This July 4th, while many of us will be enjoying picnics, barbecues and fireworks, two lay women I know will be doing something far more patriotic and appropriate for America’s independence day: helping asylum seekers at our southern border reunite with family members in the U.S.
The two women, Terry Diehl and Dennie Oades-Souther, are lay associates (Oblates) of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, KS, whose Benedictine sisters have also been taking turns serving at the border. Terry and Dennie arrived June 30 to a remote border area near San Diego where Catholic Charities assists those who have walked across the desert for weeks, usually with only small sacks of belongings and little to eat or drink.
The Catholic Charities shelters along the California and Texas border are a version of Ellis Island — only today’s immigrants aren’t greeted by a harbor state welcoming the poor, tired and hungry. They are met by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and forced to depend on the charity of strangers as they embark on a byzantine odyssey through a legal system that might or might not end with them being allowed to remain in the U.S.
Terry and Dennie have been sending daily updates on their work. One of their tasks is to accompany asylum seekers to the airport where they fly out to join family members in other cities like Boston or New York with tickets their families have bought for them. Terry writes of the experience:
“As Dennie and I walked the full length of the bus, past every seat filled with an asylum seeker, it was all we could do to keep from crying. So many kind and gentle people who have suffered so much in their lives, who are so hopeful as they come to our country. No baggage — only a paper sack or backpack or bag given them by Catholic Charities. Such hope. Such faith that God will bring them to safety and a better life.”
Terry told of one family that had walked so long in the desert they arrived with bloody feet. The soles of their shoes had worn through on the journey. A mother and a teenage daughter, “started laughing for joy when I turned on the air conditioning in their room. And when I showed them the shower with hot and cold water, they literally jumped up and down and joyfully danced in circles,” Terry writes.
Contrary to some hateful rhetoric, these folks aren’t hardened criminals, nor are they looking to take advantage of the American welfare system (such as it is). Terry writes of one father from Brazil traveling with his son whose family already has a job in the U.S. lined up for him as a stone mason.
The needs are overwhelming and Catholic Charities depends on donations. All most of the asylum seekers can hope to receive are fresh pairs of socks and underwear, and if fortunate, a new shirt and pants and pair of shoes.
Reading Terry and Dennie’s post make me think of Langston Hughes’ famous poem, “Let America Be American Again,” where he talks about a dream that still leaves so many behind. Hughes wrote the poem in 1935 and it sadly still rings true.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
Terry and Dennie’s dispatches from the border also remind me of something peace activist Marie Dennis of Pax Christi International said at the general meeting of the International Thomas Merton Society last weekend. In the middle of the pandemic last year, the U.S. still managed to spend $778 billion on its military, much of it for weapons and weapons systems.
Despite the poverty that is provoking a global refugee crisis, the nations of the world spent nearly $2 trillion on war-and-weaponry-related expenses.
Something is wrong with this picture. To do nothing to change that while we send off the poor with a pair of underwear and socks and a small sack lunch is to engage in what Pope Francis has called “well-mannered silent violence.”
The Fourth of July won’t mean a day off at the southern border. Terry writes, “Approximately 70 people will be going to the airport but another 100 will be arriving. It should be another long, but blessed day.”
To my mind, Terry and Dennie are American heroes. As Benedictine Oblates, they are living out the message of The Rule of St. Benedict to treat all guests “as Christ, who said I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
They are people trying to make America be America again.
This week, how can we be a part of letting America be America again? A good start might be sending a donation to Catholic Charities of San Diego (https://ccdsd.org/) or of Laredo(https://www.dioceseoflaredo.org/) or any of the other border cities that are serving immigrants.
As Langston Hughes’ poem urges, let equality be with our most vulnerable brothers and sisters and “in the air we breathe.”