Easter in isolation: McAllen neighborhood emphasizes faith, unity under quarantine

Inspired by small gestures of unity in various parts of the country, residents of a central McAllen neighborhood have opted to put their own spin on the idea of staying in touch. Residents who live in the 1200 blocks of Westway and Highland Avenues have been gathering on their front lawns every Sunday evening at 6 p.m. for a few moments of unity and song.

They recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer, and then they cap off their brief show of solidarity by singing “God Bless America.” The weekly outings were organized by Mary Ellen Stocker and Ruth Ann Jones.

“I had been talking to God on and off, asking, ‘What can I do,’” Stocker said. “I remembered shortly after 9/11 we all got together in that little open area and we all just prayed. And so, I woke up one morning and it all came together. I called Ruth Ann, and I said, ‘Do you think I’m crazy for doing this?’ And she said no!”

“We just want people to see each other,” Jones added. “And really it’s been great because some of the neighbors who haven’t gotten to know each other are starting to visit.”

Jones and Stocker have been living in the neighborhood since the late 1970s and both were instrumental in starting their neighborhood association 15 years ago. Jones printed up flyers announcing the weekly gatherings, and which also include the words to the Lord’s Prayer, the pledge, and “God Bless America.”

They began passing out the flyers four weeks ago, and Easter Sunday marked the third time the neighbors stepped outside to greet one another.

“To me, the main thing is to stand up for our country, our president, and our God,” Stocker said. “I just wanted to give people a purpose, and to say we need one another. We’re in this together.”

Jones said, “We want to keep doing this until we open up again, and as long as people show an interest. That’s what our desire is.”

This area of McAllen was developed in the 50s and many of the homeowners have lived in the neighborhood for at least two generations. Jim Eggar, who serves as director of fine arts for the McAllen school district, provided a portable speaker, which Stocker used to lead the group in the brief service.

“It’s always nice to see all the different neighbors,” Eggar said. “Just waving to them or talking to them a little might seem like a little gesture, but it’s meaningful. I think it’s great.”

The neighborhood had a long tradition of hosting block parties for holidays such as the Fourth of July and Halloween, but those celebrations have tapered off as most of the children have grown up and moved on. The gatherings are a throwback to that era.

Longtime businessman Bill Stocker says his dry cleaning business has dropped by 98% since the lockdowns began, but he says he’s determined to remain open and retain his employees for as long as he can. He foresees a lasting impact once the county’s shelter at home order is lifted.

“The neighborhood is being revitalized,” Stocker said. “Maybe this will be the catalyst to bring us together after this thing is over. The blessing of this is that we’re spending quality time with our grandchildren. The benefit, I think, is that people will be more conscientious. I think it will have a long-term effect, at least in this neighborhood.”