Monday, December 24, 2018

Welcome: Christmas Eve Reflections From The Border

by S. Andrea Koverman, S.C., S. Romina Sapinoso, S.C., Sandra Ramirez

Andrea, Romina and Sandra are all spending their Christmas and New Year’s holidays down on the border at the Sister of Charity Casa de Caridad in Anthony, New Mexico. Andrea and Romina are Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati and Sandra Ramirez is a freshman at Mt. St. Joseph University who chose to spend her whole winter break with the SCs at the Southern border. These stories and reflections come from their days of volunteering at different houses of hospitality in El Paso, Texas this past week. 


This temporary shelter sits in the area of central El Paso overlooking the international
Dr. Veronica Rayas hanging out with SCs Romina Sapinoso,
Carol Wirtz, Janet Gildea and Andrea Koverman back in 2013
border between US and Mexico. From the building, there is a good view of the border fence, the mountains on the other side, and the neighborhoods in central Juarez. The building is supposed to be a Religious Education Center initiated by a good friend, Dr. Veronica Rayas. She had a vision of a different way of teaching religion to young people in the church, incorporating their culture and day to day living in deepening their understanding of Catholicism. From these ideas, this place was born. Cooking, silk-screen printing, pottery, and painting are just a few of the ways Veronica and her religious ed teachers are teaching their students about their faith. However, these days, this center is serving quite a different purpose than what it was originally intended for.

Veronica, her sister Ana and a group of volunteers have been welcoming and serving warm meals to hundreds of asylum seekers released from ICE detention since the center opened its doors to them in late October of this year. Veronica often talks about how she never expected the way God has steered the center in the direction of becoming a house of welcome to immigrant fathers, mothers and their children. But her sense of awe and amazement at being blessed to have a place such as this to welcome them is palpable. It is also no coincidence that the center is connected to a parish just across the street whose parishioners allow their space to be used as an extension for the overflow of people. How appropriate as it is an opportunity to welcome the Holy Family in our midst today.

This past Saturday, this temporary shelter received its biggest number of asylum-seekers yet in one day - a total of 124. As the first big bus load of people arrived, Veronica called all the volunteers as well as guests that arrived earlier during the week to help welcome the new arrivals. Led by Veronica, everyone lined up outside ready, with big smiles on their faces. They held a hand-made banner with the word, “¡BIENVENIDOS!” written in big bright colors. Tentative faces looked back at us but as we continued greeting and welcoming them, the tentativeness slowly turned into shy but big smiles of relief and the knowledge that they are welcomed by people who see and care for them. As Christmas draws near, this beautiful image of welcome makes me stop and reflect about how ready I am, we are, to welcome Jesus in our midst this Christmas. As the celebration of Jesus’ birth draws nearer, it is my prayer that we never miss an opportunity to welcome him in our midst in whatever way, shape or form he presents himself to us.


"Hola buenas tardes," said each person I ran into at the shelter. As I entered the office I see four to

six different Sisters from different states running the center. Children gathered at the living room that was filled with many toys. Sisters who brought instruments singing christmas carols in spanish and the refugees singing along and smiling as if they can finally relax for a bit. As I did my normal walk around the center I always walk upon this beautiful cross. A cross that is a remembrance of God's
love for us that he gave his only begotten son. I stood for a minute and got closer to it. I have never given much thought about what was around the cross and as I got closer I realized what it was. On both sides of the cross I found a lot of Pesos. It sparked in my head that these beautiful people where leaving pesos as an offering to God. They have gone through so much mistreatment and had very little that they still found a need in their hearts to leave an offering. As I walked away I felt a sense of peace in my heart to know that these people truly have a strong faith in God even after this hard part of their journey.

I walked by again and this time I stumble upon a little girl holding on to a rosary and kneeling in front of the cross. The girl was about five or six. She had two pigtails and a cute red summer dress. As I saw her it reminded me of the verse Matthew 18:2-4: “He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said:“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I walk by one last time and see a dad and his son. They both were kneeling in front of the cross. I got a little closer and realized they were praying in mum. They whispered quietly and then it hit me that I understood one phrase they were saying. The dad kept saying, “Thank you God, Thank you.” I
learned this phrase because my parents speak mum. Listening it reminded me of my dad when he prays. A man of strong faith who came to America 21 years ago to be able to give me the life I am living today.

My admiration for these people can’t be described in words. Their willingness to continue their relationship with God. I pray that they find peace and acceptance in this country because like God says in Mark 9:37: "Anyone who welcomes a little child welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me."


I can relate to the various expressions I saw on the three busloads of refugees and migrants as the deboarded upon arrival at a shelter in El Paso. Some faces showed fear and anxiety, while others relief, joy and hopefulness. I, too have just arrived at the border, not knowing quite what my change in ministry and location will mean, and am a jumble of all of these emotions as well.

But there is something very very different when comparing my situation to those arriving from detention centers. Unlike them, my decision to migrate was not a result of abject poverty, a lethal lack of basic necessities for sustaining my very existence or that of those depending upon me for theirs. It was not a result of death threats or because I had witnessed family members and friends murdered or disappeared, never to be seen again. It was not because I was being hunted down or extorted for refusing to cooperate with gangs and organized crime. It was not because I was left unprotected and neglected by my government and social programs. I freely chose to migrate, they did not.

Part of my reason for returning to live at the border was the opportunity to encounter and be in relationship with people who have been marginalized by their refugee or migrant status and economic injustice. I hope to be of service in some way, shape or form and was happily reminded the other night from a line in the movie, A Christmas Carol, that “no life is useless that lifts the heart of another.” But more than coming to see how I can be helpful, I came for the ways these people are helpful to me.

I was rewarded immediately during the first night I volunteered to greet and assist newly released
detainees at the shelter. Not speaking Spanish very well (yet), I was most helpful in the kitchen preparing and serving a hot home-cooked meal to the 124 plus guests. Their earnest responses of “Muchas gracias” and the looks in their eyes that said so much more than their words ever could broke my heart and brought a quote of St. Vincent de Paul to mind: “It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you for the bread you give them.” These people are no less deserving of security and resources than anyone else, and it is an injustice we are all called to address that there is such economic disparity among the people of the world. But rather than being angry at such an injustice, I was met with only gratitude for what we were offering: food, a warm shower, a clean change of clothing, help in contacting the people they were trying to get to, and the display of pure pleasure to welcome and connect with these sisters and brothers coming into our country and into our hearts.

I was given an early Christmas present of remembering who I am and what I am to be about. I am a beloved child of God no less and no more loved by God than any other. And I am to be about reflecting God’s unconditional, immeasurable, incomprehensible love that I have come to know with those who need to have that same experience the very most.

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