WASHINGTON, D.C. — For decades, St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill has been known for providing hospitality in its parish hall to people arriving on buses in Washington for the annual March for Life.
This summer, the parish has similarly opened its parish hall doors on Wednesday and Friday mornings and afternoons to busloads of people arriving in Washington. Since the last week of July, the parish has been welcoming busloads of migrants sent on buses by governors of Texas and Arizona.
“This is what we do as church, to help those in need. There was never a question not to do it,” said Father Daniel Carson, St. Peter’s pastor. “Having done the march, it’s very easy for them (parishioners) to get this set up.”
Molly Pannell, the parish communications and development coordinator, similarly said: “When we first started, I thought, ‘I’m flexing my March for Life muscles here.'”
Instead of coffee cups and boxes of doughnuts lining the tables, the parish hall tables were covered with stacks of diapers, towels, toiletries, shoes, clothes, backpacks, toys and stuffed animals donated by parishioners, friends of the parish, and people in the neighborhood.
Other tables held meals from Chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, and outside at the back of the church were outdoor showers covered in tarp.
“A lot of people are coming with just the clothes on their back. This provides resources for them on the next leg of their journey,” Pannell said. “We’ve really been focusing on living our parish mission statement, ‘To be a tangible manifestation of Christ living in the community.’ This is just a natural outreach of that.”
She said parishioners come before work to set up the donated clothing, senior citizens come in the afternoons to distribute items or play with the children and teens have helped clean up.
Some parish volunteers have driven the migrants to Union Station to catch a bus or train. Parishioners also donated $4,689 to a special collection July 31 to support the outreach.
The parish effort started when Father Brendan Glasgow, the parochial vicar, saw the outreach to migrants arriving by buses at Washington’s Union Station.
He spoke to a representative of SAMU First Response — an international humanitarian agency playing a leading role in serving the migrants — and learned that one of their biggest needs was having a space to welcome them in a dignified way.
“Seeing the need is where it starts,” said Glasgow. “There’s a real need for these people to be shown the face of Christ through us. … They’re people looking for a better life. Some have traveled a long way. … Even though we’re welcoming them, what lies in store for them next is still unknown.”
He thought St. Peter’s large, air-conditioned parish hall would be a good location for offering that hospitality, and partnering with SAMU, the parish welcomed the first bus a week after he had this discussion.
When the parish announced this outreach, it received some negative comments on social media but he said that didn’t stop them because “we are church. It’s not political. It’s to fill a need for our brothers and sisters.”
On the afternoon of Aug. 5, a large bus pulled up outside St. Peter’s Church after traveling about 2,640 miles over two days from Somerton, Arizona, on the state’s southwest border with Mexico.
The 27 migrants stepping off the bus, mostly families, included a mother holding a little girl’s hand, and a father carrying his young son. A woman outside the bus tearfully greeted her reunited family members.
Those family reunifications are “beautiful moments,” said Tatiana Laborde, the managing director of SAMU First Response in Washington.
She was joined that afternoon by seven SAMU staff members who guided the arriving migrants to the parish hall and met with them to assist with plans for the next step of their journeys and to help most of them connect with family members or friends.
In April, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington began assisting the migrants arriving on the first buses sent from Texas, and SAMU First Response was one the agencies supporting their efforts.
In June, SAMU received a grant from the Emergency Food and Shelter Program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since then the organization has played a leading role in working with other outreach programs in the metropolitan area to serve the six to 15 busloads of migrants arriving in Washington each week from Texas and Arizona. It also has been providing the asylum-seekers with up to three nights of shelter in Maryland.
Laborde said many of the migrants arriving on recent buses are originally from Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and Nicaragua. Some are fleeing violence, the political situations or the economic crises.
Some of the migrants flew to Mexico and then made their way to the U.S. border, others traveled by land, including Venezuelans whose journey included walking through jungles and mountainous regions and traveling by canoes over rivers.
“They’re asylum-seekers, allowed to be legally in the country,” she told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper.
The migrants arriving at the parish hall Aug. 5 went from table to table picking out clothes, helping their children try on shoes and then relaxing with a meal from World Central Kitchen. One young boy hugged his new stuffed animal tightly.
Jorge Esteves, his wife, Catherine Ariza, and their children Emilio, 4, and Tiogo, 1, from Colombia, were among the families finding respite at the parish that afternoon. Emilio had a new Spider-Man backpack and held onto trucks that he picked up at the toy table.
Through an interpreter, Esteves said his family is Catholic and that they had left Colombia because they couldn’t find economic opportunities there and were concerned about their children’s educational future.
He had worked in a bakery and done construction work. Now, the family planned to connect with friends in North Carolina, where he hoped to provide new opportunities for his children.
As the migrants sat at tables in St. Peter’s parish hall, Glasgow chatted with some of them in Spanish, including a mother and son from Peru, who said the next leg of their journey would be in Georgia.
The priest said most of the migrants stopping at the parish are Catholic. “Regardless of their faith background … I can give them a blessing,” he said. Praying with the migrants has been a special experience for him, he added.
After one group of migrants arrived at the parish on a 6 a.m. bus and had breakfast there, Glasgow invited them to join him at the 7:30 a.m. Mass he would be celebrating upstairs in the church.
“About one-half of the group went up to Mass. … I just said, ‘We can give thanks to God.’ (It was) this beautiful moment, a regular morning Mass with people wearing business suits, and (these) people came as they are.”
Parish volunteers said they were happy to do their part to help out. Volunteer Kay O’Brien said she doesn’t speak Spanish, but has communicated through smiles and by playing with the children.
Tatiana Laborde of SAMU First Response, who is Catholic and a native of Colombia, praised the partnerships with Catholic Charities and St. Peter’s Parish that her agency has had in serving the migrants.
“We couldn’t do it without the Catholic Church,” she said. “Seeing the important role of the Catholic Church in serving the migrants… has given a booster to my faith and has reminded me of our role as Catholics.”
She said she was happy to see the migrants smile, catch their breath and get some rest. Laborde feels heartbreak over what they have endured but also admires their resilience.
“It also gives you hope,” she said. “They’ve made it to a safe place, and this is the beginning of the next chapter.”
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.