BROWNSVILLE—When volunteers from Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief discovered they would be handing out blue medical scrubs for children to wear while their clothes were being washed, they were surprised but undaunted.
The dire situation called for nothing less than that, and Southern Baptist yellow shirts are known for delivering more, not less.
They were there in Brownsville the last two weeks of May, ministering to some of the tens of thousands of children, some as young as 3 years old, who are being sent from Central American countries on a long journey to cross the Rio Grande into the United States.
Many of the children are without their parents or adult guardians.
Once in the U.S., they surrender to Border Patrol agents who take them into custody and detain them in localized facilities meant for 24- to 48-hour stays. Trying to locate their relatives and get them healthcare screenings has backlogged the system and filled detention facilities beyond capacity.
President Obama on June 2 described the border situation in a presidential memorandum as a “serious humanitarian issue.” In the last eight months, 47,000 children have been detained at the U.S.-Mexican border.
GOSPEL LOVE & IMPROVISATION
When DR volunteers from the SBTC saw the wide range of kids—from toddlers to teens—and the short selection of sizes for scrubs, they improvised with duct tape, some children’s pajamas and a few odd size T-shirts. When the weary children finally got a chance for a hot shower, they hitched up their pants and rolled up their sleeves. Some smiled, likely for the first time in a good while.
Jerry Bishop, a “white hat” leader of SBTC DR volunteers from Harmony Hill Baptist Church in Lufkin, said it took just a “little piece of duct tape” to hold the scrubs up on the little children that volunteers ministered to.
The smiles reassured volunteers their expressions of love penetrated the children’s blank stares.
Nearly 50 SBTC DR volunteers from churches including Cedar Bayou Baptist Church in Baytown and First Baptist Church in Burkeville, joined with First Baptist Church in Brownsville in mid-May in this care ministry, providing 1,505 showers, washing 960 loads of laundry, and preparing and delivering approximately 22,500 meals.
Craig Smith, worship and administration pastor at First Baptist Brownsville, where two SBTC DR feeding trailers were set up as kitchens to prepare meals, said the 250-member congregation has about 60-70 disaster relief trained volunteers of its own.
Dogwood Hills Baptist Church in Woodville quickly deployed its water support trailer, which houses two massive water tanks, a water purification unit and a large generator, plus a laundry unit that has four washers and four dryers. Cedar Bayou and Hillcrest Baptist Church in Jasper deployed shower units for a total of nine showers, and an additional two washers and dryers.
SBTC DR operated the shower and laundry units within the Brownsville U.S. Customs and Border Patrol detention center compound.
A CRISIS UNFOLDS
In a telephone press call outlining a government-wide response, White House Director of Domestic Policy Cecilia Munoz underscored the need to “ramp up” efforts to care for what has been a 70 percent increase just since last year in the number of unaccompanied migrant children.
Noting the children in many cases are young and have endured a “harrowing experience” traveling from Latin American countries alone, Munoz said, “This is creating an urgent humanitarian situation which the government is moving to quickly address.”
Obama appointed the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Craig Fugate, to take charge, as the White House asked Congress for an extra $1.4 billion in federal funds to foot the bill.
Mothers and children have also added to the border migration.
At the Brownsville facility, agents distributed diapers and formula. They carefully led women and very small children to one large holding area, girls and women to another, and men and boys to still another.
On an observation deck protected by bullet-proof glass, several agents worked to process files, while watching monitors overhead and activity on the floor beneath them where several more agents interviewed people.
One immigrant sat outside a holding room with a young, obviously ill boy, lying on a concrete bench beside him.
The inhabitants were clearly visible inside each holding room from the observation deck—except those who stepped behind a small cinder block hygiene wall in the rear of each room. Many were wrapped in silver emergency blankets.
In the holding room for men and boys, they were sitting and lying head to toe, with a fan standing in a partially opened doorway. Several small boys stood at the window of the holding room, faces pressed up against the glass, watching agents and others on the floor, glancing up at the observation deck.
SBTC’S RAPID RESPONSE
SBTC DR volunteers learned of the overcrowding in mid-May and just a day later had a team assembled and ready to go, Bishop said. He was told FEMA had requested the help and had the two disaster relief kitchens operated by First Baptist Brownsville onsite to begin producing meals May 15.
“Before we got there border patrol was serving a dry bologna sandwich at 6 a.m. and at 6 p.m.,” Bishop said. “We started serving three meals a day.”
Still, it was challenging, Bishop said, to serve with no utensils to comply with the rules.
FEMA, using government contractors, set up a large tent just outside the compound and began serving meals after breakfast on May 28 in relief of the Southern Baptist volunteers. They also took over shower and laundry operations May 31, said Bishop who rotated the leadership position with two other “white hats.”
The shower and laundry ministry was a full circle operation with children showering while their clothes were being laundered.
Joan Hogue, a DR volunteer from First Baptist Burkeville, hung towels to dry on a clothesline. A few of the children glanced over as they passed, clutching their bags to their chest with one hand and grabbing at their pants with another to prevent them from falling off.
From inside the laundry trailer, Kathy Poplin, also from First Baptist Burkeville, took clothes from a washer and put them in the dryer. Children moved from the showers back inside a building where they sat in an air-conditioned hallway to comb their hair and rub lotion on their chapped skin. After showers they eagerly crunched down a piece of candy from their hygiene kit.
“My heart goes out to these kids,” said Poplin, who was a teacher’s aide for 18 years. “Their lives are just torn apart.”
Glancing down at her hands, Poplin reflected, “It’s like they’re being shoved out to have a better home. It’s so sad.”
One day most of the children were crying before they went into the shower, but by the time they came out they were all smiling. “It was so great to see their faces,” she recalled.
Betty Dufner and her husband Joe have seen a lot of children over the years, but have never had an assignment quite like this one. In charge of a disaster relief childcare unit, they are “blue hats” experienced in running emergency childcare for those age 7 and under.
“This is different, very different,” Betty Dufner said. “We’ve never been to a place like this—but because we love kids, it’s a flexible thing we are doing.”
Checking on her supply of brushes and combs, she made sure to sterilize each one, and to carefully pump mounds of lotion into each child’s hands. She squatted and then kneeled to roll up the pants of one 8-year-old Honduran boy—and then a 12-year-old sitting next to him. Both boys were unusually small.
“Malnutrition,” a border agent whispered.
The teams worked long hours. In the first week it wasn’t unusual for them to stay on the job for 12 or more hours to see that all of the laundry was completed. What helped was that First Baptist Brownsville has two dormitories that can house up to 150 volunteers at a time, complete with showers. That’s where the DR volunteers stayed.
“You’d like to stay until everybody has a shower and gets washed and clean clothes,” Joe Dufner, the pastor of Forest Branch Baptist Church in Livingston, said.
Fugate, the FEMA director, in the June 2 media call, said that as soon as he learned of the dire conditions last month he reached out to volunteer and faith-based partners, such as SBTC DR, to develop a “sufficient and efficient” way to deal with the crisis until resources and facilities could be developed.
The next step is for children to be placed into longer-term facilities, such as a care center operating at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio or Naval Base Ventura County in California, for 30-35 days, until parents or other adult sponsors are found, according to plans outlined in the call.
Munoz said more than 90 percent of the minors are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and “it seems to be quite clear” they are fleeing from violence and fear and poor economic conditions in their own countries. And they wish to reunite with their parents, she said.
That aside, migrant children remain in removal proceedings even after they have been reunited with a parent and there is an incorrect “perception” in Latin American countries that they might be able to stay.
AGONY, HUGS & BIBLES
In Brownsville, diaper boxes still lined the trash cans outside the holding rooms where Bishop said he was finally able to deliver 400 New Testaments to Border Patrol agents who gave them to the children.
For him, talk in Washington, D.C. or in Austin doesn’t matter much when it comes to big-eyed girls with little protection.
“Once you see those little ones who are here without even their parents, 4-year-old little girls especially,” Bishop said, “no one here except them and no parents for them to go back to—it was some bothering times.”
The first to respond, Bishop didn’t know the nature of the assignment until the children literally were walking towards the showers, he said.
“I don’t know how you could send a child like that away, but they did. Someone. Somewhere.”
Smith, the Brownsville worship pastor, said he experienced a couple of “heartbreaking” situations—like the sight of a woman with a 2-week-old infant in detention, and a brother and sister, ages 3 and 5, with no mom or brothers or sisters.
“Just the hopelessness you would see in their eyes—very little expressions—just the thought of all that they had been through must have been agonizing for them,” Smith said.
“I felt bad just giving them a burrito or a bologna sandwich,” Smith said. “They must not have had a meal for several days. It was heartbreaking to see those little bitty kids—mostly teenagers and several young moms—heartbreaking to see what they had to go through to get up to here.”
Politics aside, Smith said while it’s true they have entered the country illegally, “they are men and women who have physical needs for shelter or food, but more importantly they have the need of the love of Christ.”
“We didn’t get into the legal or political aspects,” Smith said. “We are there to visit those in prison and to give food to the hungry as it tells us to in Scripture.”