Entering the tent city of Matamoros for the second time on our PHJC Volunteer trip in March engaged my senses. Much had changed since our initial trip in December, 2019. I felt the heat and wind first. The wind never ceased blowing during the week we served. Everything was so much greener than back home. Then the smells hit. First, the smell of campfires everywhere, both for heating and cooking. Next came the latrine smells, so vile that it would be an olfactory assault on the most seasoned camper or summer concert goer. The visuals were somewhat more complicated.
It would be easy to dismiss the tent city as crowded and chaotic. It’s what most see on their initial glance. Look deeper, and you’ll find truth, beauty, and community, which are always there for those who seek them. Families looking for a better life and opportunity for themselves and their children comprised the people we met. The Sisters and co-workers serving on this trip included Sisters Connie Bach, Rosemary Jung, and Barbara Kuper. Poor Handmaid co-workers were me, Marcy Heil, Warren Johnson, and Steve Weinert. What we saw and were able to do once again changed our lives.
One of the first things Sister Connie and I noticed, different from December, was the change in products we packed at the Humanitarian Respite Center of McAllen, our home-base for the week. Instead of making endless peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches to wrap and transport, we packed 350 pounds of masa flour, 300 pounds of beans, 125 pounds of salt, 125 pounds of sugar, 23 gallons of rice, 6 gallons of canola oil, (repackaged in smaller bottles) 60 pairs of shoelaces, 60 Chap sticks™, and 60 rosaries for delivery to the tent city residents. We repeated packing this list daily. Sisters Rosemary and Barb cleaned everything in the kitchen, making it shine like new. Steve also put batteries in the clocks at the respite center, since each one reflected a different time. Time is relative when you’re playing a waiting game.
The trek into the tent city was much longer this time, too. Two big dumpsters filled the area where we had previously set up our offerings, so we walked about a ¾ of a mile longer with ten heavy wagons each day. During these walks, young men and boys from the tent city would come up and pull the loads for volunteers, walking in Saint Katharina’s shoes beside us. They also carried the empty wagons down a staircase for us on the trek out.
There were cell phone charging stations, a place to do laundry (by hand) and wash dishes, and mercifully, the presence of other volunteer groups like Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF to help ease what must be a harsh life. Children created art and attended lessons in the UNICEF tent while their parents and caregivers carried on with daily life. New on this visit was a group of barbers offering haircuts to those awaiting entry into the U.S. with them.
The community we bore witness to was truly an inspiration. Marcy enjoyed games of “hot hands” and thumb wrestling with kids waiting in line, who despite the language barrier, understood the games’ objectives and laughed even in defeat. (She’s good!) On our last day, several of us broke out in the song “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” also while serving the tent city residents. A gentleman joined in, singing the verses and chorus in English. Laughter ensued before he got somber and told us how much he loved America and Americans. Steve warmed all of our hearts when he bought watercolor paper and paints to share with Mia, age 4, a guest at the respite center from Congo. For a few brief hours, Mia got to learn from a world-class artist, splash paint at Steve and laugh, and return to her childhood.
On this trip too were the constant warnings on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which presented a challenge to us and to those who we served. How do you practice social distancing in a tent city? In a respite center? Among your fellow volunteers while you’re working to care for thousands already challenged? It was a quandary we did our best to overcome.
Sister Connie planned a return trip to the border in June, but it’s now postponed. Participants from the March trip will present a lunch and learn about our experience, also at a future date.