Children as My Teachers

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When Davis was 3 years old, we took a family vacation out west and landed in Reno for a few days. Since David and I loved to hike, we wanted to trek the trails around Lake Tahoe. Only problem was, we could no longer conveniently strap Davis into one of those child carriers and hoist him on our backs. And since his little legs wouldn’t have made it on their own, we came up with another strategy. We’d take turns entertaining Davis while one of us ventured off on the adult activity.

So while David hiked one of the more strenuous trails, I chose a short — or so I thought — trail that led to the lake shore where Davis could play. Going down to the lake was easy and fun. We sang and skipped. Davis giggled much of the way. But I’d miscalculated the trip back. The trail was all uphill. And we were both less perky than when we had started out.

Before long, Davis did what any respectable 3-year old would do. He whined. And then he stopped in his tracks and cried, “Mommy, I’m tired.”

As anyone with young children knows, when they’ve determined they can’t walk any farther, your options are limited. You either drag them along or carry them. I chose the latter. So, I lifted Davis onto my back and started off again. Much more slowly. The weight of a hefty, healthy child made me stop every once in a while either to sit or to let him down so I could rest. The trail stretched on much longer than I’d remembered.

I didn’t complain though. Well, maybe just a little to David afterwards when he showed up exuberated by his adventure. But the truth is, I really hadn’t minded carrying Davis. For me, there had been no other option than to give my son what he needed.

I remembered this incident recently when I heard the story of a 12-year-old boy who had been found attempting to cross the border. He was carrying his 9-year-old paraplegic sister on his back. Through the desert.
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Carrying my little son on that short hiking trail was one thing. But would I, as a preteen, even entertain the thought of lugging my sibling on my back for hundreds of miles on such a treacherous journey? I had to admit, I wouldn’t. But then I never had to experience what these children have faced.

The #1 reason unaccompanied minors are coming to the U.S. nowadays is to escape the violence. In countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, many girls stay home from school for fear of being raped. Boys are often threatened with their lives if they don’t work for the gangs so prevalent in these countries. Their government doesn’t protect them.

Luis, a young man who volunteers at the children’s detention centers in El Paso knows this because he often asks the children, “Why did you risk your life to come here?”

Sometimes, the answer is, “So I could be with my mom.”

Another reason many children come is to reunite with their parents who left home years ago to find work in the U.S.

Like the 6-year-old boy Luis told me about who drew an airplane to represent God. The boy explained that God was in the heavens, and, like an airplane, God would quickly take him to his mother if he kept God in his heart.

Despite the traumatic journey this child had experienced in order to be with his mother, and now finding himself in detention, his innocence and faith in God remained. The boy amazed Luis. He did me, too.

On days when I feel discouraged, when I wonder what is next for me, when I don’t feel like I have enough courage and faith for this journey, I need to remember these children. They can teach me a few things about what it really means to have faith, to trust, to hope. And not to complain.

The Generosity of Strangers

generosity 2 A house filled with women in their 70’s. That’s where I’m living now. No, it’s not a retirement village or an assisted-living community. Located on the outskirts of downtown El Paso, this boarding house belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, who reopened it recently to welcome volunteers coming to the border to work with the influx of immigrants. It just so happens that all the current residents are in their 70’s. Except me, of course.

I’m also the sole lay person at the moment. And the only one who has ventured here on her own, listening to a call within to write about the issues related to immigration, along with the personal stories. Stories of those who’ve made it across the border and those who serve them. There’s a lot to tell.

Heartbreaking stories for sure. But heartwarming stories, too. Stories about the goodness of people. Something I witness every day in El Paso.

Like these retired Sisters who come from all over the country, leaving their communities, and the comfortable and familiar, to spend two weeks or more volunteering at Nazareth Hall, a welcoming center for the refugees and immigrants detained at the border.

The dedication at Nazareth Hall is amazing. The place is run entirely by volunteers. And has been since June when the Loretto Sisters opened it in response to the influx of women and children from Central America.

Once Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases the immigrants from detention, an agent brings them over to Nazareth Hall. Then volunteers help reunite them with their families as they await their court date. Some might have to stay the night; some maybe two nights or more until their relatives can secure their travel arrangements. As they wait, these immigrant families — mostly young mothers and children — are given meals, a shower, and clothing. And they are treated with kindness and compassion. Maybe for the first time on their journey.

Generous El Pasoans volunteer to make and deliver meals, take home bedding and towels to wash, donate clothing and hygiene necessities, cover a night shift, and provide rides every day to the bus station or airport. But they can’t do it all.radical generosity

That’s why a call went out to women religious nationwide to join this effort.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., these Sisters — some of them well into their late 70’s — are on their feet, other than a short break for lunch. They clean bedrooms and bathrooms, serve meals and clean up, and accompany guests to the showers and to the clothing room where a mom chooses a coat or sweater or second set of clothes from neatly organized piles of donations sorted by size and gender. No one ever takes more than they need. And they are always grateful. For everything.

This week I started volunteering at Nazareth Hall. I want to be with the people. They’ll teach me what it really means to live with uncertainty. To do what needs to be done without complaining. And to trust in the generosity of strangers to show up. Maybe just when you need it most.