For the past six months I have been working as a volunteer with Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. Founded more than 40 years ago, Annunciation House is a volunteer organization that offers hospitality to migrants, immigrants, and refugees in the border region of El Paso.
I arrived in February and went to Casa Vides, a site where refugees were staying who were waiting for sponsors or family to send for them. We had 14 guests. There were two sisters from religious communities in Philadelphia and San Antonio and another lay volunteer. The school children, the house maintenance, and hosting Border Awareness Experience (BAE) groups kept us busy. BAE is a program that offers groups of high school, college, parish communities, a chance to get a close-up look at what exactly is happening on the border.
Our volunteers took the folks to the ICE/Border Patrol Headquarters, and they got to be present for court hearings, meet detention staff, visit Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, and visit one of the centers which cares for those who have been returned to Mexico to wait for their court dates (the so-call Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy).
Six weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to isolate, and we experienced conditions as the rest of the nation. Our small community joined the “zoom generation,” and we listened to many broadcasts on spirituality, living in the moment and preparing for the change that would come after the pandemic has run its course.
Then came the tragedy of George Floyd. We joined city marches and prayed together in front of the police station. Meanwhile our volunteer numbers declined and the long-term residence of Casa Vides was closed to revise the swamp cooler system. I moved over to Casa Oscar Romero, a larger house outside of the city limits, where I was the site coordinator. We have been receiving guests from the Border Patrol almost daily, just a trickle at a time, maybe three or four each day. They come with only the detention clothes and a few personal articles, and with ankle gps. We welcome them, give them clothing, a shower, a healthy meal and offer them the use of our phones to call their family and begin to make arrangements to fly or travel by bus or train to their destinations.
An Annunciation House volunteer is a “guest servant.” It is humbling and an honor to do what we can to be part of the journey of these newly arrived people of God to a new life here in the United States. We hope that our accompaniment of their transition holds a good memory.
In May, Maryknoll lay missioner Coralis Salvador moved to El Paso. She lives in another house with Heidi Cerneka (also a Maryknoll lay missioner) and joins us each Tuesday and Wednesday for the morning shift of 7 to 2. Coralis is a wiz in the kitchen, loves to dance and adds a wonderful dimension to our volunteer group. Maryknoll Sisters Lil Mattingly, Maggie Sierra, and Janet Miller are also here on the border, and you can be sure we will be getting together once the “all clear” signal is sounded!