Stephanie Peddicord, president of the Lawrenceville-based Center for FaithJustice, offers welcome to a family as they take their first steps toward building new lives in the United States. Matt Greeley photo
Stephanie Peddicord, president of the Lawrenceville-based Center for FaithJustice, offers welcome to a family as they take their first steps toward building new lives in the United States. Matt Greeley photo
Editor's Note: Five faithful from the Diocese of Trenton and The Center for FaithJustice traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border Nov. 16-21 to provide meals and humanitarian support for immigrants and refugees. Among them was Matthew Greeley, diocesan coordinator for Spanish-language communication.

Borders are a necessary part of keeping order in this complicated world of humans. They work fine when looking at a map or framing a still image, but lines can get blurred when they are imposed on God’s creation. When borders become an obstacle to responding to human need, they become something other than just a border. It seems very limiting to attempt to confine the living world to man-made borders … limiting and, all too often, damaging.

The public bus station in Brownsville, Texas, is a very real place where one can witness firsthand the damage that a border can do to very real people and, at the same time, what can happen when that border is turned into a bridge.

People from other countries seeking asylum are living, very often for several months if not years, in the border cities of Mexico just across from the United States. They have been given many names – the damning ones most frequently used loudest – but these asylum-seekers are, very literally, just people. There are those who think of these migrants as political pawns. There are those who think of them as less worthy of the chance to live dignified lives. There are those who see them as aggressors and usurpers of opportunities that are not rightly theirs.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of people being granted asylum in the United States has decreased drastically in the last couple of years, a result of distinct policy choices. Research reported in October show that from Jan. 20, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2019, or the better part of three years, the United States opened its doors to about 76,000 refugees; in 2016 alone, however, almost 85,000 asylees were granted refuge here.

Crossing Paths

When people receive asylum through the system near Brownsville, immigration agents bring them to the bus station and drop them off.

The bus station is not unlike any other terminal one might imagine, but amid the everyday hustle and bustle are families and individuals who have been given a chance to move northward into this country to seek safety and new life.

The refugees can be recognized by how they are dressed and what they carry.

Shoes are missing laces, and the asylees do not wear belts. These items are removed from adult and children alike during their time in detention facilities after getting through their purgatory in the tent camps of Matamoros, Mexico – just on the other side of the Rio Grande. Most easily recognizable though, is the large envelope of documents that these migrant’s clutch in their arms that make it clear that they are new arrivals.

The Center for FaithJustice’s team got to the bus station on the evening of Wednesday, Nov. 20, with the intention of crossing the Rio Grande one last time on our mission trip to visit and serve the migrants stuck there. The Catholic nonprofit is headquartered in the convent at St. Ann Parish in Lawrenceville, N.J., and works to educate and inspire young people to put their faith into action through service and advocacy.

Entering the station, we noticed a few families that were clearly refugees. We introduced ourselves and offered assistance in the form of a sandwich, diapers or anything else we could readily find to meet immediate needs. While four of the team took action in the terminal, I went outside to get something from a community pantry.

When I re-entered the terminal, I noticed a mother with four children speaking with a security guard. I overheard the guard tell her that the town she looked to go to was not far away, but that the next bus did not leave until the morning. I watched her thank him and take her children to find a place to settle in for a long night in the station. Her oldest daughter held the packet of documents we had come to recognize for refugees. The girl looked to be about 14. Her sister must have been about 11 and had Down syndrome. The only boy was probably 8 and the youngest daughter must have been about 6.

They had just been granted asylum in the United States.

I approached the guard and asked where the family was going. “San Benito.”

“Is it far from here?” I asked. We looked on my phone and saw it was a 35-minute drive from Brownsville.

The guard did not know me, but I asked if he thought it appropriate for me to ask the mother if she wanted me to drive her family to San Benito. “Sure, if you can,” he replied.

Exhausted and Vulnerable

Walking up to this woman and her family, I could sense her tension – this tall, white man looking to introduce himself and ask if her family was hungry. Her reply was that they were not hungry, just exhausted. “So tired,” she repeated.

I then offered to drive her and her young family to the town of San Benito.

“Sí, por favor. Está bien,” she answered after looking at her eldest daughter and asking only with a look in her eyes. The vulnerability of this family was striking. They accepted a ride from a perfect stranger, a risk I do not think I would readily take with my own family.

The six of us walked outside and piled into my group’s rental car, the four children lined up across the middle row and their mother next to me.

The oldest daughter pulled out a document that showed an address in San Benito, just a number and street address. I plugged it into my phone, and we were off. It was about 7:30 p.m., and the ride was mostly in silence. I did not want to pry with too many questions for fear of being too invasive or presumptuous.

They were from Matamoros, the border town where migrants are camped to await their asylum hearings. Her son fell asleep and snored in the back, giving the three sisters a chance to laugh a little as this stranger drove them along the Texas highway.

“Where are we going?” I asked. From all I knew, refugees were connected with sponsors or loved ones somewhere in the United States. “No sé” – “I don’t know” – the mother answered. She had told me her name, but it went in one ear and out the other. All we had was this street address, but it was not going to be a reconnection with a loved one or anyone she knew.

I asked where they had come from that day. A detention facility. They “slept” on the concrete floor and were given no blankets or anything else. People were even trying to sleep in the bathrooms. “Would they move out of the way for you when you needed to go?” I asked. “No, there was no room and the guards would lock the bathroom door behind us,” the mom replied.

At this the girls started to giggle and shared that the boy, who was snoring in the backseat, had been locked in after using the bathroom the night before and had to bang on the door screaming for someone to let him out. His sisters found that funny. It was a gift to hear them laugh.

Trust in Others

Reaching the exit off the highway, the phone led us onto darker and darker roads, eventually taking us onto, what felt like, a dirt road. We saw no lights or buildings, and I began to sense the tension of this mother again, the precarious situation she was in with this perfect stranger.

As we drove on with the high beams and saw tall grass and bushes on either side, I said that wherever we were going, I would not leave them anywhere they did not feel comfortable.

The driveway, when we finally found it, led us to a small parking lot with some gently lit cabins dotted around the property. There were no signs we could see, so I suggested that the children stay in the car while their mother and I tried to assess the situation.

We were walking toward a cabin labeled “office” when we heard a voice say, “Hello,” from a shadowed sidewalk. I introduced us in Spanish, but the woman’s voice responded that she did not know Spanish. A tall white older woman came into the light.

I introduced myself and the woman again in English, explaining that we were given this address and asking where we were.

The woman said she was a Sister of Divine Providence. I am sure my relief upon hearing this was visible. I quickly shared our connection and that I, too, worked for the Catholic Church. Any anxiety about this place left me, but that meant little compared to how this mother must have been feeling, still confused by all that was happening and largely helpless.

The sister walked to the mother, putting her arm around her shoulder, saying to me in English, “We’ll take care of them.”

She led us to one of the cabins, and upon opening the door, light flooded out. We saw another older nun who, after hearing that this family was here and needed rest, responded simply, “We’ll take care of them.”

Moving out to the car for the children, the daughter with Down syndrome immediately walked to hug the first sister we had met. A connection had been made.

I asked the mother if she felt comfortable being left at these cabins as she figured out what to do and where to go in this new phase of her family’s life. She looked at me and said with a tremulous confidence, “Yes, I think we are.”

I thanked the sisters and said goodbye, feeling that I had just been a part of something profound, something grace-filled. I drove back to Brownsville not knowing what to do what all that had just happened.

Finding Grace

Since that night, I learned that the Sisters of Divine Providence have run La Posada Providencia there in San Benito for 30 years. The name of their ministry, “La Posada,” refers directly to giving room to the Holy Family, to Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to bring Christ into the world.

The three sisters who work at the shelter, along with all the volunteers, welcome the stranger with love and acceptance. Since that night, I was able to speak with Sister Zita there, who shared that Cynthia was the name of the mother whom I had driven. She also shared that after spending a few days in La Posada to get their bearings, Cynthia and her family were sent “on their way.” They were taken care of just as we are each called to care for our neighbor.

Nov. 20 will be a holy day for me now. Cynthia’s family was granted asylum that day, granted Posada that day. Divine Providence was certainly at play that day.

Grace to me is someone or something that connects us to God. Cynthia, her four little ones, and those amazing sisters will forever be grace to me. Cynthia and her family are “on their way,” and I pray that they find joy and welcome wherever their road leads.

For more information about La Posada Providencia, visit https://cdpsisters.org/la-posada-providencia.

For more information on the Center for FaithJustice, visit http://www.faithjustice.org.