Associate Peggy Baker serves at the border

Associate Peggy Baker was awarded the province’s second annual Giraffe Award by Sister Maureen Freeman at the July Assembly. The award is given to a sister or associate who “sticks her or his neck out” for a social concern that benefits the Dear Neighbor. Associate Carolyn Henry received the award in 2015 for her work with water purification in Uganda.


Stories of Justice
Associate Peggy Baker: Sharing the Universal Language of Love at the Border

By Mary Flick, CSJ, Justice Coordinator

It’s been three months since Associate Peggy Baker’s stay at Nazareth/Loretto House, a shelter for immigrants in El Paso, Texas. But the images are still so fresh in her memory: the look of fear in the faces of the women and children who enter the door; the dust caked on every exposed piece of flesh; the hand and body gestures Peggy used to assure the newest guests that they are safe.

Peggy found herself volunteering for two weeks at Annunciation House in El Paso, a shelter for immigrants who have crossed the U.S. Mexico border. She was one of three volunteers in late April whose job it was to welcome hundreds of newly arrived refugees from Central and South America.

The people come off the bus, holding black boxes and children, Peggy tells. “Their eyes are like those from Auschwicz. They do not cry or complain. They have walked for days to get to the U.S.”

The bus has brought the group, mostly women and children, from the for-profit detention center. Many have been separated from their husbands or older sons, who remain detained by Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The women arrive at the shelter’s door, wearing GPS bracelets around their ankles, their children carrying a “black box” which must be plugged in to recharge the bracelet’s battery.

They are welcomed by a cadre of volunteers. Those who are fluent in Spanish do the intake interviews. Others make phone calls to relatives in the states, insuring that arrangements have been made for the plane or bus tickets that will reunite them with their recently arrived loved ones.

Non-conversant in Spanish, Peggy says she spent six to eight hours each day, literally, running up and down the halls of the shelter, a former nursing home owned by the Loretto Sisters. Quite simply, she did “grunt work”: giving the newly arrived towels and hygiene packs, taking them to the showers, escorting them to dinner, showing them their beds for the night. All within 24 hours. Before the next bus arrives with the new day’s refugees.

“The whole project is purely humanitarian,” she says. “These are people who have come across the bridge asking for amnesty. They are declaring credible fear.” But, she says, after their hearing date, scheduled within 90 days in the city where they are headed, most will be sent home. “They have to prove credible fear,” Peggy says. “That is hard to prove,” despite the threats of death, kidnapping and gang activity in their neighborhoods.

Peggy has high regard for the area residents who assist the relief effort as they are needed. Nightly meals are provided by neighboring parishes. “One night, a group brought in pizza. The kids loved it. Pizza is a universal food.”

Then there is the need for transportation. “One of my jobs was to contact other volunteers in the community for rides. I would call someone on our list and ask if they would take a mother and her two children to the bus station or airport the next day. In my two weeks there, no one ever told me ‘No.’”While she was there, Peggy says Nazareth/Loretto welcomed nearly 500 refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil. Contrary to the image created by the media and by politicians, only two families came from Mexico during her two-week stay.

Brazil is in a terrible economic state, she reports. Those from El Salvador are fleeing from the violence and killings of gangs. Guatemala is in drought, leaving many of its people facing starvation. The journey through Mexico is hot and dry. The refugees arrive, caked with dust.

Peggy remembers one young mother arrived, carrying twins; her two-year-old was clutching at her skirt. “I motioned to the mother I would hold her babies for her while she showered. She shook her head ‘no.’ All four got in the shower together. They don’t ever want to be separated.”

But many are separated – from their husbands and older sons, who are kept in detention centers. The for-profit detention centers are dependent on keeping their beds full. “Friday is the day when the lowest number of refugees come to the shelter,” Peggy says, “because the owners want their beds filled for the weekend. It is like a for-profit prison.”

Peggy says the one word that best captures what she experienced in El Paso is hope. “I’ve never seen hope like this before,” she says. “These people have walked for days. Mostly, they want a better life for their children.”

These insights assure her that her decision to go was worthwhile. “I do plenty here,” Peggy shares from her home in Kansas City. She currently is involved on the board of Journey to New Life serving women recently released from prison; and she serves on the boards of CSJ Mission Advancement in Kansas City, Rockhurst University Library Guild, and Ladies of Charity, and just completed six years on the board of St. Teresa’s Academy. She also is a parish council member at St. Terese Little Flower, and volunteers at Missouri Catholic Charities Hospice. “But I wanted to broaden my horizon and better understand immigration. I don’t want to hear politicians talk about it. I wanted to see the people myself and tell them we love them and we hope that something works out for them. It was a chance to understand more of what’s going on in the world.”

Not knowing Spanish, Peggy relied on the universal language of love and her own game of Charades, using hand and body gestures to communicate. “When I wanted to take them for a shower, I put my hands over my head and moved my fingers, like water coming down,” she says. “I was constantly patting and hugging so they knew the message was good. They would just smile and laugh. It is amazing how we communicated.”

In the evenings, she and the volunteers stayed in a 15-room convent owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas.” It was like making a two-week mission retreat,” Peggy says. “We were busy all day, meeting the needs of the immigrants. In the evenings, we made dinner, had great conversation, shared prayer, exchanged stories, watched TV.”

She cites the media’s impact on the limited U.S. understanding of the immigration issue. “There is so much on TV about ‘those people,’” she says. “They are God’s people. Why serve them differently?” Her commitment as an associate to the CSJ charism of serving the dear neighbor without distinction is what motivated her to go.

“I went with the charism in my heart,” she says, “I worked with the dear neighbor with the mindset and heart-set that there is no distinction.”

“We can’t imagine what these people have been through. What makes you leave everything you know and have and start that trek? That fear has to be pretty bad.”

She says she already is making plans to return to Nazareth/Loretto in early spring. And she hopes others will seek out their own two weeks or a few days at the border.

“It raises awareness,” she says of time at the border. “If people could just go down and see it,” she says, “Spend some time there and observe what’s happening. Then come back and tell 20 people in a meeting about what you saw.”

 It’s one way of changing the world: one story, one person at a time.

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