Dawn’s early light in El Paso, July 4, 2019: At Annunciation House, a 43-year old all-volunteer group that offers welcome and hospitality to those most in need, some of America’s great goodness shines out like Emma Lazarus’s lifted lamp. I’ve joined the volunteers here for a couple of weeks.
We are welcoming guests from Brazil, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico—and one family from Russia!—who arrive daily, allowed legal entry as they begin an arduous process of seeking asylum. What I see: People so confident in the promise of safety and the blessings of liberty they risk literally everything for a slim chance to make their lives among us.
What I also see: Fundamental generosity everywhere. Generosity sounds lofty in Emma Lazarus’s heart-lifting language: “Give me your tired, your poor ... Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Here on the border that generosity—your generosity—is as tangible as a toothbrush and a clean towel.
Open-hearted people of the United States have donated good food, clean clothes, diapers, water, deodorant, shampoo, toothbrushes, soap and more for people who come to us with little more than hope. You give money to The Red Cross, and here are your folding cots and blankets, in daily use.
Generosity here takes the shape of hard labor. Salvation Army volunteers who are my age or older (let’s guess 70+) lug good, cooked food from refrigerated trucks to the kitchen three times a day. The Baptist “Yellow Caps” serve food with smiles and hugs. Young people with big hearts and big visions for our country volunteer for a year or a summer, willingly facing a vortex of need every day as they sort through the crucial details of each family’s situation. Returned Peace Corps volunteers package food for families’ 52-hour bus trips, clean mobile showers, mop vast floors, empty huge trash cans.
Most of all, Catholics. Catholic lay people, parish leaders, nuns and pastors come from Indiana, Seattle, North Carolina, Ohio and more to volunteer for long and short stints. El Paso Catholics come daily to do whatever is needed. They fold clothes, sort donations, package baby formula, drive guests to the bus station or airport. Generosity may never be all one-sided, uni-directional. It certainly is not here.
The newly arrived guests bring their generous natures with them, in spite of all that they have experienced. They pitch in with the work. They help each other with information and encouragement. They are inclined to share.
One small example: I have had many jobs during my time here. The “Hygiene Room” is a favorite. This is the place families come to get the new, fresh toiletries they need for taking their long-awaited showers. It’s the source of baby essentials: milk, formula, diapers, ointments, wipes. It’s also one place where guests are invited to choose shoe laces to replace the ones that are taken from them when they first cross the border.
Each time I work in the Hygiene Room, this happens: A family comes in, and we fill small bags with tiny tubes of tooth paste, small containers of shampoo, a little bar of soap, petite deodorant bottles and other necessities. Then I point to a large box of new shoe laces and urge each person to select a new pair. Someone in the family then tries to convince me that one pair will be enough for all. They seem concerned about taking too much, about not leaving enough for others.
This confused me at first. Now I see it as a sign of the dignity and grace so many of our exhausted guests sustain. They want to be sure they leave enough for those coming after them. They don’t want to need too much. In the day or two our guests spend at Annunciation House before leaving for their sponsors’ homes all across the country, they give back to those of us who volunteer. Their hope gives us hope for their future among us. Their determination makes us more determined to work to make this country worthy of their faith and trust.
I did not know what to expect when I came here. I certainly did not expect that I would face a mother whose teen-aged son was murdered by a gang last year, and whose husband then died, unable to recover from grief. This mother had the courage and fortitude to try to save the life of her remaining son, age 7, by coming to the United States. I did not expect to look at these precious people and think, “You would be so welcome in my neighborhood. You have so much to offer to today’s America.”
Rona Roberts is a researcher, writer and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who volunteered recently at Annunciation House, an asylum shelter in El Paso, Texas.