Editor’s Note: This is a first-person account from Rebecca Varnell '15, an international studies major from Clemmons, N.C., who volunteered at the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, serving immigrants and refugees along the U.S.-Mexico border.
This summer, I lived and volunteered at Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, an emergency shelter rooted in the Catholic tradition that serves migrants through accompaniment and advocacy. Since the house was founded in the 1970s, it has hosted volunteers to live among the guests and help them access services like legal aid and food stamps. The house also serves as an ally to people often shut out from social services because of lack of documentation. Annunciation House is a testament to the fact that, in a society that habitually trains us to lock our doors and hate our neighbors, leaving those doors open and loving those who enter is pretty radical.
During my time at the house, I heard this quote, “Everyone wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes.” At Annunciation House, like so many other hospitality houses and grassroots movements, we start with the dishes. From there, things seem to fall into place.
My summer at the house was largely informed by the unexpected influx of people from Mexico and Central America crossing into southern Texas and being flown to El Paso. In my first two days following orientation, we saw close to 200 people come and go. They stayed for a night or two before continuing on to meet their families and friends scattered across the country and to await their court dates. We provided food, beds, clothes and logistical support in making travel arrangements to places like Washington, North Carolina, New Jersey and Ohio. The rest of the summer continued much in the same way, with planes carrying 135 people arriving nearly every day.
The response from the El Paso community was unbelievable. We were able to support various churches and organizations in the city as they set up spaces to house these families and help them continue on their long journeys. As the people shifted from Annunciation House to these other sites, we continued our normal work of providing long-term hospitality to an average of about 30 guests.
Outside of the Annunciation House walls, however, the media presented a unique set of challenges. We were swamped with calls, donations, visitors and reporters who had heard false rumors about our work. The truth was that the Annunciation House was doing well. We were tired and, at times, overworked, but we were doing the same work the house volunteers had been doing for years. There were no infectious diseases or dangerous criminals, just people making friends, cooking meals and playing with kids.
The crisis was not the planes full of people, but rather the need for these people to migrate from violent or economically unviable situations. The media focus may have been on how migrants were creating problems for the border, but it should have been on how home country conditions were creating a crisis for its residents or even how U.S. foreign policy and the global economy were contributing to that crisis.
Society trains us to leave the “revolution” to someone else. While many of us agree that society is ridden with injustices, we wait for the charismatic leader or vocal activist to tell us how to fix it. The effort of changing the world seems too enormous and problematic to know where to start. And it’s true: Social justice is a mammoth task, and we all constantly will fail at fixing society's problems. But we can find practical and meaningful ways to incorporate social justice in our own lives — even if today, that just looks like doing the dishes.