What’s it like to be a Quaker in El Paso, Tex., these days? At a recent meeting for business, a visitor from New England suggested that other Friends might like to know how we’re involved in all that’s going on recently where we live at the border with Mexico.
“Organized chaos” is the expression a visitor from Pennsylvania used, with enthusiasm, to describe his two-week stint volunteering with Annunciation House. That organization is one of the mainstays providing assistance for the asylum seekers who need a place to stay, rest, eat, clean up, recover their strength, and firm up travel plans between the time they are released by government agencies and the moment they set off by plane or bus to the relatives and friends who will house them until their hearing dates. It’s been around for more than 40 years, largely the result of El Pasoan Ruben Garcia’s early call to serve the vulnerable.
As the numbers have increased, so has the Annunciation House footprint. It recently added satellite shelters with the help of many local religious organizations and financial support from countless individuals and from El Paso Community Foundation’s Migrant Family Relief Fund. Besides Annunciation House, that fund buoys up Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, both of which provide legal services to asylum seekers. Also working in this field are the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee and the Border Network for Human Rights.
El Paso Quakers work with these groups and field questions from concerned Friends all over the country. We corresponded with a meeting in North Carolina that wanted to contribute financially. One family here housed a Spanish-speaking Quaker lawyer from Georgia who worked night and day reuniting families, and the same family later accompanied a man sent to us from a New Mexico meeting who needed a place to stay, hurriedly finding him an interpreter to help at his hearing. We also linked the mother of a young baby with Annunciation House folks who could provide her with help when she arrives in town for her hearing. We’ve been happy to extend hospitality to Friends from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin who came here to volunteer.
We’re a small group, about a dozen at our strongest. El Paso Meeting has been here almost 50 years, and more than 100 Friends have passed through, though never very many at one time. Our numbers reflect the fact that El Paso has always been a place where many people, including Quakers, come and go.
Some of us have regular weekly appointments at Annunciation House shelters to pick up mountains of bedding and towels, launder them, and return them to duty. Others are on call to respond to various needs: organizing and distributing donated clothing and toiletries; preparing, serving, and cleaning up after meals; making spur-of-the-moment trips to the store; or just showing up to do whatever needs doing.
Many may have read about the times when hundreds were dropped off unexpectedly at the bus station without liaison with Annunciation House. The Disciples church, from which we rent our meetingroom, was tasked with suddenly providing a meal for 200. A group of us helped serve and clean up, and we also directed some money to the project. We were happy to hear that “the Quakers provided the chicken for lunch.” Although much of the chaos can be organized, efforts have often required creativity, speed, and flexibility.
We’re border people, used to the many joys and occasional concerns of living here, where the line at the edge of the United States generally doesn’t pose a barrier to community. What you hear about in the news is in the news because it’s new.
From what we’ve seen, there are some really nice people coming to stay with us in hopes of making their safety more permanent. Recently I was employing my clumsy Spanish to distribute clothing and encourage people to take a coat if they were bound for a cold place; one woman told me her destination and it sounded more like a song than a place name. When I looked perplexed, she laughed and pointed to a friend, going to Boston, who could say the name for her. It was “Philadelphia.”
They’re on their way from us to you. If the lady wearing the El Paso trench coat looks chilly, maybe you could offer her a sweater, too.