Greeting Weary Travelers with Compassion

by Foster Dennin | December 13, 2022

By Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, CSC

Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, CSC, Executive Director of the Newcomer Network

On April 12, Catholic Charities received an urgent phone call. A bus of migrants had been sent from Texas and would be arriving outside of Union Station at 6 a.m. the next day. Could Catholic Charities help?

When we arrived at Union Station early the next morning, we found about 15 somewhat bewildered-looking men, plus one woman with an infant, standing on a street corner. They were clutching manila envelopes. We introduced ourselves and invited them to accompany us into Union Station, where we took them to the food court, purchased breakfast and talked with them. We quickly learned the basics, that the manila envelopes contained their immigration documents showing they were in the country legally, that all were journeying to other destinations in the United States, that they had been traveling for months, and that most had no resources other than the clothes on their backs.

We developed an action plan. Some Catholic Charities staff made a quick run to Walmart to purchase diapers and clothing, while others began working on bus tickets. By the end of the day, we had provided food and clean clothes and helped all of the travelers to board buses to their final destinations.

This was the start of weeks of humanitarian work. After the first three days other organizations joined in and Catholic Charities shifted to meeting buses one day a week for the next eight weeks. As the weeks passed, I was touched anew by the generosity and commitment of our Catholic Charities staff. They arrived at Union Station in the dark, between 4 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., and spent long days greeting weary travelers, listening compassionately to their stories, providing food, water and clean clothes, and helping them on their way. Catholic Charities staff responded to need, day in and day out. Watching them, I heard the words, “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

The number of arrivals grew as Texas sent more buses and Arizona joined in. Demographics shifted as more families with young children began arriving.  With other nonprofits performing the task of meeting the immediate needs of new arrivals, Catholic Charities transitioned to supporting the about 20 percent who choose to remain in the DMV. With the help of local government grants, we are assisting those staying at temporary shelters in D.C. and Montgomery County. Our bilingual caseworkers meet with the newcomers, assess needs, and work with them to find housing, enroll children in school, and learn to thrive in their new environment.

As I look back on our eight weeks of meeting buses, the faces tend to blend together for me, but a few stand out. A particularly vivid memory is of a group of six young men who I escorted to Union Station to catch their bus to New York. They reminded me of my nephews. They were so young and so hope-filled and earnest. As we walked to Union Station, they told me a little about their stories, of the threats in their own country, of the long walk north and the dangers along the way. They talked about their eagerness to work and to build a new future.

When we reached Union Station and I said goodbye, each hugged me. They thanked me for welcoming them, and asked God’s blessings on me and all who had helped them. I silently prayed for those young men as I walked out of Union Station. I prayed that their dreams for a new life would be realized. I prayed that the hope I saw in their eyes would not die. I prayed that they would meet with kindness on their way.

Sister Sharlet Ann Wagner, CSC, is executive director of Catholic Charities’ Newcomer Network. In fiscal year 2023, 476 migrants from Texas and Arizona were greeted by Catholic Charities when they arrived in D.C. and assisted with food, clothing and transportation.