LIVONIA — Penny Gardner spent three weeks at the El Paso border volunteering with Casa del Refugiado, one of the shelters of Annunciation House, a sanctuary providing shelter, food and clothing to migrants.
Gardner, the former Livingston County and northwest Monroe County migrant minister for the Diocese of Rochester, spoke about her experiences during a July 10 presentation, “Welcoming the Stranger: A Gospel Perspective From the El Paso Border,” at St. Matthew Church. She shared her experiences with community members using pictures and stories of the families she met at the border.
“It was something I had to do for myself,” Gardner said of her May 19 to June 9 trip to the border. “It wasn’t politically motivated or faith driven, but something I knew I wanted and needed to do.”
According to Gardner, Annunciation House has been accompanying migrants, the homeless and the economically vulnerable since 1978 at the border between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. It was founded by five young adults, including Ramon Garcia, who continues as director. Garcia and the mission of Annunciation House have worked so that no will be left on the street, Gardner noted.
During her time in El Paso, Gardner served primarily at the El Paso airport assisting families from Casa del Refugiado through the process of getting their boarding passes, explaining flight information, and preparing them to go through security and on to their final destinations.
“I met a lot of families. I once met five pregnant women who were all expecting twins. These are people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil all seeking asylum in the U.S.,” she said.
She explained that individuals who had been lucky enough to be granted access to Casa del Refugiado were given such access because they each had a sponsor. These sponsors were typically family members located in the U.S. that were contacted by asylum officers once individuals passed the pre-screening required to be declared credible asylum seekers. Once a connection with a sponsor is determined, an asylum seeker is then transported to either an immigration center, directly to the airport or dropped off at a bus terminal so he or she can be united with the sponsor in the United States.
When Gardner wasn’t at the airport, she said she spent her time along with other volunteers in organizing transportation, preparing food and providing comfort to the families at Casa del Refugiado. Volunteers at the shelter provided families with such essentials as hygiene items and care packages to take with them.
Gardner recalled teaching a group of children at the shelter to write their names on coloring sheets.
“I told them, ‘My name is Penny’ and wrote it down to show them. Some of them wrote down their names, others wrote down Penny, so I told them in Spanish, ‘My name is,’” recalled Gardner.
Gardner said some of the children were kind enough to give her their finished coloring sheets once they were done. Another time, she said she helped track down a rompecabeza, or a puzzle, for a little girl who had requested one. When Gardner finally found one to give to her, she returned later to find two more children playing with the little girl.
Gardner closed her talk with a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prayer for migrants and refugees.
“Lord Jesus, when you multiplied the loaves and fishes, you provided more than food for the body, you offered us the gift of yourself, the gift which satisfies every hunger and quenches every thirst!” Gardner read. “Your disciples were filled with fear and doubt, but you poured out your love and compassion on the migrant crowd, welcoming them as brothers and sisters.
“Lord Jesus, today you call us to welcome the members of God’s family who come to our land to escape oppression, poverty, persecution, violence and war. Like your disciples, we too are filled with fear and doubt and even suspicion. We build barriers in our hearts and in our minds.
“Lord Jesus, help us by your grace,
“To banish fear from our hearts, that we may embrace each of your children as our own brother and sister;
“To welcome migrants and refugees with joy and generosity, while responding to their many needs;
“To realize that you call all people to your holy mountain to learn the ways of peace and justice;
“To share of our abundance as you spread a banquet before us;
“To give witness to your love for all people, as we celebrate the many gifts they bring.
“We praise you and give you thanks for the family you have called together from so many people. We see in this human family a reflection of the divine unity of the one Most Holy Trinity in whom we make our prayer: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”