If there is a time and a place where it could be said that the veil between heaven and earth opens just a bit, it would be the moment that a group of Central American refugees walk into the Sacred Heart Respite Center, in McAllen, Texas.
These displaced people, typically children and their mothers and fathers, have come a long way to reach the center. Every last one of them that I have spoken with told me that they left their homes not by choice, but by necessity.
“The gang shot my husband and then told my ten year old that she had to be the gang ‘girl-friend’. I couldn’t live with that,” said one mother.
“They burned down our home, and then they found us living with my sister and they killed her. We had to leave,” said a father.
The trip across Mexico is a particular hell—while I have spoken with people who made the trip without incident, many others survived beatings and extortion, hunger and thirst.
The Central Americans came north with faith in the US—a family member or a friend or an acquaintance had assured them that it was o.k. here in the USA, that the children would be safe.
When the refugees finally reach the border, they have the final task of going over or around the $6 million per mile border wall that the US put up. This last physical obstacle is a bump in the road, adding a few more minutes to the journey and a thousand or more dollars to the smugglers’ fees. But it is a clear sign of things to come.
The Central Americans, after crossing the wall, for the most part, surrender to the Border Patrol, betting their lives on the mercy of the people of the United States. The Border Patrol does their job, taking the children, the women, and the men to a “processing” center where they can spend up to two days locked up in what are best described as jail cells.
The fortunate ones get bus tickets supplied by their family or friends, and are then taken to Sacred Heart. They are exhausted, filthy from weeks on the road, and frightened.
The refugees walk through the doors at the respite center, and pause. At this point, all of the volunteers, busily preparing hot meals, sorting supplies and cleaning up the place, stop their work and, simply, beautifully, begin to clap.
It is a sustained applause, coupled with shouts of “¡Bienvenidos!” The visitors are taken aback by this greeting. Many shyly smile, others look down. Others, mainly the mothers, begin to weep.
This is the moment when the veil between what is and what could be is lifted, at least for a short time. The applause, offered and received, is a moment of shared hope, the breaking and sharing of a substantial bread that flies in the face of the bitter, fearful rhetoric that so scars our national psyche.
The applause draws to a close and people get back to their responsibilities. The volunteers fix hot soup; the refugees gratefully eat the meal, both accepting this shared hope as a way, at least in this moment, of breaking through the border wall.