Catholic leaders praise outreach to migrants arriving on buses at St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill – Catholic Standard

Two Catholic leaders involved in advocating for and serving immigrants praised the outreach recently launched at St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill to offer hospitality and help to migrants arriving on buses sent to Washington, DC, by the governors of Texas and Arizona following an influx of immigration at their borders.

St. Peter’s, partnering with the SAMU First Response humanitarian organization, has opened up its parish hall to welcome the arriving migrants on Wednesday and Friday mornings and afternoons. Parish volunteers collect and sort donated clothing and other items for the migrants, who rest and receive breakfast or lunch at the hall after their long rides, and SAMU team members assist them in joining family members or friends, and help them find an initial place to stay and plan for where they will go to live and find employment.

On July 29, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville, the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, visited the outreach at St. Peter’s parish hall, joined by Father Daniel Carson, the pastor, and Father Brendan Glasgow, the parochial vicar there.

“We spent some time with a group of close to 50 people coming in on a bus, being hosted by St Peter’s,” the bishop said.

Bishop Dorsonville said his first impression after getting into conversations with the migrants was that they are experiencing “a lot of fear and uncertainty about what life is going to look like.”

He said some were worried about returning to their country of origin.

The bishop said the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration emphasizes welcoming migrants and advocating for them, and stresses the importance of reuniting migrants with family members in the United States.

Bishop Dorsonville said, “Another thing that surprised me was the amount of people who asked me for rosaries. They were offering to pray. Most of them were Catholic. They are our brothers and sisters. Most of them are immigrating to the United States because of fear of persecution and lack of opportunities to develop life in their countries.”

He said the immigrants arriving on the buses whom he met that day included people from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. “It’s a very unstable situation for many of them. Still there’s much faith and confidence in what God hath for them, and there is a lot of gratitude for what the archdiocese and St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill are doing for them.”

The bishop praised the work of SAMU First Response in assisting the newcomers as they arrived at St. Peter’s.

Bishop Dorsonville noted that the migrants asked him “to pray for them and with them. We prayed with them, and they were very powerful and serious about their prayers, especially those looking for their relatives.”

The bishop added, “I think there’s a misunderstanding about the human crisis these families are going through, because more than something we have to be afraid of, I would say they are a huge opportunity for us to serve and express our solidarity to those who need it the most. If we really want to follow the teachings of the Gospel, we can’t be indifferent to those who experience the pain and the loneliness that migrants have to go through.”

Bishop Dorsonville praised the solidarity and spirit of welcome shown by the volunteers and outreach workers at St. Peter’s. “More than giving them things or food, what they (the migrants arriving on the buses) really appreciated is the presence of priests, seminarians, lay people who were listening to them,” he said. “We were praying with them and spending time with them. That is what really made the difference in what they are grateful for. It’s not just about receiving things. It’s talking to a person who speaks the same language and prays with them and understands their problems.”

Also praising St. Peter’s outreach was Holy Cross Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, the executive director of the Newcomer Network of Catholic Charities of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. She helped lead the outreach of Catholic Charities DC to the migrants when the buses first started arriving in Washington this spring.

“What St. Peter’s is doing is exactly what’s needed,” she said. “I’m so proud of St. Peter’s and of the archdiocese for stepping forward and welcoming the stranger in this way.”

When the first bus carrying migrants from Texas arrived at Union Station in mid-April, on Wednesday of Holy Week, followed by another bus on Holy Thursday and another on Good Friday, Catholic Charities DC welcomed and assisted the migrants as they stepped off the buses .

“They looked shell-shocked, exhausted and hungry. They wanted a shower and clean clothes,” Sister Sharlet.

Catholic Charities then provided a variety of services to the arriving migrants, depending on their needs, including giving them diapers for their babies, clothing, blankets, and bus tickets to get them closer to their destinations, which she said included New York, Maine, New Jersey and back across the country to Houston, St Louis and Chicago. “We needed to find places for them to stay,” she said, noting that only about 10 to 15 percent of the migrants assisted by Catholic Charities wanted to stay in Washington.

Three staff members from Catholic Charities DC – Deacon Trinidad Soc, Jenny Cachaya and Haley Drier – talk with migrants who arrived in Washington, DC, on April 28, 2022, after being transported on a bus from Texas. (Catholic Charities DC photo)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is running for re-election and who is believed to have presidential aspirations, has been highly critical of President Joseph Biden’s immigration policies. The Texas governor’s website describes busing the migrants to Washington and recently to New York as a “mission…to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed border communities.” The website also says that Gov. Abbott “notes that more than 6,000 people have been bused to Washington, DC, since the April launch of the mission, but thousands more illegally cross the border each day.” Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey said in early August that he has sent about 1,000 migrants on buses to Washington, DC, during the past several months.

Sister Sharlet, who is an immigration lawyer, noted, “Some people don’t realize these people (the migrants arriving on the buses) are all here legally…They are legally present in the country. They have been permitted to enter the United States temporarily in order to pursue their asylum claim. If they are granted asylum they will be able to stay. If their application for asylum is denied and they do not have any other path to immigration status, then they will need to leave the country.”

She added, “I leave politics to the politicians. I hope the politicians and decision makers recognize these are human beings and not pawns to be moved around.”

In June, SAMU First Response received a FEMA grant to provide assistance to the migrants arriving in Washington on buses. Catholic Charities, which had been assisting the migrants one day a week and had been playing a leading role in the outreach, began assisting SAMU as that humanitarian organization became the lead agency, supported by other area aid groups.

Sister Sharlet said Catholic Charities continues to support SAMU in that outreach to the migrants, including by providing fact sheets in Spanish and English to the newcomers with frequently asked questions about immigration law. Catholic Charities also continues to provide donations of clothing, diapers, shoes and snack packs to SAMU for the migrants.

Some of the migrants who arrived in Washington on the buses are enrolled in Navigator Program of Catholic Charities’ Newcomer Network, to help them find a job and a place to stay so they can become integrated into the community. The Spanish Catholic Center has also been helping some of the new arrivals, and Catholic Charities’ immigration attorneys have also been providing assistance to the migrants.

Reflecting on the migrants who have been arriving at Union Station and are now also being welcomed at St. Peter’s Parish, Sister Sharlet said, “They all have different stories. What they have in common is they are all searching for a better life. They are all searching for safety. They are all searching for opportunity. They are all searching for peace.”

The Holy Cross sister said she thinks about what it would be like if she or a loved one had to flee for their lives from their country, which she said some of the migrants are doing.

“We can’t forget these individuals are human beings with human needs, fears and dreams, and we are called to see them as God’s children and treat them as we would want to be treated or as we would want our loved ones to be treated in a similar situation,” she said.

Sister Sharlet added, “Scripture tells us we are called to welcome the stranger. That is what Catholic Charities is trying to do, and what I would hope we would all as people of faith be called to do.”

Related story and column:

St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill offers hospitality to migrants arriving on buses, because ‘this is what we do as Church’

Responding in love to the growing crisis