Checkpoint on Pain

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Last week I drove up to Albuquerque for my annual CAC Living School symposium. That means I had to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint.

Driving regularly on southwest Texas or New Mexico highways, I’ve gotten used to it.

I know the routine.

I slow down to a crawl until I’m face to face with a Border Patrol agent.  I roll down my window. He sees my white face, asks if I’m a U.S. citizen. I say yes. He answers, “Have a nice day.” I drive off. He never asks for my I.D. Never checks my car for smuggled goods, or people for that matter.

There’s no doubt it’s racial profiling. But that’s the way it is.

Border Patrol checkpoint

Usually it’s pretty quick. Even when the cars ahead of me are not driven by Anglos. They have to show their I.D.s or documentation, of course. Often the agent looks in the car. But there’s no hesitation.

Not this time.

This time a few cars were lined up ahead of me. The agent was slowly thumbing through the pages in his hand, as the driver waited. He looked over each one carefully, then returned to the first page and started the process over again, as if he wasn’t quite satisfied.

This agent seemed to not want to accept the documents he was holding were legitimate. Or else he wanted to make the brown-skinned driver squirm.

While waiting, the woman in the car in front of me jumped out and opened her back hatch. She pulled out a suitcase and removed what looked like two passports. The woman was Hispanic.

Finally, after fingering through the pages a few more times, the agent let the first car go. Then the second car drove up. He poked his head down, asked a few questions and let the driver go.

Then it was the Hispanic woman’s turn. She handed over two passports, for herself and her passenger. One was blue like a U.S. passport, the other dark green. The color of a Mexican passport.Mexican passport

The agent flipped open the U.S. passport, then put it aside. When he opened the other passport, he hesitated. He looked at it, looked at her, looked at it again. Then he just held it between his fingers, waiting.

By now I could feel myself growing angry.

“C’mon, buddy! Either it’s legitimate or it’s not!” I shouted in my car with the windows still closed.

He stood there for a few moments more. Not doing anything. Not asking any questions. Just holding the passport. Then he handed them both back to the woman.

Next it was my turn.

“U.S. citizen, ma’am?” With a downturned mouth, he demanded rather than asked the question.

“Yes.”

“Anybody traveling with you?”

“No.”

“You’re free to go,” he scowled. Forget the “have a nice day.”

The negativity coming through the open window was palpable.

Clearly, this man was in pain. But it upset me, how he was projecting that pain onto others, especially people of darker complexions.

He could do a lot of damage with the power and the position he had.

The thing is, none of us escapes pain in our lives. We all have places of wounding and brokenness. Oblivious to this brokenness, we inflict our pain onto others.

Right now, in our country, it feels as though we are experiencing this at a magnified level…this projection of pain onto others.

We’re having a hard time looking within ourselves. Letting ourselves feel the extent of our sadness, our hurt, our grief, our need for healing, our failure to be responsible for one another. We don’t want to feel it.

And what we won’t acknowledge and take responsibility for, we are bound to repeat. Without self-awareness, we can numb ourselves to the atrocities committed against others.

In fact, this is something we’re trying to address at the Living School. The unacknowledged painful effects of racism and white privilege. I’d say it’s causing a reaction in us.

For me, being a writer, I naturally want to write about what I witness. I pay attention to the pain and suffering I see in those I accompany at the border. In the encounters I have with others.

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It shows me how we are not separate at all. It shows me how I feel the same fears, hide out in the same ways, and want to close off my heart to those who have hurt me. Just like most of us do.

But in writing about it and letting myself feel it, maybe I can become more aware. Soften the pain. Create my own checkpoint for the ways I block off the borders of my heart. And not repeat this very human pattern of inflicting pain.

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With or Without You

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Don’t make me cry, David.

I’m standing in front of the fresh cherries display at Sprouts, considering how many to buy while simultaneously pondering a brave new step in my life when I suddenly recognize the tune being piped in overhead.

It’s U2’s “With or Without You.”

Without warning, a familiar feeling floods me. The band U2 was one of David’s favorites. And this particular song has a special meaning for me. So many years ago, deep in the midst of my grief, I listened to that song over and over. It both consoled and pained me.

In my mind, I felt as though I couldn’t live without David. And yet I knew I would.

That was over nine years ago now and yet instantaneously David comes into my awareness. And, as if in recognition of the decision I’m about to make, his voice, gentle and strong from somewhere inside me, says:

“I’m proud of you, honey.”

I hear and feel this as clearly as if David were standing beside me, whispering these familiar words into my ear.

It takes all the effort I have to keep myself from crying right there in the middle of the produce aisle. And because I don’t want to look that vulnerable, my demanding voice says, ‘don’t make me cry.”

I manage to hold back the tears.

Somehow knowing he would leave this earth before I did, David tried to prepare me for his death. As if that were possible.

Mr. Serious. Mr. Practical. He even planned financially to take care of me and Davis after he’d be physically absent.

What I didn’t know was that he would take care of me emotionally in difficult, doubting moments that test my ability to fully love myself. Just by “reliving” and remembering his unconditional love for me.

He was the first person in my life to really see and accept me. The first to tell me how he appreciated my courage, my strength, my beauty, and my independence. It was such a gift. To have someone see me for who I truly am and not who they think I should be or want me to be.

It was his love and confidence in me that allowed me to declare not long after his death:

“I’m learning to let go of any attachment to what I thought my life would be and opening to limitless possibilities.”

And that desire, to live my life fully – no matter how different from what I’d planned – is what brought me to the border.

I am reminded of this as I live my life here and make choices that are countercultural. Choices that are not popular with my family and possibly further alienate me from them.

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It’s not easy, to stand in my truth and keep my heart open in the face of old hurts, misguided assumptions, distorted perceptions that come at me. Whether it’s from strangers, or, most especially, from people I love.

Yet I believe God desperately wants us to keep loving and to know how unbelievably precious we are, how unconditionally loved we are, in the face of everything that comes at us. Sometimes the only way Love can do that is by sending us a message through someone who loves or has loved us that much.

For me, that person is David.

Complete vulnerability. That’s what David gave me. And that is what love asks of us.

We are meant to give ourselves away. And I know, in giving myself, I get so much more!

I am reminded of someone else who gave himself away for us. To show us the path of Love. To show us what is possible when you give it all away. And how transformational that is.

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Love is the only answer in this crazy, confused, painful, joyful, fearful, beautiful, and insecure world. Love is the only power that will transform and save us.

And it waits for us to say “yes” to it.

“Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all but I want more
And I’m waiting for you”

(Lyrics from “With or Without You”)

Ignite Your Divine Spark

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Sometimes your fire can be rekindled instantly. Your inner spark ignited. For me, it happened recently by a most unlikely source.  A 12-year-old Girl Scout.

And it’s been illuminated since!

It started over two weeks ago when we received news that our former hospitality site at the Loretto Nazareth Living Center was reopening! The new owners of the building had decided to give Annunciation House use of their unused wing again as a temporary shelter for the migrants and refugees processed by ICE.

Its two long hallways, dozens of hospital-type rooms with individual bathrooms, large kitchen and dining area meant we could receive more “guests.” Employ more volunteers. Offer better care.

We were “back in business.”

Just entering the familiar space that morning made me happy. Remembering the special memories, the many graced encounters we’d experienced during the previous 2 ½ years we’d occupied this place…it’s hard to explain.

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Drawings and colored pages of children who have passed through our doors

But there was lots to do. The place had been closed for over a year. All our supplies, donations, and volunteers had moved on. It meant everything would have to be replenished.

Then the El Paso Girl Scouts, Troop #883, showed up.

I had been told they’d be bringing donations and that Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, was coming to personally thank them. I just didn’t know the magnitude of their efforts until, assisted by somebody’s mom, the girls carried in armload after armload of their collections.

Soon nearly our entire office floor was awash in a sea of colorful tote bags. Bright yellows, blues, purples, greens, oranges, whites, and reds brimming with snacks and toiletries stuffed in individual Ziploc baggies.

“We have more in my garage when you’re ready for them,” the mom said.

My curiosity won out.

“Whose idea was this?” I asked. “How’d you get all these donations?”

That’s when Natalie spoke up.

She said she’d attended the protest in Tornillo when the news first came out that children separated from their parents would be housed in a tent there. That’s where she learned about Annunciation House and decided to help with supplies for the traveling families. She posted something on her Facebook page and soon financial donations poured in. Not only nationwide but from people as far as away as the UK and Australia.

Natalie said she was “heartened” by the response.

So was I.

Honestly, I had been feeling weary from all that’s been happening at our border. And elsewhere in the country. All the cruelty, the lack of decency and civility to one another, the suffering we’re causing.

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I have to admit that I’d been struggling not to let the state of my own mind and heart be affected by what was happening around me.

 

And then Natalie and Girl Scout Troop #883 reminded me of something.

The divine spark within. It’s there in all of us.

In some cases, it’s covered over by lots of layers. Layers of hurt and pain and fear. We’re seeing evidence of that in many ways these days.

But I want to tell you that it’s alive and well in El Paso. I witness it every time I step over the threshold at Nazareth.

This week we began receiving some of the reunified families. And if this week is any indication, it’s going to be crazy, chaotic, exhausting.

And amazing.

“Such joy!” is how Lisa, a friend and volunteer, expressed her feelings at witnessing these families back together.

Now that Annunciation House has been “in the news” as one of four places in the country to which ICE will deliver the thousands of parents and children they are reuniting, volunteers are coming out of the woodwork.

This week Natalie’s mom came to Nazareth with other moms to make breakfast for our families. Calling themselves “the angry mothers group,” they donned tee shirts that expressed their support of the families. Those moms who didn’t know Spanish smiled a lot at our guests. They made our families feel like they were human beings. And let them know that somebody – although a “stranger” – cared.

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Tee shirt worn by “angry moms”

People from all walks of life, all faith denominations, all skin colors and cultures – they are all showing up at our door wanting to help.

And they are on fire too!

Not only because they want to do something positive in the face of such abominable treatment to our fellow human beings, but because they too are recognizing what I and my fellow volunteers have been recognizing in the faces of these migrants and refugees since day 1.

The face of Christ. The divine spark.

And that spark is igniting their own spark.

Dorothy Day says:

“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up….If we love each other enough, we are going to light the fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”

Maybe your spark will be ignited too. Wherever you are.

Maybe we all will someday recognize that this divine spark, this love has been there all along. Waiting for us to wake up. To remove our blindness. To catch on fire with the awareness of who we truly are.

Every single one of us.

Borders can be quilts

True Freedom

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“There’s nothing I can do,” he tells me.

He’s told me this countless times before.

Always with the same calm, trusting composure. And I have come to accept the acceptance in his words, knowing that his deep faith guides him.

But tonight…tonight I feel the anger growing inside me.

Tonight I want to slam my fists on the table, pound the glass between us, yell at the guards or his deportation officer, or better yet, the anonymous person who wrote this dreadful form letter Mathias has just slipped under the thick glass that divides us.

The letter that states our government continues to work with his government to take him back, even though we both know that since he has no passport or other legal documents, it’s highly unlikely his country will ever accept him. They’ve already said they can’t take him.

The letter that states he must not interfere with the process (a statement that would be laughable if it weren’t so ridiculous).

And, finally, the worst part, the letter that states he must remain locked up until October. Three more months of not knowing. With no guarantee any decision will be made even after that time.

Mathias, the young man I visit in detention, lost his asylum case back in April. Not unusual in El Paso. Denial is happening at an even higher frequency here than elsewhere.

We know he is supposed to be deported. But he waits in this liminal space as the two countries go back and forth, indifferent to the life they are impacting.

Three more months in limbo. Or is it hell?

I know the food isn’t good. I know that whenever he is allowed outdoors – always accompanied by a guard – he must stay within the narrow areas outlined in white on the cement. He cannot venture outside these lines.

I know about the locked metal doors that seal behind you, the tall barbed-wire fences and the full barracks where the TV plays loudly throughout the day. The difficulty he has in trying to pray.

And yet, I tell him I wish I could trade places with him. Even as I say it, I know I am sincere.

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He is already so thin, he cannot afford to lose any more weight. I would gladly lose it for him. I would take on the monotony of his structured day, assigned to wear a navy jump suit, allowing others to make decisions for me. In such a situation, so completely out of my control, I would be forced to turn to God while perched on this ledge in liminal space, feeling like a confined criminal when I am anything but.

This is Mathias’s situation. And he no more deserves it than I do.

This young man who followed the law, coming to a U.S. port of entry to present his case for asylum. As international law allows.

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The thing is, I care about Mathias. I have come to know him as a man of integrity. I have watched him deal with the stress and uncertainty of his situation with courage and tremendous trust in God.

When he tells me, “There is nothing I can do,” I hear and see in his face his ability to accept “God’s will,” as he puts it. He trusts God to care for him.

 

Yet he tells me he longs for freedom. After all, he has been confined for more than a year already.

I think of this as I drive home and discover Interstate 10 is closed. Traffic crawls as it’s diverted off the highway. I feel so tired and frustrated, knowing this will double the time it normally takes to get back to Las Cruces. I swear aloud.

Then I think of Mathias. Locked in his barracks tonight. Sleeping soundly, ever since he has learned to accept his situation.

Stressed behind my steering wheel, cursing tonight’s road construction, I suddenly wonder, who is more free?

Sometimes I have trouble accepting life on life’s terms. Despite his age, Mathias is my teacher. He reminds me of the importance of returning to my Source. My true freedom. And did I mention he is Muslim?

“He [or she] who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others.”    Thomas Merton

Virginia Is for Lovers

Virginia Jennifers home June 2018

View from my friends Jennifer & Rob’s yard

I love Virginia. I was so thrilled to be back visiting my former home that I pretty much wandered around with a continuous smile.

First there was the effects of all that spring rain. Virginia’s mountains and hillsides glowed with a vibrant green carpet. Trees and vegetation along the roadsides were so full, they seemed to reach out to embrace me.

I treasured hikes and gatherings with dear friends. Enjoyed surprise encounters with old friends at a special wedding. Spent time with Davis – always a treat – and got to see the wonderful adults some of his high school friends have become.

Virginia has given me so many precious memories and such special heart connections, who wouldn’t smile?

Even crossing the state line and seeing the familiar “Virginia is for lovers” slogan got me.

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But I can’t say my entire trip was filled with goodness and happy thoughts.

Back home at the border things were heating up. Even before I left El Paso, we were seeing cases of asylum seekers being jailed and their children taken from them. In the week that followed my departure, a difficult and painful situation had deteriorated from bad to worse.

Not that I was watching TV news. But between emails from friends and contacts back home, along with snippets of Internet news, I couldn’t ignore what was happening.

Soon, along with the joy of being back in Virginia, I was carrying a heaviness on my heart. It accompanied me into bed at night and awoke with me every morning.

Seeing faces in the news similar to those of the families I accompany, knowing the pain and distortion they were being subjected to, I couldn’t rest easily. After all, I’ve listened to their stories, played with their shy children, prepared and eaten plate after plate of reheated rice and beans with them.

Maybe right about now you’re asking, how does this relate to the title of your blog post?

I admit that finding words to express all I’ve been experiencing these days is challenging.

But I’ll try.

Sunday while hiking in the Gila National Forest, I met a Navy veteran who’d lived in Virginia. When he discovered Virginia had been my home for 30 years, he shared his not-so-positive opinions about the commonwealth.

Far from the “Virginia is for lovers” motto, he saw Virginians as racists still living in the pre-Civil War era, honoring the Confederacy, stuck in time. (I should note he was Caucasian.)

Clearly, his “reality” differed greatly from mine.

Not that there aren’t people who act this way, but this is not the Virginia nor the Virginians I know.

This guy’s stereotype was not indicative of the special place where we raised our son.

Davis learned about love in Virginia. He learned compassion, not judgment. Acceptance, not racial profiling. He learned to meet people where they are and be generous with what he has.

My heart connection with Virginians has created a different reality.

It’s those heart connections – both in Virginia and on the border – that prevent me from lumping people into derogatory categories. Or labeling them “racists,” “animals,” “criminals” who are “infesting” us.

I could not malign and dismiss the people of Virginia any more than I could the families of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who come to our hospitality houses.

Why? Because living on the cusp of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve experienced a different “reality.” Thankfully, a reality many of my Virginia friends wanted to hear about. And I’m so grateful for their listening open, loving hearts.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.” 
― Corrie ten BoomThe Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

I agree that love IS the strongest force in the world. Love can turn things – and people – around.

And something else about love.

Love is strong and fierce in defense of those it loves. Love is not cowardly. It takes risks. Lovers do not sit quietly by while those they love are maligned.

My Guatemalan Muse

Painting of a Guatemalan mother and child by Diego Sisay that hangs above my writing desk

I don’t intend to be silent in support of people I have come to love.

I make no apologies for the pain and anger I feel in my heart when I see a video of a Guatemalan mother, reunited with her 5-year-old son at the airport, sobbing into him as she tells him in Spanish that she loves him.

The pain that we have been inflicting on these children is a violent act. It is anything but love. It goes against the grain of what love is.

It goes against who I am.

This is not a time for silence or inertia. It’s a time for lovers – lovers in the true sense of the word – to speak up.

Tearing Down My Wall

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I had two encounters with a wall on Saturday night. Literally and figuratively.

One was the tall steel monstrosity that Trump has erected at the Santa Teresa, NM port of entry – the beginnings of his “big, beautiful wall.” The other is the one I discovered in me.

It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected to encounter – this growing self-awareness of ways I put up walls. But there it was. Right in front of me.

And impossible to ignore.

Not unlike the not-yet-but-soon-to-be 18-ft wall of ugliness planted at my feet in the desert.

Even at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was hot and strong, bearing down on me and a few hundred “friends” gathered at the fence line between Mexico and New Mexico.

Sponsored by the Southwest Environmental Center and other environmental and humanitarian groups, this Border Wall Protest was to draw attention to the negative repercussions of constructing this wall and to present a tangible resistance.

I’ll say right off that I’ve grown tired of protests. I want to take positive action. And I often look for ways to do that.

But I came in solidarity, and with curiosity. I wanted to see what this wall looked like. After all, $72 million (so far) of our tax dollars have been appropriated to its construction. And this is the spot where it all begins.

Let me tell you, it’s ugly. It’s invasive. Much more so than any human being.

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The first installment of the new U.S.-Mexico border wall

And, for those of us who live in the Borderlands – the area from El Paso to Las Cruces – it’s right in our backyard.

We locals know this wall will not stop the flow of drugs across the border. The demand is high in the U.S., and the smugglers find ways to transport drugs through the ports of entry and through tunnels. Nor will it stop desperate people from seeking asylum at the ports of entry. But it will stop the natural flow of wildlife across borders and countries, something I learned about in Costa Rica, which is an international bridge for the flow of North American wildlife. It will also prevent animals close to home from finding necessary water and sustenance.

So, this wall will accomplish nothing positive and it will cost billions.

Costly and unnecessary.

I pondered that as I walked.

And as I gazed beyond the narrow steel columns into the expanse of desert, a sadness came over me. The sadness of so much pain in our country these days. The name calling – on both sides – the harsh pigeonholing of immigrants, the refusal to take responsibility for the negative outcome of our actions. And, most especially, the cruel SOP of separating young children from their parents at the border.

This is a hard reality. And it was hard to hold.

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As Franciscan Richard Rohr says, “We hold the hardness of reality and the suffering of the world until it transforms us.”

But holding it means not being reactionary. As I thought about this, I recognized my own reactionary stance. How sometimes I erect my own costly and unnecessary walls.

When someone expresses an opinion different than mine and digs their heels in the ground refusing to even hear what I am saying, a wall goes up.

When someone dismisses what I feel most passionately about, a wall goes up.

When someone hurts others, oblivious to the pain they’re causing, or supports a policy that hurts others, a wall goes up.

I realize it’s a risk, to take down these walls. I could get hurt.

Yet I know they too are an unnecessary monstrosity that stops the natural flow of life and love.

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If my purpose here truly is to learn to love better, how can I come from a different stance? Not condoning or ignoring the harm another is doing, but also not being reactionary?

What will lead me closer to the Divine heart of God? Dualistic, negative thoughts that prevent me from really connecting with others? Or an open mind and heart that seeks a new way to respond? One that lets down walls and goes beyond comfortable borders?

So, I’ve been reflecting on these questions. Maybe you’ll find considering them helpful, too.

What boundaries am I being asked to cross?   Border wall rose

What walls do I need to tear down?

Merton on Men, Animals, and God’s Will

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I struggle with how to respond to words and actions that strike at the heart.

“They’re animals.”

“They’re criminals. They don’t deserve consideration and compassion.”

“We have lost our soul.” These last words from Ruben Garcia at the recent Voice of the Voiceless fundraising dinner for Annunciation House, with the theme “If the World Knew,” especially struck my heart. “Our country has lost its soul,” he told us.

Is it true?

I don’t know how to respond.

I wonder how do I convey, through my words, the haunting wails of a child separated from his mother? Or the pain expressed by a woman whose husband – her sole supporter – is forcibly taken from her without her being able to say goodbye? What words exemplify the distress I have been feeling that these “deeds” are done in our name?

What could I possibly write? And how is God asking me to respond?

Part of my assignment with the Living School of Contemplation and Action is to read mystics like Thomas Merton. This morning, I spontaneously opened his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, and discovered the words I was searching for.

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So I will let him write this post for me.

Just as a forewarning, having written this in 1961, Merton uses a lot of male pronouns and nouns. I have occasionally added “woman” to this excerpt, and I have italicized and boldened some text that especially speaks to me, but his message shines through nonetheless.

“If you want to know what is meant by ‘God’s will’ in man’s life, this is one way to get a good idea of it. ‘God’s will’ is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. You can call this, if you like, the basic tenet of the Natural Law, which is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to one another what we would not want another to do to us. In other words, the natural law is simply that we should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves. The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other [men and women] as if they were [men/women]. Not to act as if I alone were a man, and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.

“Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other [man/woman] effectively as a human being, ‘is willed for me by God under the natural law.’ Whether or not I find the formula satisfactory, it is obvious that I cannot live a truly human life if I consistently disobey this fundamental principle.

“But I cannot treat other men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.

“…Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting [men/women] to one another in His own Life and unity. ‘I in them, and Thou, Father in Me, that they may be made perfect in One…And the glory which Thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be One as we also are One.’” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76-77)

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Contradictions in Costa Rica

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A trip up the canal along Tortugero National Park

I experienced paradise for nearly two weeks. Every morning in Costa Rica I’d wake up happy.

And that’s despite getting up much earlier than usual.

The cacophony of birds greeting the dawn just wouldn’t let me sleep. Nor would the howler monkeys. With their loud calls seemingly so close to my window, I felt as though someone had planted my bed smack in the middle of the jungle.

But I’d jump up, no matter the hour, excited and eager to get out there and see what amazing colors and species of bird, animal, and plant I’d find today.

Costa Rica defines abundance.

For such a small country – it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface – Costa Rica has nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An overabundance in my book. I couldn’t even keep up with the numbers. Something like 600 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – at least 150 species of frogs, over 500 species of trees.

Every day was an adventure in joyful exploration. An encounter with tremendous beauty.

Daily, I found myself expressing gratitude for this incredible earth we’ve been placed on.

But everything wasn’t perfect. Neither in Costa Rica nor elsewhere on the planet.

While on vacation I wasn’t watching the news, but I couldn’t get away from what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. I continued to view emails and messages from friends and reliable news sources.

So, I was aware that the caravan of Central Americans had been denied entry to the U.S., with the claim that Border Patrol had reached its capacity and was unable to accept and process the asylum seekers, most of whom were mothers and children. I knew, too, that this was a charade. The caravan had been anticipated. It had been in the news for days. There was no reason, other than political, as to why Border agents weren’t prepared to receive them.

Meanwhile, back in El Paso, my fellow volunteers were helping an unusually high number of migrants. Texts and emails were coming through, rapidly and daily, for more volunteers, as ICE delivered more than 400 asylum seekers to our “hospitality houses” during the week I was gone.

It was such a contradiction. One border outside Tijuana unable to process a little more than 100 people who had been expected to arrive while another port of entry was taking in an unexpected 100 or more a day.

I couldn’t help but think about it. I imagine a hard stone wall, filled with anger, fear, and prejudice, stacked up against some people’s hearts, to keep from feeling their humanity towards immigrants. It is this wall, I suspect, that keeps us from feeling the pain and outrage over our government’s practice of now separating children – as young as 2 years old – from their mothers at the border. Mothers who have fled their country in order to save their children. Now suffering even greater heartbreak.

It felt like such a contradiction within myself, too.

One minute I was telling a co-traveler how Costa Rica makes my heart happy, and the next, I was explaining to another how the tragic and troubling situation at the border hurts my heart.

And both were true.

I don’t pretend to understand why there is such pain in an abundant universe.

This is the world we live in: one that can be both paradise and prison, both filled with immeasurable joy and immense sorrow.

And my faith lives in the midst of these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions.

When I ask my inner being, what am I to do, I hear that my task is simply to learn to love. Love those in sorrow and pain, and love those who wound and hurt them because of their own pain and ignorance. Learn to hold all of this suffering and let my heart feel and expand in the process. Which really isn’t that simple, is it?

But this is what connects me to the One who has created such inexpressible beauty in nature and such vulnerable hearts capable of unimaginable pain.

It may seem contradictory, but both are gifts – treasures hidden in plain sight.

A Good Place to Land

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Aerial view of Las Cruces, New Mexico

Today is the 9th anniversary of David’s passing, and I’m marveling at where I’ve landed. Only last week, I moved again.

No, I didn’t stray very far from El Paso. Just over the border in New Mexico. But it’s a good move. I’ve bought my own place in a great community, and it means I’m putting down roots. Settling in. Ready to really sink my teeth into my life here.

Back in 2009 I could not have envisioned this life. A life without him. A life far from dear friends and a community that fully supported and surrounded me and Davis through our grief.

A life outside my beautiful Virginia.

Now I can’t imagine going back. Not being able to accompany and support the asylum seekers who arrive at our door. I can’t imagine not being able to witness firsthand and speak up about the realities of the Borderlands – the name for our area, from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM.

Las Cruces Organ view

A view from my morning walk

Because the reality is so much different from what you hear in the news or from the mouths of political pundits on TV. Or on Twitter.

I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve met. About perseverance and faith against all odds. About the challenges of living with tremendous uncertainty. The kind that’s life-threatening and beyond heartbreaking.

And, most especially, about the nature of our true home. The home within.

Still it feels good to have landed in my new physical home. A place with a different kind of beauty, where I still have my circle of friends and a community committed to social justice and caring for “the other.”

 

Las Cruces fields

Outside my new neighborhood

 

A safe place.

Yes, El Paso and the Borderlands are safe. In fact, El Paso continues to be counted as one of the safest U.S. cities for its size. I have always felt safe here. I teach English to adults at a church that’s within walking distance of the border. The little hospitality house where I volunteer is downtown, also close to the border. Mexican shoppers cross over daily and support our economy.

This is why what we hear in the media about the border is so disturbing. Like the idea of the president sending the National Guard. It’s ridiculous to us. We believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money and our resources. The truth is, apprehensions at the border have decreased significantly. The numbers are way down.

We also know the truth about the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico and how that story, in the hands of this president, exploded into some far-fetched, fear-based fantasy. Not to mention that many of these asylum seekers are from Honduras, a country whose recent election was considered a fraud, except by our president. He supported the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández – an authoritarian leader in one of the most violent nations in the world. We continue to send military aid to Honduras while their military police abuse and kill grassroots activists and the poor and marginalized. With rampant crime and human rights abuses, it’s no wonder Hondurans are fleeing.

Honduran election protests

One young woman whom ICE delivered to us shared how the people are desperately poor. Desperate people do desperate things. She and her roommate were both raped in their apartment, and everything they had was stolen. They had nothing left. They were not safe. And they had no recourse. The police could not or would not help them. She fled, not knowing this rape would result in a pregnancy until months later.

Yet she shows no resentment. She even smiles when she speaks about this baby. She seems to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. I wonder if I could land with such grace.

But then again, after David died, I didn’t think I’d ever land someplace gracefully and securely again. At least not without that bottomless well of pain accompanying me.

I’ve discovered that’s not true.

And moving to Las Cruces, with its tree-lined streets, and a little cooler temperatures and a lot more greenery – all within a short drive to El Paso and still within my border community – well, it’s like landing in the best of both worlds.

With so many blessings, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world around me and not give back. I know David would approve.

Me&David

The Best I Can Do

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It was such a precious thing.

To have a little 4-year-old, previously a stranger to me, trust me with her knotted tresses. Trust me enough to allow me to secure her between my knees as I sat down and attempted to untangle her long, wavy locks.

Lint and other particles from her weeks-long journey from Honduras had nested in Yoselin’s curls and refused to disentangle themselves.

It felt like a nearly impossible task. Especially with only a thin comb as my tool.

She never made a sound. Never winced. Yoselin stood quietly, patiently, while her 7-year-old sister and her appreciative father watched.

I finally threw my hands up.comb

“It’s the best I can do. Es la mejor que puedo hacer.

I gave a pleading look to her dad and twisted a hair band around her tresses, securing any loose ends. Even after I pulled her hair back into a ponytail, Yoselin didn’t budge. She remained perched between my legs, unmovable. I gave her a little nudge.

“I need to get up,” I gently said. Necesito levantarme.

Reluctantly she moved away and I went off to prepare lunch so she and her family could eat before they boarded the bus to Tennessee in a few hours.

It felt like such a small thing. And yet very precious.

I didn’t know the next time this child would receive such a gentle, loving touch. Her innocence and complete vulnerability and trust at my hands made me want to cry.

Sometimes it’s not just children who are innocent and vulnerable and trusting in our hands.

I’ve become familiar with so many suffering people who have come here completely vulnerable and trusting in a country known as the greatest defender of human rights and democracy.

Like my guy in detention “Mathias.” He was shocked when, after explaining to U.S. Customs and Border Protection his reason for seeking international asylum, they handcuffed and confined him in a detention facility.

I’ve been visiting Mathias for months. I’ve gotten to know him and care about him. Even took the morning off to attend his court hearing, as his main support system and concerned friend. But he lost his case. It doesn’t appear he has much chance for appeal. His health has been deteriorating since he arrived at the El Paso detention facility. Yet El Paso has one of the better facilities.

If he doesn’t appeal, he will soon be transferred to another facility as he awaits deportation. And his situation could get much worse.

My fear is he’ll be transferred to a private facility in Sierra Blanca, Texas, where African immigrants, in particular, are being abused and beaten, according to a recent report by immigrant and civil rights groups. This is not surprising, based on what we hear from other volunteers and immigration attorneys.

It deeply disturbs me – what’s happening in our country. Both behind closed doors and overtly.sierra blanca detention

I’m aware that sometimes I can’t get all the knots out, no matter how hard I try. I can’t prevent the pain someone is experiencing.

Sometimes the best I can offer is to simply walk alongside them in their anxiety. Their fear. Their suffering.

And not have any answers. Not be able to explain why a country known throughout the world for supporting and defending human rights would treat others inhumanely.

It doesn’t seem like enough. What I do.

But I know that kindness does matter. A caring heart matters. And an educated, intelligent response to abusive authority matters, too.

Your response matters.

Let’s all do the best we can do. It’s the only way positive changes can happen.

caringhearts