Tijuana, April 28, 2020 – As you enter the Casa del Migrante for the first time, the initial thing that catches your attention is the huge staircase that leads you up to the fourth floor of the Casa. Now let me tell you, it is a long journey consisting of three flights of steep stairs and a total of 43 steps. Arriving at the top you will find a door marked “Director,” and that is where you can find me hunkered down since March 30th and where you will continue to find me at least until May 30th. Mexico has just issued a “Stay at Home” quarantine order until the end of May.
Now, according to doctors, I am considered “vulnerable” – who knew because I do not feel very vulnerable. But they say I fit the type – 68 years of age, diabetic and a bit overweight. So yes, you may call me “Mister Vulnerable.” However, I must admit that some days I feel just like Pope Francis, as I come out onto my balcony and offer papal blessings free from the safe confines of the fourth floor. Let me assure you, these are not “vulnerable” blessings but rather, extremely healthy signs of the cross.
However, I must confess that every Friday, TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday), I do manage to put my pants on (the rest of the week I am in sweats) and venture downstairs because I get to go to the post office in San Diego and pick up the mail of the Casa. Even though I am “vulnerable,” I must cross the border because I am the only person on the staff who can easily cross the border and return to Mexico without any hassles. At least it was that way until last Friday when, just before entering Mexico, I was stopped by US Immigration authorities who grilled me in a very accusatory, but comical way:
Agent: “Sir, what is your business in Mexico?”
Me: “I live there.”
Agent: “Are you transporting arms or ammunition?”
Me: I was going to give a smart remark but instead I offered a simple “No.”
Agent: “Are you in possession of more than $10,000?”
Me: Once again I hesitated and laughed inside and simply said “No Sir.”
Agent: “Sir, you know it is not a crime to transport $10,000, but if you lie, it is a federal offense?”
Me: “No, I assure you I do not have $10,000 dollars.”
Agent: “What was the purpose of your trip to the USA?”
Me: (He will really love this answer) “I went to the bank.” (This was a little white lie, but I thought I would play with him just a little bit.)
Agent: “Where is the bank located?”
Me: “Bank of America in San Ysidro.”
Agent: “How much money did you take out of the bank?”
Me: “It was $200.”
Agent: “Can I see your passport?”
Me: (Another opportunity for some fun) “Sorry, I do not have one, but I do have my Sentri Card (a legal document that allows one to cross the border without waiting in long lines.)
Agent: “Let me see it and one more time- you sure you do not have $10,000 on you? Let me see your wallet.”
Me: “Here you can see I have little money.” (I showed him about $50.00 in cash.)
Agent: “That is a lot of money to be bringing to Mexico.”
Me: “Remember it is only $50.00 dollars and I do live in Tijuana.”
His companion reviewed my document which clearly states that I am Fr. Pat Murphy – Director of the Casa del Migrante.
In a few seconds, he returned my document and waved me on through without even the traditional “Thank you and have a nice day.” I can hardly wait until next Friday when I get to do this all over again. The next time I will be better prepared to offer more creative responses and try and make his day.
After this little immigration interview, I was starting to feel kind of “vulnerable.” Remember, I am a US citizen and a permanent resident in Mexico. I can only imagine how vulnerable such an interview could make some other immigrants feel.
These days one of my favorite pastimes is doing interviews by phone, Zoom, or SKYPE. I like to do them early in the morning around 10 am, after my second cup of coffee, because that is when I am in my best shape and not feeling too vulnerable. During the first month of “stay at home,” I have done just about one interview per day. Most of these interviews you can find on the Casa del Migrante Facebook page. Some of the most common questions asked by reporters are:
- How is the Casa doing in the time of the pandemic?
- How are the migrants in the Casa doing?
- How are you personally doing?
Well, I thought I would just do a “self-interview” for all my readers and simply answer these questions in reverse order, so here I go.
First, I am doing great for an old vulnerable missionary priest. In the past I always used to complain that I did not have enough time to rest, to pray, and read sufficiently. Well, guess what – be careful of what you wish for because now it seems I will have at least two months of free time to do all those things that I never had time to do because life on the fourth floor gives me all the time I need to do those things.
Another bit of irony is that in 2020 I am celebrating my 40th anniversary as a missionary priest. Since we are allowed two months of vacation for the 40th anniversary, I was making all sorts of mental plans to do a little mini-sabbatical that would have included the three R’s: time for rest, reading, and retreat. In these mental musings regarding my sabbatical, the possibility of doing all three under the light of a worldwide pandemic was certainly not part of the plan. I recently remembered the wisdom of a phrase I heard many years ago which goes something like this – “Man plans, and God laughs”. I am so happy God has such a good sense of humor.
Secondly, reporters always like to ask me, “How are the migrants doing at your house?” The simplest way I could put it is that we have a group of 33 migrants from all over the world (including six children) and I like to remind them that they are on an international VIP vacation for two months. We give them 3 great meals every day prepared by a professional chef, snacks, all sorts of activities including classes in English and French, a nap every day, Karaoke night, and all sorts of games where they can win prizes. The only thing we ask of them is to practice social distancing, wash their hands often, use bacterial gel, and do some basic chores. Yes, these two months at the Casa will go down in history as the Story of the VIP migrants.
On the other hand, it is not so easy to convince people that staying at home and not going to work could save their lives. At the outset of the outbreak of the virus, we had over 50 people in the Casa, and about half would come and go to work every day. As the danger of the pandemic increased, we hired a part-time doctor so we could talk about this medical challenge in ways that would make sense to the people. In consultation with our doctor, we came to a decision in mid-March that it was time to close the doors of the Casa and protect those who wished to hunker down until it was safe to do otherwise. At that juncture, about 15 people left the Casa because their work was just too important to them. I understand their position, but I still feel they do not fully understand how dreadful this virus is and just how many people will die. It is April 22 as I write this reflection and Mexico has not yet experienced the full force of the destruction of the virus. We are still far away from flattening the curve and witnessing how dreadful this pandemic will be when it reaches its peak which, according to Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador, it should be between the 2nd and 8th of May.
In the meantime, we continue to do three essential things:
- We take the best possible care of the 33 people in our house;
- We distribute breakfast and dinner carry-out meals each day to about 50-60 former residents of the Casa;
- We refer new migrants to the government-operated Super Shelter which can house up to 3000 people. Few have arrived at the Casa in the last two weeks.
Meanwhile, we just keep reminding our guests to take advantage of their “vacation time” because when all this is over there will be lots of work to be found in Tijuana and there will be little time to rest.
The third most popular question from reporters is “How is the Casa doing during this time of the worldwide pandemic?” To this question, I like to reply that we are living one day at a time and adapting our plans to whatever each day presents us. In this time of the pandemic, every day is a new adventure, and no one has the playbook for the Pandemic Super Bowl. Our three major challenges have been having enough:
- Food and supplies to care for the people;
- Staffing to keep the Casa functioning;
- Activities to keep the people busy so they do not suffer from boredom.
I am happy to report that after one month of experience and many changes and adaptations, we have arrived at a certain rhythm of life that keeps people happy and motivated.
- The food and resources have not been an issue and many generous people continue to support us on a regular basis. We are eating very well and some of our guests have complained they are gaining weight. We have responded by providing vigorous calisthenics opportunities several times per week.
- In terms of staffing, after several attempts to work things out with our staff, we have narrowed things down where 75% of the staff work from home, and six staff members come in 3 days per week for 5 hours per day. We have had to ask all the external volunteer cooks to stay at home because they are mostly senior citizens. However, let me just say that God is good, and he sent us a deported migrant who was a professional chef in the USA. Our chef, together with some other migrant volunteers, are doing a great job of running our kitchen. However, when all is said and done, let me just say that the Casa can survive and thrive due to the presence of 5 dedicated volunteers, coming from 5 different countries and working day and night to keep the Casa going. I do not know what I would do without them and so all I can do is pray for them every single day.
- Regarding activities, it has taken us a while and we continue to tinker with things a bit, but it seems like we have reached a great balance in our schedule of activities for both the adults and children. I know this for a fact because I can hear their laughter which reaches all the way up to the fourth floor.
Despite the pandemic wreaking havoc outside the doors of the Casa, people living inside the Casa seem to be quite happy, and of course, that makes our lives a lot easier.
Now before finishing this rather extensive reflection, I wanted to make some comments about the future, or as I like to call it, Life after the Worldwide Pandemic. Let me begin by saying that this will come to an end and things will get back to normal. However, some questions remain: What will life be like? Will I be a better person for having survived this experience? Will I have learned some life lessons for my future, or will I simply be ecstatic because I can go out to eat and have coffee with some friends. Who really knows, but let me say what I think will be the big three take-aways from this worldwide experience:
- This has been a time for great spiritual growth. You might call me crazy, but I think the worldwide pandemic has the potential to be an exceptionally spiritual and life-changing experience for many people. Think about it – how many times has someone invited us to go on a retreat and how often have we responded – “Sorry but I am just too busy right now in my life”. Well, “Boom!” God has given you and the entire planet an opportunity to go on a 2-month retreat from everything. I am sorry to say, but if you have not learned a lot from this pandemic experience, no other retreat in the world will bring you closer to God. The good news is it’s not over and you can still take spiritual advantage of what remains of this time during the pandemic on planet earth
- This has been a time to give thanks. Why in the world are you saying there is nothing to be thankful about regarding a worldwide pandemic? During this time of the mandatory Stay at Home order I am constantly reminded of a bit of wisdom, we have all heard during our lifetime and it goes like this: “You just don’t know what you have until you have lost it.” Well during these last several weeks, we have lost a lot. But perhaps the biggest loss has been the freedom to do what we want and when we want. It is as if the entire world has been grounded and we just do not know when this burden will be lifted, and we can return to normal. In the meantime, it has been a time of great learning and we have come to appreciate many things such as family, friends, church, work, play, and even school. So many things that we have taken for granted in the past have now become things to treasure in the future when we regain our freedom and life returns to normal. So, as you continue this pandemic journey, do not forget to give thanks for the small things in life.
- This has been a special time to reach out to others and move away from focusing just on ourselves. This has been an opportunity to be generous and give of our time, talent, and treasure to help others who are suffering a lot more than we are. During this dreadful time in life, it has simply amazed me to see the basic goodness in humanity. Despite all the evil that COVID-19 has caused, I have repeatedly witnessed so many random acts of kindness being practiced by people. Recently, almost every night, the news has been focusing on people reaching out and sharing with others: looking in on the senior citizen neighbor, volunteering at a food distribution center, and in addition, so many parents homeschooling their children. It has given me hope for a better future for all those who will continue to populate our common home called planet earth.
One more thing to notice is that if you live in a heavily populated city, just look out your window and see the clarity in the skies and breathe the new stream of fresh air these days. It seems that God has given planet earth a retreat from our pollution and we can see and breathe the difference.
Yes, this has been a great time for all of us to share from our blessings with others who have so much less. It is indeed time for us to thank God for all he has given us and just perhaps make a commitment to God to do more and be more to make our world a better place because we are survivors of the worldwide pandemic of 2020.
I have one final note for all those who have been asking how they can help the Casa del Migrante. Certainly, when all this is over, we will need a lot of assistance to help us get moving. We are in the middle of building a trade school for migrants here in Tijuana, which we hope to open in the fall. We have the construction costs covered, but we will need a lot of help to get this particularly important project up and running.
Some ways you might consider supporting us here at the Casa are:
- Become a Casa volunteer – During this time of COVID-19 we have had a community of five very dedicated volunteers serving here at the Casa. During these exceedingly difficult times, they have been the heart and soul of the Casa. At the end of May, three of the five volunteers will be returning home and so the Casa is in search of three long term volunteers willing to give three to nine months of service. I can promise you that it will be the experience of a lifetime. If you think you might want be of service, please send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Become a sponsor at CESFOM (Scalabrini Formation Center for Migrants) – This is a definite way of helping migrants to start a new life. Our new building will have 6 classrooms where we will give men and women the tools, they need to start a new life. Tijuana has an abundance of employment possibilities and we hope to prepare people to go out and attain these opportunities. We invite you to be a sponsor of CESFOM in any way possible. As you can imagine, starting a school from zero is quite the challenge, so we need everything from Computers – Desks – Chairs and not to mention teachers’ salaries. If you would like to be a sponsor for CESFOM, please contact Laura Barbara at CESFOM@gmail.com
- Become a Casa Donor – It is our hope and prayer that things can be back to normal here at the Casa sometime in the middle of the summer. However, to make that happen we will need a lot of help. As an institution, these past few months we made the commitment to pay the full salaries of our entire staff, even though many worked from home and some worked only three days a week at the Casa. The result of this commitment is that we had to dig deep into our savings and now we need to replenish those savings in order to continue to serve the migrants. So, we are asking you to help us out in one of three ways: 1) Send us a check for the Casa, 2) Donate via PayPal or 3) Make a direct deposit into one of our Casa accounts. For more information on how you can help us out please send an email to the Casa at email@example.com
In the meantime, let us continue to live our lives to the best of our abilities and be inspired as survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic to do more for more people with what God has given us here on planet earth.
Fr. Pat Murphy, c.s.