Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
If you told me at the start of 2019 that Travis Park Church will shelter more than 22,000 asylum seekers in a seven-month period, I would not have believed you.
In Fall 2018, I had the opportunity to learn more about the immigration crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border when I traveled alongside refugees on a migrant caravan headed to Tijuana and ultimately the U.S. border. That experience allowed me to witness the real and tragic reasons why people are forced to migrate and seek new opportunities in a foreign land.
I heard stories from victims of corrupt police, gangs, and extortion; from farmers of dried-up farmlands and crops; from women who endured sexual assault, rape, and abuse. Despite these tragic narratives, the people I met had a joy that can outshine the darkness. The caravan offered me a chance to witness compassion from total strangers and understand the common humanity that connects us all. Little did I know that just a few months later, my church would be serving the same population of migrants who found themselves traveling through San Antonio.
On March 28, Travis Park Church got a call from Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC) volunteers at the nearby bus station. They were overwhelmed by an influx of migrants who needed a place to sleep. In just a few hours, the staff at our church opened up the building and set up hurricane cots in our Sunday School classrooms.
The migrants had been released by the federal government and were legally coming through San Antonio attempting to get to their host homes in cities and towns all over the nation. The number of migrants crossing the border increased during these months, and San Antonio saw many of these migrants – most of them families – arrive at the Greyhound bus station downtown needing assistance to get to their final destinations and where their court cases would most likely be held.
In the early part of April, that ministry expanded into a city-wide effort that connected Travis Park Church with four other organizations assisting in the local response: The City of San Antonio’s Department of Human Services, which ran the Migrant Resource Day Center; Catholic Charities, which provided transportation; the San Antonio Food Bank, which supplied meals; and the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, which coordinated teams at the bus station and airport.
By the time the majority of services to migrants ended on Oct. 25, the four organizations and the City of San Antonio served more than 32,379 migrants passing through San Antonio, sheltered 22,376 needing a place to sleep, served 85,521 meals, and helped 2,842 find medical care at the city’s pop-up health clinic. It was a Herculean effort and one I am still trying to process.
Getting to shelter, serve, and walk alongside our migrant brothers and sisters has not only been a blessing for our church, volunteers, and staff but also a practice of solidarity, love, and hospitality. We had the opportunity to serve and it was worth every long night and day. Our migrant friends and families added so much to our community with their presence, love, and testimonies. They are heroes.
We could not have opened our doors to more than 22,000 migrants alone. It took people all over this city coming together to help serve our brothers and sisters seeking a new and safer life. It took people all over this nation making and donating items such as hygiene kits, T-shirt dolls, backpack travel kits, and clothes. It took nonprofits such as RAICES and Sueños Sin Fronteras to offer legal aid and showers to the many needing those services.
“In 2019 our hearts and minds were stretched further as we encountered our brothers and sisters, and their stories from Central America, Haiti, Angola, DR Congo and other distressed nations,” said Sister Denise LaRock, a leader for the IWC. “We encountered other places in the world full of violence and misery and did our very best to respond with respect and compassion. We are extremely grateful to our great city for answering the call to serve families traveling through San Antonio.
“We could not have done it without the City’s time, talent, and treasures.”
From March 28 to Oct. 20 we had help from thousands of volunteers from the local community, IWC, and City of San Antonio employees who served a total of at least 40,341 hours. Our busiest night was 470 people sheltered on June 6.
This type of effort was not new to our congregation, but the scale was a new challenge. Travis Park Church has been serving around 600 homeless a week for more than 20 years and has opened its doors to refugees, including citizens fleeing interment during World War II and hurricane evacuees over the last few decades.
This type of work has been rooted in our DNA for almost 175 years, and we just stood on the shoulders of those faithful San Antonians who came before us. Hopefully 2019 made them proud.
The Hebrew Scriptures say we should “defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow” and “love the foreigner residing among us, giving them food and clothing … for we ourselves were once foreigners.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
If the City, nonprofits and the faith community had failed to unite and find adequate funding, downtown San Antonio would have had hundreds and eventually thousands of families on the streets of San Antonio over just a few weeks. There was never an option not to serve our neighbors. This belief is why the City Council voted 11-0 to support this effort to care for those coming though our city. It was money and time well spent.
One moment in 2019 will remain with me for years to come. On June 12, reporters from the Infowars website barged into the Migrant Resource Day Center trying to report on and claim that asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo were carrying Ebola, a deadly virus. We knew this was a false and prejudiced claim.
Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger calmly answered their misleading questions and stated that Ebola was not present. At one point in the interview, Bridger reached out and began to hold a migrant child she was assisting before the Infowars crew barged in. While speaking with the InfoWars representative, she continued to tenderly stoke the hair of the child and project a sense of safety to those inside the center.
That simple and loving touch not only proved that these migrants were not carrying the highly infectious disease but that those in the center are human beings that needed to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect. Her actions matched her words of truth and empathy.
Stories of compassion like this were seen every day and night during our city’s response. The actions by so many in 2019 reminded me that we live in a special city that values compassion and respecting the common humanity we all share regardless of where we are from.
2020 will bring more challenges and unexpected situations as the crisis on the border continues. But despite all failures of our federal system, I am confident that San Antonio will rise above and be the salt and light to a dark and tasteless situation – where everyone who is seeking a dream is treated with dignity and respect.