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.