Fulfillment

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Sr. Ann reigning in the rowdy crowd

Today was the last day of our service trip to San Juan/McCallan Texas and I am exhausted! It was another blessed morning and another great breakfast. 

A large part of this trip is to allow the members of our group to experience the people of the Rio Grande Valley and today did not disappoint. We gathered together at the Church of Juan Diego. We gathered again with Maryknoll Srs. Ann and Pat, along with members of the church community. We prayed, talked and ate. Each component special in its own way. The prayer was about community and an open heart. The talk was from the heart. The food warmed our hearts. 

 The Four Amigos

The Four Amigos

 Jose introducing himself to the group

Jose introducing himself to the group

We broke up into small groups to talk to each other and learn about each other. The Q&A started pretty much like any other - "What's your name? Are you married? Kids?" - but quickly evolved into deeper questions and thoughtful answers. "How long have you lived here?" is not as simple a question as you may think! The topic for my little group quickly turned to the church and the faith of faith life of the members of the community. Much like I have come to think of the members of our community as 'family' it was evident that the members of San Juan Diego were a family as well. Mario and I spent time with two men who have been members of the parish for 50 years and who have worked to build up the local church. They are doing an amazing job and are very proud of the programs that they are part of. They take their job of passing on their faith traditions seriously but with a joyful heart. We learned that their children are working as educators and in school administration. We learned that they are proud of their Mexican heritage but are also proud to be in America. We learned that the members of this Catholic community want to grow their community.

After our discussion time, we had the opportunity to break bread (or tortillas) as a group - enjoying another bountiful spread of various tacos, salads, and fruits (including delicious avocados) made by many of the ladies who we spent time with. 

After lunch we headed over to view the construction of their new church. We had been hearing about their new church but I was not prepared for what I encountered when I arrived. I was, quite frankly, expecting a church larger than the existing one we met in - but nothing grand. I was mistaken. The new structure is immense. White stucco, tiled floors, a balcony and the most beautiful stained glass. For such a poor community where are they getting the money? With a closer look (and some explanation) it is even more remarkable. Almost all of the furnishings and all of the art were donated. The stained glass windows came mostly from a church that closed in Boston, MA. The pews (and there are hundreds lined and stacked up) are of all vintages, shapes and sizes. The architect has volunteered all his time and manual labor has been provided by the community. 

The church is a marvel - but it is only partially completed. There are issues with water pressure - the pressure that is coming into the building is not sufficient for the automated sprinkler systems. Work is almost at a standstill until a solution can be reached. One solution is to install a water pump that will provide the necessary water pressure. 

The hugs that we all received (and gave) as we said our goodbyes were at the level that I share for close family and friends - and it felt not only good but right. 

Our afternoon was spent at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Respite Center where we now felt knowledgeable enough to jump in and take charge - which was good since they were understaffed today. I realized something as the day went on - even with a short staff and some eager but inexperienced volunteers, each and every person that was cared for felt like they mattered. No just mattered though - that they are loved. The little kids (ranging from a few weeks old and up) played, laughed, had their hair braided, played catch, colored and were, well, they were little kids. Their worries were gone for a little while as our group played with them. The adults had time to shower and eat, shop in the clothes closet and relax for a moment as they prepare for the next phase of their journey. 

The day drew to a close with a wonderful dinner to celebrate our time together as a team. As this trip winds down I will continue to reflect on all I learned and hope to continue to blog about this experience and all that comes from it. But for now, I am fulfilled. 

Peace,

Bob Ferretti

 A view from the rafters.

A view from the rafters.

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Dedication

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 Sr. Norma addresses us at Hidalgo Park, an area split by a border wall.

Sr. Norma addresses us at Hidalgo Park, an area split by a border wall.

Day three of our journey. It truly is a whirlwind adventure. The day starts early with morning mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan. It's a short walk from the hotel to the Basilica and it's the coolest and most beautiful time of the day. Today is the Feast of Saint Lawrence - he of "Turn me over, I'm done on this side" fame and the patron saint of comedians and cooks (look it up if you don't get the reference, it's worth the read).

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After a great breakfast (again Chorizo tacos) and many cups of coffee, we meet up with Sr. Norma Pimentel, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, a Sister of the Missionaries of Jesus and the Mother Teresa of McCallan, TX. We have been hearing about Sr. Norma as we prepared for the trip as well as from everyone we've met here. It's almost hard for me to believe that anyone can live up to the build-up she's received but she certainly does. There is nothing brash or sensational about her, in fact, her demeanor is the epitome of calm. Jen described her this way. “I was impressed by this sense of freedom that Sr. Norma had. She is living exactly as she should live and moves through what she needs to live effortlessly. Whether it's spending time with volunteers, immigrants or on a conference call looking for funding to support her work."

 Mary Beth interviews Sr. Norma on the trolley as we journey to the US/Mexico border.

Mary Beth interviews Sr. Norma on the trolley as we journey to the US/Mexico border.

Our time with Sr. Norma was incredibly informative. She isn't happy with the political climate - but that's true of every administration since 2001. "Some administrations are blatant while others have provided lip-service to the plight of immigrants but none have addressed the root causes." I had a chance to ask her what she would say the root cause is that makes people feel they must uproot themselves and walk hundreds (if not thousands) of miles in search of a better life. "Violence. Gang violence." 

Just three weeks ago Sr. Norma and Catholic Charities of RGV were instrumental in reuniting hundreds of children who were separated from their parents. "All these families who were separated we gave them cell phones - over 500 phones - so we can keep in contact with them and they have someone they can contact...I get calls from them."

 A Border Patrol vehicle travels down the road past the wall. This is approximately one mile from the actual border with Mexico.

A Border Patrol vehicle travels down the road past the wall. This is approximately one mile from the actual border with Mexico.

We visited a section of the existing wall that cuts through Hidalgo Park - a beautiful park that has been around for over a hundred years and whose landscape has been changed (hopefully not forever) by the presence of a foreboding steel wall. About a mile beyond the wall is the actual border with Mexico - the Rio Grande River. Where we visited the river it looks calm and peaceful but Sr. Norma explained that looks are deceiving. The currents below the surface are much faster and cause many fatalities each year. There is a special project that is dedicated to giving name to the men and women who have died while trying to cross the river. 

 Sr. Norma surveys the Rio Grande with Mexico on the far side. 

Sr. Norma surveys the Rio Grande with Mexico on the far side. 

As Sr. Norma speaks to us, it is evident where she gets her strength - her faith is exposed for all to see. Even as we break bread with her at a local taco eatery "Palanque Taco" it is also evident what the impact she has on the community. She is treated with reverence by the people - some because she has worked with them but most because of who she is and what she is doing to raise up all people and help them embrace their dignity.  As Patrick put it "A stranger approached Sr. Norma just to thank her. For a stranger to take the time to approach and thank, hug and cry shows a lot of the magnitude and impact that Sr. Norma has in her community. It shows how much of a mover of mountains she is."

When it is time to part from Sr. Norma so we can spend the rest of the day volunteering at the Respite Center she runs she leaves us feeling blessed. She is also a good sport as most of us take 'selfies' in the fast food eatery. I haven't walked the road with many saints in my life but I can say with confidence that Sr. Norma is doing the work of a saint and is living out the example of Matthew 25: 35-40 for everyone she comes in contact with. 

The work at the Respite Center was as chaotic, stressful and joyful as the prior days but understanding the flow of the day allowed us to serve with purpose and be 'intentional' in our service. 

I'll end with just a few quick stories from our team's experiences at the Respite Center today. Each is a blog post unto itself but I'll keep it very brief.

Mary Beth worked in the 'Clothes Closet' where each individual is provided new undergarments and some donated clothes and shoes. As she put it, "a surprise was working in the clothes closet. The numbers were astounding. I found it important that these young boys and girls and their parents look good and match. It goes back to human dignity - you can’t go around with mismatched clothes!" 

Laurie and Jose commented on the plight of the immigrant. “The people trying to cross are coming from many different countries. They don’t see justice or injustice…they may pass through many countries but when they get to our border they don’t understand," said Laurie. Jose added “These people are fleeing to the 'land of the free'. Think about that."  

Finally, Carmen had a special experience with a young girl and her father. “There was a father with a blind daughter. I didn’t even realize she was blind. It was a special time helping her get ready. I was moved when her father asked me if I would do her hair. She was so happy to have me help her. It was a special moment. As wonderful as it was to be able to help, I had to wonder 'where is the mother?'”

It's been an honor sharing these experiences with you and I hope that I've been able to do justice to the blessed experiences I've had. 

Peace my friends,

Bob

‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous* will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
— Matthew 25: 35-40

Enlightenment

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Jen and Mary Beth listening with open hearts,

Our second day of service was one that I will remember for a long time. I got a great 7 hours of sleep and woke up before my 6AM alarm. The Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan has a 'bilingual' mass at 6:30 am. The readings were in Spanish and the gospel was in English. The homily was to be in both English and Spanish so I was ready! I was so effective at nodding along with his Spanish homily that he assumed I understood what he was saying so he skipped the English version. One of the beauties of the Catholic mass is that, no matter the language, the mass is the mass. It was a beautiful and moving experience just being in the presence of believers and in the Presence of Jesus. 

 Dianne having lunch with some of the ladies of the parish of Our Lady of Guadelupe

Dianne having lunch with some of the ladies of the parish of Our Lady of Guadelupe

I'll try not to obsess about food but it's hard when a) I'm a foodie b) the food is so good c) sharing a meal with friends (old and new) is so special. Breakfast is simple but oh, so good. The Basilica's cafeteria offers ten breakfast taco choices for $1.50 each that rival any breakfast I've eaten. Since we are only here for four mornings I won't get a chance to sample them all - so I may just have to come back!

Our group was to meet Srs. Ann and Pat at the Church of Our Lady of Guadelupe at 9:30 am. Since there was bound to be some traffic we left early and arrived at about 9:10 so we took advantage of the time to explore the grounds. As our meeting time rolled around, two things took place: people started arriving to the church for a funeral and we discovered we were at the wrong Our Lady of Guadelupe!

After a phone call we set our GPS to the right OLG and met up with the two wonderful Maryknoll sisters and about seven women and men from the parish. Spending the morning learning about the lives of these folks was eye-opening. Hard-working, loving, faithful, our community would be blessed to have them a part of it. We heard stories about their families, interactions with border patrol, life close to the border. One story told during our small group session was very powerful and puts the issues into focus. Two years ago during Holy Week, some parishioners participating in the Passion play headed to a sister parish for practice. Upon returning, they were pulled over by border patrol and detained. Their costumes still in the car. It was 2AM by the time their pastor, Fr. Mike was able to get them released from detention. It was an emotional time for the congregation. Understand, these were all American citizens or people legally here in the United States. 

Lunch was a special event - the ladies of the parish made tacos and sweet breads for us to enjoy with them. Chorizo, cactus, chicken, pork. Yum! Having Spanish speaking members of our party was invaluable to us. Both Mario and Dianne were able to translate flawlessly - although there were a few "in" jokes that I'm sure the rest of our party missed! After lunch, we traveled the 3 miles to the Rio Grande River and walked to the river's edge.

Our afternoon was again spent at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Respite Center. To understand the beauty of the story that I will close with it's important to understand a bit of how the Respite Center works. After immigrants are processed by the border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they are bussed to the respite center. The children are washed and fed while the parents begin the work to travel to their destination in the US. Calls are made to their US contacts, bus tickets are purchased, a hearty soup is provided and then they go 'shopping' in the center's donated clothes area and new undergarments. Finally, they can shower and change into their new clothes. During this time the children are cared for by volunteers who play with and care for them.

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While one little boy's mother was going through this process, showering, eating and getting her family's travel figured out, he (this beautiful 6-year-old little boy) was scared that he had been abandoned, lost. His brother was with him but the boy was convinced he was left. There were a few people who tried to console this young boy but he would have none of it. That is, not until Mario approached him, spoke to him, reassured him joked with him and got him to smile. Up until that point, close to the end of the day, Mario had been feeling a bit out of place. I am convinced that one of the reasons Mario is on this trip with us was to be there for that boy. I've heard it said that Jesus doesn't call the equipped, he equips the called. Today Mario was called, he was equipped and he performed. It is a thing of beauty when you can see Christ, through Mario, working to console the inconsolable. 

Continue to pray for us as we pray for all of you.

Peace,

Bob

Engagement

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Today started in the parking lot of St. Joes where the six intrepid travelers from the Diocese of Metuchen gathered to travel to Newark Airport at 2:30 AM. As far as travel days go, this was one of the easiest and smoothest I've encountered - a sure sign from the Holy Spirit that our trip is sanctified. 

Mary Beth getting the nursery area of the Respite Center ready for the kids.

Upon arriving in Texas we met up with our sisters and brothers from the Camden Diocese and made our way to the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan - which we will call 'home' until we leave on Sunday. After a short lunch in the cafeteria we traveled to the Respite Center run by Catholic Charities in McCallen, TX. For those that don't know what a Respite Center is, don't be troubled - neither did any of us. Simply put, the Respite Center is a place where immigrants who have been 'processed' by the border patrol and are now legally in the country can spend some time to get a shower, have a cup of soup, arrange for legal support, visit a medical clinic and rest in the loving embrace of a community of volunteers that treat each of them like they matter. 

Laurie making paper airplanes with a young boy who is waiting for his parents to complete their processing.

Why, you may ask, do they need a Respite Center? Consider this amalgamation of some stories that we heard today. A young couple and their two children ages 2 and 5 made their way from Nicaragua to the US border seeking asylum due to the violence they experienced because of the drug cartels. Prior to crossing the US/Mexico border, Mexican guards detained them and demanded payment (bribes) from them in order to allow them to continue. After 16 days of travel, with already meager possessions and money, they were forced to give up all they had remaining in order to take the chance on a better life for their children. Having nothing but a plastic bag of clothes and each other, they were processed, the parents were fitted with ankle tracking bracelets and put on a bus that let them off in the outskirts of McCallen at the Respite Center run by Catholic Charities. 

Food, clothing, shelter.

Our group welcomed them and the 120 other immigrants that day as they arrived. We listened to their stories, got them food, took care of their children as they washed and relaxed, helped them call their families in the states, arranged for their transportation. In short, we treated them like human beings. In truth, we took care of them like children of God. 

Tomorrow brings a new day and new experiences. Thanks for following along with us! I'd love to hear from you so please comment below.

Peace,

Bob

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A Tracking Ankle Bracelet

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The artist at work

"W" makes name tags for all the volunteers as a thank you.

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World's Best Jenga Game!

Sam and Luisa enjoy time with "A". (Note, faces of the children are blurred for privacy reasons).

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"W"'s art.

It's hard to be unmoved by this 10 year old's talent - and his love for Jesus.

Calls, Choices, and Inflection Points

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The past 24 hours have been filled with many questions and almost as many answers. Our group of six intrepid travelers met for the first time to pray together and finally meet face-to-face. Each group that I’ve worked with over the years has its own vibe - a feeling you get from the group as a whole - that determines a lot of how the trip will go. In a word (or three), this group’s vibe is “let me help”. That’s awesome for the type of trip we are taking. 

At 2:30AM our group leaves for the Texas/Mexico border to work with Sr. Norma Pimental. Our mission is to be a welcoming face to those families that have crossed the border from Mexico. Feed, clothe, welcome. Some are families, some are unaccompanied minors. Most will be nervous, unsure, scared. Almost all only have the clothes on their back. Each and every one of them a child of God. 

As I reflect back on the way this endeavor came together (as I will surely do repeatedly this next week) I am compelled to think of the apostles working their nets around the Sea of Galilee. Along comes this Jesus - maybe they’ve heard of him, maybe not - and he calls them by name. “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17). They had no idea what they were saying yes to. On a much smaller scale, I’m feeling that way. I think I know what my “yes” to this trip means - but at each turn and with every question asked and every answer proffered, I realize that I don’t have a clue what I am getting myself into.

I know many things about myself (I really am self-aware despite what some of my closest friends say). I know that when I am confronted with an issue I am compelled to hit it head on, sink my teeth into it, rip it apart, study it and try to solve it. I know that we will be confronted with reality - people’s realities - that I want to change. I know that I will be confronted with choices - some made on the spot, on the ground, others will gnaw at me over time to be made later. I pray that during this trip we are able to make the inspired choice - the choice that aligns with what God wants from each of us. 

Sometimes I think that ’this is the moment’ - you know, the moment that ‘everything changes’. The apostles had moments like that - many. Sometimes momentous opportunities are presented to us many times in our lives. The apostles accepted their call and while they were filled with human foibles, they walked the walk while they talked the talk. This moment feels like an inflection point to me. When I experience the plight of the refugees will I be able to go back to my life as it was? I certainly can’t answer that question now…I’m not sure I will even be able to answer it when we return on Sunday.

I hope you can follow our journey this week and I ask that you pray for our groups from Metuchen and Camden.

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When I summon him, he shall approach me;
how else should one take the deadly risk
of approaching me? says the LORD.
You shall be my people,
and I will be your God.
— Jeremiah 30: 22
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