A Missionary Experience

By Sr. M. Sara Carlson

Once a year, the students of the Newman Center at Texas A & M – Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC) travel to McAllen, TX, to serve at the Catholic Charities Migrant Respite Center. Since I am currently studying at TAMU-CC, I was able to participate in this mission trip last September and would like to share my experience.

We left the Newman Center on September 15 at around 4:15 pm and drove down to McAllen in four cars and one truck filled with donations. Our first destination was the Holy Spirit Renewal Center, connected to the Holy Spirit parish, where we would spend the night and go to the Migrant Center the next morning.

That first night in McAllen, all the missionaries had the opportunity to share thoughts, expectations, experiences, etc. I had brought an image of the Pilgrim Mother (Schoenstatt’s picture of grace) to accompany us, and she was very well received by the group. We saw in her a model missionary and wished to follow her example of going in haste to serve those in need.

The next morning, we began the day with holy Mass and, after a substantial breakfast, got into our cars and headed to the Migrant Center, which was about fifteen minutes away.  

As we arrived, we met other students who had also come on a mission trip that day. Once inside the center, we could see how happy the workers were to see us. There were many people in every corner of the center. The lady in the kitchen shared that they were preparing the noon meal for about 700 people. The building used to be a dance hall, which had been repurposed and was now divided into three areas: the registration/waiting room, a room for resting, and a dining area.

We first entered the registration area, where there were about 300-400 people. Four workers were registering the information and helping migrants with paperwork at the front desk. In the other corner was a large “pharmacy” with some over-the-counter general medicines, hygiene items, and baby items: diapers, bottles, baby formula, etc. People could order the items they needed, which were then put together in a package and distributed according to need.

We then entered the resting room, where about 200 people were sitting on blankets or sleeping on the floor. It was a hard tile floor, and the red cross blankets were very thin, but they looked warm. In the middle of the room, children were playing and running around. It was very noisy, and loud pages often rang through the building announcing a bus departing or someone needing to come to the registration desk. As our group walked by, I smiled at as many people as I could. How happy they were to see a sister! But how many sad and tired faces there were.

The missionaries were then divided and assigned to serve in different areas. Those who could speak Spanish well went to the pharmacy. Some did house cleaning, some went to play with the children, and some went to help prepare the noon meal. I began with janitorial work and then helped serve the meal. The migrants rushed into the dining room at 11:30 am. The organizer in the kitchen directed everyone to sit down and wait until the food was brought to them. About 300 people could fit in the dining room at a time. My arms felt like they would fall off after serving soup for over an hour and a half! We had three large coolers with a thick plastic bag inside to hold the soup, keeping it hot. The soup was for the children, and the adults got a plate of rice, chicken, and beans. Other students helped to carry the metal trays with the bowls or plates filled with food to the people waiting at the tables. It went pretty smoothly, and everyone had something to eat.

I also had the opportunity to visit with some of the families during the meal. I could tell by the expressions on their face and the look in their eyes how much it meant to them that I was interested in their story.

After the noon meal, I went over to play with the children. One little boy with soft, fuzzy brown hair and blue eyes was absolutely fascinated by me and followed me everywhere I went. I played catch with him and a few other boys and then found a storybook to read to them. A little girl approached me, pointed to my face and then to hers, and said in Spanish that we both have freckles. Then she smiled big and sat down to listen to the story. 

As I was reading, this little girl saw how I stumbled over the Spanish words and started correcting my pronunciation, which I enjoyed thoroughly. I then beckoned for her to read it, and she proudly read the rest of the story much better than I could. I started coloring with another little girl, but then I felt a tug on my sleeve. I looked over to see another girl shyly looking at me as she asked: “¿Dónde compraste tu traje?” (Where did you buy your dress?) With a smile I told her, “Mi hermana lo cosió. ¿Te gusta?” (My sister made it. Do you like it?) And she nodded her head vigorously with a big smile on her face.

When I saw all the coloring pages lying around, I wondered if there was some other game we could play with them. There were so few toys to go around for so many children! I took a piece of paper and made a paper airplane. I then threw it across the room. Pretty soon, many little boys started coming to me with a piece of paper. For the next twenty minutes, I was kept busy teaching them how to make paper airplanes. The center of the big room became a warzone of a paper airplane army in full swing.

At one point, I had passed on the image of the Blessed Mother to another missionary but had since lost track of both. After helping clean the large dining room, I went to look for the missionary and the Pilgrim MTA. I found the missionary without the image. “Where could she be?” I asked myself, a little worried. But then I found her right in the middle of the table where the smallest children were sitting. She was surrounded by coloring books, pencils, and crayons of all colors and looked like she really belonged there. I went and started showing her to the children. Some knew it was Mother Mary, but some had no clue.

At this point, it was 2:30 pm, and our plan was to return to the Newman Center by 6 pm. We began gathering our things and sadly said our goodbyes.

It was a very enriching experience for all missionaries and hopefully also for all those we served. In the end, we realized what an easy life we have and how many things we take for granted every day.