Supporting prayerful people in search of peace,
a home and work
A Reflection from Sister Colette Hanlon
Imagine being almost eight months pregnant and having to stand in a crowded truck for thirty-six hours.
That was the situation for a young mother trying to arrive safely in El Paso, Texas, and praying there was “room in the inn.”
That was also probably what Mary and Joseph faced in their day en route to Bethlehem. For them it was not the quiet, clean stable surrounded by the warmth and comfort of local animals, that we often imagine.
The following vignettes are just a sample of what I experienced while volunteering with the refugees who are being welcomed into local facilities en route to their families and sponsors.
For refugees coming to the U.S. border, the passage from their loved homes–now places of terror and starvation–takes place in a strange environment. Because of the many volunteers who work in the shelters (about 15 of which are in the Diocese of El Paso), these young women and men accompanied by their children are welcomed with the words of “Bienvenido!” They find broad smiles, the comfort of familiar food, warm showers, clean clothing, a place to stay, and new friends to drive them to busses or planes that will take them to their final destinations. They begin to relax as they receive assistance in getting their tickets from family or friends from across the U.S. and Canada. Their smiles broaden if they are able to hear the voice of a loved one calling to tell them they will be welcomed into their homes.
Sister Cory Canon and I had an opportunity to spend two weeks among the refugees passing through El Paso. We were joined by Sisters from a number of other congregations. While some were fluent in Spanish since their communities had opened missions years ago in Central and South America, others found ways to be a welcoming presence. Our different congregational charisms were focused on being welcoming companions on the journey of these pilgrims.
Busloads of immigrants, processed through the U.S. government, were brought each day through the early evening and left at the local shelters developed and staffed by volunteers from the central headquarters of Annunciation House. At the Pastoral Center site where I volunteered, the new arrivals were told of the process that was followed at the shelter. They were given completed paperwork, a snack, and assigned a bed for themselves and their children. After selecting new clothes, shoes, and toiletries at a nearby building, they were able to shower, put on their new clothes, and join together for a hot dinner. These services were coordinated by both full- and part-time volunteers who thoroughly screened paperwork so no one would be lost or separated in the process. By the next day or so, most were en route by bus or plane to meet their loved ones.
The parents and children I met were primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, although a few were from Brazil. Without exception, they were gentle, grateful, and prayerful people in search of peace, a home, and work opportunities. Some of the most poignant moments occurred when a leader in the shelter would invite the immigrants to thank God for their safe arrival and for the food, so lovingly provided and prepared by a host of wonderful El Paso church folks and friends. The children immediately bowed their heads to the table and the adults offered prayers of gratitude according to their own faith tradition and in their own languages. Whether led by a local pastor or Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, the silence and sincerity of the prayer left most of us in tears. The spirituality of the immigrants is bound to enliven our parishes in the future.
This Advent of 2018 the liturgical readings were enriched, as I pondered both Mary and Joseph on their long, lonely journey trying to find safety and security for their soon to be delivered child. Around our globe –and perhaps in our own neighborhood–there are also weary travelers in search of welcome and warmth. What a blessing it has been to offer at least a little comfort to some of these “strangers” who have now become part of our family!
Sr. Colette Hanlon, S.C.