September 20, 2019

Sisters on the border: Oldenburg Franciscans, lay women assist and are blessed by asylum-seekers in Texas

Franciscan Sister Marge Wissman holds a baby while volunteering in May at a shelter for asylum-seekers in Laredo, Texas. Sister Marge, two other Oldenburg Franciscan sisters and two lay women volunteered for two weeks at the shelter that primarily served those from Central American countries seeking asylum in the U.S. (Submitted photo)

Franciscan Sister Marge Wissman holds a baby while volunteering in May at a shelter for asylum-seekers in Laredo, Texas. Sister Marge, two other Oldenburg Franciscan sisters and two lay women volunteered for two weeks at the shelter that primarily served those from Central American countries seeking asylum in the U.S. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

OLDENBURG—Franciscan Sister Marge Wissman has “always had a heart for immigrants.” She is the daughter of German immigrants who experienced discrimination against people of that nationality in the U.S. during World War II.

So as she observed from a distance the struggles that people from Central America have experienced in recent years in seeking safety in the U.S., she couldn’t sit back and do nothing.

With the support of her Franciscan community in Oldenburg, Sister Marge, two of her fellow sisters and two lay women traveled in May to Laredo, Texas, to volunteer for two weeks at a Catholic Charities shelter that gave aid to people primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador seeking asylum in the U.S.

For these Franciscan sisters on the border—Sister Marge, Sister Amy Kistner and Sister Noella Poinsette—reaching out in love to those in need on the margins of society was simply a way of following in the footsteps of the founder of their order, St. Francis of Assisi.

“He reached out to the leper and all those who were on the outside,” Sister Noella said.

‘They see that life is so fragile’

When they arrived in Laredo, the shelter was just getting started. Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Laredo had established the shelter, which had formerly served domestic abuse victims, because of a recent spike in the numbers of asylum-seekers arriving at the border near the Texas city on the Rio Grande River.

The sisters and two lay volunteers—Ruth Kalin and Tracy Thread—helped organize and staff a room where the asylum-seekers chose second-hand clothing for themselves and the children often traveling with them.

They were brought to the shelter in federal border patrol vans after spending two or three days in often difficult conditions in detention facilities. Their stay at the shelter lasted for a day or two while they waited to travel to unite with relatives in various places in the U.S., where they would stay before court hearings regarding their asylum request.

“When they got dropped off, they looked so tired, so beaten down,” Sister Marge recalled. The immigrants had often fled political or gang violence and worsening economic conditions in their home countries, traveling up to 1,000 miles, sometimes on foot, to arrive at the southern border.

“One guy said, ‘I’m just happy to get this far,’ ” Sister Noella said. “He had such relief. We were happy that we could be there to help them and welcome them.”

“It was a blessing to have the opportunity to be there with them, even though it was for a short duration,” Sister Amy said.

In fact, the sisters felt that they were blessed by those they met as much as they were able to help them.

“We were receiving from them,” Sister Noella said. “We received their acceptance, their gratitude and trust. They always said, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ ”

It was a gift for Kalin to witness a wide range of admirable qualities in the immigrants.

“When you meet them, you see that they’re real people with a sweetness to them,” said Kalin. “And if you get to speak with them, you realize how brave they are. It takes tremendous courage and strength to do what they did.”

Kalin and Thread are associates of the Oldenburg Franciscans, lay people who seek to embody Franciscan values in their everyday lives.

Sister Noella appreciated the newcomers’ perspective on the gift of life.

“They value the person so much more than we do,” Sister Noella said. “They see that life is so fragile, and they don’t know if they’re going to be alive tomorrow—from the death squads and the poverty and everything else that they’ve experienced at home, and then with this journey. They just have this wonderful gift of celebrating life and the love they have for each other.”

In addition to helping provide clothing to the asylum-seekers, the Franciscans sometimes showed them care and concern by just spending time with them.

“One day I saw this kid just sitting alone,” said Sister Noella, who speaks Spanish. “I went up to him and talked with him. He told me that he was going to go to school so he could learn English. So I started teaching him.”

She paused and added, “It’s just part of that simple presence.”

This “simple presence” was also valuable to Sister Noella because of who she saw in the people in need she served.

“They were definitely the suffering body of Christ,” she said.

Changing hearts through their stories

But as blessed as they were in their time in Laredo, the sisters and lay women found their ministry physically and psychologically tiring.

Early on the volunteers, most of whom were in their 70s or 80s, spent many long hours organizing the clothing room.

But serving a constant flow of so many people in need facing so many uncertainties also took its toll.

“Maybe it was just psychologically [tiring] too,” Kalin said. “All these people were coming through. They didn’t know what the future held. We didn’t either. We knew that they had been through something rough. Who knew what lay ahead for them? That must have had an effect in wearing us down, too.”

When Kalin returned to her home in New York City, many of her friends told her that she had done amazing things on the border. Kalin wasn’t so sure.

“It didn’t feel like it was enough,” she said. “It wasn’t so amazing. I felt inadequate. It was so big. It made me frustrated and deeply desirous of being able to do more.”

Sister Marge looks back now with a tempered hope on the time she spent in Laredo.

“You have to come away with some hope that things will change,” she said. “And maybe it’s us and lots of other people that will help it change. I struggle with hope, but I did come away with some hope that things will change. Whether they will or not, I don’t know. But it is a hope and it’s something that I pray for.”

Sister Amy struggles with the misconceptions many people have about the asylum-seekers, often seeing them simply as criminals.

“They’re just ordinary folks that are looking for a better life for their kids,” she said.

Even though she felt she left work to be done at the border, Kalin sees a mission for herself now back at home.

“It empowered me,” she said. “I just came back ready, willing and wanting to talk about what I had done. I wasn’t afraid to talk about it with people who thought differently. I was a witness.”

Sister Noella also feels called to do more locally.

“I’m more motivated to do whatever I can to educate other people,” she said, “to hopefully change hearts through stories and to work to have all of this changed, that we welcome them as the sisters and brothers that they are.”

The concern now is that a Sept. 11 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed a Trump administration rule to be implemented that would deny entry to the U.S. of any asylum-seeker who traveled here through a third country without first seeking asylum there.

The people the volunteers served in Laredo fit into that category. Although they came from troubled home countries, they arrived at the southern border of the United States through Mexico, which is experiencing gang and drug-related violence at a high rate.

Now the shelter, once bustling with asylum-seekers, may soon be empty because of the ruling.

“It’s sad,” Sister Noella said. “It’s heart-wrenching to think that these people who have traveled more than 1,000 miles, sometimes on foot, with little babies, little children, after all that they’ve gone through in their home countries and all they went through in the passage of trying to get to safety for their kids, and then we slam the door shut in their faces.” †

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