For the past seven weeks, I have had the privilege of working with a group of people of great compassion and dedication who have been putting their time and hands at the service of thousands of immigrants traveling through Memphis after seeking asylum. Five times a day, groups of these volunteers go to the bus station to offer food, water, clothes, over-the-counter medicines, and a toy or coloring book to families who come from detention centers near the southern border. Twice a day, other groups of wonderful people are helping to prepare all these things. It is a truly humanizing experience to work with these volunteers and to be able to serve others whose first experience with the people of this country has been interacting with the border patrol agents and the staff of the detention centers. But today I do not want to tell you about these people or the families we have met. I would like to tell you about a person we met during this time and who represents a perfect example of something that is deeply human.
On my second shift at the station, around 4 in the morning, we were attending to the needs of the people who had arrived on the bus. When things had calmed down a little and everyone had some food and water, a lady of about 70, with a very soft voice, asked us what we were doing. The other volunteer with me explained who these families were and why we were there, and that we were part of a group of volunteers who had asked for donations to have something to give them. A young African-American man who had been listening to us offered us money, after thanking us, and this woman, with utmost humility, took her foot out of her shoe and offered us $20. I still remember the gesture of my volunteer partner, knowing that probably this lady did not have much money, but also not wanting to deny her the opportunity to contribute what she could. She almost made me cry.
Four hours later, when we were waiting for another bus, the lady was still there waiting for hers, and she could see a new group of more than 25 people like the ones she had seen us help earlier. In the rush to bring them food, ask about their health, or see if we had some clothes to give to those feeling cold and wearing just a T-shirt or a shirt, we did not realize that the lady had already begun to interact on her own with the families. Then, we saw her donate the coat she was wearing (it was cold that week) and donate one of her handbags to a family that had no place to put their few belongings. She donated two Bibles, clearly used by herself. And she probably donated some more money. What made me cry was when we asked her if she was sure that she wanted to donate her coat, she responded that she could buy another one like it for three dollars at the Goodwill store. With this simple line, a woman who didn't have much was showing everyone that people only need to dress themselves with the humble clothes of humanity.
I've been thinking about her a lot since then. During this time we have seen almost 6,000 immigrants travel through the bus station. We have seen very high levels of need, from sick people to passengers without coats to five-year-old girls who were thrown out of detention into the cold without shoes or socks. We have been able to do much more with the support received from friends, volunteers, and other organizations. Our donation room is a monument to the kindness shown by hundreds of people who have donated time, money, coats, coloring books, food, toiletries. But I still think about this woman and the simplicity with which she made a quick decision to put herself at the service of those who needed help around her.
As immigrants, sometimes we can overlook many things from the places we come to live in. It is true that this country seems a machine of industrialization, a monster that transforms into gold the needs, the tragedies, and misery of the people who live here and in the rest of the world. But there is also something in this place that is essential and humanizing: a well-grounded understanding of the personal responsibility we have toward other human beings. This is hard to see among so much abundance because, as happens with poverty, we tend not to see those who walk through our cities wearing simple rags of humanity.
Do yourself a favor and put on these simple clothes and start looking around and offering your hands — not just your tithes — so that you can accomplish the task of transforming this world into a much better one.
Federico Gómez is an immigrant, educator, and adopted Memphian. This column was translated from El Informante de Memphis, where it first appeared.
Editor's note: Since several readers have asked: Mariposas Collective is the organization Mr. Gomez is working with. To help or donate, go to their Facebook page.