Woman religious urges college students to help at border

Sr. Mary McCabe is not one to say: "Been there, done that."

The Sister of Notre Dame de Namur has spent most of the past 40 years helping women in rural farming communities in northern Brazil. And in the past year and a half since she has been back in the U.S., she has been teaching English classes in Baltimore.

Oh, and for two weeks she volunteered at a family immigrant detention center in Dilley, Texas.

That experience — 12-hour days of listening and interpreting stories of women fleeing Central America — is what she came to talk to students of Trinity Washington University about Oct. 26. She said the women at this center primarily spoke of fleeing gang violence and the fears they had for their children.

Standing behind a podium addressing students at the women's college founded by her order, Sister Mary seemed like she would be much more comfortable just sitting with some of the students, or better yet, working with them.

In fact, she would more than welcome them to join her in ministry, particularly with immigrants.

She acknowledged that some of them may know what she was talking about even more firsthand from family accounts since a handful were "Dreamer" students, who came to the United States as children when their parents immigrated here without documentation and who are currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Sister Mary said during one of her volunteer visits to Dilley, she was joined by 11 other sisters from her order and the "majority of them were all senior citizens like me. We were the gray heads on the horizon!"

"We have passion and energy, but we're getting older!" she told the students, pleading with them to join the sisters' efforts with even the small step of submitting public comment (that she had forms for) with the Department of Homeland Security against the indefinite detention of immigrant children.

Other steps she advised: voting, absolutely, and volunteering at the border or pursuing a career in immigration law.

Sister Mary had limited time with the students, so instead of going into detail about some things, she simply told them to "Google it" — as in Google the history of U.S. intervention in Central America to find out more about the roots of violence and gangs in that region, in her words, or look up groups such as the Border Angels, who provide water to migrants crossing the desert.

"There's a lot of material on the internet about what's going on," she said.

And there are a lot of people helping out too, she has found out. When she went to the detention center in Dilley, another site she urged students to look up, she was part of a pro bono volunteer project coordinated by Catholic Legal Immigration Network and other immigrant advocacy groups.

The first time she went, last year, there were just a few volunteers, but more recently, she said there were hundreds of volunteers and the program is booked through next April.

To her, that response means there is "goodness and hope still alive in us."

"There are good things happening and good people," she added, saying: "We have to believe in that, otherwise …" She didn't fill in the rest of the sentence but just took a deep breath and raised her arms in frustration.

During her presentation, she had students read from the personal accounts transcribed during her time at the detention center with details of how these women were cold, bug-bitten, separated from their children by chain-link fences and longing to be with their families and to be safe.

Sisters Mary said the women could tell their stories better than she could.

Her parting words to the students were: "Let's get back to the Gospel, get Jesus' message back on track. A lot of it got lost."

And right after she finished speaking, the urgency of the current border crisis was driven home by a news alert about the U.S. sending troops to the Mexican-U.S. border to support the Border Patrol in anticipation of the arrival of a migrant caravan.

Sister Mary Johnson, another Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, and a sociology and religious studies professor at Trinity, read the AP alert from her phone to the campus group and stressed that more than ever, "we need to keep learning, reading and be ready to do something" to help those coming to our border.

Read the latest from The Life: Do you think sisters should be politically active?