It left me profoundly changed

Volunteers from the Diocese of Camden work at the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. The center provides immigrants crossing the border with a place to rest, have a warm meal, a shower, and change into clean clothing as well as receive medicine and other supplies.

When most people hear of Texas, they think of Dallas, Houston, barbecue and the Cowboys.

Have you ever heard of McAllen, Texas? Prior to this solidarity pilgrimage, I had no idea this town even existed. As I made the commitment to embark on this journey, I don’t think I really knew what I was in for. I was told that I would be “profoundly changed.” However, I had no idea the extent of how true that statement would actually be.

Pope Francis has called for a movement to share the journey, in a particular way, with “migrants and refugees fleeing war, poverty and persecution, people who seek nothing more than basic needs and a path forward.” This is what my journey, our journey, was all about.

Our stay in McAllen encompassed days and nights filled with volunteer work at the local Catholic Charities Respite Center and outreach within the local community. It was an experience that was as much educational as it was spiritual. I was overwhelmed by the constant motion of people and information surrounding me. At the same time, I came to the sad realization that despite my efforts to stay up to date with current issues facing our country, there was really so much about immigration that I did not understand.

The reality is that hundreds of people are coming over each day; the majority are, indeed, coming over illegally. A vast amount of those cross the border only to surrender themselves immediately over to border patrol.

The majority of the people fleeing are coming from poverty. The legal process can take years and for some, time is of the essence. The desperate position of many of the migrants and refugees leaves them in a state easily taken advantage of by others. A couple I encountered told the story of their journey made 18 years ago. The wife couldn’t swim and was petrified of drowning and so, her husband swam her over while she laid on a blow up air mattress. To protect the money they had ($1,000), they sewed it into the inside of a hat. This was what they had to start their lives anew.

Quite literally, they leave everything behind. If they are coming over illegally, luggage is not an option. But even more, families are torn. The wife of the couple I mentioned has not seen her family since the day they left. At the respite center, you saw countless children and many with only one parent. People would not embark on this dangerous journey if they felt there was another choice. Many even lose their lives trying to save it. We heard multiple stories of migrants drowning in the Rio Grande River, having been caught up in the under current or in one instance, having been pushed off a boat in the middle of the night by the one who was supposed to bring them to safety.

Once they are here, the constant fear does not go away. People continue to take advantage of the undocumented immigrants as they search for work and attempt to build their lives.

What I can not stress enough is that this issue is not a matter of politics, left vs. right or liberals vs. conservatives. Immigration is a humanitarian issue that is rooted in the basic Christian responsibility to uphold and protect the dignity and worth of the human person.

As we continue on with this Easter Season, I can’t help but reflect on the concept of suffering. Right before Christ was crucified, he gave his apostles a new commandment, “to love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34).

How is it that Christ loved us? One only needs to turn their gaze to the cross; to look at the suffering and injustice Christ endured for our sake. His suffering was quite literally our own. How quick are we to take on the sufferings of others as our own? When Christ died on the cross, he united all of our sufferings, sorrows, tears and pain. His resurrection united us all to life in himself as the one body of Christ, the church. As this one body, we realize that we were meant to walk through this life together. All of our experiences, good and bad, are to be shared in the one that unites us all. Christ’s example shows us that loving one another will involve a cross. The church transcends all barriers: language, culture, geographical distance, ethnicity and background. Even outside of the church, God’s mercy and love extends to all. Just as Christ took on the sin and darkness that was not his own, so are we called to take on the cross of our brothers and sisters.

The promise of transformation made at the beginning of the trip was certainly kept. I am profoundly changed. I journeyed to McAllen with nine other pilgrims and we were face-to-face with the injustice and heaviness of the immigration crisis. What I realized when I came back was that the crisis is not unique to the border states. Unbeknownst to most of us, it is present in our backyards. It is actively touching the lives of our fellow parishioners, neighbors, co-workers, friends and maybe even our own family. Our brothers and sisters are crying out for help and as disciples, and we have a responsibility to respond. This response should be made with the same conviction Christ had as he willingly took on all of humanity’s sufferings, sins and darkness on the cross. I challenge you to take a second look. After the resurrection, we see the repeated blindness of the disciples as they failed to recognize Christ when he stood before them.

Are we blind? Where is it that Christ is standing right in front of us, but we fail to see him, particularly in others? When the haze is finally lifted, we may find ourselves asking, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way. . .?” (Lk 24:32).

Gabriela Marigliano is a student at Stockton University, Galloway Township.