By Sr. Tracy Kemme
My Sisters and I spent Thanksgiving with refugees this year.
On Friday, November 18, I traveled to El Paso, Texas, looking forward to a holiday week with Sisters of Charity women in formation and other friends. We converged at Casa Caridad, our affiliate (postulant) house, run by the three Sisters who introduced me to our congregation and inspired my vocation to religious life.
The weekend I arrived, we found out that a wave of Central American immigrants would be released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding cells pending deportation proceedings. They traveled from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, and presented themselves as asylum seekers to officials at the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, they needed shelter. Our friends, the Columban Fathers, would be hosting more than thirty of these migrants, mostly parent-child pairs, at their Columban Mission Center in downtown El Paso. Fr. Bill called to let us know and advise us that he probably wouldn’t make it to Thanksgiving at our house as planned.
Over dinner Sunday evening, our community of Sisters and friends discussed moving our Thanksgiving celebration to the Columban Center and cooking for the refugees. There was no question in our minds that this was God’s invitation to us, and what a privilege it would be to say “Yes!” By Monday morning, it was settled.
|Thanksgiving meal prep in community|
On Wednesday, the Casa Caridad kitchen filled with delicious aromas and a flurry of peeling potatoes, chopping onions and celery, whisking gravy, and cooking turkey. On Thanksgiving Day, a Subaru and a Prius carried the feast downtown in countless crockpots and aluminum pans.
We began by sharing Spanish Mass together, thanks to Fr. Bill. Throughout the celebration, many eyes filled with tears at the gift of being together, the strength of the migrants in our midst, and the sheer injustice and suffering that caused them to migrate in the first place. When Fr. Bill invited each of us to share a prayer of Thanksgiving, several of our Central American sisters and brothers said they were simply grateful to be alive and to have encountered good people who received them with compassion and care.
|Thanksgiving Mass at the Columban House|
After Mass, it was “¡A comer!” Our guests seemed to like the traditional Thanksgiving fare, right down to the pumpkin pie. I sat across from a twelve year old girl who had spent fifteen days in a detention center with her father. She scarfed down two whole plates. Her father confided that he was worried about her stomach with her eating so much, since in the detention center they had three meals a day of only Ramen noodles. He and others also shared that in detention, they slept crowded on the floor with one thin aluminum blanket for cover, air conditioning blasting at all times, and bright lights glaring twenty-four hours a day. They were not allowed to shower.
I found it shamefully ironic to hear such stories on Thanksgiving. In 1621, European migrants and Native Americans shared a meal celebrating the settlers’ successful harvest after their first unforgiving winter in an unknown land. Only with the help and welcome of the local Native Americans did the migrants learn how to survive and cultivate the crops that comprised that first “Thanksgiving.” Now, we treat pilgrims as “illegals,” and meanwhile, we continue to oppress the descendants of indigenous peoples like those who welcomed the early migrants. I prayed as I listened to my migrant friends that our Thanksgiving encounter would add some small amount of goodness to the universe that day.
After the meal, many families packed their meager belongings in one or two plastic grocery bags. It was time to set out by plane or bus to reunite with families and friends throughout the U.S. Several had ankle monitoring bracelets, and all have pending court dates and uncertain futures. One Guatemalan woman was eight months pregnant and undertaking a three-day bus journey. She, to us, was Mother Mary on her way to Bethlehem.
Only God knows where each of these beautiful people is now, scattered all over the country. We pray that they arrived safely and that they find kindness in their new cities. We promise to continue to support migrants and work for reform in an especially scary time.
|The gift of religious life!|
I’ll close my reflections in the spirit of Thanksgiving. I’m profoundly grateful for my religious vocation that: 1) puts me in places where I come to know people who are suffering and 2) surrounds me with compassionate women who could think of no better way to spend Thanksgiving than with refugees.
This week-after-Thanksgiving, may our gratitude propel each of us into an Advent of deep prayer and a lifetime of action for a better world.