, etc.), exchanged goodbyes in the evening, and sent them on their way. This morning, after preparing breakfast for our guests, this same family reappeared on our doorstep at around 8:00 am local time – a full 12 hours after taking them to the airport. It turned out that there was an error on one of the children’s names on her ticket. A spelling error had left this family huddled overnight in the cold of the airport (they explained multiple times that they were so cold) and forced to find a way to return to our residence, speaking a language (Spanish – that was, in fact, their second language) that I’m sure many others did not speak. Here they stood – bags in hand, tired and cold – without resentment, frustration, or anger. The mother asked for cough medicine for her baby. We were absolutely dismayed. I couldn’t tell you exactly where the situation went wrong – if they were stopped upon claiming their printed tickets, or if they were stopped by TSA; if their sponsor spelt a name wrong when purchasing a ticket, or if their immigration documents from ICE had their names spelled incorrectly (which happens, and whether on purpose or accident, can devastate a person’s ability to travel, obtain a green card or residence). Whichever way, the reality is that NOT ONLY did this family travel thousands of miles on foot to reach the border, wait in Mexico for upwards of a year to enter the U.S., have a sick baby, end up stopped on the final leg of their journey due to a spelling error; but they maintained such authentic grace throughout it all.

To make matters worse in this situation, some fellow volunteers and myself realized that we had forgotten to include an essential part of their departing care baggie that we normally include for families with infants – a blanket. My body and mind froze when I listened to them speaking of their cold, cold, cold night in the airport – they had made a makeshift hat for the baby by wrapping some extra baby pants around her head – and I realized I had forgotten that part of their package. I had prepared their baggie, and I was the one that forget the blanket. I could make excuses that our supplies were in disarray from moving rooms, I had only been here for two days, and we did prepare their bag rather last minute; but at the end of the day, the only exoneration that I needed was grace. Their grace and my own reminded me this morning that I am human too, and that together we will do our best.

Doing my best in the past few days has also taken a different form (casi la opuesta – almost in an opposite sense): joy! We haven’t had any toys at my residence – and the families certainly didn’t have space/bandwidth to carry their own while migrating – so another volunteer and I went to a local store yesterday to buy a soccer ball (futbol) and some coloring pages/crayons. That $5 futbol brought a whole new energy to this place, I’ll tell you. We had young kids and older kids playing, and even those who weren’t playing were watching, coloring, or laughing along. One of the young girls wanted to play a game like “monkey in the middle”, and it was quite the topic of conversation when I told her what we call that game in English (mono en el medio, en espanol). We chased that ball for hours, and I couldn’t help but shake off any tiredness when I realized that this may be the first time these kiddos have truly played in a long time. Who knew I would turn into such una deportista (athlete) here? I’m going to bring this futbol everywhere (and hopefully some joy along with it)!

What is the recipe of the day, you ask? Grace, with a dash of humility, and ample joy. I am constantly learning to listen more (if you know me well, you know that I LOVE to talk), but oftentimes, the best thing we can offer people is an ear to listen. Even if I don’t understand every word out of their mouth; at least I am listening, trying my best to do so, and responding as compassionately as I can. Responding to immediate needs with humility is a veces (sometimes) difficult when there are tens of requests coming in and I am bouncing between rooms and floors – but I’ve kept the advice to “not forget the humanity” here. And in remembering this adage, I am reminded of my need for humility and grace – I am humbled by the strength of these immigrants and refugees, and I am grateful for the grace that they show in working with me, who so obviously still knows so little. At least now I can tell a baby’s diaper size by their age – that’s a new skill!

Con amor,
Julia Gerwe
AmeriCorps Volunteer | Ecological Sustainability Team
Sisters of Charity of Nazareth