While volunteering in El Paso, Texas this past year, Sister Pat Gootee heard the same story over and over again - accounts of fear and humiliation, of individuals fleeing for their lives. Migrants arrive at the Caritas shelter she worked at in busloads, usually between 40 and 80 people at a time. They stay an average of 1-3 days, until their sponsor (usually a relative or friend) sends them a travel ticket. Most of the migrants have escaped the violence, forced gang recruitment, government corruption, extortion, poverty and hopelessness that has made Central America’s Northern Triangle so infamous.
During her three months at Caritas, Sister Pat never prodded the usually exhausted travelers about their experiences. Sometimes, though, she’d see an individual crying, and she would try to comfort them. Soon enough, the words poured out of the person’s mouth in waves, faster than their tears.
Other times, people opened up to Sister Pat while she was on duty in the Caritas clinic. She was one of only a few volunteers who spoke Spanish, and she also happens to be a good listener.
“I think people were happy to have the opportunity to talk to somebody who understood them, and that’s why I’d like to go back,” Sister Pat reflected.
She plans to return to the border in October, and this time she’ll stay in Tucson, Arizona, with Sister Judy MacDonnell, who volunteers at the Casa Alitas program that serves migrant families. Like in El Paso, not a day passes without a border patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official calling to let them know, “we’re bringing over 50 people.” Soon enough, the busload arrives. When the migrants get off, Sister Judy gets to work helping the Casa Alitas volunteers find rooms for them, replace the belts and shoe laces that were confiscated during their detainment, and phone each migrant’s sponsor.
More than 14,000 migrants have come through Casa Alitas since January. Often, they arrive with the markers of prolonged exposure to the elements: cuts, bruises and skin infections, to name a few. Often, they are depressed, and malnutrition is so common that, at mealtime, Sister Judy helps serve what she and the other volunteers call “migrant soup,” which is a broth with torn up bits of chicken and other ingredients the migrants eat until their bodies can handle normal amounts of fat and protein again.
While the suffering that Sisters Judy and Pat have seen can be heartbreaking, the outpouring of support from the El Paso and Tucson communities has been heartening. For example, a real estate developer who had purchased a vacant Benedictine monastery with the intention of commercializing it invited Casa Alitas to use his facility for a set amount of time. When that time was up, he extended the deadline while the local community searched for a new facility, eventually settling on a spacious juvenile detention center that was conveniently located near a transportation center. The volunteers redecorated the halls and rooms with bright paint, rugs and murals. They took the heavy locked doors off the hinges and replaced them with colorful curtains.
When food and supplies run low or a migrant needs a ride to the airport, all Sister Judy must do is send a message out to the volunteer group listserv. It isn’t long until the rice, or the beans, or other needed supplies appear on the doorstep. The same is true in El Paso, where community members take money from their own pockets and cook large meals for the hungry travelers. Sisters Pat and Judy are grateful to the kind and gracious neighbors who join as partners in this mission of compassion.
Sister Pat's own compassion for these people who have taken such risks to better their situation keeps drawing her back. She recalls stopping in Tucson to visit Sister Judy who had just moved into a two-bedroom apartment. "The second bedroom," Sister Judy told Sister Pat, "is for guests who come to volunteer." Sister Pat pointed to the room, and said, "that's mine."
A Healing Presence in Kensington
Walking on the sidewalks of Kensington, I saw volunteers giving clean needles to trembling hands on the street - I assumed they were trying to stop disease spread through unclean, shared needles. All around us, used heroin needles littered the sidewalk. As I walked past a gated lot where children enjoyed riding bicycles and playing basketball, I wondered how such innocence could exist alongside the reality of old men passed out on the street, some clutching malt liquor "hidden" inside brown paper bags.
In the short walk from Somerset station to the Blessed Sarnelli Community on the 2700 block of Kensington Avenue, where I was to meet Sister Marisol, I silently hoped that helping her serve food to the community might in some way allow me to make sense of what I saw on the street, and to see the neighborhood as more than just a place where people become addicted to drugs.
Sister Marisol, myself and another volunteer formed a sort of assembly line - Sister Marisol served spaghetti, I served salad, and the other volunteer served cake. While the people in line included families and low wage earners supplementing their income, there were also faces Sister Marisol recognized from working at New Day, a local drop-in center that provides services to women working in prostitution. Often, they are also feeding a vicious drug habit.
Sister Marisol, who recently moved to the United States from her native Peru, has lived in Kensington for a year. Not long after beginning work at Sarnelli, she was surprised when one of the program's managers, a very tall and healthy-looking young man, revealed to her that, not long ago, he had been homeless and addicted to drugs. Since then, she has met other people with similar stories.
"By serving food I hope I can help to relieve at least some of a person's struggle," Sister Marisol shared.
When all the food was gone, Sister Barbara Ann Brigham walked up as I waited outside for Sister Marisol. The Sisters share a house just a few blocks away from Sarnelli and, on that day, Sister Barbara Ann had forgotten her key. As we waited for Sister Marisol to finish her duties, I learned that Sister Barbara Ann has lived in Kensington for a decade, during which time she has taught English as a Second Language to Spanish-speaking residents, in addition to overseeing Alternatives to Violence workshops at a recovery center run by Sisters Margaret McKenna and Sylvia Strahler and at a New York State prison.
Sister Barbara Ann loves living in Kensington, where neighbors recognize her on the street and greet here with a cheerful "Hello, Sister!" Sitting inside the cozy home she shares with Sister Marisol, she spoke candidly about the stories of childhood trauma, neglect and abuse she has heard so many times over the years. In many cases, the people she works with were raised by parents who abused drugs or alcohol themselves. As she spoke, I began to suspect that perhaps people sometimes turned to drugs because they never learned healthier coping strategies during their upbringing.
Sister Barbara Ann reflected, "If you couldn't trust your parents, who you felt abandoned by, then who can you trust in your life?"
Programs like Alternatives to Violence work to provide adults with the tools for healthy communication and coping with difficult situations that they didn't receive earlier in life. The results of the program are undeniable for Sister Barbara Ann - the men in the prison where she works eagerly collaborate with her, and several have expressed relief at having a space where they are free to be themselves. Over the years, she has kept in contact with former inmates who have returned transformed to their neighborhood.
"The world needs more people like them," Sister Barbara Ann says.
For Sister Marisol, serving food and assisting women at the drop-in center offers her an opportunity to simply be a friendly, welcoming face. "My job is to listen," she said. "Sometimes [the women at New Day] need to vent. They cry sometimes. This is why I volunteer [in Kensington]."
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