McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — It’s a far cry from what many college students do during spring break, but a group of Florida college students spent their time off passing out hygiene kits and supplies and praying with asylum-seekers in two Mexican border cities.
The seven students attend Southeastern University, a Christian college east of Tampa, and they told Border Report they felt called by God to spend this week in mission service.
At a church in McAllen, where they slept in spare classrooms and showered in shifts, they said it was the best and most eye-opening week they could have imagined.
“The point of the mission trip — while we did missions and serving — was a vehicle for us to fully understand and see what life is like in Reynosa and Matamoros,” said 21-year-old Josh Robertson, a senior and team co-leader from Tennessee.
Robertson said they took objects and turned them into frisbees to entertain children at several migrant camps along the Rio Grande. They helped pass out eyeglasses, and they laid hands on the people and prayed with them.
“We were present. We walked. We prayed with people. We listened to their stories,” said Alma Ruth, founder of the faith-based nonprofit Practice Mercy Foundation, which hosted the students for the week.
“We are honored to have Southeastern University out of Lakeland, Florida, and they invested their Spring break time to come and serve the asylum seeker communities in Matamoros and Reynosa,” Ruth said.
The students were housed at Rio Valley Church of the Nazarene, the same church that in January housed a young Russian family after they crossed from Reynosa seeking asylum in the United States.
“It’s been great to see young minds and young hearts serve and learn I’ve gotten to learn with them. And so it’s been beautiful seeing all this,” Pastor Ismael Flores said.
Inside the church’s fellowship area, the students sit at round tables full of folded clothes and boxes of shoes — the last batches of donations they planned to take on Friday to Reynosa.
The goods were brought from South Carolina by the nonprofit organization ACTS Foundation, which drove a truckload of items to the South Texas border on Tuesday.
The group of students, together with Ruth and members of her organization’s board of directors, helped to walk across the items in large duffle bags.
“We did hygiene kits. We did things for pregnant women. Our focus is definitely the Haitian community because we feel like they are so under-served and they have so much need,” said Randi Conniffe, an ACTS Foundation volunteer from Columbia, South Carolina.
They also passed out eyeglasses brought by Will McCorkle, an assistant professor at the College of Charleston and board member for Practice Mercy Foundation, who comes often to the Rio Grande Valley to help asylum seekers.
Anna Coleman, 20, a junior from Southeastern University, said she most enjoyed being able to speak and pray to the Haitian asylum seekers in Creole. Her parents are missionaries and the family lived in Haiti since she was 12.
But she said they had to leave Haiti, and are now living in another island nation, after gangs took over the supply chain and a missionary was kidnapped.
She read some verses from her favorite beatitudes in the Bible.
“I felt very connected to everyone. I haven’t spoken Creole in two years and so I felt very connected to home and seeing their faith renewed mine in a lot of ways,” Coleman said.
While visiting the migrant camps she said she really wanted the asylum seekers to know that she cares and that God hasn’t forgotten them.
“The one thing I really wanted to focus on was the idea that God is a God that sits with you in your pain and in your grief and God is with you in this,” she said.
“To have someone that speaks the language and also the culture made a huge difference for us,” Ruth said. “She would speak directly to them. She shared hope and encouragement and she was asking questions. So for Haitians to see someone that speaks their language makes a huge difference in what we serve with. We try to empower them with dignity.”
She said there are about 1,200 Haitians in Reynosa, and about 75 pregnant women.
Molly Tunning celebrated her 21st birthday in Mexico on Wednesday. She is a pre-med senior from a conservative Florida town where immigration isn’t always understood. But she says she will return with new respect and admiration for those waiting south of the border.
She said her parents were worried about her making the trip after four Americans were kidnapped and two died earlier this month in Matamoros.
The State Department has warned Americans not to travel to the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, where both cities are located, because of crime and kidnappings.
But she says she believes God spoke to her parents’ hearts and put them at ease.
She has been planning this trip for several months and is a co-leader. She and Robertson helped interview and pick everyone who came to ensure their hearts were in the right places. And they fundraised and got airfare tickets through the generosity of donors, she said.
Throughout the week, she said she never felt scared in Mexico.
“Call it the peace of God, or I don’t know, there really wasn’t one time that I was like oh my gosh I need to get out of here or I want to get out of here. Or I feel like something bad is going to happen. Not once did I feel that. And typically I’m a very cautious person,” Tunning said.
Josue Carrascal is from Peru and lives in the United States under DACA. He was brought here as a young child as a “Dreamer.”
He was afraid to cross the border and not be able to return, so he stayed in South Texas helping asylum seekers at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s Humanitarian Respite Center.
He said it was the trip of a lifetime.
“Practice Mercy has made this so amazing and very accessible to serve the migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker community here and I’ll definitely be coming back,” he said.