As big questions go, this one was as succinct as they come. But in just four words, Sue Inches of Yarmouth encapsulated all that she’d just seen and heard during a four-day visit to the Mexican border.

“Who is America, really?” Inches asked last week over the din of a downtown Portland coffee shop.

The trip happened late last month. Seventeen members of the Adult Mission at First Parish Congregational Church in Yarmouth, almost all of them retirees, embarked for Texas on their annual service mission – typically a week or so in areas recovering from natural disasters or otherwise in need of volunteer help.

Originally, this journey was to focus exclusively on rebuilding damage that still lingers from Hurricane Harvey in Port Arthur. But that changed last summer, when Adult Mission director Leigh Kirchner met Tom Heger, a Presbyterian minister from San Antonio, while Heger and his wife were vacationing in Maine.

Heger told Kirchner about a side of the crisis on the Mexican border that rarely penetrates the red-hot rhetoric stirred up almost daily by the White House. On Friday, President Trump told a media gaggle in Calexico, California, that the United States “can’t take any more” immigrants and that their pleas for asylum are a “hoax” perpetrated by gangs trying to sneak into the United States.

But away from all the presidential furor, Heger explained, good people in his hometown are hard at work, day in and day out, extending a hand of welcome to the immigrants released from two detention centers just outside San Antonio. The immigrants’ release means they’ve passed the first critical hurdle in their quest for a new life: satisfying an interviewer that they have a “credible fear” of harm should they be forced to return to the lawlessness and poverty plaguing their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala.

Heger told Kirchner of San Antonio’s Interfaith Immigrant Welcome Coalition, a partnership of churches and secular volunteers who stuff backpacks for the newcomers and meet them at the local Greyhound station – where immigration officials drop them off in numbers that currently run as high as 200 per day.

Finally, Kirchner asked Heger: “Can we come? We’re thinking about coming anyway to do disaster relief in Texas. Can we come?”

“Of course!” Heger replied.

And so, they went.

The group slept for four nights on rickety cots in the Methodist Travis Park Church in the heart of downtown San Antonio. They met with journalists covering the border crisis, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas,  and advocates from RAICES, a nonprofit that advocates for asylum seekers all over Texas.

They spent a day filling 275 backpacks with toothbrushes, water bottles, snacks, fleece blankets and small toys for the children.

But most important, the Mainers met with the immigrants as they poured into the Greyhound station holding only their bus tickets, pre-purchased either by friends and family or through donations, that with luck would get them to some faraway city where their sponsors awaited them.

Kirchner will long remember sitting down with a man, his 13-year-old son and another teenage boy in the crowded bus station lobby, if only to connect for a few fleeting moments. She speaks little Spanish and they spoke no English, but through the wonders of a translation app on her smartphone, a conversation nonetheless ensued.

She gleaned that the mother and other children had been left at home. She didn’t pry – her only goal was to welcome them, wish them a safe journey and convey her hope that “you get to a comfortable place.”

“I was just so struck by the peacefulness of these people,” she said. “The boys were typing into my phone much better than I can. And they were really, really wanting to learn.”

For Sue Inches, the high point came when another volunteer noticed a park a block or two away, then spied an old dodge ball in a closet, and quickly secured permission to get some of the younger boys out to run off some steam.

Arriving at the park, the boys’ fathers intuitively formed a protective perimeter around their sons as a soccer game broke out. The boys strutted their stuff; the dads retrieved the ball when it got stuck in a tree and, ever vigilant, kept one eye on the bustling streets and sidewalks.

It was, Inches recalled, a rare respite for these weary travelers after weeks on the dusty road and up to 10 days in holding pens nicknamed the “Ice House” for its cold temperatures and the “Dog Kennel” for its chain-link cages.

“To see a child do something so normal,” she said, reflecting on the hourlong soccer match. “And these kids hadn’t had enough to eat, hadn’t slept well in goodness knows how long.”

These, to be sure, were the lucky ones. Without a sponsor or a bus ticket, they’d still be in detention, where the pressure on them to give up and go home is constant.

And even as they waited for their buses to take them to strange-sounding places like New Jersey, Minnesota and North Carolina, their chances of actually being granted asylum – a process that can take anywhere from three to 20 years – hover somewhere below 30 percent.

Still, Kirchner, Inches and their companions found hope in this endeavor. The more you witness something like the border crisis firsthand, the more likely you are to carry it home with you.

One woman from the group returned to Maine via train. Somewhere around New Orleans, she noticed a young immigrant woman with four young children in tow – all on their way to family in New York City. But she had no money and precious few supplies for her kids – that is, until people on the train, at the urging of a determined Mainer, pitched in to make their journey more bearable.

Meaning this is not over. The Adult Mission is now tailoring presentations – they’ve already prepared four pages of single-spaced bullet points on what they learned – for their church as well as the community at large. And there’s talk of returning next year with a group of local teenagers interested in expanding their horizons.

“It’s obviously a really complicated issue,” Kirchner said. “You could be overwhelmed by the whole system and/or you can try to reach people on an individual, human perspective. Because that’s sometimes all we can do.”

Which brings us back to Sue Inches’ question.

Who is America, really?

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