Meeting Christ in the stranger

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A child's laughter floats down the hallway of a once unoccupied wing of a Catholic health care facility in El Paso, Texas. Only yesterday this 5-year-old boy clung to his mother's leg, eyes downcast, unable to respond to my request for his name. Many of the children arrive here at the Loretto-Nazareth Hospitality Site fearful, timid, silent. We often don't know what they've experienced on the journey, or in the holding cell where they're placed after crossing the border. We're instructed not to ask questions. But sometimes the mothers share their stories.

Although the intensity with which migrant mothers and children flooded the United States over the summer of 2014 has died down, families seeking asylum continue to present themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the Loretto-Nazareth Hospitality Site (where I volunteered for nearly five months) the mostly Catholic El Paso community has been responding quietly with compassion, overwhelming generosity and a genuine awareness of meeting Christ in the stranger.

In addition to hundreds of lay volunteers, most of whom are members of El Paso's 55 parishes, religious sisters from numerous congregations have traveled here to give weeks, even months, of their time to this humanitarian effort - the result of a nationwide call for help through the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Sponsored by both the Sisters of Loretto and the Daughters of Charity, the shelter was opened in June 2014, like many other temporary sites, to assist in handling the influx of migrants passing through El Paso after being processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But unlike the others that have long since closed, this short-term shelter remains open as ICE continues to deliver migrants to its doors. And both the need and the community's commitment show no signs of lessening.

"The majority of cases we're seeing at Nazareth are asylum seekers," said Carmen Estrada-Smith, a young volunteer who's made a yearlong commitment to serve in El Paso. "People have been presenting themselves to Border Patrol at the bridges, saying they are afraid to return home. These people are put into a very distinct pool in a very specific immigration process, and that distinguishes them from those who are simply coming for work."

At Loretto-Nazareth they receive a hot meal, a shower and a simple room with cots for one or two nights. Completely staffed, stocked and managed by volunteers, the shelter operates through donations of everything from daily meals to office supplies, from hygiene essentials to shoes and clothing. Volunteers wash linens, clean bathrooms, sort donated clothing and transport the families to bus stations or the airport to reunite with their designated relatives while they await their assigned court date. It's during these car rides that people often share their stories.

"One of the initial questions I get is, 'Can you trust the police in the U.S.?'" said Estrada-Smith, who provides rides to the bus terminal. Many come from exceedingly violent places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and the Mexican state of Michoacan. "They talk about drug cartel members coming to their door and threatening, 'If you don't give us your money, or if you don't give us your land, this is what will happen to members of your family,' as they point a gun to the person's head," Estrada-Smith said. "People are coming to us extremely traumatized."

But how does one find so many volunteers and donations to fully support such a place nearly a year and a half later? Enter Eina Holder, an organizer and volunteer from St. Pius X Parish. When Holder agreed to be director of Loretto-Nazareth, she immediately needed to provide food for the families. She first appealed to the ministry council at her church. Right off they agreed to bring dinners for two months. Then she reached out to another parish, and eventually she made the rounds, getting monthlong commitments from various Catholic churches to provide nightly dinners.

Parishioners of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Church recently made their third monthlong commitment to serve dinners. They bring not only food, but their instruments and voices to entertain guests.

"Pope Francis talks of serving the migrants and refugees in Syria, but we have them right here," said parishioner Nora Cuvelier. "These are people who are fleeing violent situations. I see them as human beings who need help."

"We have to go serve the outside world, not just stay in the church," said fellow parishioner Laura Rojo as she scooped rice onto paper plates. "It's what Jesus came here to do - not to be served but to serve others."

Organizing all these volunteers, while managing the numerous details and departments to keep everything running smoothly takes special qualifications. With her accounting and business background and extensive network, Holder certainly meets the criteria. But she gives 60 to 70 percent of her time to this project, in addition to holding a part-time job and serving other ministries in the community. "Holder is a remarkable woman in how she juggles so many things and organizes everything and does it gracefully," said Sister of Charity Bernadette "Bernie" Helfert. "She's got the fire in her to do what needs to be done."

Sister Bernie and Sister Kay Franchett are among the many women religious, most in their 70s, who come to serve. One sister celebrated her 80th birthday cleaning rooms and scrubbing showers. Some have been transformed by the experience, like Sister of St. Francis Mary Beth Goldsmith of Dubuque, Iowa, who answered a call to "leave my comfort zone" and learn more about immigration. While serving three months at Loretto-Nazareth, she realized God was calling her to a new ministry and is now in language school in Honduras.

Nationwide support

Donations have poured in from many dioceses, religious organizations and parishes as far away as Ohio, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Joy Martinez, CEO and administrator of the Nazareth Living Care Center, the facility that houses the wing used for the hospitality center, said they had no idea when they agreed to do this how they would support it. But she said even her staff at the Living Care Center, who don't make high salaries, raised enough money among themselves to buy Pedialyte and baby bottles for the children.

"One of the things we remind ourselves is, when there's a need, God is going to provide," Martinez said. "There was never a doubt we would help; it was more a matter of faith that we would be given what we needed."

And indeed they have. Supply rooms are filled with cleaning products, toiletries, toilet paper and shampoos, diapers and second-hand clothing. Most people arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, so during the winter months when many were heading to colder climates, Holder put out a call for sweaters and coats. One man donated dozens of new winter jackets.

"I wouldn't say I'm surprised by the people's response, but I'm heartened by their generosity and faith. It's a tribute to the people of El Paso that they continue to make this hospitality center work," said Sister of Loretto Mary "Buffy" Boesen, who oversees the site.

With no end in sight to the violence in their homeland, migrants are expected to continue to seek asylum. And Sister Buffy said the Sisters of Loretto have an open-ended commitment to this cause. "We are called to serve, and when you have your neighbors living through these days of violence in Latin America, part of our mission is to give them aid. If that means shelter, then that is our call, especially to these women and children."

Holder also plans to serve this ministry as long as she can. "You have a mission the minute you're baptized," she said. "So if I was attracted to the immigrants, it was because of my faith. God gives all of us something special to do in this world. Nothing can compare with the joy of accomplishing God's will for your life."

Thousands who have walked through the doors of Loretto-Nazareth - volunteers and migrants alike - have experienced the effects of that faith "grounded in the mission of Loretto and the Gospel message," Martinez said. "We always have to think to ourselves, if this was Jesus at our doorstep, of course we would say 'come in.'"

Hovey is a freelance writer from Greene County, Va. Since returning from El Paso, she is following a call to go on a mission trip to Bolivia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015