Voices in the Desert

Me with some of  my students in front of Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza
Me with some of my students in front of Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza

The desert has spoken to my heart. In so many ways. Through so many people.

As I prepare to return to Virginia tomorrow, I’m finding it hard to convey the richness of my experiences, the warmth and generosity of the people, and the many powerful ways that they and this place have touched my heart during these two months.

I came with so many questions, doubts, uncertainty as to why my heart was calling me here and what I would do exactly. My Spanish was limited. My goals unclear. My future uncertain. I only knew I was following a fire in my heart. But I kept asking God why? Why have you put this on my heart? Answers evaded me.

Some time ago I realized I had stopped asking the questions.

I finally understood, deep within myself, that this is exactly where I was meant to be. Everyone and everything I encountered has been speaking to me. All have been teaching me, molding me, preparing me for the next step, whatever that may be. I still don’t know.

But this I do know.

I know that I cannot be silent. I will use my voice to speak of what I have witnessed here, to be a voice for others who can’t speak for themselves.

I know that I will not return to the same life I had before. It’s not possible. Something within me has changed.

I know I will carry in my heart the people I have met. People like the wonderful women to whom I taught English at Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza — a center where Hispanic women come to learn new skills and to share their stories. We have joked and laughed together, and they would greet me with hugs and kisses on the cheek. Their final goodbye involved a homemade chocolate cake layered with strawberries—my favorite—and gifts, and, of course, more food. They told me they will miss me. I already miss them.

Me in front of Las Americas
Me in front of Las Americas

People like Katie, the director of Las Americas, and her staff who work tirelessly to represent immigrants in their cases for asylum and other human rights issues. People like Victoria, “the bean lady”; Pat Cane, the founder of Capacitar; Sylvia, who shared her faith story with me and drove me around El Paso; and all the women I met at the detention center, at the Centro Santa Catalina sewing cooperative, and in the colonias. I’m especially thinking of one of the women I helped to study for her citizenship exam. A very bright young woman, who knew all 100 answers the very first time I quizzed her. Yet her anxiety as the exam date drew near caused her to begin making mistakes. Inspired by Capacitar, I taught her a spiritual practice to help ground and relax her. The morning of her exam, I prayed and anxiously awaited her phone call. But she never called. Instead she drove over to share the news with me in person. She had passed! We squealed like excited children. Before we parted, she told me she thanked God for putting me on her path. And she cried.

Then there are the people I met in Juarez. Zeferina, extremely poor and blind from diabetes, yet she teaches catechism every Sunday with the help of her young daughter who serves as her eyes. This woman’s deep peace and trust of God was so evident in her face, her stance, her composure, and her kindness. Esperenza, a poor widow who cares for a disabled man in her home because his family threw him out. And, of course, the sisters who live and work in Juarez, serving the poorest of the poor and standing up for human rights.

Lastly, there’s the School Sisters of St. Francis with whom I’ve been staying in El Paso.

Sr. Elsa, Sr. Kathy, and Sr. Fran on a fun trip to Mesilla, N.M.
Sr. Elsa, Sr. Kathy, and Sr. Fran on a fun trip to Mesilla, N.M.

Sunday night they surprised me with a despedida. That’s a Spanish farewell party. Except it wasn’t a party at all, but rather a ceremony to bless, honor, and affirm me. The sisters invited me to sit down at their computer. Then Sr. Fran lit a candle and turned up the volume as she played two songs on YouTube she’d chosen especially for me: “Just to Be” and “Sarah’s Song.” Sitting in the dimly lit room, surrounded by these three sisters, a candle flame flickering beside me, I listened to the sweet voice of Colleen Fulmer — a voice I’d never heard before — sing these beautiful lyrics:“Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy…Be still and know I am God. In quiet and trust lies your healing.” (lyrics from “Just to Be”)

“The whole of the earth will be blessed by you; In God you have made your home. The stars will dance as they call out your name. Your heart always laughing with joy…
As you have shared with us the sowing of seeds,
So too all you’ve planted will bear fruit…” (lyrics from “Sarah’s Song”)

Then each of the sisters expressed what they have seen and appreciated in me. What an unexpected and humbling gift! In that moment, I felt and heard God speaking to me. As it turns out, the sisters’ gift was the most powerful voice of all. A reminder of how loved I am, how loved we all are.

I remember a Scripture verse I came across years ago. It spoke to me then, but it speaks to me even more clearly now:

“I will lure her into the desert where I will speak to her heart.”

God has definitely spoken to my heart here. And I now know how important it is to listen and follow.

(source: wikipedia.com)
(source: wikipedia.com)

What about the Children?

immigrant children (source: orangejuiceblog.com)
immigrant children
(source: orangejuiceblog.com)

Stories of the children. That’s what gets to me the most.

I can give you all the facts and figures about unaccompanied children, known as UACs (yes, there’s an acronym even for this). I can tell you that in 2012 alone, more than 24,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S./Mexico border were detained. Some estimates are that this year the Department of Homeland Security expects to pick up 55,000 to 60,000 children. While the number of undocumented adults coming is decreasing, children are crossing in record numbers. And they range from less than 1 year to 17 years old.

I can give you the reasons why the children come. To be reunited with their parents already here. To find work to support the families they left behind. To avoid a life of poverty and unfulfilled dreams.  To escape the violence, abuse, crime, and forcible gang recruitment rampant in their countries.  The majority come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where teens are often threatened if they do not join a local gang. Some journey without assistance, but for others, their parents will pay coyotes, or smugglers, anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 to guide them across the border. Parents weigh taking this risk alongside keeping their child in a dangerous and hopeless situation.

Central American gang member (source: http://rnbland.blogspot.com/2010/12/central-american-youth-gangs.html)
Central American gang member (source: http://rnbland.blogspot.com/2010/12/central-american-youth-gangs.html)

But beyond the factual information lie the personal, heartbreaking stories of one child after another. I have heard many of these stories while in El Paso. Stories from health care and case workers who work with immigrant children at the detention centers. Part of their job is to speak with the children, obtain information about their circumstances, let them know their rights, and help them understand what is happening to them.

One of the psychologists who works with the children (and asked not to be identified because of the nature of her work) told me sometimes she meets with as many as 50 to 60 children in one day.

“It is a privilege for me to be there,” she says. “I have seen the face of God in them, with them, and through them.”

She walks with these children for a little while. She listens to their stories. They tell her what they have endured. Experiences that no child should have to endure.

“It’s heavy sometimes, but it’s beautiful,” the psychologist says.

The word “heavy” seems understated for what I’ve heard: a 14-year-old boy tortured in Mexico while making his way here. A 13-year-old girl kidnapped and trafficked for sex. An 11-year-old girl sexually abused by an uncle, fleeing her home, hoping to be reunited with her mother, only to face more sexual abuse along the way. Drug cartel members kidnapping children to “fill an order” for U.S. buyers. And a six-year-old boy seeking work for his family.

Despite how crazy this sounds, in Latin American cultures, when a child comes from a poor family, it’s not unusual to be sent out into the streets to bring in income. Many children have been working since they were six.

I have visited two of types of places where children are detained: Southwest Key—a model accredited program for youth; and Lutheran Services Center—a transitional foster care center for children 12 and under. Both are well-run facilities where the children receive educational instruction, including English classes. At Lutheran Services, the children are sent home with a foster family in the evenings and on weekends. Southwest Key is a live-in facility with locked doors and a security system. The children are detained, on average, for one to two months while a case worker processes their case. Then they are released to a parent or relative until their court date, which will determine whether or not they will be deported.

El Paso can hold 250 children in these centers. Some children apprehended elsewhere in the states are flown here at the expense of the U.S. government. These types of shelters, as well as the training given to the foster families, are funded by the  Office of Refugee Resettlement, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services.

“When I first heard that children were in detention in the United States, it shocked me,” says the psychologist. “There’s a saying in Spanish, ‘The cage may be made of gold, but it is still a cage.’”

Despite her concern for the children, she has a certain peace and faith about what she does.

“I know that my mission is to be present and to listen to their stories,” she says.

Her words strike me. I’ve heard them before. As I questioned my own ministry here in El Paso, these same words had come to me:  my purpose is simply to be present to what’s happening. Offer what I can. And be present. Not easy. Especially when being present means feeling the pain.

The other day Sr. Fran told me about a 13-year-old boy she’d met who had left his Central American homeland to find work in the United States to support his family. His father was blind and he had eight siblings. Since he was the oldest, he took it upon himself to be responsible for his family .  He made it across, starving and dehydrated, and immediately attempted to find odd jobs doing yard work. Very late on the night of the end of the second day, fearing he would die, he knocked on a woman’s door and begged her to call immigration to pick him up.

I do not know this boy’s fate. Nor do I know the fate of so many other youngsters who unbelievably made it across only to face the threat of being returned to these same situations. I fear some of these children will go from one hell to another.

Being in Detention

(source: restorefairness.org)
(source: restorefairness.org)

“Being in detention” has a whole new meaning for me.

Since coming to El Paso, I’ve become accustomed to associating the word “detention” with undocumented immigrants. I’ve seen that the reality of what it means to “be detained” is harsh and costly. For all of us.

Recently I visited the detention facility for adult immigrants in El Paso. I had been told that detention is not a prison, but that’s not how I felt as I walked that compound. I’ll describe it to you, and you can form your own opinion.

But first, a bit of background information.

Currently, the United States has approximately 250 detention facilities for undocumented immigrants. There are separate detention centers for undocumented youth and for young children, which I have visited as well. But that’s a whole other story, complete with its own difficult statistics and heartbreaking realities.

Many of these facilities are run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but a growing number of detention facilities are now privately-run, profit-making businesses that seek to keep their beds filled. The particularly disturbing side of that fact is, unlike the federally-run facilities, these businesses have little oversight.

The cost to taxpayers to detain undocumented immigrants is about $120 per person per day and, thanks to a “bed mandate” Congress passed in 2009, our country detains at least 34,000 immigrants per day. In other words, there’s a quota—a minimum amount of beds that must be filled. At a cost of more than $2 billion a year. And that’s just for the detention centers. In fiscal year 2012 alone, the U.S. Government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement. That amount continues to rise.

(Source: www.pedromigao.com.br)
(Source: http://www.pedromigao.com.br)

Now for my visit.

Sr. Rita, the assistant chaplain at the adult detention facility here in El Paso has invited me to join her and Sr. Kathy as they offer their weekly session of Capacitar to the women inmates. Capacitar teaches practices that integrate body,  mind, and spirit to help heal trauma, stress, anxiety, and other issues. Both of the sisters have been trained in Capacitar and offer it at the center to bring healing to the women. They never know which women, or how many, will show up for the sessions. But they trust that whoever comes will receive what she needs.

To enter the facility, Sr. Kathy and I first drive into a secure complex housing administrative offices of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol. The complex is surrounded by a chain link fence. Guard at the gate. IDs needed. The usual security procedures. But then we drive deeper into the complex toward a section that clearly intends to keep whatever is inside from getting out. Coiled barbed wire runs atop the high chain link fencing surrounding the area. Multiple layers of secured entryways exist between me and the other side.

We park at the main building and Sr. Kathy reminds me to leave everything in the car: my purse, notebook, water bottle. The only thing I am allowed to take inside—my driver’s license to hand over to the guard for identification. Once inside we sign in and wait for Sr. Rita, who will escort us to the barred entrance and through the layers of security.

When Sr. Rita arrives, I clip on my plastic visitor badge and follow her out to the main gate. The guard pushes a button and a long section of the fence rattles open, allowing us in. We step forward, and I hear the click of the lock as the fence rolls back in place behind us. Then we move through a narrow fenced-in passageway to another locked entrance. A female voice behind a dark-paned glass booth asks for my name and visitor badge number. The unseen woman pushes another button and the barred gate buzzes open, ushering us onto the grounds of the detention center.

Bright sunlight pounds the stark concrete. I am surrounded by cement and white buildings of various shapes and sizes. On the pavement, painted white lines run parallel from one building to another, a narrow space between them. Sr. Rita explains that the residents must stay within the lines whenever they are outside. They cannot walk outside the lines. Guards are posted to ensure the rules are followed.

The residents wear colored uniforms—cotton slacks and V-necked short-sleeved tops—based on their behavior or criminal record. Violent or dangerous criminals are assigned red. Those who’ve committed minor crimes or misdemeanors wear orange. Those whose only offense is to have crossed the border wear dark blue. Most people wear dark blue. The blues never mingle with the reds, Sr. Rita explains. And the men are always separated from the women. Even when they walk outside, one group must wait until the other passes before moving on. The men are not allowed to pass by the women. I ask why and Sr. Rita says it’s not a good idea. Some women fear the men. Being that close can cause a traumatic reaction based on the women’s past experiences. I don’t have to ask why.

(Source: elpasotimes. mycapture.com)
(Source: elpasotimes.mycapture.com)

The room where we will offer Capacitar has four concrete walls, one side plastered with a beautiful mural of a flowered hillside overlooking the ocean. I glance at this scene every once in awhile to change the mood I’m viewing outside the window as I wait for the women to arrive. Finally the women emerge in their dark blue pants and tops, making their way in single file, as a guard leads them along the white-lined narrow pathway to our building.

The women hesitate as they enter, waiting for direction. We hand out magic markers and we all write our first names on white adhesive tags and stick them onto our shirts. Glad to use the little Spanish I know, I introduce myself to each of the women and say their names aloud. This feels sacred to me, the speaking of each woman’s name, acknowledging the individual underneath the blue uniform. We take our seats and I look around at these women—some young, some middle aged—and wonder what they have endured to get here. Two of the women can’t be more than early 20’s, their faces full of that youthful exuberance, which shines even here in this place of concrete and barbed wire. I think of the statistics I’ve learned about the high percentage of women who are raped along the way. And I wonder.

With music playing from an iPod, we teach the women Tai Chi and acupressure points to relieve stress and anxiety. We move together in a circle, our bodies free and flowing. The two young women smile at each other and giggle. I notice a visible change in the energy in the room. For nearly two hours, we instruct them in self-care before they will return to their barracks with whatever memories they carry within their minds, bodies, and hearts.

After the session is over, I use the little Spanish I can muster to speak to one of the young women. As soon as I say I’m from Virginia, a huge smile spreads across her face. “My mother and brother are in Alexandria,” she says in broken English. I tell her I lived in Alexandria for many years. Suddenly, like a child delighted with herself, she speaks another English word. “Boyfriend.” Her boyfriend, too, is in Alexandria. I ask her in Spanish how long she’s been in this center. Three months, she answers. On March 10 she will be sent back to El Salvador. I cannot imagine she will stay there very long.

As I say goodbye to each of the women, I pray silently for their journeys. I will not see them again. I want to offer them something.

Before we leave, Sr. Rita shows us around the rest of the “campus.” She tells me that this is one of the better run detention facilities. She points out the large, long barracks with their tall multi-paned windows that let in light. Inside, guards are on duty 24/7. We are not allowed to enter. We tour the medical building with its isolation room for those who come with suspected contagious diseases, the library where the detainees come to research information for their cases (even though many of them cannot read or write), and the building where new detainees are processed. On the way out of this building, I notice a flyer that reads: “Feeling sad, lonely, depressed, anxious? Don’t give up. There is help.” I can’t catch the rest of the words before we have to move on. But I wonder what feelings I would have locked up in such a place, a long way from home and family, my future in someone else’s hands. And I wonder why the flyer is in English.

As we leave the building, a van pulls up. They’re bringing in new captives—people who have just been caught at the border. The back doors open and a guard steps out leading a man bound with chains around his ankles.

“I’ll never get used to that,” Sr. Rita tells me as I watch the guard unchain him.

As we return to the main desk to pick up my driver’s license and sign out, I think about how fortunate I am to be “legal,” to have all the necessary identification needed to live in this country without fear of being removed from my home or family. Why am I so fortunate to have been born here and not in some poverty-stricken country? I feel the weight of this responsibility. Because it is a tremendous responsibility—to have been given so much when so many are in need. And in such need that they will risk anything to leave their situation behind. Familiar words of Jesus pop into my head: “To the one who has been given, much will be expected.”

Images from Juarez

These are some of the photos I took over the 2 1/2 days I visited Juarez. I witnessed and learned so much in that brief visit. This is the first time I’ve experienced extreme poverty up close and personal. Yet the people I met were kind, faithfilled, warm, and lived with the kind of peace and trust that comes with acceptance of life as it is and in a power beyond themselves. It will take a long time for me to process all I experienced. And it will stay with me forever.

view atop parish center
view atop parish center
Out on the street after a light rain
Out on the street after a light rain
Cross contains the names of those who have been killed in the violence - more than 200 in this parish alone.
Cross contains the names of those who have been killed in the violence – more than 200 in this parish alone.
Each popsicle stick on the cross contains the name of loved one killed
Each popsicle stick on the cross contains the name of loved one killed
the sisters' sunny living area
the sisters’ sunny living area
Me playing with Sr. Carol's dog Princessa
Me playing with Sr. Carol’s dog Princessa
Sr. Carol bringing communion to homebound Pablo in his one-room shack
Sr. Carol bringing communion to homebound Pablo in his one-room shack
typical neighborhood home
typical neighborhood home
Sr. Josefina tending to her parakeets and garden
Sr. Josefina tending to her parakeets and garden
Sr. Carol (center) posing with one of the religious ed teachers and her young daughter at their home.
Sr. Carol (center) posing with one of the religious ed teachers and her young daughter at their home.

The Risk of Juarez

Late afternoon on Friday, I’m spending my last day in February in one of the poorest sections of Juarez, Mexico. I have come to stay with three Franciscan sisters who live and work here so that I could learn more about them, their ministry, and why they would choose to live in such a place. They invited me, so I said yes, answering the call of both my inquisitive writer and compassionate heart. I know that this section of Mexico is not the safest –(I can hear the snorting and huge exhalation of carbon dioxide from some people reading this)–but many people live their lives in this kind of environment, the sisters among them.

Sisters Josefina and Carol have lived here five years, arriving in 2009, at the height of the drug cartel violence. Thousands of innocent people were being killed, victims of random shootings or mistaken identity (although this still happens but not to the degree it once did). While many people fled Mexico at that time, transporting their belongings across the bridge into El Paso, the sisters headed in the opposite direction carting furniture and other possessions to their new home. People were shocked. Why were the sisters moving into such a dangerous place? To understand, you’d have to know who these women are.

street outside the sisters’ door

They took up residence in a parish house in the second poorest colonia in all of Juarez. The neighborhood’s dirt roads are rocky and full of potholes. Many homes are crumbling stone facades. Graffiti plasters walls and storefronts and even the church building next door to where the sisters live. Signs of the gangs who live here.

I asked Sr. Carol if she had any fears about coming here. She did. But she knew this was where she was called to be. The sisters have established a presence here. They walk the dusty streets visiting homes, bringing Eucharist, support, and God’s love. Through generous donations of people back in the United States, the sisters distribute food to 60 of the neediest of the needy families every month: portions of beans, rice, sugar, and oil. They march in demonstrations for justice and peace, in solidarity with the families who have lost their sons and daughters to the violence of the drug cartels.

Sr. Arlene, the third sister who lives here, works at the human rights center associated with the parish. Initially started as social outreach 12 years ago, as the violence escalated, along with the torture, it was clear the center needed to focus on human rights abuses. Since the police are the ones doing the torturing, acquiring forced confessions on fabricated charges, working theses cases can be tricky, to say the least. In 2011 the federal police raided the center, busting doors and removing files. They claimed they were chasing drug dealers.

When I first arrived here last night, Sr. Carol handed me a scrapbook she’d put together of photos and newspaper articles of their years here. The first page I turned to displayed a newspaper photo of a young man lying on the street, his face and chest splattered with blood — the sisters’ introduction to Juarez. I read the numbers of those who have been executed, the thousands of “forced disappearances.” So many innocent people tortured, killed, gone. From university students at a party at the wrong place and the wrong time, to mothers shot down in front of government buildings while protesting the wrongful and violent deaths of their sons. In 2012, 60,000 deaths were attributed to drug-related violence in Mexico.

It’s hard to fathom the intense grief of this country of mourning parents. As I read these cases, I feel my own mother’s heart. And yet I don’t let myself feel it too much. At least not in this moment here in the sisters’ house, sitting in their bright pink kitchen. But their statue of St. Francis greeting me at the doorway tells me that I will allow myself to feel this. He reminds me that only in taking the risk of opening my heart to feel will I truly connect with life. And with the God within.

St. Francis greets everyone entering the sisters' home
St. Francis greets everyone entering the sisters’ home