By Alice Edgell
For I was hungry and you gave me food. Mt. 25:35a
What can you buy these days for $1,100? A refrigerator? How about supper for 700 asylum seekers at the border of Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico? That was the cost of a recent one-dish, hot, rice-based meal with lemonade and dessert for the children. I know because I served that meal.
This past August, the Very Rev. William B. Lane (Fr. Bill) of my church, St. Nicholas’ Church in Newark received a letter that six Episcopal bishops from Texas sent throughout the United States pleading for help with asylum seekers at the Mexican border. Without being aware of the letter, I went to Fr. Bill to tell him that the plight of asylum seekers was weighing heavily on my heart, and I needed to find a way to help. A few days later, we read the words of the Rt. Rev. Kevin S. Brown in The Net entreating his flock to participate actively in caring for those at the border. Fr. Bill and I had heard Christ’s call; now we had to find others who had heard as well. Nina Leech, also of St. Nicholas’ Church, said, “I can do that. I want to go, too.”
Fr. Bill found another person heeding the call through the Rev. Dr. Howell C. Sasser, of St. Thomas’s Parish. A parishioner there, Mark Burchess, who had a particular interest in feeding the hungry, told us he, too, wanted to go. The impetus for our humanitarian mission came from Matthew 25: 35–40. We knew desperate people at an official asylum entry point in Brownsville, Texas were being given supper purchased and cooked by volunteers five days each week ever since July 2018. Believing that we could help, we responded to Christ’s teaching by traveling to Brownsville under the auspices of the interfaith Team Brownsville – Humanitarian Assistance for Asylum Seekers, the group Fr. had discovered already functioning there. Because asylum seekers were hungry, we gave them food.
So there we were — a team of three with the backing of two priests and our parishes in Newark. We began communicating with Team Brownsville. Our plans became specific, identifying a week we all three could go, communicating with Andrea Rubnick, the coordinator of Team Brownsville, purchasing airline tickets, and renting an Airbnb condo a couple of city blocks from the international bridge that crosses the Rio Grande between Brownsville and Matamoros.
Andrea told us that they needed volunteer groups to purchase food and prepare a meal for 600 people, adults and children, who were living in tents on the banks of the river at the border. On days when others were responsible for the evening meal, we would help convey the food across the border and help serve it. The day Andrea had open for us to prepare the meal was the day after our arrival — we accepted the challenge.
When Mark, Nina, and I arrived in Brownsville, we met with Andrea who took us to the Good Neighbor Settlement House. We met the staff and a volunteer group that had prepared the evening meal the day before and would orient us to our tasks of buying food and getting started the next day. The coordinator of volunteers at the Settlement House, Daniela Sosa, was immensely informative and helpful, as was the volunteer group we met. They were from West Virginia, working out of Catholic Charities in McAllen, twenty miles away. That group took us shopping at Walmart, helped us make decisions about food, and kept the supplies in their SUV overnight. That theme of volunteer groups helping other groups was repeated throughout our week — people cheerfully helping each other. Meanwhile, the goal of feeding 600 had changed to 700. Today, I understand the number hovers above a thousand.
Saying that we cooked the meal of chicken, rice, beans, corn, diced tomatoes, and spices sounds easier than it was! Cooking for 700 involves huge vats of food, using an industrial can opener, filling 18 large transport pans, and keeping the pans hot until they are transported. Oh, and cleaning up afterwards! Members of two other volunteer groups helped us, and we could not have done it without them. At the bus station, we formed a convoy to transport the food to the tent camp on the Mexico side of the border.
Andrea organized the process of filling the convoy of canvas wagons with food, tents, diapers, and yoga pads on which people sleep in the tents. With loaded wagons, we moved across several city blocks, then over the international bridge, crossing into Matamoros.
Volunteers set up tables to serve the food, and two lines of asylum seekers formed, one for men and a few children, another for women and many children. Notably, there was no pushing or shoving. People waited patiently, and as they received a plate of food from the servers, each person said, “gracias.” Nina and I were among the assembly line of servers, while Mark poured glasses of lemonade and collected trash. Around 8:30 p.m., the convoy crossed back to the United States. The pattern of the convoy going into Matamoros and serving a meal continued each day that we were there.
As a second mission opportunity, we could also work at the bus station in Brownsville, assisting those who had withstood initial investigation, were allowed into the country, and were being sent to their sponsors throughout the country. This focus particularly interested me, because I hoped we could relate in a more personal way as neighbors rather than within a crowd of volunteers and a crowd of asylum seekers. As it turned out, that’s what happened.
Twice we went to the bus station to greet and assist people who were allowed to go to sponsors for the next phase of seeking asylum. We met single folk and families awaiting transportation, paid for by their sponsors, to homes as far away as Michigan. One young couple with a little daughter, the wife pregnant, had difficulties getting funds through Western Union. Mark took the husband to a Walmart’s Western Union counter, but the husband had only a passport, whereas Western Union required two forms of identification. Eventually, Mark was able to resolve the problem of obtaining the funds. As helpful and kind as the bus station staff were, we could and did serve in ways they could not. The bus station mission showed us how important small acts can be to those with so little.
Nina, Mark, and I are grateful for the prayers and financial support so generously given by the churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, and the Episcopal Church in Delaware. We hope that others will want to form teams and head for the border. Asylum seekers are still waiting to be fed.
Alice Edgell, a member of St. Nicholas’ Church in Newark, was a nurse clinical specialist, Maternal Health, through most of her professional life. Now she enjoys the rewarding life of being a grandmother of five. At St. Nicholas’, she has been a member of the vestry and now coordinates the church’s Life in Christ program. For more information about Team Brownsville, see https://www.teambrownsville. org/ firstname.lastname@example.org