I’m helping Sr. Mary Beth, another volunteer at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, clean the rooms our guests have vacated. Guests, as in the immigrant families who have passed through our doors, staying for one night, maybe two, before heading to relatives elsewhere in the states.
As I heave the wet mop across the linoleum, I feel some resistance. Cleaning bathrooms is not my favorite way to be of service. So, why am I doing this? Why am I cleaning up after these strangers? People I will never see again. People who might not even be grateful for what I’m doing. And, some might be quick to add, haven’t played by the rules.
I remember the angry faces in the news last summer protesting all the families and kids streaming over the border. And, more recently, the disheartening comments I read online with messages like, “Send them back!” How appalled they’d be if they knew what I was doing here. “Why?!!” they’d surely ask.
I ask myself that question, too, as I carry a trash bag of shitty-smelling diapers out to the dumpster.
But then ICE calls, promising 20 new guests this afternoon. And I’m too busy to think about my answer.
The government van pulls up around lunch time and deposits some families at our door. A father with his little girl, wisps of her pigtails loosening from their crooked elastics. A couple carrying a baby and shepherding in a daughter about 5 years old. Another young couple with three little girls under 6 in tow.
Dirty faces, tangled hair, smelly clothes. All of them.
After doing the intake and settling the families into their rooms, I ask the mom with the three little girls, “Necesita ropa limpia?” Do you need clean clothes?
An obvious question, but the mother hesitates, then nods apprehensively. We search the clothing room for shoes and warm sweaters, tops and pants. Plenty of selections for the adults, but it’s slim pickings for the girls.
Next I help the father with his little girl. She’s wearing lavender crocks with no socks. Her feet are darker than the rest of her. She needs socks and a pair of pants. They’re headed to Delaware. But I can’t find any girl’s jeans. Or any pants at all to fit her. Her little legs are bare beneath her skirt and I think of the long, cold bus ride ahead and the freezing temps up north. I suddenly have this urge to run out and buy several pairs of girls’ size 5-6 jeans, but I can’t leave the center at the moment.
We’re out of girls’ jackets and sweaters, too. There’s not much I can offer in the way of clothing. But there is something I can offer. Something fun.
We’ve got these precious gift bags that were prepared and donated to the center by schoolchildren last summer. The kids made tons of them, and we still have some in storage. Simple Ziploc bags, they’re loaded with crayons, a pair of socks, a soft huggable toy or doll, a few quarters, blank notepad with colored pencils, and a handwritten note saying “welcome, friend, to my country.”
I go to the storage room to grab a few bags for the pantless, sweaterless girls. But I’m in for a surprise.
The bags are stored in their original mailing box, so, out of curiosity I check out the return address. Brewster, Massachusetts! So the bags weren’t prepared by local schoolchildren after all, as I had thought. They actually come from the children of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church.
This warms my heart — not only because Massachusetts is my native state — but because it’s so far away from the border! The children of Brewster remind me it’s not only the people in El Paso who care about these migrant families.
And they also remind me of why I care. It’s not about what anybody else thinks of what I’m doing. And I’m not doing it for the thanks. I’m doing it because they are human beings. And they matter. They matter to me.
When I hand two of these gift bags to the sweet little sisters from Guatemala, they squeal their thank you’s. I give their younger sister’s bag to the mother. Mom looks it over and points to the children’s hand-printed message alongside their picture.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s a gift from these children.”
A gift to all of us.
To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself…No work is enough to satisfy the human soul. Only the satisfaction of having touched another life and been touched by one ourselves can possibly suffice. Whatever we do, however noble, however small, must be done for the sake of the other. Otherwise, we ourselves have no claim on the human race.
~ from LISTEN WITH THE HEART by Joan Chittister