Welcome of the heart: Sisters build bonds in collaborative effort to assist immigrants

Sr. Sharon Altendorf, left, says goodbye to Jader Reyes of Nicaragua, after she gave him food and mapped his travel itinerary on June 14. Altendorf is part of a coordinated effort by the Interfaith Welcome Coalition to help immigrants released from Border Patrol facilities or detention centers find their way to their final destination. "To me it clicks — with all these different pieces saying, 'No, we are church; we are the people of God and we recognize our ministry,' " Altendorf said. (Nuri Vallbona)

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series on sisters helping migrants who are crossing Central and North American borders in pursuit of a better life in a new country.

Sr. Pat Connolly threads her way past dozens of families lining the third-floor halls of San Antonio's Travis Park Church. In former Sunday school classrooms filled with blue and green cots, some 270 immigrants from Central America, Haiti and the Congo will take shelter tonight, a stopover on their way to what they hope is a new life in other parts of the country. As Connolly passes, they tug at her arm and pepper her with questions.

A woman holds up a leaking baby bottle and asks if there is another. Around the corner, two young Haitian girls point to their bare feet. Are there flip flops available, one asks? Moments later a young girl says she is hungry.

"Lo siento," sister says shaking her head. There is no food in the overnight shelter. "I'm sorry."

On this June evening, Connolly and Sr. J.T. Dwyer, both Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, join volunteers helping border crossers after they are released from Texas Border Patrol stations and detention centers. They are among some 1,000 Catholic sisters in border states who have been ministering to immigrants seeking safety in the U.S. since the surge began last fall, according to Leadership Conference of Women Religious estimates.

Sr. Jean Durel helps Cyrilo Garcia, left, his son, Kelvin Naum, 3, and Juan Jose Nuñez pinpoint their departure time June 18, at the San Antonio Greyhound station. (Nuri Vallbona)

Some help at temporary shelters, offer travel assistance or even send shoelaces to replace those confiscated by border agents. Others pray, donate funds or join protesters, such as Sr. Jean Durel, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who was arrested for lying down on the U.S. Capitol floor on July 18.

Volunteering as part of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition's mission to assist migrants, the San Antonio sisters avoid talking about themselves. They prefer to focus on the collaborative efforts of various groups who came together when immigrants, primarily families, overwhelmed the city in March. Yet it is the sisters' ability to build relationships with those they serve and those in authority that has made a lasting impression on coalition leaders.

"I believe Jesus is present in this people, especially those who suffer and so for me … that's my adoration," Connolly said.

About 20 sisters from 16 congregations in the archdiocese are helping in the San Antonio effort, Sr. Denise LaRock, a Daughter of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, estimates. That doesn't include those across the country, such as Janet Dohr, a Sister of the Most Precious Blood, who sends shoelaces from O'Fallon, Missouri, or other congregations that send money.

At the heart of this effort is the faith that the sisters say inspires them.

"The Scripture about 'welcome the stranger,' … it's without a doubt our ongoing driving force," Connolly said.

But they consider their calling much more than greeting immigrants. Advocacy is an important part and how they do that inspires others.

"I feel like, that sometimes when I'm with them, that God's grace incarnate is with me," said coalition co-chair Lenna Baxter. "I've truly learned from these women so much."

One key lesson: how to ask for help from those in power. When the coalition started in 2014, its relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials was at times contentious.

"We did not like ICE at all," Baxter said. But that changed as she watched the sisters at work.

Interfaith Welcome Coalition volunteers, Janis Olsen, second from left, and Sr. Denise LaRock, entertain Paul Tamacho (center), 2, of Venezuela; along with Gustavo Hernandez (left), 2, of Guatemala; and his brother, Jose Hernanez (right), 8, June 14 at the Greyhound bus station in San Antonio. (Nuri Vallbona)

When various groups went to the Texas Capitol to protest a potential senate bill in 2017, Baxter said a woman snuck in a sign and was grabbed by two Capitol police.

"I was just so angry and I was just yelling at them, 'Just 'let this girl alone!' " Baxter said.

However, she noticed that Dwyer, LaRock and Sharon Altendorf, a Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sister, remained quietly in their seats while the woman was escorted out.

"This is the model that I need to follow; this is the way I need to go," Baxter said. "They don't get up and yell … (yet) people in power listen to them."

Noting this, Baxter and others in her organization changed their approach with positive results.

"Instead of having an adversarial relationship with ICE, we have a cooperative relationship," Baxter said. "We don't agree with everything they do, but we treat them with respect."

As a result, ICE officials became more receptive when the sisters or volunteers asked for help.

Two years ago, LaRock forged a connection with Deborah Achim, ICE deputy field office director. On a particularly cold day, LaRock noticed that women arriving from the detention center in Karnes City, Texas, had no jackets. Achim asked her to send a picture, LaRock said, and within a day or two, women came to the station wearing jackets.

Sr. Jean Durel answers questions from Ana Guzman of El Salvador and her daughter, Gloria Piñelba, 5, as they wait to catch their bus at the Greyhound station on June 18. (Nuri Vallbona)

The bulk of the sisters' work is at the Greyhound station where the coalition began assisting migrants during the immigration spike of 2014, later adding those arriving at the airport. Until March 2019, coalition volunteers were able to handle the influx. However, when 200 to 300 a day started arriving, the city was called.

"I was at the point of leaving at the end of the day and the place was full," Durel said. "It was just packed."

As Durel left, she said to herself, "Oh my God what is going to happen?" Two days later, the city opened a resource center across the street where immigrants could wait for buses away from the crowded station.

"If the city had not done that, people would obviously be on the streets," Durel said.

"We've had these partners who have been doing this great work and it wasn't until there was a large surge that we really even needed to step in and help," said Melody Woosley, director of the city's Department of Human Services, which provides staffing, medical services and travel planning assistance, and partially funds meals from the food bank.

From left to right: Ana Hernandez, 7, of Guatemala, waits for her bus with her sister, Maria Magdalena Cuc,15, and her mother, Argelia Ixim Cuc, after they were helped by sisters at the bus station on June 14. (Nuri Vallbona)

The number of migrants coming to San Antonio is unknown, but this year, the coalition passed out more than 17,000 backpacks for each household (two if it's a large family), compared with 21,687 for all of 2018. That spike mirrors U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics that show 390,308 family members were apprehended at the southwest border for the 12 months ending in June 2019, compared with 68,541 in 2018 for the same period in 2018.

Most backpacks are given out at the bus station where Altendorf scans the faces of watchful parents trying to keep their children in sight.

"Listos para el viaje?" she asks a family. "Are you ready for the trip?

Family members nod and she moves on to a young man who doesn't have a map that volunteers hand out. Altendorf asks where he is going.

"Nueva York," he says.

"Ah, muy lejos," she says. "That's very far."

Altendorf explains his itinerary, pointing out where Jader Reyes of Nicaragua will change buses along the 1,826-mile trip to New York. He will arrive at 4:05 a.m, two days later. She asks how well he knows the person meeting him at the station — questions she has been trained to ask to protect immigrants from human trafficking and exploitation. Reyes answers yes; it's a trusted friend.

Describing the political violence shaking his country, Reyes said peaceful protesters are often jailed and tortured. "We are facing persecution because the government is communist," he said. "They came to put me in prison. I fled because I know what they do in jails."

Sr. Jean Durel offers a backpack to Cyrilo Garcia of El Salvador in hopes it will console his son, Kelvin Naum, 3, at the San Antonio Greyhound station on June 18. This year volunteers have handed out more than 17,000 backpacks containing a snack, blanket, water and sometimes a stuffed animal. (Nuri Vallbona)

After he gets to New York, Reyes said he hopes to one day reunite with the family he left behind — his wife, son and a newborn daughter he has yet to meet. "We come here with no money; we don't know anything; it's a big help," he said of Altendorf's assistance.

Altendorf repeats this process over and over, later joined by LaRock, who picks up an energetic 2-year-old named Gustavo to give his mother a break. Laughing, she carries him through the terminal with Altendorf at her side. At one point she hands him a broom and follows him with a dustpan while he cleans the floor.

"I love playing with kids, too," LaRock said. "It keeps me and them entertained while they wait for their buses."

Sr. Denise LaRock gives directions to Gustavo Hernandez, 2, of Guatemala, as they sweep up the waiting area of the bus station. (Nuri Vallbona)

As the mission grows, the sisters from different orders draw closer. Though they see each other at jubilees, funerals and other events, LaRock said "there's a deeper connection" that comes from this shared effort.

They've developed a camaraderie that inspires each other. Seeing Dwyer walk into Travis Park Church for the overnight shift is "incredibly impressive and energizing," Durel said.

"We are one heart," Connolly said. "The people who are not used to being around sisters, they're absolutely amazed at how we support each other; how we appreciate each other and how we care about each other."

But again, the sisters don't want to talk about themselves, shifting the focus to the community effort that exemplifies San Antonio's "Compassionate City" designation.

Immigrants, mostly families, walk to San Antonio's Travis Park Church on June 29, where they will spend the night while waiting for transportation to other parts of the United States. (Nuri Vallbona)

More than 800 employees, many who volunteer, have staffed the resource center, city official Woosley said. Travis Park Church opened its doors for those needing overnight shelter, while the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, offers legal aid. Even Greyhound employees pitch in. Connie Obregon, who cleans the terminal daily, reserves a section so the migrants can sit together.

"We're just all working together," Altendorf said. "That's why we get so much hope … because there's so much good, so many people wanting to work with us, so many people willing to do whatever they can, not just the sisters."

Since most migrants now come directly from the overcrowded Border Patrol facilities, they arrive without tickets. Previously, many went to detention centers before being released with bus or airplane tickets in hand, LaRock said.

If anyone lacks money for bus tickets, Catholic Charities absorbs the costs. This year it spent $327,000 on tickets, resource center staffing and hotel rooms for those too sick to travel, CEO and President Antonio Fernandez said.

An emailed statement from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official said the change was "due to capacity limitations at many U.S. Border Patrol stations" and the "limited capacity of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to accept transfer of family units" that the agency began releasing "non-criminal, processed family units" on March 19.

Sr. Pat Connolly greets guests arriving at the church where they will spend the night before they continue to the interior of the United States the next day. (Nuri Vallbona)

The sisters admitted that they often felt overwhelmed at not being able to meet every need and had to accept their limitations. "I just have to leave space for God to work and let God use other people to make it happen," LaRock said, "because if I run myself into the ground, I mean, I'm not gonna be of any use. I'll just be tired and grumpy and that's not very welcoming."

Despite the difficulties, advocates such as Tania Guerrero, the liaison for the Dilley Pro Bono Project that provides legal representation for detainees through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. emphasized releasing immigrants directly from the border is preferable to locking them up in detention centers.

Along with the welcome comes the goodbye, which can be difficult because the sisters rarely hear back from those they serve.

 "It's not about us getting the warm fuzzies and keeping in touch and feeling like, 'Oh aren't we doing such good things,' " LaRock said. "But…it's really about getting humanitarian care and helping them (immigrants) get to the next place and to move on with life in a respectful way that gives them dignity."

Melky Goerge of Haiti, reads from the book of Matthew in the Bible, while his son, Charlot, 2, sleeps at Travis Park Church on June 29. More and more Haitians are coming to the U.S. by traveling to South America first and then crossing at the southern border. (Nuri Vallbona)

As she ended her shift at the church, Connolly entered each room where immigrants were sprawled on cots.

"Dios te bendiga. ... Dios esta contigo, todo el dia y en el viaje," she said with one hand on the light switch. "God bless you. God is with you all day and throughout your journey."

The room got quiet. The sister said she usually gets an "Amen," but tonight, words were few. Many in the room just smiled and nodded as she turned out the lights.

[Nuri Vallbona is a freelance documentary photojournalist. She worked for the Miami Herald from 1993 to 2008 and has been a lecturer at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University.]

Check out the latest coverage from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious 2019.