While working at a medical clinic in Memphis, Tenn., 10 years ago, Ursuline Sister Jacinta Powers explained why she enjoyed serving the poor.
“Where God wants you is where passion and need intersect,” she said. “I’m always happy serving the poor.”
Sister Jacinta is taking that opportunity again. On Jan. 10, 2020, she departed for Brownsville, Texas, to spend six months making a daily trek across the Mexican border to serve refugees awaiting asylum hearings.
In July 2019, the Trump administration moved to end asylum protections for most Central American migrants. Asylum seekers who first pass through another country are ineligible for asylum at the U.S. southern border. The rule also applies to children who have crossed the border alone.
Exceptions to the rule are those people seeking asylum because they were trafficked or if they can prove they sought protection in a country but were denied. The refugees must wait on the Mexican side of the border for their asylum hearings, which can take three to six months.
Sister Jacinta, who has been serving as a nurse to sisters at the Mount for the past year, expressed an interest to Ursuline leadership in serving at the border. During an October 2019 meeting in Cincinnati among Ursuline leaders, Sister Pat Lynch – assistant congregational leader at Mount Saint Joseph – ran into Sister Norma Raupple from Youngstown, Ohio, who had spent from 1997-2007 ministering in Brownsville. When Sister Pat learned that Sister Norma was planning to take a team of medical students to the border in December for 10 days, she asked Sister Norma if she wanted a sister from Mount Saint Joseph to go with her.
“It turns out she had been praying for another sister to come with her,” Sister Pat said.
Sister Jacinta detailed her Dec. 11-21, 2019 “Bridges at the Border” experience to the Ursuline Sisters in Maple Mount on Jan. 8, 2020. Along with six other women, she daily visited the Diocese of Brownsville Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, run by Catholic Charities. Families who have begun the asylum process are staying there, awaiting a sponsor to pay for a bus ticket to their destination. Sister Jacinta and the other women served breakfast, distributed clothing and made sure the toys the children played with were clean.
Sister Jacinta talked with a little boy who wants to be an architect. He was frustrated that he hasn’t been to school for a year, she said.
Each day the workers loaded a van to make the 45-minute drive to Brownsville. There they unloaded the van into wagons and used the International Bridge to walk across the Rio Grande, which Sister Jacinta said was a similar width as the Green River.
“We saved our cardboard because the refugees use it to pad their bedding,” she said.
Across the river is Matamoros, Mexico, where there are at least 100 tents housing 2,500 to 3,000 people who are hoping to begin the asylum process, Sister Jacinta said.
“We put our stuff on tables. People line up, very orderly, very respectful,” Sister Jacinta said. “Half of the people are kids.”
There was one story of a group of 300 people who left Africa to come to America at the southern border, but only 150 made it alive. They died of starvation or illness or snake bites along the way, Sister Jacinta said.
“They have only what’s on their backs,” Sister Jacinta said. “They wash their clothes and bathe in the river. It’s windy and dusty, there are a lot of upper respiratory infections and illnesses because people can’t wash as they should.”
Despite their hardships, the people remain strong in their faith, Sister Jacinta said. One of the items she was bringing in January were rosaries, because rosaries are taken away from the people – along with other possessions – when they reach the border.
The 10 days of serving the refugees convinced Sister Jacinta that she wanted to use her nursing skills more permanently there.
“Pope Francis and the Gospels say, ‘these are the voiceless people, they have no one,’” she said. “I can join a group to use my God-given talents and what the Ursulines have taught me to help where I can.”
She will be working with volunteer doctors and nurses at Global Response Management, a clinic currently operating in a trailer. A friend of Sister Norma’s offered Sister Jacinta her condo in Brownsville while she serves at the border.
Sister Jacinta has long had a missionary spirit. She briefly served in Chile in 1982, attempted an Ursuline mission in Mandeville, Jamaica, in 2008, and volunteered her nursing skills following a 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
“We need a lot of prayers,” Sister Jacinta told the sisters. “We want people to know the Ursulines stand with refugees.”
Sister Emma Anne Munsterman was at the presentation and said, “Thank you for going for all of us.”
“I couldn’t do it without this community,” Sister Jacinta said.