Two years ago, a group of students from The Catholic University of America boarded a plane en route to El Paso, Texas for a weeklong immigration immersion trip on the border. They knew very little about each other and even less about the struggles that Central American migrants face on their journeys, but they were ready and excited for the life-changing experience that lay ahead.
When they stepped off the plane they were ready to relax after a long day of travel. But when Fr. Bob, the Columban priest who would serve as their guide for the week, greeted them, they discovered there was a plan different then their own. On the ride from the airport, which they assumed would take them to their home for the week, they were caught off guard when they arrived at a youth detention center in El Paso.
They stepped out of the van with stomachs full of nerves, completely unsure of what would happen when they went inside the detention center. When they entered the center, Luis, a young man who worked with the Columbans and volunteered at the detention center, met them and introduced them to the group of 30 youths who lived in the center. All of these children came from different parts of Central America. They all travelled the long journey from their home countries, but were detained when crossing the border. They were sentenced to live together awaiting their next move.
The students spent time playing games with the kids, but it was easy to tell they were uncomfortable. They couldn’t understand the rapid fire Spanish floating around the room, so they clung together in smaller groups. When Luis gathered everyone together for Sunday’s Mass Readings, the room fell silent while they listened to him read the story of Pentecost. What happened after that can only be described as a “Holy Spirit Moment.”
The group of young men and women living at the detention center discussed how the Pentecost story related to their own lives. Being from different countries in Central America, they all spoke a slightly different dialect of Spanish, which often left it hard for them to communicate with one another. What they realized from the Pentecost story was that even though they might not have been able to understand each other’s dialect, their gift of tongue was the ability to understand the common struggles they all faced on their journeys and to be united through their experiences.
I was lucky enough to be one of those CUA students in the detention center that afternoon, and Pentecost will never be the same for me. As I celebrate Pentecost this year I am surrounded by people who I don’t often understand because of a language barrier. But I am reminded of that day in El Paso and I remember that it’s not always about speaking the same language, but the gift of tongue can be understanding someone by sharing experiences with them, getting to know them, and walking the journey with them.