Five Oldenburg Franciscans departed May 18 for Laredo, Texas, where they began a two-week volunteer ministry to Central American refugees.
For Sisters of St. Francis Marge Wissman, Noella Poinsette and Amy Kistner, and for Associate Ruth Kalin, Bronx, New York, and prospective Associate Tracy Thread, Evansville, committing to this trip was a weighty decision.
“Like the orphans, widows and strangers who were the most marginalized in Jesus’ day, that’s how I’ve seen refugees for many years,” commented Sister Noella, who is moving from Michigan to the Oldenburg Motherhouse later this month to assume the position of Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation director, a position being vacated by the retiring Wissman.
“I have been blessed by the hope, resilience, the profound appreciation of life that resides in these refugees amidst their struggles, the pain and the uncertainty of life experienced by these sisters and brothers. So I feel very blessed to be able to minister as a compassionate presence honoring their dignity, and I pray that my heart will be broken open again.”
The Sisters and their Associates, who are Catholics as well as persons from other religious traditions, support each other in their commitment to living out the Gospels, especially helping those who are powerless, poor or oppressed.
Kalin explained her motivation this way: “I feel so desperate and frustrated when I read and hear the news every day about the refugee/immigration situation all over the world and, more specifically, in my own country. Like so many others, I am filled with anger, desperation and pain reading about children being separated from their parents, the conditions in which they are forced to live, the agony of parents … You always feel, when you read these stories – what can I do?”
Empowered by the invitation extended through the religious community’s Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation and supported by the donations of Sisters and Associates alike, the five volunteers chose to do the works of compassion as needed in Laredo. What they discovered there went beyond their expectations – what the New York woman described as “a heroic effort on all sides.”
She noted, “Our visitors, in a state of utter exhaustion after the arduous journey they have taken, remain consistently good-natured, always polite and grateful. They are really nice people. The workers and volunteers are no less so. Everybody works so hard, and nonstop; and I’ve never seen anyone snap or be rude in any way. It is quite amazing. The security guard who climbs up and down a flight of stairs probably dozens of times each day to escort the men to their showers is always pleasant. The harried administrative workers, doing intakes and making phone calls for well over a hundred people each day and holding whole operations together, always remain kind and polite. It is really impressive.”
The visitors, as the Franciscan volunteers discovered, were mostly young families. Sometimes, only one parent or grandparent accompanied one child. All are fleeing conditions in their native Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. “You can read tiredness, exhaustion, gratefulness and a certain relief that they got this far,” commented Sister Marge. “They do have court dates when they reach their destinations – Iowa, Tennessee, Illinois, Florida, Texas, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Minnesota … No matter what we give them, they all say ‘gracias’ (thank you) when they leave. They remind me to be grateful for any small thing I receive.”
The daily experience of ministering to new arrivals proved to be multifaceted. Ten-hour days for workers were common as refugees were welcomed, having traveled 15-30 days, either on foot or by bus. Each arriving person was fed, given shower facilities, provided clean clothing and offered a place to rest.
Catholic Charities in Laredo and San Antonio provided material support as supplies, especially of clothing, were outpaced by the numbers of destitute people seeking assistance. The Salvation Army generously agreed to trade out large-sized men’s clothing for the smaller articles needed by the Central American men. Some visitors would spend only a day or two at the center before being transported to somewhere else in the country. Seemingly small works of hospitality were the vital and totally people-centered regimen: meeting an individual’s needs for the right size of clothing, replacing shoelaces taken by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) with cut fabric, finding enough towels to accommodate shower-takers, holding and comforting a little child.
Sister Noella observed, “How anyone could ever be afraid of these people is beyond my understanding; I guess they have never met any of them and so can be fooled by all the fearmongering.
"If only every U.S. American could take the risk of volunteering at our mutual border or risk reaching out to these new neighbors in their local communities, hearts would be changed … I don’t think there are words to fully express the compassion, the hope, the heartbreak that I feel with these companions and families in Christ.”
Sister Delouise Menges, Oldenburg, is an Order of St. Francis first councilor.