A couple of weeks ago, I went to volunteer at a shelter for migrant families in Laredo, Texas. This shelter houses Central American parents and children for just a few days, from the time they are released from the custody of Border Patrol until the time they leave to meet their sponsor families elsewhere in the United States.
In these few days, employees, partners and volunteers of the shelter welcome the families and make sure they aren’t suffering from serious diseases. They provide the families with a phone call to their loved ones, give them a set of clean clothes to wear, let them shower, tend to their first aid needs, feed them a hot meal, provide a clean bed for them to sleep in, and make sure they are sent on to their destinations in a timely fashion.
Each of these families will eventually have a day in court, where our justice system will decide if they have a claim to asylum in our country. Ultimately, 88% of all asylum seekers will be deported back to their countries of origin. A few families will be granted shelter here for the longer-term.
For two weeks I’ve been thinking. What do I write about this experience? What do I say that hasn’t been said? What do I tell that won’t make people retreat into their political corners? How do I bring something constructive to the table? How do I make a difference?
I’m not going to go in-depth about the people I saw or the stories they told. I’m not going to talk about politics, or economics, or even immigration.
I’m going to talk about Bob.*
I didn’t particularly like Bob. He came to the shelter from one of the richest churches in upstate Texas. He was tall and skinny and grumpy and bossy. He led his small volunteer group with confidence, and settling in, chose the laundry room as his work area. For the next couple of days, Bob worked hard. He cleaned and organized the basement laundry room, sorted cleaning supplies, and washed and folded load after load of linens for the bedrooms upstairs.
While Bob folded, I was working next door in a makeshift nursery, sorting and disinfecting donated toys. I brought him a load of dingy stuffed animals to wash. We talked briefly, and though I invited no discussion, he made it a point to tell me what he thought of the whole asylum business, that mass of humanity flooding into South Texas and trickling into the shelter in Laredo.
“They shouldn’t even be coming here,” he said bitterly. Then he turned and popped another load of sheets into a washing machine.
End of conversation.
Later that evening, in the same laundry room, I listened to another volunteer speak.
“Did you hear what Bob said?” she asked. “He said that as long as people are coming here, we need to help them.”
It’s been a rough few weeks since I got home. Mass shootings. Suffering. Political strife. And what can we do to fix it? What can we do that hasn’t been done? What can we say that won’t make people retreat to their political corners? How can we bring something constructive to the table? How can we make a difference?
We can be like Bob.
Bob was grouchy. He was bitter. Bob looked at the world around him, and he deeply disagreed with the people he met. He was troubled and angry with the way things were going. Enough so to tell a perfect stranger how he felt.
But Bob saw people in need — the exact same people who made him so angry — and he helped them. He washed their dirty bedclothes and ate lunch at their table. He served them.
“You shouldn’t even be here, but since you are, I’m going to serve you.”
“I don’t like what you’re doing, or what you stand for, but I’m going to take care of you.”
What a Christ-like statement.
We don’t need to go to the border to find people who make us angry. We can do it here in Sedalia, I’m sure. But we need to get off our butts and actually do it. Love the people we find unlovable. Serve the folks we disagree with. Fulfill the needs of the needy, whether or not they “deserve” anything from us and whether or not we “get anything” out of it.
The radical preacher Father Daniel Berrigan once said, “Faith is rarely where your head is at. Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!”
By that measure, Bitter Bob, with his handful of laundered linens, is so close to the solution to our problems, the Kingdom of God.
*Bob’s name ain’t really Bob.