In the past 2 weeks, the work at the Sacred Heart Respite Center has certainly been a stretch for me. Normally I would be hesistant to ask people how their journeys to the US have been, or why they have decided to come here. At this point, it has become part of my normal interaction with the refugees who arrive daily.
My "aha moment" came when three young men told a few of us their stories with passion and excitement. Somebody asked them about their lives, and they were grateful for the interest. It seems to me that the respite center does a lot more than clothe, feed, and help refugees move along to the end of their journey. The goal is to help our sisters and brothers feel like the dignified humans they are.
As a list, some of the tasks we perform include: helping pick out new clothes for refugees, translate information and explain, direct refugees to showers and tents for their sleeping arrangements, cooking and serving meals, preparing travel food bags, and general cleaning duties. This week, I got involved in two very different parts of the program.
The first was picking up refugees at La Central (bus station) in Downtown McAllen (about two blocks from the center). Usually they are picked up in a van, but this time, we walked with them from the station to the center. I announced that we (myself and the supervisor) were volunteers and that we would walk to the center. I stood at the back of the line as we walked up 15th street toward the center. I could not help but consider what was on their minds. This was their first time walking in the United States. They were on their way to their families and friends here. They were ever closer to some sort of freedom and promise. It was humbling.
Another task was helping the refugees make phone calls to their familes and friends. They could speak briefly using two of the center cell phones, and the calls could only be within the US. People were so excited to make calls, and were expressively grateful for the opportunity. People would ask "Can I make a call?" "Is it okay to redial they didn't pick up."
Jesus tells us in the Gospel that the poor will always be with us. The refugees who come to the center are not afraid to ask for what they need. They are fully aware of what is happening and know that they must reach out in order to move on. That is a lesson that I believe we all can benefit from. It is NOT all about us as individuals, and no one can go on on their own.
After a meal, a shower, a change of clothes, and a call home... you can see the relief on the faces of the refugees. There is some type of weight lifted off. A long journey lies ahead, but they have come this far. Most express great gratitude and offer praise to God in that expression.
In the very simple lesson that we cannot exist alone, we should also realize that collectively we suffer. Whether it is poverty, illness, or spiritual disconnection, the human condition is universal. Suffering is not to be compared, but to be met with mercy. The poor will always be with us. A part of us will always be poor. Sometimes that is the part we need to pay most attention to.
May Jesus help us remember that we all are in some type of need. May Jesus help us recognize the needs of our sisters and brothers, and respond with compassion and love. May we offer our poorest parts to God.