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IHM Sisters Serve at the Border

Experiences from our Southern Border

When the four of us—Sisters Kieran Williams, Donna Korba, Mary Ellen Higgins and Mary Elaine Anderson—answered Leadership’s invitation to volunteer at the border in El Paso, Texas, none of us knew for certain what the ministry might entail or whether we would be up to doing what might be asked of us. We only knew that God was tugging at our hearts and, like Mary in the Annunciation story, the only response that we could give was “yes.” Any fears or anxiety that we might have had about spending a week on the US southern border were lightened when promises of prayer and support began to pour in from the IHM family. It soon became evident that our “yes” was meant to be more than a personal response. We realized that we were being sent by all IHM sisters, associates and friends to bear witness to our communal commitment to stand “in the midst of the pain of our world and join with others in seeing and being the light that shines through the cracks of broken hearts” (Chapter 2018 Direction Statement). Knowing that we did not go alone but rather in the name of the IHM family became a source of strength and hope in the difficult moments that we encountered. We are grateful to Leadership for extending the invitation to volunteer and to our IHM family, especially our sisters at Our Lady of Peace Residence and the IHM Center, for their prayerful support of and their generous donations for the ministry to our immigrant sisters and brothers at the border.

In the near future, we look forward to speaking in person to all of you about our experience at the border. For now, we would like to share with you our individual reflections of our time in El Paso, Texas.

Sister Mary Elaine Anderson, IHM:

We arrived at Casa Nazareth, one of the fifteen hospitality centers set up under the umbrella of Annunciation House, early on Friday afternoon, December 14. After settling into the residence for volunteers, which is on the grounds of the Sisters of Loretto motherhouse, we walked across the alley to introduce ourselves to the shift coordinator and other volunteers at Casa Nazareth. Upon entering the center, we were asked if we were available to help serve the evening meal as there were not enough volunteers to meet the immediate needs. In keeping with our IHM spirit, we joyfully responded “yes.” We were eager to meet the “guests” and to interact with them right from the start.   

On Saturday morning, Ruben Garcia, who has worked at Annunciation House for forty-one years and is the current director, gave an orientation to all the volunteers. Ruben mentioned that throughout the years Annunciation House has received and helped many asylum seekers who have crossed the border. He also explained that in the past there have been three major surges of people crossing the border and that currently El Paso is experiencing the fourth and the largest surge in history. About 2200 people have been crossing the border each week since the beginning of October. The week we arrived about 2500-3000 were expected to make their way to El Paso. 

The asylum seekers who arrived at Casa Nazareth and the other hospitality centers were released that day by ICE from holding cells where they had been detained in subhuman conditions for several days or more. Most were hungry and exhausted; many were sick with fever and colds. It was heartbreaking to hear their stories and humbling to witness how grateful they were for the kindnesses shown to them at Casa Nazareth. As volunteers, we were asked to help move people along as quickly as possible, so that they could be united with their families and friends in the United States. The goal was to be welcoming to current guests but also work to free up beds, so that more people could be released from the crowded holding cells to Annunciation’s hospitality centers and not to the streets of El Paso.

For seven days, I heard the joyful voices and watched the hopeful faces of men and women as they made contact with family and friends in the United States who were willing to sponsor them. However, knowing the extremely low percentage of asylum cases actually granted (only 3% in El Paso and slightly higher percentages in other parts of the country), I could not help but wonder how many of them might arrive at their destination only to be denied asylum at their deportation hearing. During the first several days at Casa Nazareth, I asked myself how it was possible to keep a hopeful spirit in the face of such dismal percentages. But then one day as I rolled the food cart into the dining room, I passed a man and three young boys kneeling before a large crucifix. I was struck by their intense faith in God’s unconditional and providential love for them. It was obvious that, even in the face of great obstacles to their freedom and dangers to their life, they had not given up hope! Who was I then to doubt God’s greatness and capacity to make the impossible happen?     

Sister Donna Korba, IHM

I am forever grateful for the experience at the border in El Paso, Texas. Each moment was graced by the people we met on the journey: the women religious from various congregations with whom we ministered during the week, the countless volunteers who cooked and served meals, the people who offered precious time as they drove and accompanied the immigrants to bus stations and airports, and of course those who journeyed many miles across various countries to flee violence, poverty, and hunger in their native countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and others. Although my heart was touched by all who journeyed to this border town, it was the Guatemalans who once again stole my heart. I suspect that meeting someone who was familiar with their customs, traditions, and in some cases, language, gave them some sense of connection as well. I could see it in their eyes and in their smiles, and later as they were leaving, in their embraces.

A symbolic moment of our time in El Paso was for me the realization that all of our journeys are somehow connected. I brought a pair of running shoes with me. Each morning I would get up around 4:00am and head out the door for morning exercise, contemplation, and reflection on the previous day’s events.  On our last day at the shelter it dawned on me that my running shoes were in better shape than most of the other donated shoes in the clothes closet. So I washed them, added them to the pile of donated shoes, and gave a symbolic blessing to my faithful running companions and a prayer to whomever would chose them on the next part of their journey.

That afternoon, Sister Kieran asked a father and son to help mop the kitchen floor. Much to my surprise, there was a handsome young Guatemalan man wearing my running shoes! I asked his name. It is Darío. He is from Alta Vera Paz, Guatemala. At that moment I felt a special bond with Darío. Somehow his journey is connected to mine. The journeys of all of those who cross our borders are connected to ours. We are but companions on this earthly journey, called to walk in each other’s shoes, to be welcome, to be light, to be sister and brother to one another.

Sister Kieran Williams, IHM                                              

“Demos Gracias al Senor, demos Gracias.  Demos Gracias al Senor.”

48 hours before our IHM sisters were leaving for the borders at El Paso, Texas, there was an opening for someone to join them.  I thought, I would love to go but, it’s the third week of Advent and final preparations for Christmas.  There is no way.  Before too long, I realized that my responsibilities in ministry were well on their way with wonderful people in place to take the lead.  I’m so grateful for the tremendous love, prayers and support of family, community and ministry for blessing me as a companion on this journey with Mary Ellen, Donna, and Mary Elaine.  One thing for sure, Advent and Christmas was about to take on new meaning for me.   

Shortly after we arrived, we went to the school to meet Sr. Buffy, our contact person who is the president of the Loretto Nazareth School.  After a brief orientation, I asked if I could borrow instruments to use with the children and families during our stay here.   Immediately, I was given a guitar and many wonderful percussion instruments.  What a blessing!

Every day before and after meals, we sang familiar songs and made a “joyful noise unto the Lord.”  With the little children, we sang bilingually Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, the Alphabet and Nursery Rhymes. Demos Gracias Al Senor and Santa Maria Del Camino were our favorite hymns that reflected joy and gratitude for the beautiful hospitality and many blessings received at Annunciation House.      

Throughout the day, you would meet so many volunteers happily  taking sheets and blankets to be laundered, people in the kitchen preparing the next meal, volunteers making important phone calls to families, the drivers and people checking rooms for the new guests arriving between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Care packages with burritos, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, water, snacks, diapers for the young babies and toys for the children for the long journey ahead, were carefully prepared and placed in the office for each family’s departure. The providence of God was so evident.  As soon as the shelves were empty in the kitchen or snacks for the care packages were gone, a new donation would arrive.

The volunteers giving out personal hygiene supplies for showers, clean underwear and clothes were so respectful. I can still see this little boy after his shower.  He was so excited to have clean clothes and new shoes on.  It didn’t bother him that the pants were 2 sizes too big. He just kept smiling, pulling the pants up and skipping around the room.

Praying with the refugees was profound and so difficult.  Hearing their stories and those of Ruben Garcia, the director of the program, really tugged at my heart.  What can we do to challenge the system in place? Children and youth are still being separated from their families and dying. People are being placed in holding cells for up to two weeks, where the conditions are so tight that they are not able to move or stretch as well as take care of their human bodily needs.

When Ruben Garcia concluded his orientation, he said to us, “Tell the stories in your churches, communities…”  “The migration of people is a global problem. They are our people.”   

This has been a humbling journey for me this Advent and Christmas, but nothing like the Mary, Joseph and Jesus or these beautiful people looking for a better place to live and raise their children. Let us sing and pray together:  

"Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. They are yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  C. H. Woolston

May God bless us with the grace to take action and make a difference for all the children and families everywhere.

Sister Mary Ellen Higgins, IHM

There were many moments in El Paso that caused me to pause and try not to let my mind go too deeply into what was actually occurring around me.  I knew I needed to keep it together emotionally to be able to assist these people on their journeys.  However, their stories still get caught in my throat when I try to retell them.

One woman, who especially captured my soul was Maria Luz.  She had two small children and a two-month old little girl.  She came into the office as I was making phone calls to obtain drivers for families to get to the airport or one of the bus stations to travel to be reunited with their families.  I heard Maria Luz sharing her story with another volunteer and I stopped to listen more intently to these unbelievable details that she was sharing.

Maria Luz had traveled from Guatemala with her three children and her twelve year-old sister.  Although Maria Luz and her three children came to Casa Nazareth, where we were working, her younger sister was detained as an "unaccompanied minor" because she was not with one of her parents.  Maria Luz was distraught.  The sadness in her eyes was so very deep it was painful to look into her eyes.  She explained that she could not sleep at night worrying about her little sister.  We called the detention center only to be told that her sister was sent to a shelter but they did not know which one.

Maria Luz's face was stoic and so sad.  I just laid my hand on her shoulder and prayed for strength for her and Maria Luz melted into tears.  She needed to cry.  She had been bearing so much and trying to be strong for her children. 

On her last day with us she was leaving with her three children by bus for Florida to join family members.  She was assured by ICE that she would be reunited with her sister once she arrived at her final destination with family members.  Maria Luz was at peace with this news and ready to leave when I said good-bye to her that Thursday afternoon.  This family had a three-day bus ride ahead of them. Since then, I have tried to verify if she was reunited with her younger sister but to date I have no news.

We return from the border and invite us all to continue to find ways to live the goals we set for ourselves in July and ask for the graces that we each need to live fully “in the midst of the pain of our world and join with others in seeing and being the light that shines through the cracks of broken hearts” (Chapter 2018 Direction Statement).


In each of these reflections from El Paso, we hear echoes of the First Christmas story.  A young family traveling to Bethlehem to pay taxes 2,000 years ago seems somehow to speak of these young families in 2018 trying to find a way to raise their families in a place where they hope to find work and a future.  Is there room for them in the Inn of our hearts, minds, and country?  Can the soul of our country meet the Gospel invitation that is calling to us as we enter into this New Year of 2019?

The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the three kings brought to the manger, seem to be replaced in these stories with gifts of running shoes, the faith of a father and son kneeling in prayer, the healing sounds of music and song, and the gift of human touch for those families who crossed our paths in El Paso, Texas.