Border Patrol in El Paso

Border Patrol in El Paso

You can spot one of these Border Patrol vehicles stationed every 500 ft. along the U.S./Mexico border in El Paso. I took this photo in February while conservative politicians argued for increased border patrol and more fencing.

Now that the government shutdown “adventure” is over, the issue of immigration reform is resurfacing. Democrats and Republicans will once again play the game of not wanting to concede too much to the other side, not wanting to look as though they are losing ground, while in the meantime, people’s lives are affected.

Along my journey, I’ll post more about just how lives are affected, including my own.


Taking the Risk

Since posting my inaugural blog about journeying to El Paso, friends with whom I’d recently lost touch have been checking in. Many have been wishing me well on my move. Some have been surprised. Others have been asking me what the hell I’m doing. OK, I can see why you’d be confused. Rereading  my post I realize I wasn’t clear that heading to El Paso is only a temporary, first step into following my heart. No, I am not selling my house, getting rid of my dog, or leaving Virginia permanently. At least not now. I am simply volunteering for a few months—the max that I can manage at the moment—and opening to where this might lead.

That’s exactly why this is both exciting and scary. I can’t see what’s on the other side of this threshold. I don’t know what’s next for me. But here’s what I do know.

I know that this experience will change how I live my life. It already has. What I witnessed and experienced in El Paso back in February—how our screwed-up immigration policy is impacting families, children, and the hard-working poor who are trying to survive—has remained on my heart.  I know that the call to serve the poor and oppressed in a community setting is too strong to ignore. I know that I have much more to offer in this stage of my journey. And, most especially, I know that the poor have much to teach me.

I still see before me the many faces I encountered on my “border immersion” trip. Not just the smiling children in detention facilities trusting they will be reunited with their families, or the Latina women with hopeful plans of furthering their education or finding employment to support their children, but the compassionate eyes and passion-filled voices of those who serve the immigrants. During this seven-day trip I met some of the most inspiring people I have ever come across face to face—the immigrants as well as those who work tirelessly, selflessly, and passionately to help them.

People like the nuns who singlehandedly have begun various ministries and cross the border into Juarez, Mexico, to serve however they can. Sr. Rene is a great example. She started a women’s coop—Centro Santa Catalina—in Juarez, to help impoverished women support their families. Even in the height of the drug cartels’ out-of-control violence, she crossed the border daily.

Then there’s 80-year-old Sr. Beatrice, a former chaplain in the adult detention facilities who bent the rules to serve people with kindness and compassion. She often witnessed very dehumanizing and demeaning practices, including the use of chains on the deportees. Many are being detained for months or years on end at tremendous cost to the U.S. taxpayer. Their sole reason for being stuck in these facilities separated from their loved ones — they crossed the border illegally.

Carlos Marentes also used the word “dehumanizing” in describing the work of the migrants who come to pick U.S. produce—a billion-dollar industry for which they are paid, on average, $6,000 per year. In 1983, Carlos and his wife Alicia founded Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, a nonprofit located in southside El Paso, to support migrant and seasonal farm workers and their families. His life and his passion are to change Americans’ relationship with food and the natural world – another interesting story I hope to share.

In everyone I met I witnessed so much hope, faith, and trust in God despite what seems to be an overwhelmingly problematic and complex situation. But of all the stories I  heard, there’s one that Ruben Garcia shared with us when we visited Annunciation House that affected me the most.

He told us of a woman who’d crossed the border with her young daughter and found her way to his “house of hospitality” ill and in need of care. Once she was well enough, the woman wanted to find work. So, she accepted the offer of a stranger who called Annunciation House seeking a housekeeper for the day.  It was not unusual for people looking for day laborers to call Ruben’s house asking if any residents were interested in a job. Ruben would pass on the information, but never got involved in settling the rate of pay. So the woman went off to clean house for this stranger without knowing what she would be paid. She was gone for the entire day. When she returned, she had been paid a mere $15.

Her reaction? She gave Ruben $10 to save for her. Then she handed him the other $5 and told him to give it to someone worse off than she was. This woman who had been treated so poorly herself willingly gave one-third of her pay to help a stranger! She didn’t know when she would next be paid. She had no idea what her future would hold. But she had faith.

That’s the story that got me crying. Maybe my heart had been opening a little more each day with everything I’d been witnessing. Maybe I was simply too raw and vulnerable. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that was the particular moment I knew why I had come on this trip.

Some time ago I set the intention to listen to my inner being. To be able to discern the path forward. And to have the courage to follow. I truly believe it’s time to take the risk.

So, thank you, all my friends and people I don’t yet know who are supporting me on this journey. Thank you for your prayers. Prayer is what got me here. Prayer is what brought me peace whenever I started to fret over the unknowns. Unknowns like how would I support myself? Who would care for my devoted dog Cody in my absence? Prayer brought just the right person to care for Cody. And prayer will keep me going forward.

This quote from Rumi might explain it better:

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”

The Journey to El Paso

I do not want to be a bystander in life. I want to fully live, and that means being still enough to pay attention, be fully present to myself and others as much as possible, and take action when needed. It means listening to, and following, my heart more and being willing to jump in even when I don’t know where I’ll land. This is one way of explaining why I’ve decided to volunteer with the School Sisters of St. Francis on the U.S./Mexico border to serve the immigrant population. I have no idea where this will lead. I only know that I am responding to an inner calling.

It started back in February when I traveled to El Paso, Texas, with four women from my church to learn firsthand about immigration. Kristen, our justice and charity outreach coordinator, organized the weeklong “border immersion” trip in response to our church’s growing Hispanic population and the separation she had observed between our Anglo and Latino parishioners. She hoped to bridge that gap by exposing us to the issues of immigration as experienced by those living on the U.S./Mexico border. Something attracted me about this trip as soon as Kristen mentioned it. My first thought: I can write about this. As a freelance writer I was attracted to the opportunity to learn firsthand about immigration, hear personal stories, and get the facts from those who live and work with the immigrant population. I also knew that this experience would affect me somehow. But what I didn’t count on was how it would awaken and inspire me, tugging at my longing to serve so strongly that the experience would continue to pull me weeks and even months later.

From the moment we climbed into Sr. Fran’s van to begin our immersion experience, I heard disturbing stories and facts about the plight of those crossing the U.S./Mexico border. Sr. Fran has been running these border immersion trips since 2006, hoping to eliminate the myths and misinformation many Americans have about immigrants. She had us going from 7 a.m. until dinner time, meeting with Border Patrol, the founder of a migrant farm workers’ union, a physician who offers health care to the poor, and directors and administrators of various programs, shelters, and detention facilities, all of whom inspired me in the work they do and the stories they told.  The immigrants themselves, because of their deep trust, respect, and love for Sr. Fran, welcomed us into their homes on the “colonias” — stark settlements in the desert where migrants buy a plot of land and set up a trailer.

I felt my heart opening more and more each day until one afternoon I met Ruben Garcia. Ruben is the director and cofounder of Annunciation House—a “house of hospitality” for refugees and the homeless in downtown El Paso. He and his young friends opened Annunciation House 35 years ago in their response to studying Scripture and recognizing how God “first and foremost identifies with the poor.” His stories of the people who have come through his house—some, victims of torture; others, simply trying to survive—cracked through the last of that invisible shield over my heart. Suddenly,  I started to cry. And in that moment, I knew why I had come on this trip. I knew God was calling me to something more.

That’s when I first felt the pull.

The night before we left El Paso we had dinner with the Sisters—all three of them—at Casa Alexia, their mission house. Sr. Kathy shared her work with trauma victims. Eighty-year-old Sr. Nancy brought up the issue of human trafficking, so prevalent on the border, and how she wants to attack it. Then they pitched their need for help, whether through signing up for their volunteer program or joining their order. In that moment, it wasn’t just Sr. Kathy or Sr. Nancy inviting me. I experienced a stronger invitation, coming from someplace deep within me.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain this to anyone, it’s impossible. My mind can’t make sense of it. Why do I have to go all the way to El Paso to serve? There are so many needs here. And Virginia is my home. Why would I leave this beautiful countryside of green-leaved  trees and rolling hills and ever-changing mountains for dry, flat, hot west Texas?

But truthfully, I am no longer comfortable in this place, in conducting “business as usual.” Something deeper is calling me. Something that defies weather and terrain and logical understanding. I couldn’t care less about the surroundings. It’s the people I can’t get out of my heart. And this pull to “something more.”

I have learned that matters of the Spirit can’t be explained. Yet when I listen and follow these “insights,” amazing and powerful things happen. So, a few months later, despite  anxious feelings about how I would manage to do this, I applied to volunteer with the Sisters at the border in early 2014. My application was accepted, and now here I am stepping out into the unknown with nothing more than the desire to listen to and follow my heart. In the process, I hope to serve something greater than my small self.

That’s what this blog is about: sharing my experiences and the stories of those I have met and will meet—stories that are as varied as the issue of immigration reform is complex. I hope along the way I will dispel some of the misinformation out there about immigration. And I will discover my heart’s true calling.