Operation Bienvenida began in October 2018 in Diocese of San Bernardino. Bishop Gerald Barnes was concerned about the situation of parents and their children being dropped off at bus stations by the Border Patrol.
We were able to receive families during Thanksgiving week. They were seeking asylum from the violence and the war-like atmosphere in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. We were also able to help three women and their children from Pakistan and a family from Cuba.
One family told me that vicious gang members shut off all water access to their town and all were forced to leave. Another family from El Salvador fled because they witnessed their neighbors being killed in front of them – one was a mother holding her infant son. They were told if they talked, they would be next. Another mother told me her child was kidnapped, so to save her other child, they left with just the clothes on their backs.
Both violence and crime are destroying the quality of life for these families in their own country. They come to the United States to beg for asylum.
So far, our parish in Coachella, California has helped over three thousand to be resettled with family or friends here in the United States. Many traveled East during the cold winter and stormy months.
When they arrive in Coachella, we provide them with two changes of clothing, warm food and a hot shower. They stay with us for two or three days. Catholic Charities then helps the families with bus tickets to places like Rhode Island, New Jersey, Iowa, Boston, and Florida. Three or four days on a bus with a small child is very difficult. I make sure they have a blanket, coloring books, small toys and warm clothing for the journey. We give them a bag lunch of one meal and two bottles of water. I tell them to reuse their bottle and refill it every time the bus driver stops at a rest area. I tell them to buy a burger combo and share it with their child so they will not get sick with a full stomach as well as help save the few dollars the family members sent to help them on their journey.
This is all made possible by donations from the local churches. I am in charge of collecting and sorting all donations. This is my volunteer work in addition to my parish work as Director of Youth Ministry and Confirmation.
This Easter, I had an AWE moment with God as I received 30 people getting off the Border patrol bus. I saw in their faces the Resurrection to New life of Christ. Tears rolled down my cheeks as they came off with fear in their eyes and hunger in their bellies. We welcome them with applause and a welcome line of those who came the day before all looking to see if they can see friends they had met while in the custody of Border Patrol. Smiles and words of welcome ring out to the new arrivals. We then provided them with clothing, hygiene items and a warm shower and a bed. Many had been sleeping on the floor and not eating well at all.
Our greatest need is for food, medication, clothing, and hygiene items as we process about 100 families a week. Donations are coming in from other Christian and Jewish faith communities as well. Physical development due to a lack of nourishment is a problem. A ten-year old child wears clothes normally use for a 6-year old child. Teens are so small that they wear pants normally used for 7 and 8-year old children. Underclothes, socks, and change of clothing are limited in supply. Since we do not have no laundry facilities for them to use, they wash their clothing in the bathrooms and put them in the sun to dry.
This year I was privileged to share my home with a mom and her two-day old daughter. She was in labor as she crossed the border and was rushed to the hospital. The next day Border Patrol asked if we could house her. I said yes. I knew she and her baby needed a place to heal and bond away from the noise and crowded space with 100 people. She stayed with me a few days until I was able to put her on a bus to New Jersey in March to reunite her with her aunt who was waiting for them.
I see so many fathers trying to save the lives of their teenage boys. Some of these boys have been tattooed as property of the vicious street gangs that rule their towns.
Their stories send me to my knees pleading for someone to hear the cries of the poor and abandoned children of God. It is taking our community countless volunteer hours to cook, clean and prepare items to welcome them. Every day there are new challenges and heart piercing stories that unfold.
I love sharing with them views of green trees and rivers. We discuss how cold snow is. They share their experiences of the long crossing of the desert landscape of Texas. I shared stories about various farming and agricultural jobs in sections of the United States.
I love seeing their smiles when we show them on the map where they are and where they are going as they cross the United States with a bag lunch, a backpack of clothing, and dreams of a new life.
As a Missionary Servant this is our call to serve the poor and abandoned and to support families. I am so glad to be a part of the humanitarian aid. I am proud to be a part of the Missionary Cenacle Family who is helping in this major humanitarian crisis. I never dreamed that God would be calling me to help those dreaming of a new life of Hope, Peace and Love.
Sr. Florence, MSBT