McALLEN, RGV – Central American refugees crossing the Rio Grande strike an image of modern pilgrims, says Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

In a Thanksgiving message, the group says it expects to feed 500 refugees with “a humble multi-cultural turkey meal” at its Respite Center at the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen on Wednesday.

Sister Norma Pimentel
Sister Norma Pimentel

Four local entities are helping to fund the meal, which will also be served to volunteers at the Respite Center – IBC Bank, Koko’s Restaurant, Kumori, Taco Palenque and The Board of the Valley Baptist Foundation. “They will pull together seamlessly and without a blink to provide a Thanksgiving meal Wednesday and hopefully leftovers Thursday to the refugees and volunteers,” the news release states. Traditional Mexican appetizers will be followed by Turkey and trimmings and Kumori’s Japanese-style meat and rice and then pumpkin pies.

The Central American refugees are immigrants who have crossed into the United States without documentation. They have been booked in by Border Patrol and given bus tickets to stay with family members across the United States. They are expected to attend a federal court hearing at a later date. Sacred Heart Church is close to McAllen Bus Station.

A news release from Catholic Charities RGV points out that the word pilgrim comes from the Latin “peregrinus,” which is a traveler that has come from afar. “A pilgrim is on a journey to a holy place. Typically, this is a physical journey – often on foot – to some place of special significance to the adherent of a particular religious belief system. In the spiritual literature of Christianity, the concept of pilgrim and pilgrimage may refer to the experience of life in the world – considered as a period of exile – or to the inner path of the spiritual aspirant from a state of wretchedness to a state of beatitude.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities RGV, said: “Gratitude that most of us express formally for Thanksgiving is what we live and hear each day for 27 months now from our refugee families. I want our community and our nation to know that the gratefulness is on-going from our refugee guests to our supporters and for our hundreds of volunteers and private supporters. We also appreciate our partnership with the Border Patrol. Gratitude is truly a principal we see throughout scriptures from Jesus and it is lived and demonstrated daily in McAllen.”

Pimentel added that local businesses are “just in time Angels in tough times.” She pointed out that on certain days the number of refugees arriving at the Respite Center spike and so anticipating how much food to provide is difficult. “We have companies and individuals pay for 80 pizzas on days when we run out of soup. The last three months have been unpredictable yet the generosity of the Valley people seems unending,” Pimentel said.

Dora Brown, vice president of IBC Bank in McAllen, said: “IBC employees are at the heart of this charitable meal. Once we mentioned this idea, it was an immediate response of yes.”

The McAllen Respite Center has provided a safe haven for more than 50,000 refugees since the summer 2014, many of them the survivors of violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. That means 50,000 changes of new and donated clothing, 50,000 showers using 50,00 laundered towels, 50,000 snacks for the refugees’ bus journeys to U.S. family members, and 50,000 bus tickets reconciled and organized as part of a journey which is scheduled to conclude with an immigration hearing.

“Most of us count our blessings at Thanksgiving. Our refugees are thankful to escape with their lives,” Pimentel added.

Catholic Charities aims to reduce poverty in America. Its Respite Center in McAllen is unable to assist immigrants from Mexico because these are sent back to their home country as soon as they are picked up by Border Patrol.

Editor’s Note: Rio Grande Guardian editor Patricia Fogarty has written a feature about the violence in Central America. Click here to read it.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows migrant families resting on the floor at an emergency shelter at the Sacred Heart Church. The Catholic Church has aided thousands of migrants, many from Central America. (Photo Jennifer Whitney, The New York Times/ Redux)