Six weeks ago, the farthest thing from my mind was how to ask someone where they are going in Spanish. The ensuing six weeks have not only cemented that phrase in my mind but have caused me to think about that simple question in a radically different way: “Where are you going?”
Six weeks ago I was asked to join a mission trip with a group from Catholic Charities in Memphis. Our destination was the U.S./Mexican border town of McAllen, TX. As I considered this invitation I became even more acutely aware of the headlines, interviews, sound bites, speeches, editorials, and water cooler conversations about the issue of illegal immigrants who were flooding our borders. It seemed that everywhere I turned, people were shouting their position on this subject, making overblown, absurd claims and accusations. Everyone I heard had an obvious bias and felt their position was the truth. I had my own opinion but felt that I really had no idea what the real “truth” was. That was one of the main reasons that I decided to join this team; to go to the source and learn the truth of this situation. My wife and I joined four members of the Catholic Charities of West Tennessee staff and five high school students from Memphis in McAllen, TX on July 4, 2018.
After arriving in McAllen, on our way to the hotel, we stopped by the “Humanitarian Respite Center” operated by Catholic Charities RGV (Rio Grande Valley), which was to be ground zero of our trip. As I entered the room which was teeming with refugee Mom’s and Dad’s, their children, and several volunteers it felt very chaotic. Families were seated in rows waiting to be served, children were playing, laughing, crying, as volunteers passed out water, funneling people to clothes closets, showers, and a small dining room while trying to arrange transportation to somewhere in America. Whatever expectations I had instantly went out the window as I was pressed into action to help in the clinic with a woman needing minor medical attention. My job was to photograph the nurse as she cared for this woman but after snapping a couple pictures I found myself captivated by the face of a woman who had just arrived after a two month trek across several countries on foot with an infant. In her weary eyes I saw courage and strength. In her attempt to smile I saw how important it was for her to be here. I also saw the fear of the unknown future for her and her child; in a strange country with different customs, an unfamiliar language, and the uncertainty about the reception she would receive once she arrived. There was a certain tension in the room that seemed to dissolve as I knelt next to her less than two year old child and started playing “grampy games” that made her laugh out loud as only a happy baby can. The Mom’s posture instantly relaxed as she realized she was among people prepared to love her and welcome her to America. I was hooked by the simple connection that was made. In my first ten minutes I had found the “truth” I was looking for.
The truth is that I cannot “fix” the border “crisis”, that is the job of our elected officials. The “truth” is that whatever your political bias, your personal opinion doesn’t really matter. The “truth” is that if I was in a place where I could not feed my family, where my daughters were in danger of being raped and kidnapped, where gangs were the only future for my sons, I would be crossing that border too. The “truth” is; every day desperate families are coming to America looking for what we have; stability, safety, opportunity, a future for our children, and a chance for a new beginning. Like it or not, THEY ARE HERE. The “truth” is; WE all have a choice to make. Do we see the people God has put on our doorstep as brothers and sisters and respond with the love that Christ modeled OR do we stand on ”principle” and wait for the situation to go away or for someone else to handle it.
This realization simmered for the next seven days as we worked 10 to 12 hour days in the Respite Center. Our duties ranged from brainstorming about ways to become more efficient and effective in welcoming our guests to emptying trash, serving food, changing diapers, sorting clothes, cleaning up “accidents”, playing with children and assisting in many personal ways that range from a smile and handshake to clumsily answering questions with a translation app on our iphones. Only a couple refugees spoke any English at all and some didn’t even speak Spanish. All done with increasing love as we came to respect the desperation and courage that brought our guests to our doorstep. Whenever a new group entered our facility they were met with applause and resounding cries of, “Benvenidos familia”, a contrast to the government mandated GPS ankle monitoring devices they were all required to wear.
One of my favorite things to do was escort groups on their way to the bus station after bus tickets were obtained and reservations made. The next step on the journey for our guests was a trip to the city where their sponsor awaited their arrival. I loved asking, “¿A Dónde Vas?” , where are you going? Heavily accented replies of Fresno, Houston, Dallas, Miami, Boston, New York, Las Angeles, Phoenix were delivered with broad grins and hopeful “high fives” as we said adios and Vaya con Dios to our new friends. I knew that their first experience with Americans had been a loving one. I also know that wherever they ended up may not be as welcoming and I felt sad that they would face even more hardships as they enter our society.
The question, “¿A Dónde Vas?”, still resonates as I think of how I was changed. I know that I was not going home the same way that I came. We all have to come to grips with this question. Where are you going? Are we going to stay in a place of political anger, selfishly insisting that there is no room in America for more immigrants or are we going to come to the “truth” that we are called to come together as a people driven by the two greatest commandments; Love God with all you heart, and Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Yes it really is that simple. So I ask you, “¿A Dónde Vas?”