By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

The immigration crisis along the United States-Mexico border has spawned a new ministry at St. John’s Church in McAllen, Texas, as a refugee camp scrambles to care for uprooted and exhausted mothers and children.

Every day, between 100 and 150 new arrivals from Central America — virtually all are women and children — leave the U.S. Border Patrol detention center in McAllen with a bus ticket for the journey to reunite with relatives across the United States, according to the Rev. Nancy Springer, assistant rector at St. John’s.

To support the immigrant-relief effort, send a check (write Children in Crisis in the memo line) to:

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St. John’s Church
2510 N. 10th St.
McAllen TX 78501

Christ Church
2320 Lane St.
Laredo, TX 78043

Episcopal Diocese of West Texas
P.O. Box 6885
San Antonio TX 78209

Before their buses depart, families wait downtown for as long as 24 hours. McAllen’s churches have come together to form a refugee camp, where moms and kids can take showers in one tent and nap on cots in another.

For immigrants, it’s the first welcome they have felt after a two-week journey, plus as many as nine days in the detention center, which is not equipped to feed or house detainees.

“We’ve been told that some of the rooms at the detention facility are so crowded that people can’t even lie down and sleep,” Springer said. When they finally get out, “they’re exhausted, they’re dirty and they’re hungry. … Once they’re at the refugee center, they’re expressing that they’re relieved and grateful because they’re being treated as human beings again.”

St. John’s role in the effort involves mobilizing parishioners to pack thousands of small backpacks with snacks and hygiene items for immigrants to take on their long bus rides. The church will convene “packing parties” twice a week to stuff the packs with such items as travel-size soaps, shampoos, combs, cereal bars, and peanut-butter crackers. To keep pace with the need, St. John’s aims to assemble 1,500 packs per week at a cost of about $4 each.

In early July, St. John’s received a $10,000 grant from Episcopal Relief & Development to support the work. The ERD grant provides a good start, Springer said, but it will cover only enough supplies for about 10 or 12 days. The need, however, is expected to continue for months.

The crisis has ballooned in the past month. Since early June, an estimated 200 immigrants have been arriving daily in McAllen from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, Springer said. They ride on rafts piloted across the Rio Grande River, and then purposefully surrender to U.S. Border Patrol officers, who take them to the detention center for paperwork. Unaccompanied children are taken from McAllen to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

First to help in the downtown refugee ministry were Catholic Charities and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, which is located near the bus station where Border Patrol officers drop off immigrants who are free to travel.

“The Catholic Church is something they recognize, so they would head straight there and ask for something to eat,” Springer said. “The church started doing what they could to help, but realized very quickly it was far larger than they could manage, so they started reaching out to other churches in the area.”

Now the effort is ecumenical. Catholic Charities and Sacred Heart work with a steering committee to operate the camp and coordinate volunteers. The Salvation Army provides meals. A Baptist congregation launders cot linens. Methodists have provided various types of volunteer support.

For church groups, working with refugees for a few hours before they board buses is the best they can do at this point. Government workers will not allow church workers to share food or prayers with detainees, according to Springer, and their efforts to visit children at Lackland have also been rebuffed.

“We were told it was strictly a government-run facility, and they’re accepting no assistance from volunteers,” Springer said.

The prohibition on volunteers marks a sharp contrast to the situation after Hurricane Rita in 2005, when displaced Louisianans were housed at Lackland, and “we went down in droves as volunteers to help,” Springer said.

Local churches are mustering stamina for what could be a long-haul relief ministry in their backyards — and not just in McAllen. Similar efforts are afoot in Laredo, where members of Christ Church are assembling the same types of small packs for those in limbo between the detention center and the next bus ride.

On July 8, representatives from ERD and Episcopal Migration Ministries will convene a conference call with border dioceses to share information about what needs they’re seeing and what types of grassroots responses are taking shape from church groups on the front lines.

Meanwhile the Rt. Rev. Gary Lillibridge, Bishop of West Texas, appealed on July 3 to all 89 congregations and clergy of the diocese to support the effort. Noting that several dioceses have pledged to be involved, he asked the faithful to step up in three ways. They can make monetary donations through the diocese; they can donate items such as soap, water bottles, diapers, underwear and so forth; and they can serve as volunteers to help at packing sites and at the refugee camps in McAllen and Laredo.

“This is an important opportunity for us to show Christ’s love in a tangible way,” Bishop Lillibridge wrote. “I urge each of you to wholeheartedly and sacrificially respond to this appeal; and I thank you for your generosity in responding to human need and suffering.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a journalist, pastor and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul (Basic Books, 2010).

Image: McAllen cityscape by Rgv17_956 [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons