At the border, sisters ask: ‘What does love look like?’

Years ago, as part of obtaining my Religious Education Certification for the Diocese of Green Bay, we read and discussed classic scenarios in a theology course which posed moral dilemmas. The discussion always came back to the question about love, which Jesus demonstrated in the Gospels.

After Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, he said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).

Sr. Ida Berresheim, left, and Sr. Pat Vanden Bergh, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, are pictured during a recent visit to Green Bay. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

As missionary disciples we are called to follow the example of Jesus by serving humbly with love. Sr. Pat Vanden Bergh and Sr. Ida Berresheim, members of  the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, recently showed me what love looks like on our southern U.S. border in El Paso.

Love is a verb    

Sr. Pat, 77, volunteered for two weeks in February with Annunciation House, an El Paso nonprofit organization that has offered hospitality and sheltered migrants for more than 40 years. With the recent surge of refugees, mostly from Central America, crossing the Mexico-U.S. border, founder and executive director Ruben Garcia has coordinated as many as 1,021 to be served in one day.

Sr. Pat was assigned to work at the hospitality center known as Nazareth, one of up to 16 houses of hospitality which Garcia has had to open. It serves the needs of persons who have legally crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, as they wait for their asylum cases to be processed. She described the experience as “organized chaos” and related how she was continually amazed at how the volunteers did whatever needed doing.

Families were in need of such things as diapers and shoes; women needed feminine hygiene items. Travelers found comfort from ointment applied to skin sores on their ankles due to GPS tracking devices. (Even children needed to be plugged in to recharge the devices, which can only be removed with the assistance of a lawyer.) All of the guests were very, very tired — many cried.

The humble service of volunteers includes daily change of bedding, cooking and serving three meals a day, doing laundry and coordinating bus and air travel to connect refugees with their families in the United States. The flow of refugees means that volunteers must be ready to do it all again the following day, when the next group will be released to their care by ICE and the Border Patrol. Sr. Pat marveled that day after day, week after week, year after year, the people of El Paso generously and quietly offer these services. This is what love in action looks like!

Sr. Ida, 91, serving on the Board of Directors for Annunciation House, is a former long-term volunteer and spends a great deal of time writing grant proposals. She describes her encounters with guests at Annunciation House: “Many become a source of prayerful meditation. Their lives and their stories help me to hear the Gospel in a whole new way.”

One story Sr. Ida shared was about a small boy asking for just one shirt to wear as he had nothing but a heavy jacket on a very hot day. He indicated that just one would be enough, and conveyed the deep and humble gratitude so typical of these weary souls.

Loving our neighbor

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story to illustrate the call to love our neighbor and that our neighbor is the one who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger whom you welcomed, one in need of clothing, ill or in prison. When we care for these neighbors, Jesus assures us that we do it to him. Our neighbors are at the border. Can we love them? Our immigrant and refugee neighbors are in our communities. Can we love them? If our hearts are open to love, what might that look like?

Armbrust is pastoral care and ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Green Bay.