August 8, 2019 — Marco Matute, who works at the Jesuits’ St. Agnes Parish in San Francisco, traveled to El Paso, Texas, in July as part of a delegation to help migrants at the border. This was just several weeks before 22 people were brutally gunned down in a Walmart in that border city, a fact that makes his visit — where he found “every revelation was a grace” — even more poignant.
St. Agnes and St. Ignatius, another Jesuit parish in San Francisco, recently launched the project Matute was part of, which sends groups of volunteers from the Bay Area to El Paso's Annunciation House, an organization that has sheltered migrants for more than 40 years.
The impetus for the project was a National Catholic Reporter article on the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border that St. Ignatius parishioner Annette Lomont shared with her Solidarity Committee. Anxious to act, the committee asked Lomont to reach out to Annunciation House, which welcomed the help.
In July the first volunteer delegation traveled to El Paso and a second went in August; four more are planned for the fall. The trips are coordinated as a joint effort between St. Ignatius and St. Agnes, and Lomont chairs the project with Judy Reuter of St. Agnes.
The project now extends beyond the two parishes — nearly 10 different churches and faith communities have sent participating volunteers. “The pool of volunteers rapidly expanded beyond the parishioners of the two parishes, primarily by word of mouth,” said Reuter. “We now have a number of parishes, congregations and religious groups, some Catholic and some not, represented.”
Volunteers commit to one full week of service at Annunciation House and at least half of each delegation must be Spanish speakers, per the agreement between the group and Annunciation House.
Annunciation House's hospitality center, a converted warehouse in El Paso called Casa del Refugiado, provides temporary shelter to migrant and refugee families who have been released from ICE detention at the border. The families then have to travel by bus or plane to wherever their sponsor in the U.S. is located, where they await their hearing date with the immigration judge who will approve or deny their request for asylum.
The difficulty is, Reuter explained, that the refugee families have no money, possessions or even extra clothes when they are released in El Paso. “Even their shoelaces and belts have been taken from them, in many cases, because they are treated like convicts in the ICE detention facilities,” said Reuter. “They are released without much explanation from ICE as to what to do next, and very few of them speak any English.”
Annunciation House gives them a place to sleep, shower and eat, provides them a change of clothes and helps them contact their sponsors and make travel arrangements.
The Bay Area volunteers who speak Spanish serve in the welcome center and help connect migrants with their sponsors. Volunteers who don’t speak Spanish help with meal preparation, laundry, vacuuming, sorting clothing donations and driving and accompanying migrants to the airport or bus station.
When volunteers return from El Paso, Lomont and Reuter meet with them for supper at the Ignatian Spiritual Life Center at St. Agnes to hear about their experiences and give them a chance to process those experiences through a guided reflection.
The July volunteers said the work was exhausting — they worked long shifts — but very rewarding, according to Lomont. “The Spanish speakers, in particular, were able to spend time with the migrant families, getting to know them by their first names, hearing their stores and building real camaraderie with the guests. That was special for them and unexpected.”
Marco Matute, who works at St. Agnes Parish, was a volunteer on the July trip. He said he felt a call to go to El Paso, where he discovered, among other things, that a mother’s love knows no bounds. “It would give her the determination to travel with her daughter through all sorts of terrain from Guatemala, through Mexico and up to El Paso.”
“Casa de Refugiado is a refuge on their journey or, camino, to a better life,” Matute said. “The guests often refer to the casa as the albergue (refuge). Not only are shelter and food offered, there’s also a lot of warmth, grace and love that is shared.”
After the trip, Matute reflected, “If accompaniment is the first step, the next step seems to be advocacy.”
Lomont said that a number of a volunteers found the experience opened their eyes to just how broken the U.S. immigration system is.
Lomont and Reuter saw this firsthand when they participated in the Encuentro Project, a border immersion program in El Paso, in January. Both agreed that the best part of the experience was the day they volunteered at Annunciation House.
“Volunteering at Annunciation House was the only time I was proud to be an American,” Lomont said of the trip. “All the other experiences — going to the wall, being in a detention center and seeing the young women, in particular, wearing prison orange clothing and ankle bracelets, was painful for me and embarrassing as an American. At Annunciation House I was in a helping position. I was part of an effort to make it possible for the migrants, our guests, to rest, be fed, clothed and prepared for their journey to their sponsors.”
She recalls the joy of seeing some of the migrants as they prepared to leave Annunciation House on their way to the bus station or the airport. “They looked so happy, waved excitedly, and repeatedly called out, ‘Gracias, Gracias.’ It was an experience I’ll never forget,” said Lomont.
Through organizing the trips to Annunciation House, Lomont and Reuter are helping others to have this experience. “It is a great privilege to work with this amazing group of volunteers who cheerfully do anything that needs to be done to help our neighbors in need at the border,” said Reuter.