Migrants from many different places come to the desert in Nogales, Arizona looking for a way to provide for their families. They come running away from their beloved homeland because crime, unemployment, and lack of opportunities have made their lives unbearable. Many of them talk with great joy of the things they left behind, like relatives, beautiful landscapes, and, of course, they also talk about tamales, black beans, and pupusas. They fondly remember when they could just be outside of their homes, enjoying the company of their neighbors and watching their kids play among their friends. Those times have changed, and unfortunately these are only memories that are shared with great hope and melancholy.
The current reality is that they come to El Comedor at the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) looking for food and water, medical assistance, information on the asylum process, and shelter. The current Comedor is about 40 ft. by 30 ft. and is able to hold about 130 migrants and volunteers at a time. The place is quiet before 9 a.m., but as soon as the doors open work becomes intense and non-stop for a couple of hours. The place becomes hot, suffocating, and crowded. Everyone is bumping into each other while at the same time many voices ask for water and tortillas. Such a setting can be overwhelming for many. At least it was overwhelming for me.
Volunteering at El Comedor helps me to imagine the apostles distributing food in passages like the multiplication of loaves when Jesus said: “you give them something to eat.” I can see the apostles in shock after hearing Jesus’ command in front of thousands of people. Similarly many volunteers at KBI also feel overwhelmed when they see many migrants in need and hear in their hearts the same command. Nevertheless, the outcome has been the same: Jesus continues to feed and take care of his people.
The miracle of the multiplication of loaves is still happening today, but in a different way. This time God is using many generous volunteers to provide El Comedor with sustenance, medicine, monetary donations, among many other things. There is always food available, and when it seems about to run low, new donations roll in. Although seeing how contributions arrive out of nowhere is not as spectacular as seeing the bread multiplying, it is very moving to see how generosity is sparked after having an encounter with God. This encounter happens through both the migrants and the tireless staff, and the natural response is generosity.
I met Marcos whose mother language is Mixteco (indigenous language of Central and Southern Mexico), and who also speaks Spanish and English. He spoke to me with a big and joyful smile about how his daughter, a U.S. born citizen, is trying to earn good grades.
Then there was a single mother with two small children. Their living conditions are creating huge amounts of stress, which in turn is worsening her health. With a silent hope, a melancholic smile, and watery eyes, she hopes to meet her oldest son in the U.S. realizing that there is no place for her and her family in her own country. The only thing she can do is wait for an asylum interview. And for the volunteers, the only thing we can do is to lend our hearts and ears. Our listening allows guests at El Comedor to unload their heavy burdens that weigh upon their hearts and minds. It is when they feel cared for and listened to that a smile of hope and relief cuts through the middle of their difficult reality. Listening is a powerful act of generosity at El Comedor.
One of my strongest encounters happened through Keith, a volunteer with whom I had the pleasure to work. Keith and his wife, Judy, who live in New Mexico, volunteer each summer. Keith also has Parkinson’s disease. One time, while experiencing anxiety due to the rush of migrants, I saw him struggling to keep his balance in a tiny space between two tables, carrying a big jar of water with shaking hands. I was reminded of the scripture passage where the poor widow in the temple gave two coins as her offering. Probably Jesus felt the same awe at seeing such selfless generosity as I witnessed in Keith that day. Sometimes these two coins look like Keith serving water. Other times they look like students trying to understand the migrants. At other times these coins resemble Juan, another volunteer, moving massive tables and mopping the floor with a big smile after a very long day of hard work.
Volunteering at El Comedor for the summer allowed me a glimpse into the challenges that migrants face. And, it provided me the opportunity to do something about it. Day in and day out, the experiences made my heart grow larger, inviting me to give of myself more and more, regardless of the heat or the crowded space. Just knowing that I could potentially ease the lives of the migrants for one day was enough for me to give my best.
Many of the staff and long-term volunteers are able to work at KBI for long periods of time only after having lived similar experiences. Also, all visitors leave the same way I left: encountering an intimate and personal God, with a heart on fire, and the desire to advocate compassion towards the migrants and the challenges they face. We may not have the flexibility to volunteer for months on end, like Keith and Judy, or for a few months in the summer, like I did. We also may not have the resources to alleviate major needs for KBI. But, one thing we all can do is pray.
Please pray for the Kino Border Initiative so their work continues to help those most in need. Please pray for the staff and volunteers so their hearts remain strong. And, pray for the migrants, so they may see their hopes and dreams come to fruition.
CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec