In response to a request for volunteers from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Cathy Olds, OP, served from January 26, 2019, to February 10, 2019, at Nazareth Center, one of nine sites of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. The sites offer hospitality for refugees who are released from detention and are on their way to sponsored homes within the United States. Other Adrian Dominican Sisters had answered the call and served at Annunciation House and at the McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. They share their experiences here.
March 2, 2019, El Paso, Texas – How can one explain a journey that can truly only be understood if personally experienced, a journey of the heart, yet a journey that needs to be shared? It was a journey of exhausting, long days of simply meeting the needs of people struggling for life, seeking asylum from the oppressions of their home countries, and leaving all in hope of a new life for themselves and their children.
From January 26, 2019, to February 10, 2019, I made this journey of the heart when I served at Nazareth Center, one of nine sites of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. I joined Sisters from several religious communities from across the United States who were volunteering at these sites.
Nazareth Center is across the alley from where the Sisters of Loretto offered overnight hospitality for Sister volunteers. One of the unexpected gifts I received was the brief opportunity to live and share in an inter-community setting. This proved very important for our evening sharing, and support of each other sustained us in all we were experiencing.
Sisters Mary Ondreyco, SNJM, and Mary Becker, SNJM, had arrived the week before and introduced me to all the tasks I would find myself doing for the two weeks. Our role was to welcome 50 to 100 refugee guests each day; help with the intake process; assist with plans for the next part of the guests’ journey; prepare meals; and distribute personal items such as towels and sheets, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and new sets of clothing. We also prepared bedrooms daily, figuring out who was leaving and who was coming.
We volunteer Sisters were a small part of those involved in Annunciation House: the full-time daily coordinators, out-of-town volunteers and local El Paso volunteers who provided meals, picked up and laundered bedding and towels, drove people to bus stations and airports, and made donations.
The Nazareth Center caters to families who come from various parts of Latin America. They arrive with the clothes on their backs and worn shoes and are hungry and thirsty, often with young children prone to illness. Through all this, they arrive with inner strength and hope.
I do not speak Spanish, which was a disadvantage. I was unable to listen to the stories of the guests. However, through a variety of ways, I found that I could indeed communicate while handing out towels and sheets, serving meals, and mopping floors alongside the refugee guests. We had many moments of laughter, and I found the refugees so willing to assist wherever they could. As Sisters, we came with experience, many of us in administration. However, we quickly learned that the only skill we really needed was compassion and a willingness to do whatever was needed at the moment. We set aside our desire to organize and became one with the chaotic and seemingly impossible task of meeting the present needs of those arriving day in and day out.
What does one need to be a volunteer at these hospitality centers? An open heart and mind are essential, as well as health, the ability to be on one’s feet for eight hours a day, and a willingness to “hang loose” and just enter into the moment. We volunteers were exhausted at the end of each eight-hour-plus day and indeed slept well.
I am most grateful to have had this experience of being with the refugees and those serving them. How will this experience affect or change my life? This is my discernment at this time, for one cannot have such an experience and not be touched deeply.
By Sister Cathy Olds, OP
Feature photo (top): From left, a kitchen volunteer, Sister Mary Ondreyco, SNJM, Sister Mary Becker, SNJM, and Sister Cathy Olds, OP, prepare to serve refugees at the Nazareth Center of Annunciation House.
December 6, 2018, McAllen, Texas – In a situation that many might assume is desperate and hopeless, five Adrian Dominican Sisters found hope, gratitude, and resilience among immigrants whom they volunteered to serve at hospitality centers in McAllen and El Paso, Texas.
The Sisters were responding to the call by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) to serve immigrants passing through the hospitality centers before joining their sponsoring family or friend. Sisters Patricia Erickson, OP, Mary Kastens, OP, and Nancy Murray, OP, served for 20 days at the McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, while Sisters Judith Benkert, OP, and Maurine Barzantni, OP, served at various times at Annunciation House, a hospitality center in El Paso, Texas.
From left: Sisters Maurine, Judith, Patricia, Mary, and Nancy
The two hospitality centers serve immigrants – mostly from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – released from detention centers and heading to the homes of family members or friends who are sponsoring them. The hospitality centers offer the immigrants food, clothing, showers, shelter, and a ride to the bus station or airport from which they will travel to their sponsored home in the United States. The immigrants – sometimes as many as 300 in one day – stay at the hospitality center until they have money to travel to their sponsored home.
Typically, the Sisters in McAllen worked from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., with a break for lunch, and spent the night in the Pilgrim House at the San Juan Shrine, about a 20-minute drive from the hospitality house. Sister Judith typically worked the 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. shift and stayed in a hotel.
The Adrian Dominican Sisters were among numerous other volunteers – other women religious, high school and college students, and concerned local residents – who took the time to offer the immigrants whatever services they needed.
“We didn’t have any specific duties per se,” said Sister Pat, a nurse practitioner. “Sometimes I would be in the coat and sweater room, helping people get the coats and sweaters they needed, or in the dining room, giving out tortillas and soup, or helping people in the clinic.”
At the same time, the Sisters and other volunteers served wherever and however they were needed. “There were no job descriptions or outlines of tasks to be done,” Sister Nancy said. “You can’t always analyze but you have to get things done. You have to set the table before you sort the clothes, and in between other tasks when you could get the towels washed.”
Sister Judith said a particular challenge for her was encouraging the sponsors – who often needed help making airplane reservations for the incoming immigrants – to seek help from a local friend or family member. Many had never used the Internet or made reservations and were not fluent in English, she said.
The Sisters were impressed by the patient and grateful attitude of the immigrants. “They always came with shoes that didn’t have laces,” Sister Judith said. “Laces and belts were taken away from them,” out of fear on the part of the detention center personnel that the immigrants would “do something drastic” with them.
“The highlights for me were the people who came through,” Sister Mary said. “They were very patient, gracious, grateful for anything you would do for them. It was special to see the fathers who came through with their children and how patient they were with their children – and how concerned.” Because all of the immigrants who came to the hospitality centers had a sponsor, they were filled with hope, she added. Those who had no one to sponsor them were often deported.
In spite of busy days and exhaustion, the Sisters learned much from their experiences with the immigrants. “I would put this as probably one of the greatest religious experiences of my life,” Sister Mary said. “My whole life has revolved around upper-middle class existence. … Here were people with one bag that held all their belongings. There was such a beauty from these people.”
Sister Judith said she learns from people in situations such as immigration or jail. “What matters in life is being together and having only what you need,” she said. “I’m always learning how to simplify my life, accept things that are important, and let go of other things that don’t matter.”
The Sisters also have suggestions for anyone who might consider volunteering at the hospitality centers. “It’s a great experience,” Sister Pat said. “Go without any expectations and be open to whatever comes your way. … You’re just there to be with people and to do whatever you can to help.”