BY TONI CASHNELLI
MCALLEN, TEXAS - Clutching a plastic bag and holding onto her toddler for dear life, the weary mother pushes open the glass door and steps inside, eyes trained on the floor. She looks up in surprise when first one, then another of the people standing nearby shouts, “Bienvenidos!” and begins to applaud. As more join in, the woman smiles shyly. Clearly, the last thing she expected was this wave of warmth and welcome.
The scene is repeated again and again as immigrants walk off a minibus and into the parish hall of a Franciscan church in McAllen, Texas.
“I get chills when families come through. It’s very moving,” says Deb Boyce, one of the greeters. “When they come in, the first thing we do is applaud.” Their gesture is the response to a modern-day exodus that began last year in Central America. Fleeing a future that held no hope, families began to move north in great numbers. And the place where many of them landed, after journeys that were long and dangerous, was Sacred Heart Parish.
In the past 12 months more than 20,000 undocumented immigrants, most women and children, have passed through this building, now called the Humanitarian Respite Center. McAllen, at the southern tip of Texas near the Rio Grande, has become ground zero for a crisis that no one saw coming. “What could we do?” says Pastor Tom Luczak, OFM, the friar who responded last June when the trickle of immigrants turned into a flood of biblical proportions. “This is what the Gospel says: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food.’” Here at Sacred Heart, “The Gospel has become very real.”
The Respite Center, next door to the rectory, offers just what the name implies: a bit of rest and relief. Outside it’s reminiscent of M*A*S*H, with a bookmobile-sized shower unit parked next to a half-moon tent lined with cots. Inside the center are comfort stations surrounding dozens of racks and stacks of clothing. Folding tables with bins of baby supplies and hygiene essentials line the walls. A kiddie corral is every child’s dream, a cornucopia of pull toys, books, stuffed animals, trucks and dolls. Alongside the kitchen is a row of dining tables draped in pink tablecloths and topped with sparkly centerpieces. All of it is coordinated by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, manager of the facility since Day 1. Much of it is maintained by volunteers like Alma Revesz, who loves the center and the people it serves.
“I think I am an addict to this,” says Alma, a grandmother who works here almost every day. “It’s positive
energy. It’s beautiful when the children hug you and say, ‘Thank you, lady, for what you do today.’ I feel Jesus hugging me. I can see his face in all these people.”
Tom often stops by to meet the families. “I try to come and ask all of them who they are, where they’re going,” he says. And when they leave, “I like to say goodbye.” Today he’s playing peek-a-boo with a toddler who ducks behind his laughing mama. After a brief exchange in Spanish, Tom announces, “His name is Anthony. They’re headed to Virginia,” where relatives will give them shelter.
Another immigrant sits next to an electrical outlet, a cuff around his ankle plugged into the wall. Whatever
the reason for coming, “All of them are here illegally,” Tom says. “The newest thing [since May 13] is that they’re starting to put these ankle bracelets on them to track them as they leave before they get to their court appearance” for a hearing on their status. Charging the device takes three hours a day – difficult for most, impossible for some. “It’s sad to see. The people come and they finally feel safe and now they’re being
clamped with ankle bracelets like criminals.”
Their story has been beamed around the world by National Geographic, Chinese media and the BBC. Tom remembers the call that started it all. Last June he and three other friars who share the care of two local parishes were in Chicago for the chapter of their province, Assumption BVM. On the phone was Sr. Norma Pimentel, a member of the Missionaries of Jesus and Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande
She asked, “Fr. Tom, can I borrow your parish hall for a couple of days?”, and explained the problem – a
surge in the number of immigrants crossing the border at Reynosa, Mexico, where the Rio Grande narrows.
In the beginning, Norma says, “There were a great number of children coming” by themselves. “The Border Patrol and the Office of Refugee Resettlement were not prepared to handle it. They started creating a lot of facilities for unaccompanied children.”
Families were another matter. “The Border Patrol was packed with a thousand people at their processing
facility and were only equipped to handle 300,” Norma says. To ease overcrowding, many were issued temporary papers and released “provisionally” pending a hearing.
Confused and exhausted, they were left at the bus station to fend for themselves. “They didn’t know how to buy tickets,” says Deb. Guatemalans spoke indigenous languages no one understood. Good Samaritans took them food and water. Catholic Charities stepped in, suggesting that a way station would help them get their bearings. A couple of blocks from the bus station, the parish hall at Sacred Heart was the perfect spot. “I had no idea how long this would be,” Norma says. But Tom told her, “Sister, you stay here until this ends.”
As Norma soon learned, the families sold everything, risked everything to escape extortion and brutality from gangs and drug cartels in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Children were being kidnapped for gang recruitment, slave labor, the sex trade, and most terrifying of all, harvesting of their organs for transplants.
“There is more money in selling children than in trafficking,” Norma says. One parent was threatened: “If you don’t give us your child I will kill him in 15 days.”
Taking only the clothes on their backs, they hired coyotes (smugglers) to get them here on foot, by bus, in the backs of big rigs, on top of trains. “A great number are lost in Mexico,” according to Norma. “Many people die without anyone knowing.” For Tom, “The saddest thing is people who get separated from their families” along the way. “Husbands have been killed. There have been many pregnant ladies. Babies have been born here. It must be so bad [where they came from], it’s worth taking the risk.”
The first guests were welcomed to the Respite Center on June 10, 2014. “There were 200 a day when it first started,” Tom says. “It was unorganized; nobody knew what was happening. Nobody knew the magnitude” of the problem. A former provincial minister, Tom is no stranger to crisis, but “Last summer was unbelievable.”
Initially, “It was 24 hours a day,” says Friar André LeMay, part of the parish team at Sacred Heart. “I said I couldn’t keep this up. People from all over the world were inundating the center.”
Press briefings were held to accommodate national and international media. In the midst of this chaos, something miraculous happened. Volunteers showed up from every corner of Hidalgo County and beyond. Doctors and nurses donated time to treat minor injuries and examine expectant mothers.
High schools and colleges sent students to help. Jews, Muslims and Protestants pitched in. “The project has
been supported by every religion in town,” Tom says. “It’s a wonderful example of how people of different faiths can work together.” The Salvation Army made chicken soup – and they’re still doing it.
The City of McAllen offered transportation to and from buses and gave Sacred Heart free parking and locations
for the meetings, parties and Quinceanera celebrations that had to be moved.
A year later, the media spotlight has shifted, but the immigrants keep coming – not only from Central America, but from Brazil, Cuba, Africa, India and the Ukraine. The Respite Center is apparently here to stay.
“We’re looking at the possibility of building a parish hall for Sacred Heart” to replace the one they lost, says Norma. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual.
Pilgrims and strangers
“We usually get a wave of people in the morning,” says Deb, who is Development and Communications
Director for Catholic Charities. “Sometimes we don’t get notification of how many people are here until they show up.”
With center director Eli Fernandez on vacation and a couple of regulars fighting strep throat, Deb is
showing a new volunteer the ropes. “Be sure to stay with the family throughout the process,” she says. “This
afternoon we have 75 coming in so we really need help. Ay-yay-yay!”
Two blocks away at the bus station Mayra Garza, a Sacred Heart parishioner hired by Catholic Charities, meets a group dropped off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Dispirited, disoriented, they move in slow motion as though roused from sleep. A toddler too tired to stand hangs onto the belt of a mother holding a plastic sack in one hand and a manila envelope in the other.
Nothing – not the ride, not the commotion – could wake the exhausted babies draped over shoulders.
In Spanish, Mayra explains the drill, then translates. “I asked them if they want to go eat and take a shower,” she says. One woman responds in Spanish, “Oh, thank God!” They enter the Respite Center to cheers and applause and are directed to folding chairs for an orientation from Norma. What she’s saying, according to Alma, is, “‘We’re gonna give you clothes. The volunteers are giving you their time just because they love you.’”
From the time they leave home, “It minimally takes two weeks, sometimes six weeks, two months” to get
here, says Deb. “The journeys are horrific for them. They’ve been held in a border detention facility for two or three days” in a climate they describe as “an icebox”.
After the families are registered, volunteers lead them around the room, stopping at a table where Sylvia
Cardenas, 79, folds diapers and dispenses baby essentials. “I’m an old registered nurse,” says Sylvia, a regular since the beginning. “I like helping people because that’s what nurses do.”
Next to her 38-year-old Amy McCoy assembles travel packs – combs, toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant – for the journeys to come. “Oh yes, this is what I want,” a guest tells her in Spanish. “I get to feel human again.”
Amy, a Baptist from Central Texas, moved here after a mission trip. “A guy from my home church is from Guatemala. He said, ‘You don’t know what this means to the people you’re helping.’ This cemented that I’m
where I’m supposed to be.”
As families dine on chicken soup – a light meal is all they can handle – volunteers move among the racks, collecting shirts, shoes and pants in the sizes required. Immigrants will leave their well-worn clothing behind. “There’s a magical moment when they get a shower and clean clothes,” Tom says. “Their whole disposition changes.”
Revived by food, children systematically work their way through each box of toys, many leaving with a stuffed
animal they can hug or use as a pillow on the next leg of their journey.
“When they arrive and when they go, they’re a different person,” says Mayra.
“With this little bit of time you change their minds, how they see the future,” says Alma. “They are more
strong, a lot of them told me. A lady at the bus station said, ‘Thank you. I was feeling dead. I have my life again.’”
Alma dons a hairnet in the kitchen to assemble 24 bags of cheese sandwiches, road food for those departing
tonight. Sending them off to an uncertain future, “I pray and ask God to take care of them because there is nothing else I can do.”
In time they may forget the pain of the past. But they will always remember a parish hall where they were treated like family.
(Note: Sacred Heart Parish in McAllen, Texas is a ministry of Assumption BVM Province.)
Photos by Delcia Lopez