One man was escaping gang violence, another death threats due to his sexuality. A father sought a safer home for his children than conflict-ridden El Salvador. Reading about the issues asylum seekers face is not the same as meeting them and hearing their stories face-to-face.

So this summer, a group of congregants from Montclair’s Union Congregational Church headed to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist asylum seekers.

“It was transformative,” said the Rev. David Shaw. “It changes you when you look into people’s eyes. When you look into people’s eyes, it generates empathy and the desire to help and do something concrete.”

Most were from Central America and fleeing gang violence in their home countries, said Shaw, who was among those who went from the church.

The Montclair group helped serve meals, hand out supplies such as shoelaces and belts, and read stories to children, to people in Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico — two cities on opposite sides of an international bridge. The people, many with children, were waiting for their turn to apply for asylum in the U.S. Some had been waiting for six months.

Originally church officials and members planned to take a trip to Mexico in the summer to learn about migrant shelters along the refugees’ border routes. But after the refugee crisis reached new heights this year, with children being separated from their parents, members decided their efforts should be directly working with groups aiding migrants arriving in the U.S.

Hearing about Team Brownsville, which aids migrants and refugees in southern Texas, church officials reached out and asked to get involved.

A group of five from Union Congregational set out on June 27 and returned on July 4.

The Union Congregational group worked with other Team Brownsville volunteers to prepare meals at a homeless shelter on the Texas side of the international bridge. The volunteers would then cross the bridge into Mexico by foot, with food-packed coolers in tow, and serve meals to people waiting in the plaza in Matamoros.

The involved groups, in addition to Team Brownsville, included Iglesia Bautista, a local church with an extensive outreach ministry for homeless people, and a respite center in McAllen, Texas run by Catholic Charities. Each day, about 120 people would line up and wait to be served. Women and children are served first.

Mike and Catherine Spinella decided to get involved after hearing guest preachers talk about the situation at the border.

The people in the plaza were always very grateful for the food, the assistance and the camaraderie, Mike Spinella said. “Which is amazing, considering everything they’ve been through.”

Montclair church refugees border
Volunteers help serve refugees waiting in a plaza in Matomoros, Mexico, just across a bridge from Texas. COURTESY REV. DAVID SHAW

A man from Cuba spent 20 minutes recalling his story with them one evening, he remembered. The man said he had been forced to flee Cuba because he had been threatened over his sexuality. He walked through Panama and Mexico before arriving at the border. The man spent so much time walking through rivers that his toenails had softened, Spinella said.

But in spite of everything, the man was in good spirits.

A family, including four children, left El Salvador after gangs threatened the father in order to extract higher rent.

“He told us, ‘I knew that they meant it because they’ve already murdered my brother,’” Shaw said.

Another man came from Cameroon, by way of Brazil and Venezuela, fleeing ongoing conflict in that country.

The daytime temperatures in the plaza near the bridge can easily exceed 100 degrees, and there is only one tree to provide shade, Shaw said. But when a volunteer brought out his ukulele and played music, and everyone clapped along.

The people waiting in the plaza do not have easy access to laundry facilities or shower facilities.

At one shelter in Texas, released migrants could shower and put on clean clothes. Some people would spend as long as 10 minutes in the shower. Teenage boys were overjoyed to brush their hair and put gel in it for the first time in months, said Shaw.

The group also worked with people waiting at a bus station in Brownsville, the first place many people go after they are released from detention.

Shaw said it was easy to tell which people had just been released from detention, because they did not have belts or shoelaces. Those items are confiscated by border patrol officers due to a perceived suicide risk. Shaw said however that no migrant has attempted suicide to date and he called the confiscating of belts and laces dehumanizing and humiliating.

The group’s work also took them to a Catholic Charities respite center in McAllen, close to another detention center.

“At one point I was holding a baby so her mom could shower,” Catherine Spinella said. She spent time reading to children, with some books donated from a Spanish-language bookstore in Washington Heights. “The power of a story, of children just wanting to be read to,” she said.

At the bus station, the group helped hand out small toys and coloring books for children, and snacks and baby supplies.

Shaw found himself being interviewed by journalists from international media, including from France, Germany and Japan.

“The world cannot believe that this is happening in the United States,” he said.

Back in the United States, some members of Union Congregational are now coordinating collections of belts, shoelaces and baby supplies. The church also wants to get involved in outreach efforts at the ICE detention center in Essex County. The group also attended the Lights for Liberty vigils in Montclair and Verona Park.

“You’re dealing with an inhumane situation, and you’re seeing all the goodness of the people, at the same time you’re seeing the impact of policies that are not humane,” Catherine Spinella said.

The church group is now determined to get involved in immigration policies.

“Because we see how broken the system is,” Shaw said. “We just want to get the word out that it’s important for people of good conscience to do this.”