Monthly Archives: March 2015
A home on the coast of Michoacán, Mexico. Views of the ocean. Sea breezes waft through the windows as a loving family with three handsome teenaged sons gathers for dinner. This characterized the life of one of the families I met this week at the Nazareth hospitality center.
A life that no longer exists.
Threatened by the drug cartel’s out-of-control violence in the state of Michoacán, the entire family fled their idyllic life and presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking political asylum. Unfortunately, only four members of their family made it to our center. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided to detain their husband and father.
It’s something I’ve been noticing more lately. Males 18 years and older being detained indiscriminately. Sometimes there is a reason. Maybe they tried to enter the country previously. Maybe there’s something questionable on their record. But often it seems to be a random decision, depending on the ICE agent handling their case.
Some suggest ICE is attempting to send a message back to Latin America: if you come, your family will be separated. This disturbs and infuriates me. Are we really using separation of family as a deterrent? Is there justification to cause such pain to a family that has already endured so much?
I think of this family. They did not want to come to the U.S. They told us of their beautiful home. How they hated to leave. And that they hope to return some day.
For now, that’s not possible. At least not without putting their sons in danger.
Other volunteers have heard alarming stories from those who’ve fled Michoacán. How the cartels force people off land that has been in their family for generations. How they threaten to kill or “disappear” their sons. How they instill fear in the community by hanging corpses from bridges. The people can’t trust the police. Often they’re involved themselves. Some communities have tried to set up their own vigilante groups. Others, like this family, flee.
Fortunately, all the sons in this family are under 18. Otherwise, ICE could have detained one of them as well.
That happened to another mom who showed up this week with only two of her three children. Her 18-year-old son had been detained. They’d made it all the way from Guatemala, crossing treacherous Mexico, only to be separated in the U.S.
So, what’s next for these families?
Now they must make the agonizing decision of moving on to their designated relative’s home without their brother, husband, or son, who will remain in detention and be processed separately. Possibly he will remain here a year or more. Most likely, he will be deported.
I see the anxiety in this mother’s face when she comes to the office to ask when she can see her son. One of our volunteers will drive her to the detention facility on her designated visiting night.
I feel my heart for this woman. I know the joy of giving birth to a son. And the sorrow of being separated from him.
But this is what I cannot imagine: leaving my son behind in a detention facility in a foreign country not knowing when I will see him again. If he is deported, what will he do when he arrives back in the country alone? Will he be safe?
I feel helpless in what I have to offer her. Yet I want to offer something.
Later I go retrieve blankets for our new arrivals. I pass the room of the family from Michoacán. The mom is seated on her bed facing the doorway. The boys perch on the edge of a cot, their backs to me, fully attentive to their mother. Her face is somber. But her eyes are soft with something I easily recognize — her deep love for her sons, right alongside the pain of what she has to tell them.
Tonight, they will visit their father in detention. Tomorrow they will head for their relatives on the west coast as originally planned. Without their dad.
There are more stories like this. More ways my heart has been tested. I’ve come to see that the more I open my heart to strangers, the more I risk. Because there’s a definite risk when you look into the face of another.
You see yourself.
And you realize that we truly are connected as one family. We share the same feelings. The same sorrows and joys. The same desires for ourselves and our children. The same Spirit.
I can no longer NOT care. That’s the risk of being a family. What about you? Will you join us?
Water filled my day. Not only because of the unusual rain we experienced. Unusual simply because it rained in El Paso. And people don’t know how to act or drive in such a phenomenon. Kind of like Virginians with snow.
But the image of water actually started before I woke up, when these words entered my half-asleep awareness:
“What does it mean to really trust God?”
I left El Paso last year with these exact words. They were on my lips and heart right about this time as I was preparing to return home to Virginia. I’d had some powerful experiences of Love upholding me through those uncertain months, and I’d come to see, and to trust, that I really do have everything I need. That a benign Universe does uphold us. I thought for sure I’d never not trust myself and God again.
But that’s not how my story goes.
So this morning when I awoke with these words on my heart again, I figured Spirit was trying to tell me something. I sat down with my journal in my lap, pen poised, and right off I started writing about myself as if I were a fish. Who knows where this all came from, but here’s what I wrote:
“I see how I go back and forth, floundering like a fish flapping in and out of the water, sometimes trusting completely and serenely in the ocean that holds me; other times gasping for air so frenetically, I wonder if the ocean ever existed.
“But it’s here. It’s always here. Sometimes its presence is so obvious and constant, I’ve missed it completely by the sheer ordinariness and simplicity of its existence. Probably my small, fearful self expects a grand Tsunami to show up and knock me over with its immense force. Now that would be unmistakable!
“Instead, the ocean is simply present. Quiet and still, nourishing and sustaining me without my knowing it. Can I recognize its presence and drink from the possibilities? Can I let go into its current and trust where it will take me? Or will I fall back to my old way of thinking and resort to struggling to stay above water?
“It’s funny to think about the ocean in the El Paso desert where it’s hard to find any body of water. Or any moisture at all. Why the ocean metaphor in a place that lacks water?”
I’m quiet for a while.
Patches of bright orange-yellow blooming across the desert sands. Nourished by water that seems nonexistent. But it’s there. You just have to go deep underground to find it.
Occasionally—like today—water appears on the surface. Unexpectedly falling from the sky in big, wet, unmistakable raindrops that grace my face, my arms, my spirit. Raindrops that can never be separated from the ocean.
And neither can I.
Spring break. College students have descended upon us from the frozen terrain of Omaha, Cleveland, and Boston! But they haven’t come to bask in the desert sun. Or drink beer while lounging poolside. Not that they’d have much luck finding a body of water in El Paso anyway.
No. They’ve come with a more selfless purpose: to learn about life at the border, to experience and better understand the issues concerning immigration, and to serve.
One group of 10 students from Emerson College in Boston has been staying at our house. It’s been fun to catch them being silly with each other, to hear their laughter and feel their high energy. Part of me hopes to capture a bit of it for myself!
But, as the week has progressed, I’ve captured something else from these young people. Or, actually, recaptured.
It’s the passion and enthusiasm I hear in their voices as they share all they’ve been experiencing. They’ve visited with the families on the colonia, prepared and served dinner for migrant farmworkers, helped us clean rooms at the Nazareth hospitality center, and played with the children. They’ve met with Border Patrol, visited a detention center for youth, and listened to legal experts who’ve explained the complexities and insensible process of our current immigration system. They’ve been filled up with the realities at the border.
Realities that have touched their hearts, made them cry, opened their eyes. And committed them to return home and “do something more.”
One young woman, a junior, told me she’s changing the focus of her career because of this experience.
“In college, we’re taught to measure success by our career and what we earn, but now I’m seeing success in a whole different way,” Katie told me. “It’s about doing something that serves others.
“I don’t know exactly what that will be yet, but it’s going to be something different than I thought. I’m going home with lots of questions.”
Her words echoed my own two years ago. Like Katie, my trip to the border was life-changing. It awakened my heart and a calling that I still carry. It also generated lots of internal questions. Questions I still wrestle with, as I wonder where all this is taking me.
Sometimes I feel no older than a 21-year-old student questioning her major. I grapple with doubts and insecurities. I get impatient. I want answers, damn it! I want to be able to figure it out. Or at least be able to see the next step in front of me.
Those darned questions.
I’m still learning how to live the questions without needing to have the answers. Still learning what it means to be faithful to a call in my heart.
Sometimes it simply means all I can do is show up every day with a prayer to let myself be used for a purpose beyond what I am able to see most of the time. Or ever figure out.
And on my good days I’m able to recognize that the gift is hidden in accepting the questions.
Early last year, a dear friend sent me an excerpt from poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I need to reflect on these words again, and to remind myself: Rather than seek the answers, live the questions. And love where they take you.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
If mothers ruled the world…
It’s a thought I’ve been mulling over this week. Especially after visiting Christina and the mothers of Anapra.
Because I’m realizing what I actually witnessed in that bleak barrio.
I recognized it in the mothers’ faces as they encouraged their children. In their laughter as they prepared a meal together, each one bringing what little food they had to contribute. In Christina’s inestimable patience as she methodically strove to teach letters and their pronunciations to the young girl limited to guttural sounds and eye movements.
I’d almost forgotten, until a few days ago, Christina’s words to me that morning. How at one point she stared straight into me, her eyes bright and alive, stopping everything she was doing, as if to stress the importance of what she was about to say.
“el Reino de Dios está aqui,” she said in her native Spanish. “The kingdom of God is here.”
She actually beamed.
But I didn’t respond. I simply brushed off her words.
Something inside me recoiled against the idea that this place of pain and poverty could possibly be the kingdom of God. In my small mind the kingdom of God doesn’t have any children with disabilities, children who will never be able to feed themselves or urinate without help. Children who live in such abject poverty, nobody knows for sure whether there’ll be something to eat tomorrow.
My child’s faith wants a God who makes it all better. A God who makes the bad stuff go away.
But these women offered me something much more real. They reminded me of what is possible when God shows up in the compassionate, courageous vulnerability of a mother’s heart.
Hope comes alive.
Children are accepted and loved not based on what they can or can’t do. They’re simply loved for who they are.
And meager portions of beans and rice and potatoes are turned into a delectable feast.
What if the world were ruled by a mother? I suspect there wouldn’t be a need for so many people to migrate to escape unrestrained violence, to find work to simply survive. All girls and women would be educated and treated fairly and respectfully for the treasured beings they are. The Earth would be revered. And children wouldn’t be deported back to a country where their safety is at risk.
Now there’s a kingdom I’d jump in line to be part of.
But, as Christina pointed out, that kingdom already does exist. We can find it in one another.
As I was mulling all of this over yesterday, I came across a prayer called “Human Mothers — Thinking of God as Divine Mother.”
From Prayers to She Who Is, by William Cleary, a book of prayers based on the theological writing of Elizabeth Johnson, author of She Who Is, it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Here’s a copy:
Whenever I consider God as Divine Mother, the image softens, nurtures, and cradles me wherever I am. Sometimes it’s obvious how much I still need a mother. How much the world does, too.
I’m sharing this post from Fr. Bill, a Columban priest from our mission in El Paso who is now visiting El Salvador, where he witnesses daily the very situations that are forcing people to leave their homes. This particular post describes the disheartening situation of people being deported back to the very life-threatening situations they risked fleeing.
On Saturday I ventured to the other side. Meaning I went back into Mexico. This time to visit a very special ministry in Anapra — where Mexico’s poorest of the poor live.
Our friend Christina had promised to meet me and Sr. Mary Beth on the other side of the bridge in Mexico to take us to the therapy center where she works with disabled children. We’d both heard a lot of good things about this place and wanted to visit.
But I’d been warned that Anapra was worse than the colonia in Juarez where I stayed with the School Sisters of St. Francis last year. It was hard for me to imagine anything could be more desolate than that. I was wrong.
Once we climbed into Christina’s old Jeep, she veered off the main road, and we traveled down one bumpy, rocky, dirt lane after another. Each lined with crumbling stone shacks, makeshift fences, and roaming dogs sniffing out anything edible.
As we drove I began to notice more tires heaped on the side of the road. More trash. More dirt. Everything around us screamed poverty. Desolateness. Hopelessness. Dust blew up from the road and settled in the air.
This was Anapra.
But in the midst of this slum lies a ray of light. A physical therapy/educational center for children who have severe disabilities. Children with autism and MS and other physical and mental challenges. Children confined to wheelchairs who can only utter sounds of acknowledgment. Children who would not get help elsewhere.
The center is run by Sr. Peggy and Sr. Janet, Daughters of Charity of Cincinnati, with the help of Fr. Bill Morton, a Columban priest who ministers along the U.S.-Mexico border. The center’s small van transports the children, along with their mothers and siblings who also take part in their therapeutic treatment. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other Saturday, Christina comes to instruct the children, to patiently teach them their letters, the seasons and colors. They receive massages and therapeutic baths to help heal their crippled bodies. And they laugh and they play.
That’s what I spent my morning doing. Playing. First a couple of rounds of Uno with the older siblings until a little girl hijacked my attention for games of hide’n’seek and make believe. One girl confined to a wheelchair joined us. Her hands crippled, her jaw crooked, she drooled uncontrollably as she tried to stick her spoon in the plate of imaginary food I gave her. Every time I lifted the tiny plastic cup to my lips to drink invisible tea, she made guttural sounds of delight.
But the hardest for me was the boy. I avoided him until after lunch. About 9 years old and slouched in a wheelchair, his gaze was often off in some unknown place only he could reach. He kept sliding down in his chair and had to be hoisted back up, the dirty cloth beneath his chin adjusted each time to catch the constant drool. I finally sat with him for awhile, but my attention was elsewhere. I felt restless and ready to leave. I’d had enough.
Or so I thought.
You see, my intention during this Lenten season is to “rend my heart” — words I found in a reflection on Ash Wednesday. I had promised myself that I would keep my heart open by continually asking, “Am I willing to be vulnerable in this moment?”
If I were being honest, the answer in that moment was “no.”
Slowly I turned my attention to the boy. I softly rubbed his dangling legs. Looked into his wandering eyes. Wondered about the life he would have. And thought of his pregnant mother. Sadness grew within me. Feelings I hadn’t wanted to claim.
Today I came across this quote from Oscar Romero, who was martyred in El Salvador for speaking up for the poor. It seemed perfect for what I’m trying to say:
“We live very much outside of ourselves. They are few who are willing to go within and that is why we have so many problems. In the heart of every person, there is something like a little, intimate cell, where God comes down to converse, alone, with each person. And it is there where one decides their own destiny, their role in the world”.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, July 10, 1977
I thought about what kind of person it takes to do this. To truly be present to these children and their mothers. Week after week. To offer them kindness, patience, compassion. It takes a willingness to go within and allow God to rend your heart open. It takes a willingness to feel.
May I be willing to keep rending my heart. It’s the only way that I will see God in the “other” and within myself. Even with all my limitations.
It’s the only way I’ll be able to recognize these angels. Right here in Anapra.