Respite at the Border: Many Faces with Many Voices

We would like to thank John Tieken for sharing this reflection of the visit he and fellow Grace Presbytery members recently made to the border. Members of First Presbyterian Church of Henderson, TX—John, Michele Goff, Scott Hurst, Tom Laney, Claudia Morgan-Gray, and Kathy Porter—share their observations of what refugees and asylum seekers experience during their journey northward and beyond. A PDA National Response Team Member since 2012, John has made this journey before:


About 5 years ago I was on a PDA deployment to the Texas Rio Grande Valley unrelated to the refugee situation. While we were there, on our day off we visited the Respite Center and it was a life changing event for me. This was our third visit from FPC Henderson, Texas. Our biggest takeaway is to get the word out to as many people as possible as to the desperate needs on our southern border.

In February 2019, six of us traveled to the known border community in McAllen, Texas to assist at the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center. Three of us had worked at the Center before. For the other three, this was their first journey on this mission adventure. Whether it was the third journey or the first, there is a real and stark awakening that occurs. A physical, spiritual, emotional, educational and even political awakening takes place. Come on the journey with us through our eyes, hearts and minds.

The Center on Hackberry Avenue is quiet on the outside—but behind the door you step into a 1950’s era abandoned nursing home full of Spanish- and English-speaking people, some organized and some not so organized chaos, and a sea of God’s people some helping some being helped. Amid the chaos, fear, fatigue and uncertainty, we also found God’s grace.

For this journey, let’s set the politics aside and focus on the human and spiritual elements.


We wonder if we would be as gracious as those who passed through the Respite Center while we were there. Honestly, we’re not sure. Their journeys are long and hard, their destinations unknown and unfamiliar, and their reception is uncertain and, in many ways, unwelcoming. And yet…they journey, they hope, they pray, they appreciate, and they believe.

For our part, whether it was comforting a small girl who was scared, crying and holding tight to two sheets of the foil blankets that are now her only belongings, or being there for a worried and caring father who wants to express his deep appreciation to you taking time to help his young daughter, or the absolute wave of gratitude when a young girl about 3 or 4, wraps her little arms around your legs to give you a hug to say Gracias with her whole being, there was no part of our soul that was not touched during this journey.

Little things are important to these travelers: shoelaces, bars of chocolate, a shower and clean warm towel, a meal, a friendly face, a smile, a kind word or gentle touch. We help free these travelers of the physical evidence of their detention. Yes, we give them back tangible items like shoestrings, belts and hair ties—but truly we are giving them more non-tangible items like identity, dignity, compassion, and human assistance.

But it was more than that. There were many Holy Spirit moments of connection. One among us came with an open-mind and a backpack full of candy. He returned with a full-heart and an empty backpack. Our effort to communicate in their language was appreciated and amusing but they laughed with us not at us and the laughter filled other voids. Holy Spirit moments when the ever so insignificant act of kindness became an ever-so-significant act, and moments when through act/deed/word we let another person know that they are welcomed, safe from the current storm, seen and loved. Yes, Holy Spirit moments.

It didn’t take long to move beyond the labels of immigrant and refugee and simply see a stream of dislocated and desperate humanity—mothers from Honduras and fathers and children from Guatemala. So, we ask you: What conditions would necessitate this kind of journey for you? How unbearable/dangerous would things have to be before you would be courageous enough to take this same journey? The Respite Center truly provides respite for these men, women, and children when they need it most. Directly from detention centers, many of them are fearful when they arrive. It was a little surprising how quickly that fear gave way to the calm release of unexpected joy with a smile, a nod or sharing a piece of chocolate! 

We did our best to help where needed and fill in the gaps along with other volunteers from outside of the area. We met volunteers from Seattle, Wisconsin, Florida, and California. But this and other respite centers stay afloat because of the very dedicated local volunteers who have made it their calling, their mission, and their vocation. They are ever-present welcoming the refugees with warm smiles, joyful hearts and assistance. Their dedication, determination and grit have put a process in place that works. They work tirelessly and it is without question inspired by God.

As long as there is a need for these respite centers, we will continue to go and help. Want us to save you a seat?


As John mentioned above, what is happening to asylum seekers at the border has brought many individuals and congregations to “Holy Spirit moments”. These powerful revelations are driving the devotional response within our connectional church. If the Spirit is calling you to help our brothers and sisters in need but you don’t know where to begin, please consider some of the following options.



Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center has set up an Amazon Wishlist for much needed items such as shoes, clothes, and toddler and baby supplies. You may also look up “Catholic Charities RGV” under Find a List.

Please note: when ready to purchase item(s) needed for the center, please select the Humanitarian Respite Center (In-Kind) address listed for the shipping.

To support these and other Presbyterian-connected ministries, you may also donate to U.S. Refugee Emergencies. PDA has already released several grants through the Presbyteries in the region and will continue to do so as funding is available.


First Presbyterian Church of McAllen is hosting volunteer work teams and partnering with the Sacred Heart Welcome Center where “Refugees” (actually Asylum Seekers) usually arrive at the Welcome Center in groups.  Volunteers are needed to greet and assist refugees from Central America and South America brought to Sacred Heart Welcome Center by the U.S. Border Patrol.

  • Contact the PDA Call Center for more information: email or call 866-732-6121
  • Training is provided
  • Adult groups and inter-generational groups are welcome, minimum age for volunteers is 14
  • Maximum team size is 15
  • Spanish language skills are helpful but not essential


Advocate for just and compassionate U.S. policies toward refugees and other forced migrants. Call House and Senate Judiciary Committee Members today! Please call the Senators and Representatives from your state.


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