Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm once said, “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.”
This January, I spent 10 days volunteering at the U.S. Mexico border. Sanctuary Caravan called upon faith leaders and people of conscience to spend some part of 40 days and 40 nights over the holiday season bearing witness to the migrant crisis in order to understand it in human terms.
This kind of vacation might not be your first choice, but I highly recommend it. This was my second service trip. The first was to South Africa during the height of the AIDS pandemic.
The benefits of such travel might not be obvious but they are numerous. I find It is one of the most satisfying ways to “vacation.”
Like many people today, I often feel despair watching the news. Whether it’s wildfires in California, a hurricane ravaging Puerto Rico or the separation of children from their families seeking asylum, our natural human impulse is to help. I have found the best antidote to feeling helpless is to follow that instinct to assist and go to the crisis. While it may seem counter-intuitive, seeing things first hand, grounds me, particularly when I can offer some direct support.
Soothing one’s own anxiety about world affairs is a benefit when traveling for social good. And seeing a place through the lens of humanitarian aid work gives a unique perspective on a culture you otherwise might miss. Overcoming personal fears and expanding one’s sense of agency is another positive outcome –though the ultimate hope is to have a meaningful impact on the people affected by the crisis.
As a member of New Sanctuary Coalition, the group behind the Sanctuary Caravan, it was an easy decision to make. Traveling with a trusted organization provides safety, support and infrastructure that helps ensure even small efforts are amplified.
Sanctuary Caravan served over 350 friends who sought our support. Friend is what we call people who are migrating. The term helps de-stigmatize and humanize the process. We provided clinics on “know your rights” as well as “what to expect from the U.S. immigration process.” We listened with open hearts and minds and accompanied friends to La Chaparral, the city plaza where they could get a number to begin the process of applying for asylum. We did cartwheels with their children, or played cards with the adults while we all waited. There is a lot of waiting in Tijuana. We accompanied those who had numbers and stayed with them until they were called, and we continued waving until the police vans drove them out of sight.
Some of us spent time helping partner organizations, like Al Otra Lado, who offered our friends legal aid. We even assisted in preparing 3,000 meals a day at World Central Kitchen, the humanitarian organization established by Chef José Andrés. Shannon, the volunteer head chef, always reminded us “Put plenty of love into everything you make!”
When we served meals directly to friends in La Barretal shelter – despite the cold, concrete floors, tents exposed to the elements and lack of plumbing – we knew at least we were providing a hot and nutritious meal served with kindness.
Paradox abounded. Our friends had so little. No home, no safety, no warmth, no predictability, families not in tact. Yet with us, they were generous, kind and patient –and determined to maintain their dignity in the face of hardship.
Sanctuary Caravan trained over 560 volunteers. Each person was impacted and changed by the experience, and we returned home better equipped to serve our own communities and speak about the people we met and the things we had witnessed. Many of us even discovered new skills; writing, drawing, speaking publicly, photography, advocacy and leadership.
There are times when the most effective way to respond to a crisis is to donate money to those doing the work on the ground. But sometimes showing up in person is the right thing to do.
I may have thought I was giving up vacation time to help other people, but what I found instead was time spent with new friends that enriched my soul. How many vacations can you say that about?