I had just completed a week-long Mennonite Central Committee-sponsored learning tour alongside nine other writers and artists in and around Tucson and the border wall that divides Douglas, Ariz., from Agua Prieta, Mexico. I had filled a notebook with my thoughts and questions.
I was struggling with the complexity of the issues on the border. It seemed to me that all the parties I had talked to were good people trying to do their jobs in a humanitarian way, and yet, the border news was inhumane.
Before returning to Topeka, Kan., I wanted to see the work of my friend Elsa Goossen, a fellow member of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, a border studies major at Macalester College in Minnesota and currently an immigration activist and volunteer with Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas.
My visit to Annunciation House on June 22-23 turned out to be a clarifying moment. I would realize that more important than my own attempt to make sense of the “issues” is ministering to the people crossing the U.S. border as refugees and understanding their deep human needs.
Welcoming the stranger
Ruben Garcia has been offering hospitality and refuge at Annunciation House in El Paso for 40 years. Convinced that legal immigration into the U.S. is almost nonexistent for most of the people who flee violence in Mexico and Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, he believes it is justice work to offer such migrants refuge as they seek asylum in the U.S.
Over the past 40 years he has assisted more than 120,000 people from 40 to 50 countries as he responds to Matt. 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Goossen manages Casa Vides in the Annunciation House program. Casa Vides is named for a El Salvadoran activist couple killed in the 1970s violence, whose children Ruben Garcia adopted. There I was privileged to volunteer and observe a 24-hour cycle of Annunciation House hospitality managed by Goossen.
Weary and wary
Late Friday afternoon, after I had been helping to launder the daily mounds of sheets and towels, exulting in the fact that the laundry dried almost before I had it pinned to the line in the hot El Paso sun; after I had made dozens of sandwiches to be sent with those leaving for the bus to move on to family or friends who had sent them the fare for their bus tickets; after I had folded clothing and stacked it in the reserve bins for ninos, mujeres and hombres who would need a change of clothes on their journey, the doorbell rang. In came 10 to 12 bedraggled, tired and hungry women and children, some of the children obviously sick and feverish.
Goossen sprang into action, enlisting her volunteers’ help to fill out registration information on each, including a phone number of a contact who would send them ticket fare to allow them to move on to the waiting arms of a friend, parent, spouse, sibling or community somewhere across the United States. Insofar as possible, Casa Vides attempts to get their families moved on to their destination in 24 to 48 hours. They are eager to go.
I slathered peanut butter onto open-faced hot dog buns, which had been donated in a large bag to tide over the hungry children until the dinner. Pitchers of pink lemonade appeared for the thirsty group. I eyed the faces of mothers and children, all Guatemalans. They were weary, wary, sick and tired. Some had been en route for a month before they made their way to a U.S. port and asked for asylum. They had come for a variety of reasons — drug and gang violence, inability to feed their children because of drought, domestic abuse, human trafficking — foundationally, fear for life and limb.
‘That is your destination’
Goossen almost immediately grabs the phone on her desk below a bulletin board that serves as her organizing system. She makes sure she knows name of each migrating person and their child. She begins calling their contacts. I am amazed at how soon she begins posting departure times for their bus rides from the station, only two blocks away, from which people are departing for points all over the country, California to Maine.
A young and shy mother of a handsome little boy who is happily entertained with the animal sounds emanating from a Fisher-Price farm toy he has found in the stash in the corner brings me her ticket and asks me to show her on a map the route she will take to her destination. I trace my finger over a route mostly straight north from El Paso to Oklahoma City and up through Kansas City (I live here! I show her, my finger passing by Topeka), and on to her destination in Sioux City, Iowa. I pronounce it several times for her; I want her to recognize the words: Sioux City. That is your destination.
Supplies for the journey
Meanwhile, I am called upon to walk three women and their babies to the bus station. We help them with their few belongings, the bags of sandwiches, snacks and water bottles to sustain them en route, some for a five-day journey. Goossen carefully compares the number of days and members in each party to the bags packed for them. “There are four people in this party,” I hear her say. “We will need more sandwiches.” Or, “Put some diapers and wipes in this one for the baby,” she instructs her volunteers, of whom I am one on this day.
I admire her efficiency, floating above the chaos of departing and incoming travelers, children on the floor, the phone ringing, the doorbell sounding. I am glad I am accompanying the woman beside me to the station, as she cannot carry the bags and the baby two blocks; I take her bags.
After the hot meal that evening, at which one of the new arrivals volunteers to pray a blessing for the food as we all join hands; after everyone is showered and knows in which room they will sleep; after I have smiled and nodded and patted babies’ heads when my poor Spanish is inadequate; after the tiny girl who seemed so listless and ill that I would have voted to take her to the emergency room seems somehow to be reviving; Maria arrives.
Maria comes every Friday with her guitar. She tries a whole variety of different songs in Spanish. Some nod appreciatively. Occasionally, someone sings along. She asks if anyone knows a particular musical game. A boy and his sister hop up and begin singing and gesturing; eventually, others stand to join, forming a snaking human chain, their hands on the waist of someone ahead of them. The snake weaves over to me. “Si,” I answer and join the chain-line. Faces soften. Some children refuse to be a part of the game. Some, I think, do not feel safe. What traumas have they known? One young girl will not leave her mother’s side, will not smile.
At breakfast, mothers are allowed to cook for their children. They don aprons, and I can see what therapy it is for them to provide what the child wants or needs, bustling in the kitchen where they feel at home to make eggs for breakfast. People ask Goossen many questions about travel.
All the adults have on ankle bracelets so that their movements can be tracked by the U.S. government. Wherever they end up, they will need to go before an immigration court and plead their case.
It breaks my heart to know that many of these people who have communities to go to, family members here, will be deported. They will not be granted refuge in the U.S.
Faces of the people
The doorbell rings again, and a food order arrives. It includes a large box of bright oranges. I sit down and peel one, eying the tiny girl across the way at a table with her mother. She is eating today and talking, and now she points at the massive mural beneath which we all sit to eat meals. It includes the faces of the Vides couple surrounded by faces young and old, representing “the people.”
The little girl is smiling now, looking at the face of a man in a straw hat. “Papi,” she says again and again, and her mother smiles and tells me, “She thinks that man looks like her Papi.” Yes, I say, “Papi,” and I point, too.
Now her mother goes to the kitchen to peel potatoes, and the little girl feels bold enough to stand beside me as I peel the orange. I hand her a slice, and she chews it slowly, spitting the seed into her hand. Someone tells her to put it into the trash can. She comes back to stand quietly beside me, and I give her another slice. And another. And another. “Uno mas,” I say, as I hand her the last one with my silent prayer for her health, her future.
I fly home late Saturday, knowing that something is up at Annunciation House after Ruben Garcia arrived at Casa Vides and asked to meet with Goossen and Taylor, their legal assistant. The three go to the basement for a private talk. Sunday I receive the video of the press conference at which Ruben and Taylor sat before the Vides mural and announced to the country that they would receive the first group of parents separated from their children at the border, 32 parents whose children were taken from them as they were sent into detention, parents who have had their charges withdrawn and will now hope to reunite with their children, if they can find them wherever they are across the U.S.
I stare at the mural as it is prominently shown on CNN behind Ruben and Taylor and then again, a day later, behind some of the parents who speak with the press. The words are from Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop assassinated in 1980: “Si Me Matan, Resucitare En Mi Pueblo.” Translated, “If they kill me, I will arise in my village.” My own translation: Find me among my people. I am the face of Jesus in the eyes of a tiny girl.
Raylene Hinz-Penner is a writer and lecturer emerita at Washburn University and a member of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan.