Sisters of St. Joseph offer hope and hospitality to migrant families
As six-year-old Hefferson shows Sister Janice Vanderneck the colorful beaded bracelet he is making, she notices the scarring and discoloration on his small hands. The young Guatemalan boy was burned when his family’s store was doused in gasoline and set ablaze.
Heartbreaking stories of violence, oppression and relentless poverty are widespread among migrant families passing through the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, where Sisters Janice, Jeanette Bussen, Patti Rossi, and friends Maureen Haggarty and Carol McCracken met Hefferson, his father and many other asylum seekers.
Inspired by the Gospel’s call to love our neighbors and compelled by reports of dehumanizing conditions at the border and inside federal facilities, the group traveled to Texas in August to help restore dignity to families just released from the largest border patrol processing center in the country.
For thousands of migrant families from Central America, the long and perilous journey north offers the chance of a safe, new beginning. Following protocol, Hefferson and his father approached a United States Port of Entry and waited for their turn to speak with Customs and Border Protection officials to legally request asylum.
It was a bittersweet moment since they could not afford to bring all of their loved ones. His father worries about the safety of relatives left behind in Guatemala, especially Hefferson’s mother and grandmother, who sustained serious burns in the fire.
“Despite the desperate conditions, I find there was such a sense of radiant hope among these families,” says Sister Patti, a former missionary who served in Brazil, Jamaica and Haiti. “Even after having to leave their parents, siblings or grandparents, they were still able to smile.”
Migrants are bused five miles from the federal detention center to the central bus station and led across the street to the respite center, which relocated to the space in June. With visible remnants of its former life as a nightclub, the building appears to be in transition much like the courageous families within it.
Standing near a row of high-top tables, Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, points out that the curved bar is now stocked with diapers and deodorant instead of bottles and beverages. An area of red tile that stands out from the otherwise dark flooring resembles a dance floor. The space finds new purpose, catering to weary families sleeping on thin blue mats in subdued and somber surroundings.
Young families arrive at the center in soiled clothing and often have not showered, eaten a hearty meal or slept well in days. Many have blistered feet from wearing ragged or ill-fitting shoes. They lack shoelaces and belts, which are seized by border patrol, though some have repurposed the silver Mylar blankets distributed at the detention center into makeshift shoelaces, belts and hair ties.
Several of them report waiting for months in Mexico – in overflowing shelters, dangerous slums, or on the streets – for an opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S. Although their journeys originated in different countries, they are united by shared experiences of fleeing circumstances that threatened their lives and livelihoods.
“What a privilege it is to be able to be among the first people to welcome this family to our country,” says Sister Janice after tearfully listening to a Venezuelan man describe his family’s harrowing journey.
Families at the respite center receive basic necessities and warm hospitality before departing for the next leg of their journey to unite with family members residing in the U.S.
With open hearts and able hands, volunteers work in unity to clean bathrooms, serve hot meals, assemble hygiene bags, and distribute shoes and clothing to those eager to shower. The Sisters respond to different needs each day and infuse each task with the love and respect deserving of all God’s people.
“Each bag has a recipient and is connected to a person,” Maureen reflects one afternoon as the women pack a comb, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste and hand towel into the tote bags that families receive upon arrival. “This is truly humanitarian, people-to-people work.”
Thanks to the generosity of donors who contributed $14,650.51 to support our efforts to serve migrants at the border, the Sisters were able to assist with immediate needs including coffee for mealtimes, towels for hygiene kits, pants and belts for men, leggings for expectant mothers and several shopping carts filled with shoes.
Men, women and children at the center are deeply grateful for the opportunity to replace their tattered shoes with comfortable new footwear. With grateful hearts, the Sisters continue to direct donations to the urgent needs of migrant children and families.
“This is truly a life-changing experience for me,” says Carol, reflecting on how the struggles and the joy of these families touched her soul. “This truth now resides in my heart.”
Despite the circumstances, the group finds abundant joy in being present to these resilient families. Children shriek and cheer one afternoon as the Sisters swing a large yellow jump rope in circles for them.
During craft projects, they help children paint, cut construction paper and create Popsicle stick puppets. The makeshift craft area entertains children of all ages, and their artwork, ranging from superheroes to hand-drawn family portraits, decorates the walls.
Sisters Jeanette and Patti, both former teachers, open a set of flashcards and invite several children to practice English words and phrases, which helps them to learn the children’s names and their countries of origin. Undeterred by the language barrier, Sister Jeanette communicates with her new students through hand gestures, games and a translation app on her cell phone.
“I realized how bright they are and how much the world loses by not giving them opportunity,” says Sister Jeanette, who has worked to promote the dignity of all God’s people through her ministries in education and advocacy.
Sister Janice, who serves Pittsburgh’s Latino community through Casa San José, tenderly listens to the migrants’ stories, comforts single parents, jokes with the children and serves as a translator between families and volunteers. A young mother desperate to find proper care for her five-year-old son with cerebral palsy bursts into tears of gratitude after Sister Janice listens to her needs and acts as a translator to connect her with a volunteer who is able to help.
“She wasn’t just translating,” says Pam, a volunteer and professional disability advocate who relied on Sister Janice to help her communicate with the family. “God was working!”
Pam was one of many compassionate volunteers from across the country whose kind, gentle presence permeates the center. Selfless volunteers from high schools, universities, Jewish synagogues and Methodist, Baptist and Catholic churches across the country arrive at the respite center each day.
Befriending many of the volunteers, the Sisters welcome newcomers and comfort those distressed by the plight of the migrant families. The camaraderie among those answering the call to be present to our migrant brothers and sisters is evident even as one group departs, and another arrives.
“This is the Kingdom,” Sister Janice exclaims one afternoon. “The goodness of people – that’s what I’m taking away from this.”
A change in federal policy occurred just as the Sisters were departing Texas. This change denies migrants the safety of seeking asylum from inside our border, forcing them to wait in far more dangerous areas of Mexico until their claims can be heard. Reports indicate that thousands of migrants continue to remain in Mexico waiting for their asylum applications to work their way through U.S. courts.
We believe Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley will continue to serve migrant families, as will we, locally, through Casa San José, a resource center for Latino immigrants making their home in the Pittsburgh area founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 2013.
As we observe the pathways of migration in various countries, at this historical moment, please join us in praying for all migrants, immigrants and refugees.