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‘Trip to the border was a good thing’

Father Arthur Bufogle joined a group of West Virginians for a trip to the southern border to minister to the needs to asylum seekers there. “These people are like our ancestors were. They’re just coming from a different place,” he said. In the photo, volunteers take buckets and tent canopies for makeshift showers across the bridge over the Rio Grande to the camp in Matamoros. From l.: Vincent DeGeorge, Erin Board, Tom Lawther and Father Arthur.

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer

Traveling comes naturally to Father Arthur Bufogle – or “Father Arthur,” as everyone calls him.

He’s been the priest for the three Catholic congregations in Pocahontas County – St. John Neumann in Marlinton, St. Bernard Chapel at Snowshoe and St. Mark the Evangelist Mission in Bartow – for the last five and a half years.

Weekends find him commuting from one end of the the county to the other.

He conducts Mass at St. Bernard at Snowshoe on Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. during ski season, 6:30 p.m. in the summer, and Sunday Mass in Marlinton at St. John Neumann at 9 a.m. and then travels to Bartow to hold Mass there at 11:30 a.m.

He lives in the rectory beside St. John Neumann on 10th Avenue in Marlinton.

If you’ve passed the rectory in the last few years, you’ve undoubtedly noticed its well cared-for vegetable garden.

Not only does Father Arthur lovingly tend to the souls of his parishioners, he’s also a good gardener.

He should be. His extensive educational background seems to have been evenly split between heaven and earth.

Father Arthur began his education at St. Bonaventure University, a private, co-ed Franciscan Catholic university in Allegany, New York, then finished at Walsh College in Canton, Ohio, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology and Chemistry.

He later earned a Master’s Degree in Theology and a second master’s in plant and soil science, followed that with a Ph.D. in agronomy and finished his education at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania where he earned a Master of Divinity degree.

Father Arthur has a seemingly exotic, international background.

He was conceived in Hong Kong, born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Japan from the age of 10 months until he left to go to college.

“My mom was born and raised in Hong Kong, and her parents came from Peru and the Philippines,” Father Arthur explained.

“My dad was an American whose heritage was German, Irish and Dutch.”

Father Arthur has spent the last 15 years of his life as a parish priest, being assigned to multiple rural parishes.

His most recent post, here in Marlinton, is his favorite.

“I’ve lived in so many rural communities, but I really love Pocahontas County,” Father Arthur said. “The people here are very special. They are extremely generous and warm.”

Father Arthur recently traveled to Texas to minister to the people at the southern border.

The idea for the trip came by way of Father That Son, who previously served the Catholic churches in Pocahontas County for three years.

After Hurricane Katrina, many people in Pocahontas County will remember that Father That Son organized a trip to the Gulf Coast to help with recovery there.

Father That Son is currently the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Moundsville.

He called Father Arthur about making the trip to Texas and got right to the point.

“He told me that he and some of his parishioners had been talking about making a trip to the Southern border to minister to refugees there,” Father Arthur said.

“He [Father That Son] can identify with the asylum seekers at the Mexican border. He’d been through the refugee experience himself – coming to America after escaping from Viet Nam in 1975.”

“He said, ‘We’re going, do you want to come?’”

“I immediately said, ‘Yes.’ There was no question about it.

“After all,” Father Arthur said, “when someone’s in need, you help them.

“That’s what it says in the Gospel.

“It says in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Verse 35:

“‘For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in…’”

That is how it came to be that Father Arthur joined Father That Son, and many of his parishioners, along with two especially compassionate Vietnamese ladies.

They had escaped from Viet Nam in 1980 and had been refugees themselves.

The group flew to McAllen, Texas, to minister to refugees there.

“We all paid our own way, and we stayed at motels, shared rooms and tried to travel as economically as possible, of course.” Father Arthur explained.

“Before we arrived in McAllen, our plans changed.

“Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande told us to drive an hour to join up with a group called, ‘Team Brownsville,’ which is a humanitarian organization in Brownsville, Texas.”

Team Brownsville organizes volunteer groups to offer assistance to the hundreds of asylum seekers coming to the Texas-Mexican border.

They work out of the Methodist Church’s Good Neighbor Settlement House, which regularly feeds 60-to-100 local homeless people three meals a day – every day.

Since the influx of so many migrants, the Good Neighbor Settlement House has opened its kitchen to the many churches and volunteer groups that help feed them.

There is always too much work to do and a great need for other volunteer groups to come to help.

“When volunteer groups go there to help feed people, they are responsible for buying the food and supplies necessary to complete their mission,” Father Arthur explained.

“We helped to take food and supplies across to the asylum camp in Matamoros, and we also did a little work at the Good Neighbor Settlement House.

“We painted some rooms. We sorted clothes which had been donated, and we just did whatever came along – whatever was needed each day.”

There are shifts of volunteers at the Good Neighbor Settlement House who cook food and walk it over the Gateway Bridge, which is the only bridge across the Rio Grande between Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico.

And that’s a big part of what Father Arthur’s group did while they were there.

“And let me tell you about the Rio Grande,” Father Arthur offered. “It’s so much different than I envisioned. I had this idea that it was a wide, dangerous river.

“It really looked a lot like Knapps Creek.

“But it is dangerous,” he added.

“It’s deceptively deep, with undercurrents that make it difficult to cross.

“Twice a day, two days a week, a group of churches in Matamoros provides food to take to the camp, and Team Brownsville pays a local restaurant to cook and deliver food two other days a week,” Father Arthur said.

“We arrived in Browns-ville on Tuesday and worked through Friday. We were working alongside other church groups and volunteers.

“The food would be packed up in wagons – like little kids’ wagons – and we’d walk it across the bridge in a group of maybe twenty of us.

“We’d stop briefly to be checked by Mexican customs officials and then go to the refugee camp.

“There were hundreds of people. A sea of people – mostly women and children – like an entire village of people – mostly from Central America – Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and some indigenous people – all living in these little two-person, camping tents.

“But there were really refugees from about twenty different countries. There were even people there from Uzbekistan and Cuba,” he added.

“They were just asylum seekers – simple, ordinary people, some young men, but mostly women and children.

“It seemed that most were there because they were trying to escape from drug cartels and gang violence and poverty.

“You didn’t see any really elderly people there, and most of the children were about six years old or older. There were a few infants.

“But I guess elderly people and tiny infants probably wouldn’t have been able to have survived such a long, difficult journey. They wouldn’t have been able to make the trip – walking hundreds and hundreds of miles,” Father Arthur noted.

“Although they were all clearly in desperate circumstances, there was no pushing or shoving, no chaos.

“There are all these people living in such poor conditions, hanging their washed clothes in the trees, but there was no trash and no signs of violence among them.

“They were just waiting there so patiently, knowing that probably ninety percent of them will ultimately be denied asylum.

“These people, as helpless and desperate as they were, were quiet, patient and polite.

“Most spoke no English, and since no one from our group was fluent in Spanish, it might have seemed that we couldn’t communicate with them.

“But we got along very well.

“I learned that there’s a ‘Google Translate’ app available for cell phones which did a very good job of translating between the volunteers and the refugees.

“Although when we were feeding people, there wasn’t a lot of time to communicate with people, anyway.

“One day a group of us went over with buckets and tall canopies rigged up for showers.

“The city of Matamoros had set up makeshift sinks and toilets for the refugee village, but they didn’t have any way to bathe, so these portable showers were very well appreciated.

“Immigrations, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and the American Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers were allowing six-to-ten refugees to come through for processing each day.

“Volunteer groups like ours met them at the bus station in Brownsville and brought them to the Good Neighbor Settlement House, where they got clothing, a shower, a meal and, if needed, an overnight stay.

“Most of these refugees would ultimately be refused asylum, so they would be returned to their home countries.

“The city of Brownsville now provides a shuttle bus, from the bus station to the Good Neighbor Settlement House.

“Brownsville seems to have embraced the situation very generously.

“They have assigned city vehicles and police officers to help shuttle the asylum seekers to the Good Neighbor Settlement House.

“The people of Brownsville were very helpful and friendly to all the volunteers and to the asylum seekers.

“Traffic would stop when we were crossing a street with the food wagons. And one time, when I was pulling a wagon with shower buckets and canopies in it, my wagon overturned in the middle of the street,” Father Arthur said.

“Several men, who were just passing by, ran over to help me put my load back together and then they just left, and I continued on my way.”

And Matamoros has really stepped up to help the asylum seekers, too.

They provide water and trash collection at the refugee village.

“You know, the U.S. State Department has issued a warning to Americans not to go to Matamoros or the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, because it’s too dangerous.

“I didn’t find the camp to be dangerous when I was there.

“Everyone was helpful – just regular people trying to help out or trying to go about their normal business.

“These asylum seekers are like our ancestors were, they’re just coming from a different place.

“They are so desperate that they have been willing to take such a chance and make such a hard journey.”

Would Father Arthur recommend that others go to the border to see the situation for themselves and to help?

“Yes, I would recommend to anyone to go to the border and see for yourself who the people are who are applying for asylum.

“They need the help, and it’s an educational experience to be there.”

With Thanksgiving upon us, Father Arthur was asked to share a message with our readers.

“Coming back home to West Virginia after this experience, I realized how much we have here – even when we think we don’t,” Father Arthur said.

“Seeing people with so much less and still so peaceful and joyful is a great witness – teaching me to be thankful for what I have.

“Thanksgiving might be a good time for us to be thankful for our blessings and to want to, without judgment, share our blessings with people locally and anywhere there is a need.

“I definitely believe that my trip to the border was a good thing to do.

“I just felt that maybe I should be staying longer.”

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