By Jack Jenkins
McALLEN, TX — It was only 2:30 in the afternoon, but they were already running low on children’s shoes. “We’re out of certain kid’s sizes,” a worried-looking volunteer said as she pointed toward the back of the large, merchandise-filled room. Between her finger and the shoe rack stood several colorful mountains of neatly-arranged t-shirts, pants, and shorts, each marked with helpful signs that read “Boys 8-9” or “Girls 10-14.”
This humid warehouse in the border town of McAllen, Texas isn’t an off-brand children’s clothing outlet or a trendy thrift store. It’s a church, specifically a parish hall usually reserved for small congregational events. And the shoes weren’t meant for frugal shoppers, but for the scarred, aching feet of the exhausted immigrant parents and children sitting quietly near the back door. Many of their own shoes had been worn through by the grueling journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, and while the parents had done their best to carry their children for as long as they could, the trip had still taken its toll on a number of tiny sneakers.
That day, it seemed, there were simply too many kids, and not enough shoes.
Inside the relief effort
A dedicated coalition of volunteers and faith groups have banded together at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in downtown McAllen to create an oasis of relief for the ever-increasing number of immigrant families crossing the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Lawmakers spar daily over how — or even if — to bolster programs to address the recent surge of immigrants, in the tens of thousands, coming across the border.
But for Americans in towns like McAllen, which sits about five miles from the border, the immigration crisis is already a part of daily life — and so are efforts to care for immigrants.
The program at Sacred Heart started when people noticed a growing number of bewildered-looking men, women, and children being dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol at the downtown McAllen bus station. These were not the much-discussed unaccompanied minors — they are processed and housed separately by the federal government. Instead, these were undocumented immigrants who had been apprehended by authorities, processed, and then given a bus ticket to reunite with a family member before returning for a court hearing to determine their status.
They were part of an explosion of small family groups attempting to enter the U.S. — mostly mothers traveling with young children. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, the number of families crossing the border has increased at a similar rate to the number of unaccompanied children, with 55,000 adults with children apprehended just this year.
They, like the unaccompanied children, are primarily fleeing horrific violence and crushing poverty in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and both inrushes of immigrants have been concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley, a region that includes McAllen.
Locals in McAllen started offering food and water to immigrants at the bus station, as the grueling stay at the notoriously overcrowded Border Patrol facilities left many dehydrated, dirty, and with few possessions other than the clothes on their back.
But when the bus station staff complained that they couldn’t accommodate a rapidly expanding relief operation on their grounds, Sister Norma Pimentel, Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Rio Grand Valley, stepped in to help. She asked the priest of Sacred Heart Church, just down the street from the bus station, if she could use his facilities as a base of operations to help the immigrants. He agreed, and on June 10th Pimentel and her staff erected a makeshift relief center within the church’s parish hall, pooling Catholic Charities equipment and resources normally reserved for assisting with natural disasters.
“We helped 200 people that first night,” Pimentel said. “They are our brothers and sisters that are in need. They come into our country, and they find themselves in a terrible state. They need to take a shower and they need time to eat. The children are very dehydrated. You cannot help but help them. They need care, and they need love.”
The operation has grown significantly over the past month, due in part to increased media coverage of the crisis. The county pitched in and provided mobile tents to the church, so they can offer temporary shelter for immigrants who want to sleep. Massive donations of supplies from outside groups have started pouring in. Other worshipping communities from a variety of religious traditions are also sending workers to help, and now dozens of volunteers scuttle back and forth across the busy space at any given time, each sporting sea-green vests with “Catholic Charities” scrawled across the back.
Their work is ultimately about providing simple hospitality. Families arrive at Sacred Heart in waves — two groups in the morning, two or three more in the afternoon. Each family is assigned a sponsor who accompanies them throughout their stay. They are given a hot meal — usually soup, water, and Pedialyte for nutrients — while their sponsor searches through the piles of clothes and shoes to find things that fit them. The raw number of immigrants varies per day, reaching as high as 277 on “big days” and bottoming out just below 100 on “little days.”
More than 3,500 people have been helped since the station was erected last month, with 1,000 more assisted by a sister operation set up in nearby Brownsville, Texas. Depending on when their bus leaves, families stay at the center for anywhere between half an hour and half a day, just long enough to shower, rest, and process what they’ve been through.
“You can see the fatigue on their faces,” a volunteer working the front desk said. “But they also just seem grateful that someone is actually welcoming them. Sometimes they break down in tears because no one has welcomed them like that before.”
A harrowing journey
One volunteer, Hermi, has repeatedly taken on one the most heart-wrenching tasks of the whole process: listening.
Many immigrants are minimally communicative when they show up, often fatigued and shell-shocked by the trials of their journey. Still, some tell Hermi and others chilling details of their harrowing experiences: The fear of ruthless gangs who kill boys who refuse to join their ranks, sexually abuse young girls, and use rape as a weapon. The terror of crossing various other borders, where food is scarce and shots are fired over their heads as they run through unsafe lands. The haunting guilt of leaving family members behind.
Such extreme physical and emotional stress can have severe long-term negative impacts on the mental health of immigrants who risk the venture north. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the trauma of forced migration leaves immigrants and refugees disproportionately prone to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, somatization, and traumatic brain injuries.
Hermi listens patiently as traumatized children and parents recount the stomach-turning perils of their journey, tales she said often reduce her to tears. But Hermi endures each shocking detail with a quiet strength — a real-world application of Jesus’ call to “love thy neighbor.”
“The families bring me back every day,” she said, her tone surprisingly upbeat for someone who is regularly bombarded with tales of humanity at its worst. “I sit there and I cry with them. Someone needs to console them and cry with them. No one is allowed to cry alone — is that not true?
“There are some tough days. But if my neighbor next door to me is in trouble, then I go help my neighbor. These people are our neighbors. They just live a little further away.”
Local churches pitch in
McAllen’s faith-based effort for immigrants is just over a month and a half old, but it has already morphed into a well-oiled relief machine, with several groups working in tandem to offer immigrants comfort.
Sacred Heart Church supplies the space and volunteers that provide clothing, shoes, and temporary shelter for families; the local Salvation Army cooks and brings meals to the church daily; a local food bank houses donations such as clothes, hygiene products, and shoes, which it delivers to Sacred Heart as-needed; and many of the donations themselves are packaged and driven over to the food bank by a diverse web of nearby churches and worship communities.
One of these communities is St. John’s Episcopal Church, a medium-sized congregation about 10 minutes up the road from Sacred Heart. Sitting in the back pew during a Sunday morning service in July, the assembled worshipers roughly resembled the makeup of most mainline Protestant congregations; the prayers and readings were projected on the wall in both English and Spanish, but the liturgy and music were almost entirely in English, and the faces in the pews skewed older and Anglo — a rare find in Hidalgo county, where over 90 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino.
The church’s head priest, Rev. Jim Nelson, directly addressed the immigration crisis in his sermon. The lectionary called for him to preach on a difficult scripture passage: Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13, which describes how God and the angels will separate the saved from the condemned, or the “wheat from the chaff,” on judgment day. But Nelson, who grew up on a wheat farm, saw the scripture as a reminder that ultimate judgement lies with God alone, not human beings. And while he repeatedly insisted that his congregation was apolitical and made up of “conservatives and liberals,” he hinted that attempts by others to disparage or defame the recent flood of immigrants sidesteps Christ’s charge to care for fellow human beings — no matter what.
“It is not our job to decide who is good and who is bad — that’s God’s job,” he said. “But we are God’s servants. We are called to take care of his children, plain and simple.”
Nelson’s emphasis on simple compassion echoes the broader call of many in the faith community — including evangelical Christians and other conservative religious groups that long opposed immigration reform — to draw attention to the struggles of those caught up in this new immigration crisis.
More openly progressive faith groups such as the Interfaith Immigration Coalition and others have taken firm stances on the issue, holding rallies, staging protests, and sending letters to President Obama insisting the government take action to provide care for immigrant families and unaccompanied children.
Conservative religious groups have been less demanding, but still outspoken: In a letter sent to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in late June, the heads of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, World Vision, and World Relief pleaded for the administration to find a way to protect immigrant children above all else.
Even Glenn Beck, a conservative talk show host and vehement opponent of immigration reform, surprised many of his fans by venturing to McAllen in July to visit the border with several Republican lawmakers. There, Beck — who cited faith as his motivation — met with immigrant families and unaccompanied children, and delivered millions of dollars worth of supplies to Sacred Heart.
Beck, of course, continues to vocally resist attempts by President Obama to obtain additional funding from Congress for relief efforts, but his trip still hints that support for addressing the immigration crisis is rapidly becoming a rare point of agreement between America’s religious groups.
As the service at St. John’s drew to a close, the congregation was invited to follow the priests across an open courtyard to the church’s family life center for a “packing party.” There, assistant rector Rev. Nancy Springer led a group of mostly older worshippers in a brief prayer before lining everyone up alongside several long white tables.
Plastic bags and basic household essentials were stacked in neat lines: chips, animal crackers, and granola bars, as well as various hygiene products such as soap, band-aids, disinfectant wipes, toothpaste, and shampoo. The offerings appeared meager, but for immigrant families who have endured a lengthy journey from Central America and grueling stays in facilities run by the U.S. Border Patrol — where food is scarce and showers are scarcer — a little shampoo can go a long way.
A signal was given, and the packing began. The process itself was a bit of blur, and the output was impressive: earlier that week, congregants packed 1700 bags of food and hygiene products in “about 35 minutes,” according to one of the volunteers. Each bag was sealed, placed in a box, and shipped to the food bank where it would be delivered to families at Sacred Heart. As an added touch, most bags were also given a sticker emblazoned with a Spanish translation of the “prayer for travelers” from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which implores God to “protege a los que viajan,” or “Protect those who travel.”
“There are people who are hungry, and who need clothes,” Springer said, gazing out at her congregants. “So we’re giving it to them. Because Jesus said that’s what we’re supposed to do — reveal God’s love to the world around us. It’s about taking care of the refugees.”
Among the buzzing hive of packers at St. John’s was Johnny Cozad, a soft-spoken rancher adorned in a classic western-style pocketed shirt and a shiny belt buckle. Pausing from his work to pour himself a cup of coffee, he told of his personal encounters with border crossings, saying that “thousands” of immigrants had passed through ranches like his on their journey northward.
Ranchers often discover the bodies of dead and dying immigrants on their property, and some have teamed up in recent months to patrol their own borders in hopes of finding people before they are swallowed up by the Texas tall grass. He expressed general ambivalence about immigration issues, explaining that while many ranchers used to hire foreigners who wandered onto their fields, rumors of crossings by smugglers and drug runners have made them wary of approaching new travelers. And whereas previous waves of immigrants used to slip through without a trace, many ranchers now report broken fences and disturbed water sources, damage presumably inflicted by desperate migrants.
“For many of us, these immigrants can be destructive,” he said. Some ranchers have been known to forcibly resist immigrants, holding them at gunpoint or even shooting at trespassers when they find them on their land.
But when asked if he thought it unusual that a Texas rancher, the veritable poster-child for American conservatism, would so eagerly participate in relief efforts to help undocumented immigrants, Cozad looked shocked. It angered him that anyone would question the need to provide direct assistance to travel-weary migrants, and made mention of other ranchers who leave out water for travelers before invoking the biblical charge to care for those in need.
“This is separate,” he said, nodding to his priest and waving his hand at his fellow church members. “If someone comes through my ranch and needs water or food, I’m gonna give it to them. No question.”
Keeping the faith
Relief operations like those in McAllen are a blessing to those they serve, but they are also immensely difficult to sustain. Americans are notorious for short memories and fickle news cycles, and humanitarian causes that are overwhelmed by donations one month can easily find themselves barely scraping by the next. And while the work of McAllen residents is powerful, it is by no means enough to adequately handle the surge, and it is still an open question as to whether Congress will secure more funds to help with the crisis.
Even Sister Pimentel, an otherwise a boundless source of optimism, isn’t sure how long she can expect to sustain relief efforts in the face of ever-increasing waves of immigrants.
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head and glancing over at an immigrant child in the corner, waddling about in what looked a brand new pair of bright pink shoes. “I have no clue. Every day it’s changing. But we’ll sustain this as best as we can for as long as we can.”
But while Sacred Heart and their faith-based allies have their work cut out for them, few who visit their welcome center could question the importance of their efforts to those they serve.
Turning to leave Sacred Heart last Friday, the front door opened to reveal the arrival of a new crop of immigrant families. A line of mostly women and young girls filed in slowly, daughters in crumpled shirts clutching the hands of mothers and blinking tiredly as they walked out of the Texas sun.
The room fell silent for an instant, then suddenly burst into raucous applause. Every volunteer turned from their work to greet the newcomers with smiles and shouts of “Bienvenidos!” and “Welcome!” It was a joyful moment, but the weary eyes of the immigrant mothers, already welling up with tears, betrayed another emotion: relief.
Soon, of course, the sobs would come. But here, sheltered under the care of Sacred Heart, these immigrant families finally felt welcome and safe — if only for a time.