Every year for the past decade the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have sent a team of adults to Texas as a part of our attempt to better relate to the national and global church, to build community in our own body, and to offer some assistance to those who have been struck by disaster. This week I will attempt to tell some part of our story as we seek to make our world smaller and our lives bigger through service and learning.
Although we’ve been coming to Texas for ten years, the seer marks the first time that we’ve flown directly to the Rio Grande Valley. That means it’s also the first time that we didn’t have to drive north five or six hours in order to catch our flight, which means that it’s the first time that we were able to put in a full day’s worth of work on Friday. It was good, in many ways, to do this.
In terms of construction, it meant that we could not only finish the painting and roofing we’d started, but we could add in a few extra touches to improve the home in small ways.
For some of us, the extra day meant that we could go and spend several hours volunteering at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities. Here, members of our group served in whatever capacity we were needed; some emptied garbage cans and mopped floors while others assisted in the distribution of clothing and, believe it or not, shoelaces (which are confiscated by ICE at the detention centers where potential asylum seekers are held). Once a person or family has been received by/apprehended by the Border Patrol, taken to a detention center, processed, and given a hearing date… they are bussed to the Respite Center where they receive a small kit of toiletries (such as we brought down), a change of clothes, and if there’s time, a hot meal, a shower, and maybe a nap. They are then given a bus ticket to the place in the USA where they’ve got relatives/friends/sponsors and off they go. It’s a whirlwind.
The thing about the refugee center that got me was this: there is a specific station where a volunteer stands with a jar of vaseline and a pile of Q-Tips. Weary travelers present themselves in front of the desk, and each receives a swab of vaseline on their dry, parched lips. How tragic, how compelling, how HUMAN is it to have lips that are cracked and burnt because of the sun’s dehydrating powers… and how pathetic to have that be a chronic issue. The folks who visited this center did not use this word in reporting on their adventure, but as person after person described the experience, I heard compassion.
Compassion is an English word that combines two Latin roots: pati, or “suffer”, and cum, or “with”. Learning compassion is the art of learning how to dwell with someone else in their suffering. That’s what these trips are about.
Frederick Buechner defines compassion thusly: “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
While some were at the shelter, others had the privilege of walking Carmen and Felipe, our homeowners, into their “new” rooms. Carmen had been so excited to choose the color for he rooms, and it was the flip side of compassion – the joy – of sharing with her in the renewal and restoration of parts of that home.
I wish you’d have been there. And, in a very important way, you were. Or are. Thanks be to God!