Our Experience in Summary: Deacons Go to the Border

A group of deacons and parishioners from the Diocese of Texas embarked on a learning and service pilgrimage trip in late July to San Antonio, McAllen, and Brownsville, Texas. Following a July diocesan-wide donation drive for clothing, shoes, baby formula and toiletries, we were intent on seeing firsthand the needs of asylum seekers and vulnerable immigrants. The team also wanted to see how people of faith and other non-profits were responding to those needs.

Volunteers from Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), greeted us at Travis Park United Methodist Church in downtown San Antonio and shared information about their Backpack Project, Overnight Shelter, and Airport or Bus Station Volunteer Programs. This collaborative program between the city of San Antonio, local non-profit groups and faith organizations welcomes and assists asylum seekers, most of whom are families from Central America. Several families were there from Congo and other African countries, too.  The families have been released by Customs and Border Protection and brought by bus to continue their journeys by bus or plane to their sponsoring families or friends in other cities. They will await their court dates at these destinations. The Rev. Ann Fraser, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, led us to the Migrant Resource Center and the Bus Station Ministries where volunteers and city employees work together to provide a warm and welcoming environment.  Volunteers help asylum seekers make phone calls and travel plans and provide them with basic necessities and care while they wait.

A day serving at the Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley’s Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen proved hopeful and heart-warming as we joined other volunteers from around the country. We were guided by an enthusiastic staff member and immediately began to welcome and serve the families coming from the bus station across the street.  Travel-weary parents responded with smiles to greetings and simple kindnesses offered by volunteers. Whether we offered hand sanitizer and bags with toiletries to the asylum seekers, washed tables for lunch, helped choose clothing and shoes, played with kids, or simply sorted clothes and shoes to find the sizes needed, we were reminded of the importance and blessing of reaching out one-to-one and extending hospitality to these our neighbors.  At the end of the day, one deacon reflected, “we were given a gift by the Holy Spirit to be on Holy Ground.”

The next morning in Brownsville, we awoke to rain, thunder, lightning and then flooded streets as we made our way to the Brownsville Bus Station. We were met by Andrea Rudnik and volunteers from Team Brownsville. This team of community volunteers and people of faith provide breakfast and dinner seven days a week to about 150-250 asylum seekers who now must remain in Mexico. Each day they wait in an open space across the bridge for their name to be called to enter the United States. Some have been waiting for months. We followed Team Brownsville as they pulled their loaded wagons across the International Bridge into Matamoros, Mexico. We joined them in passing out sandwiches, poured orange juice and visited with the drenched asylum seekers who had spent the night in the rain.

Before leaving, we asked what more we could do?  Each of the organizations need cash donations and specific material goods which are listed on their respective websites. They also need volunteers and people to advocate and come alongside them in providing basic humanitarian aid and welcome. But first, they asked that we simply carry back what we saw to our church communities, “Tell what you saw, tell the truth”. And that truth included smiles, kindness, hope and “our seeing Jesus with skin on” in the asylum seekers who, like the infant Jesus, are seeking refuge. We experienced the same with the volunteers and staff we visited in each location. That truth is also the hard truth of the suffering and violence these families have fled to find a place where they can live safely.

Archdeacon Russ Oechsel and Diocesan Liaison for Refugee Resettlement, Alyssa Stebbing, led the group of eight deacons, an Iona School diaconal student and six parishioners from around the diocese. Learn more about the trip, donation and service opportunities by contacting Alyssa Stebbing at refugeeliaison@gmail.com. Information about Episcopal Migration Ministries and its program Partners In Welcome can be found at https://www.epicenter.org/migration/

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