Monthly Archives: January 2014

Who Owns the Sky?

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Yet another inspiring, heroic woman has crossed my path.

On Thursdays I travel to Juarez, Mexico, with Sr. Fran to visit the women’s sewing cooperative. But this morning, when Sr. Carol says that heavy 50-lb sacks of beans are being delivered to the house and that she, with her bad back, and another senior sister are alone to unload them, I offer to stay behind to help.

I have no idea who is delivering these beans or where they are coming from. Around 10:00 a white pickup truck with New Mexico license plates backs up to the house, and I venture outside with the sisters. A woman about my age jumps down from the driver’s seat, her blonde curls tucked behind her ears, wearing blue jeans and a hooded, dark brown gauze-type frock with a large wooden cross dangling down her chest. She has the face of a cherub, with soft cheeks and eyes lost in some inner joy I’m immediately attracted to.

 Her name is Victoria Tester, and she left her home in New Mexico before dawn this morning, driving all the way to El Paso to deliver these beans to the sisters so they can distribute them to the poor through their mission house in Mexico. Although Victoria receives limited donations, the sisters are at the top of her list of recipients.

After we unload the beans, Victoria and I go for a walk so she can stretch her legs before getting back on the road for the long trek home. Bit by bit her amazing story unfolds.

Victoria is a postulant in the lay order of the Franciscans, which means she prays, studies, and follows the way of the Franciscans, but without having to take their vows and live as a religious sister. Thus explains her brown frock and large cross, and her inner joy—a quality she says she has encountered with every Franciscan she meets. A poet, writer, and photographer, Victoria has been creatively recording her journey into the poorest sections of Mexico, places like Anapra and Palomas, where many people do not eat for days.

Victoria’s journey began not unlike my own. As they reached middle age, she and her husband wondered what more they could do to be of service. Both realized that they had everything they needed and more than they wanted. So, for Christmas one year, instead of gifts, they decided to spend their money on groceries for poor families living in Palomas, right over the New Mexico border. What Victoria encountered when she delivered those bags of groceries changed her life. She describes how the people were so malnourished, she’d never seen human beings so emaciated, even in pictures of starving people. The children especially broke her heart. She vowed she would return.

Desperate to help, Victoria approached a farmer at the New Mexico border, poured out her heart-wrenching story, and on the spot this stranger ordered his farmhands to fill up her truck with produce and staples from his farm. With this man’s help, Victoria’s donations have grown to include many other farmers and businesses — all willing to regularly donate food to people who normally would have nothing or very little to eat.

That in itself is amazing. But there’s another piece to Victoria’s story. Words that cause my own heart to swell and my eyes to soften.

Victoria shares that she has Lyme disease—something I am surprised to discover is out this far west. She says the disease affects her neurological system. Even though she caught it early and is treating herself, she has episodes when her mind forgets things, her eyesight is altered, and she slurs her words like a drunken youth. She thinks she got this disease while making her daily trips over the border into one of the poorest areas of Mexico where she was visiting the children and delivering food.

The words she utters next confound me.

“It was all worth it,” she says of contracting Lyme disease. Her eyes shine. I know she genuinely feels this. She describes how, during those trips, she would gather the children of the town around her and read to them. Although they had nothing, the children gave her their love, one of those intangible gifts that feels like a warm breeze settling on the skin. In return, Victoria gave them her love and attention, and one very special gift.

One day a little girl, nestled in Victoria’s lap, asked, “Who owns the sky?”

Taken aback, Victoria realized that everything in the world of these children was owned by someone else — the land they lived on and the trees that grew on it, the shacks in which they lived, the clothing passed on to them.

“God owns the sky,” she responded carefully, “and He created it just for you because He loves you so much.”

Days later the children were delighted when a rainbow appeared in the sky.

“That’s your rainbow,” Victoria told them.

Now the children know. They have something freely given. And it’s just for them. They only need look up at the sky. And remember.

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Beginning Again

The title for this blog hit me right between the eyes Sunday morning. I was checking my email for my daily “Inward/Outward” reflection from Church of Our Saviour and there it was. The perfect title. And the reflection’s message of how Jesus took the risk of “beginning again” when his early public ministry didn’t quite go the way he had expected clearly could have been written just for me.

I, too, thought I knew how things would go in my life, but have been “cast out into new lands.”  El Paso, Texas, for sure would fit that bill. Just walking around the neighborhood where I’m staying lets me know I’m not in Virginia anymore. The dusty, dry landscape, spindly trees, and expansive blue sky that stretches well into Juarez, Mexico and the sepia-toned mountains beyond are unfamiliar sights for one who’s accustomed to the lush, green, hilly countryside of the Blue Ridge Valley.

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A few of my “vicious” neighbors

Interestingly, the Sisters’ house, Casa Alexia, where I’m staying is also located in “the Valley”—an area of El Paso with a strong Mexican influence. But there’s nothing green here. Except for a few cactus. Streets are lined with single-story stone houses, some painted bright green, blue, yellow, or pink. And most are surrounded by chain link or iron fences, restraining the many dogs my neighbors seem to have. Just about everyone owns a dog. Some have two or three. I’ve learned to brace myself as I walk past fences, anticipating one of them suddenly appearing out of nowhere, jumping up against the fence and barking away as if I’m their worst enemy.

 

Front lawns are basically composed of dirt, or stones that cover the dirt. Everyone parks their cars and trucks in the front yard—a small plot of land usually cluttered with an assortment of items like old grills, upholstered couches, plastic toys, the occasional supermarket shopping cart, and—in the case of our neighbor down the street—a miniature Statue of Liberty.

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Miss Liberty shows up in El Paso

            Despite this being late January, some homes still display Christmas decorations and lights. I’ve spotted more than one plastic nativity set, half its figures fallen over in the yard. At night, a few houses switch on twinkling multicolored lights. Not sure if this is related to the Mexican culture or the strong impact of their Catholic faith. At any rate, it’s one of the  many unusual sights I’ve observed during my stay so far.

Truthfully, I had intended to write about my first week in El Paso days ago. But here I am well into my second week with a multitude of  experiences and inspiring people bulging inside my brain all trying to push their way onto the page. It’s strange how whenever I sit down to write, I have trouble forming the words. There’s so much I want to share, I don’t know where to begin. And it’s not as though I have huge blocks of time to write. After all, I’m really here as a volunteer; I go wherever and whenever the Sisters need me. So, each time I sit down to write, I feel as though I am beginning again, having to recollect my thoughts and experiences of the day, and hoping this time I’ll finish a blog post. I’ve been working on this one for several days!

Over the weekend I was given a special gift. An amazing woman named Pat Cane, founder and director of Capacitar (a Spanish name that means “to empower”), came to stay with us at the Sisters’ house for several days. Capacitar is an international program that integrates body, mind, and spirit practices to help heal victims of trauma and violence in more than 40 countries (check out the website at: http://www.capacitar.org/index.html). Pat was here to train a group in Juarez and for the final presentations and graduation of  trainers who have completed the program’s four modules in El Paso.

Pat’s story is quite an inspiration. Years ago, faced with a difficult major life change, she questioned herself, her purpose, her direction. She was forced to begin again. And from that place of uncertainty, she chose to devote her life to spreading healing and wellness practices through Capacitar.  Now 73 -years old—although her bright face and light-filled eyes make her look 10 years younger—Pat travels the world to implement this program in countries like Rwanda, Nicaragua, Ireland, and South Sudan, teaching and training others to bring healing to refugee camps, detention centers, human rights centers, and many areas impacted by trauma and natural disasters. Using tools such as visualization, Tai Chi, acupressure, and reflexology, those trained in the Capacitar program transform themselves as well as people in their families, surroundings, and in the work of their unique calling.  

Through what I can only call a synchronous event, I was invited to attend the two-day trainers’ conference and presentations. I say synchronous because when I heard about Capacitar while here last February, it intrigued me and I wanted to learn more. To be welcomed into this weekend as a participant was totally unexpected. As I listened to educators, counselors, mental health personnel, religious sisters, and community leaders give creative presentations describing the effects of Capacitar in their lives and of those facing stressful situations, from military personnel at Ft. Bliss to undocumented immigrants at detention centers, it was clear I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Some of the stories were heart-wrenching. Like the health care practitioner whose female client had crossed the border into Texas hanging onto one of many freight trains that travels up through Mexico. (Not an uncommon practice, by the way, for Latinas seeking a better life to risk jumping onto a moving freight train.) At some point the woman fell off and her foot was amputated. Now she could no longer fulfill her dream of finding work cleaning houses to support her family whom she’d left behind and for whom she was the sole supporter.  Somehow this woman will have to find another way to survive. Like so many people here, she too is beginning again.

Obviously the details of the lives I’m hearing about are much more difficult and challenging than mine. But our stories are intertwined. My questions, my fears, my doubts, my longing—these same concerns and feelings exist in everyone. They’re universal. Each of us has our own wounds that need healing. 

For the past several years I’ve done personal work to integrate body, mind, and spirit practices, which is one reason Capacitar resonates so clearly with me. Another is my desire to serve those in need. Putting these together seems like the perfect answer to my question of how to begin something new in this stage of my life. Where and under what circumstances that will happen continues to evolve. But as Capacitar so wisely claims: “healing ourselves, healing our world.”

Stepping into the Unknown

I wonder if Bilbo Baggins ever cried when no one was looking. Maybe during the night when the dwarves he was accompanying on their adventure were asleep and the enormous dark sky covered the landscape, magnifying the reality of what he was undertaking—leaving behind his comfortable home and everything familiar. Yes, I’m still on The Hobbit kick. Guess I relate to Bilbo more than I first realized, especially now that I’m here in El Paso.

Before I left, friends kept telling me how courageous I was, following my heart into the unknown. But there are moments when the uncertainty of what I’m doing takes over and, like Bilbo, I don’t feel very brave. Such moments have been showing up since I arrived in El Paso five days ago. When my plane left Washington Dulles airport at 7:25 a.m. on Wednesday, a light drizzle fell, enveloping us in fog. A perfect metaphor for the uncertainty of what I am doing and where this journey will end. But although foggy, I was unnerved, not anxious or even scared. Instead, I felt as though I was being carried and accompanied by an inexplicable love. Maybe it was the  hour of the morning that caused me to be so calm. (My mind was simply too tired to get into its usual mulling over of possible future scenarios.) Or maybe it was all the friends back home who I knew were praying for me that morning.

But, as I sat there and began to pray myself, tears suddenly showed up. I suppose it was hitting me—the enormity of what I am doing and what it really means to “let go and let God.” Like the jet I was traveling in, I felt suspended above the clouds.  I couldn’t see in front of me; my view was limited. And yet the expanse of sky visible in the tiny frame of my airplane window expressed the limitless possibilities floating in the universe. For me, taking this step is what it means to live in the mystery. To be willing to trust that the path will unfold and that there is such a thing as “purpose” to our lives here. It ain’t easy. But then nothing risky ever is.

I’ve quickly discovered that I am not alone in taking such risks. Many of the stories I’ve heard of those who have crossed the border here in El Paso remind me they too are living in the mystery. Our stories are different but similar. They too have taken an unknown path, have left everything they know behind—some by choice, others by intimidation or force. They are teaching me what true faith is.

As soon as Sr. Fran—the 75-year-old Franciscan sister with whom I’m staying while volunteering here—picked me up at the airport, we’ve been on the go. For me, she’s like the Energizer bunny running on spiritual batteries. Even though her schedule seems impossible to me, I’m witnessing as I follow in her footsteps how she’s given what she needs in every situation.

The day after I arrived, I found myself in the back seat of a van venturing over the U.S./Mexico border with Sr. Fran and Sr. Maureen to visit Centro Santa Catalina, the women’s cooperative the Sisters formed in Ciudad Juarez. Quite a courageous experience since we were not only bringing donated clothing and baby food into Mexico, but would be returning with various items made by the coop women to sell on the U.S. side. It’s a risk. Any customs agent can decide that the Sisters’ cargo is questionable, pull them aside, and not let them pass. As we approached the border, the Sisters prayed aloud to their patron saints for help and protection. Once on the other side, they gave prayers of thanks. The Sisters do this twice weekly! And I guess I’ll be joining them regularly. I admit that I said my own silent prayers that day.

I have much more to share about the women’s coop and how the work they do gives them a sense of solidarity, as well as much-needed income of about $120 per month to feed their families. About how this center is kept safe by a fence surrounding the property, a maintenance/security guard who stays on the property day in and day out to keep gangs away, and, of course, the Sisters’ constant prayers. Outside its fencing despicable things happen. Sr. Maureen told me how, just the other day, the security guard had found a decapitated body on the ground outside the entrance.

 And then there’s the Border Women—a group of religious sisters and women from all backgrounds who meet to keep abreast of border issues and to respond with positive action. When I attended their meeting yesterday, their guest speakers shared the very disturbing and frightening reality of human trafficking—for both sex and forced labor. It’s unbelievable how easily people who are uneducated and fearful can become trapped by those motivated by greed. Human trafficking is much more prevalent in the U.S. than we in the northern states realize.  

It’s impossible to share everything I’ve experienced in just these few days. Besides, Sr. Fran is liable to show up at any moment, and then I won’t get this posted. We’re off to the colonias this afternoon and will be gone well into the evening. I’m lucky I got this much written. Sorry I didn’t have time to include pics. Maybe next time.

Just one more thing I want to add. Before I left Virginia, a good friend whom I greatly trust and respect sent me this quote from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey:

“The call to adventure is the point in a person’s life when they are first given notice that everything is going to change, whether they know it or not.”-

I love that quote because it reminds me why I’m taking what feels like such a drastic step. I know it’s time for something new in my life. I know I have to respond to this call deep within me. And, step by step, I’m discovering that I can live in the unknown. All the while, gaining deeper trust in my inner being and the God within. And I keep reminding myself of the words of 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”

 

The Adventure Begins

With about a week and a half to go before I leave to serve on the border in El Paso, I’m trying not to panic. Not that I don’t want to go. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m excited about this new adventure and where it may lead. I truly believe that in following my heart and taking this step, what I’m being called to next in this stage of my journey will become clearer. But for now, preparing to leave my house, my devoted dog, and daily responsibilities for 2 ½ months or more feels daunting. So many details to manage, finances to get in order, and lists to prepare. And I still need to orientate my good friend, who unbelievably has agreed to house sit, take care of my dog, and help me clear out more stuff while I’m gone. She’s fully supporting me so that when I return from El Paso, I’ll be ready to venture off to wherever I may be called to go next.

Actually, this all sounds kind of unsettling, doesn’t it? I have to admit that while this is an exciting step, it’s scary too. And risky.  After all, who knows what I’ll face while dealing with the many complexities of our immigration system? And with immigration reform slated to be taken up again in 2014, controversy around the issue is sure to fire up. Will I be up for the task? Will I work through my fears with courage and perseverance? This is the archetypal hero’s journey, isn’t it? Leaving home. Venturing into the unknown. Wondering what challenges you’ll find and how you’ll meet them.

Recently I witnessed, quite inadvertently, a metaphor for my journey. Over the Christmas holiday while visiting my sister and her family we watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My niece had given the DVD to her dad for Christmas and I asked if we could watch it. I seemed to be the only one in the room–and probably one of the few on the planet–who hadn’t seen it yet. I know the movie actually came out a year ago, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m on the slow track when it comes to keeping up with the latest in entertainment. Lucky for me, my son, niece, and brother-in-law don’t mind seeing movies over and over again.

Somehow when they put the movie on, I missed the fact that it was titled “An Unexpected Journey.” I simply settled in to watch what I thought would be another vivid action fantasy along the lines of the The Lord of the Rings series.

From "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

From “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”

But it wasn’t long before I began to recognize Bilbo Baggins’ journey as a metaphor for my own life. It happened right about the time the dwarves started invading Bilbo’s adorable little home nestled in a hollow of a tree. Looking anything like dwarves, these husky men appeared unexpectedly at his door, one after another, wearing rancid furs and donning scruffy beards, their wild hair shooting off in all directions. They ransacked his kitchen, helped themselves to his food, sloshed ale over his table, and generally created a noisy, out-of-control atmosphere. All the while, Bilbo grew visibly uncomfortable and anxious as he watched this chaotic situation unfold. I could feel his pain. I, too, once had a tidy and predictable life. Guarded my possessions. Prized order and structure. Thought I knew where I was headed. And who was coming along with me. Not so anymore.

I call it the workings of the Holy Spirit or the True Self.

First there’s the invitation — the foreshadowing of an unexpected journey ahead. In The Hobbit, Gandalf, the wizard, takes this role, showing up unannounced and mysterious, with his invitation for Bilbo to go on an “adventure.” But Bilbo has no intentions of leaving his comfortable life and his quaint home. He’s perfectly happy with life as it is. Or so he thinks. When these wild men show up at his door, they get him to wonder about something more. Even though at first he’s certain he doesn’t want to join in this adventure, he ends up hurrying off after them when he discovers the next morning they’ve left  him behind. At some point in the journey, feeling unprepared, scared, and certain he’s made a mistake, Bilbo decides to go back home. But he doesn’t. He sticks with it. And transformation happens. The turning point comes when the king of the dwarves is about to be killed, and Bilbo goes through his fear, tackles the evil in front of him and saves the king.

For me, the invitation came when I listened to my heart and heard God calling me to something more. What exactly, I do not know. I understand my life won’t be the same. No more rational explanations. Like Bilbo, I figure I’ll have moments when I feel scared, unprepared, and wondering why I left home. But also like Bilbo, I choose to leave behind my tidy, predictable life and accept the adventure. Even though it may mean facing some tough, long-held fears. Even though I don’t know where the adventure will lead. But one thing I do know: I will never be left to face the journey alone.

Probably by the next time you hear from me, I’ll be writing from El Paso.