Choosing to Come Home

BlueRidge mountains
Scenic Blue Ridge Mountains taken on my drive home

Last week I drove nearly 1,900 miles from El Paso across Texas — more than a day’s drive in itself and, for me, a reaffirmation of why I wouldn’t want to live in Texas — all the way to Virginia. When I crossed the VA state line I let out a hoot. Everything was so beautiful! And colorful! The lush green hillsides. The grazing black and brown cattle. The white dogwoods. The purple and pink blossoms. Even the bright green layer of pollen everywhere. No more desert sands and rocky landscapes. I was so happy to be home.

Still, it was hard to leave El Paso.

But I made a conscious choice to return to Virginia. Mainly, I wanted to give Davis the option of coming home this summer. He’s been so supportive of me ever since I decided to go on this “mission.” It’s been a lot for a young person to take on — having his mom go off on an adventure so far from home. Yet he never once complained. Now I want to be there for him.

And there were other reasons on the list, too. The fact that I need to make a decent income again certainly was up there. So, it was time to come home.

But leaving El Paso — no, that wasn’t easy. Part of me is still there.

It’s not easy to adjust to life in the mainstream again either.

Like yesterday, for instance, I bought two different kinds of cereal. Both were healthy choices and they were on sale. It seemed like a good decision. But this morning when I opened my cupboard and saw those boxes sitting on the shelf, I almost cried.

It’s been a while since I’ve had choices.

In fact, having even one box of cereal I like is a special treat. To be able to choose from two felt a bit overwhelming.

Maybe that’s hard for you to understand, but for the past nine months I’ve not had much control over my life. Not much choice about what I was going to eat. Or buy. Or who I was going to eat with. Or live with. Sometimes it was a lot more challenging than I’d imagined.

But each time I’ve thought, “This is too hard,” grace stepped in and reminded me that anything I was experiencing was only a taste of what the people I was serving have experienced from day 1.

The thing is, if you’re poor, you don’t have choices.

Unlike me, many people I’ve met on this journey are not free to go home whenever they want. Those forced out of their homes by violence and hunger do not have choices. Not if they want to live.

I suspect that most people coming to the Nazareth Hospitality Center didn’t want to leave home. Given a choice, I’m sure they wouldn’t have stepped out their door into the unknown, leaving everything familiar behind — their country, their language, their customs and values, their relatives and neighbors — to risk traveling thousands of miles to the U.S.-Mexico border where they hoped something better awaited them. Some talked of returning home someday. When things are different.

One woman who came to Nazareth with her two teenaged sons confided that she was scared. Her oldest son had already been killed in their native El Salvador. She feared her other two sons would suffer the same fate if she didn’t leave. But, she worried, how would this new country affect her sons? How would they adjust to this culture, so different than her own? Would it change them?

They were headed to her brother’s in Los Angeles — a city she knew would expose her sons to many things and many choices. She worried about what they’d be facing and how they’d handle it. But she feared even more the risk of losing them altogether if she’d stayed home. What choice did she have?

Her story is only one of so many I’ve heard.

Right now I don’t have the words to explain what it means to me to have the choices I do. To have the life I have. In the beautiful place I call home. And the gift of being able to choose to come back home.

my cabin in the woods
my cabin in the woods
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What Love Looks Like

unconditional-love
Today is the sixth anniversary. It happened on a Saturday morning, not unlike this one. David died looking up at a bright blue spring sky. Warm sunshine beaming down.

It doesn’t seem like it could be six years already. And yet it feels like forever since I heard him call me “honey,” touched his skin, felt his body close to mine, and smelled his scent as I nuzzled my nose into his beard.

It’s true what they say — your life changes forever once you lose someone you love that much. Certainly my life and my son Davis’s changed forever on April 18, 2009. But I’m sure Davis would agree with me — our lives didn’t change in a negative, feeling resentful, why-did-this-happen-to-me kind of way.

Sure, it’s taken time for us to heal. To move through the tough, painful feelings and come out the other side. To begin to recognize the blessings in the pain. You realize you’ve grown and matured in ways you couldn’t have otherwise. You realize this is your path.

When Davis and I talk about losing David, we agree. We’ve made choices and gone in directions neither of us would have if David were still alive.

That’s not to say that we would have chosen this — to live our lives without this generous, loving man beside us, supporting us. But here’s what we do choose — we choose to live full lives without him.

David is the reason why I came to El Paso. With his passing, I wanted to know what else was in store for my life. I started to seek what that might be. And I had the freedom to go find it.

But it’s much more than that. It’s about what David taught me for the 28+ years he was in my life.

He taught me how to love.

Through our relationship I learned what unconditional love might look like. He was the closet thing to it that I’d ever experienced. And that’s what gave me the courage and the willingness to open my heart to strangers. To be vulnerable in places where I’d previously been so protective. To be willing to trust.

Little by little I’ve been learning this lesson. I’m sure it’s a lifelong lesson.

But today, on this anniversary, I wanted to acknowledge this:

Because of you, David, I know what love looks like. Because of you, I carry it within me wherever I go.
Thksg2008David

Drawing the Face of God

children_painting

Imagination, innocence, and trust. Qualities I love about children.

On the days I’m fortunate enough to serve at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, I get to witness these qualities. Interacting with the children is the highlight of my day.

But when the migrant children first come through our doors, their faces reveal anything but trust.  Their eyes search me, as if for a sign. Some cling to their parent’s side or try to crawl in their mother’s lap. Others sit quietly on folding chairs as I explain to their parents where they are and ask the necessary questions to fill out our paperwork. Sometimes when I bend down to tell a child my name and ask his or hers, I get no answer. The little girl glances away shyly. The little boy pulls closer in to his mother. I wonder what they’ve experienced on their journey. And I’m aware of the place they just came from—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility.

I ask if they are hungry. And I smile. A lot.

After a while, they respond. They begin to trust that we really do care about them here and that this place is safe. Once a child joins in my game of peek-a-boo or lets me chase him like a make-believe dragon, I feel reassured that despite whatever they’ve experienced, their imagination and innocence are still intact.

Besides, once they see the toy room, they can’t hold back. Before long, I hear the sounds of giggles traveling down the hall and plastic wheels being dragged across the linoleum. Or I’ll walk by and catch a budding artist concentrating on her picture. Later she’ll ask me for tape so she can add it to our wall collection of drawings from the hundreds of children who’ve passed through this center. Most likely her colorful drawing will include words like “blessed” and “thank you” and “God.”  Always the children are thankful. No matter what they’ve experienced.

Luis, a young man who volunteers at Nazareth, knows a lot about the migrant children. About their innocence and imagination. Their trust. And their faith. In addition to taking classes, studying, and juggling a full schedule, for the past six years Luis has volunteered with his church’s immigrant ministry. On weeknights and some weekends he visits and works with the children and youth confined to detention centers.

These children are what our government calls UACs — unaccompanied alien children. That means they’ve come to the border without a parent. Unaccompanied children under 12 are put in a foster care-type system until they’re reunited with a parent or deported. Youth 12-17 are placed in a very structured and secured detention center.

When Luis asks the children why they’ve come, the top two reasons he hears over and over are:

#1 – “To be with my parents/my mother.”  Often the child’s parent came to this country years ago to work and support the family. Some haven’t seen their mother since they were toddlers.

#2 – “To escape the violence.” Now more than ever children tell Luis of being threatened by gangs. Girls often don’t even go to school for fear of being raped. They tell him no one can protect them.

Luis has many stories about the children and youth he’s encountered. Tough stories to hear. Stories about the pain of being separated from parents for years. Stories about things children shouldn’t have to endure.

But Luis has something else, too. A very special scrapbook filled with drawings and letters from the children. They say how blessed they are to have known Luis. In their neatly printed letters, they thank him and thank God for him.

child's drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe
child’s drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe

And then there are the drawings. So precious. A seven-year-old’s version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A young teen’s intricate painting.

But there’s one unusual drawing that Luis especially likes to explain.

One day he’d asked the little kids at the center to draw a picture of what God looks like to them. Six-year-old José presented a colorful, oblong-shaped object up at the top of his page with his name above it.

Not having a clue as to what it was and not wanting to hurt José’s feelings by trying to guess, Luis simply asked him.

“An airplane,” the little guy answered.

Confused, Luis asked, “So, José, why is God an airplane?”

“Because God is fast like an airplane. And I know that if I have God in my heart, God will be the fast plane that will take me to my mom.”

Nazareth face of Godcloseup

Trauma. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

This is what these children experience. Yet they remain innocent. They still have faith and trust in a God who is present no matter what. And their imagination soars. Just like José’s airplane.

It makes me wonder. If I’d been through what these kids have, how might I draw God?

Images on the Journey

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Images that have inspired. Words that have settled into my soul. People who have humbled, and reminded, me why I am here.

Always, when I look, I see something more. When I listen, I hear what I missed before.

As I prepare to leave El Paso in a little more than one week — God, I can’t believe I’m saying that — I am looking and listening as deeply and as intently as I ever have. The way forward is still not clear. The lesson of dependence on God, ongoing. If I have shown courage along the way, it’s come from a deeper place that remains a mystery.

But what is clear are the images along the way. And the impressions they have made — indelible on my heart.

Here are some I’d like to share. Images from my nearly 2-mike walk to the Columban Mission Center where I work three days a week, from the Nazareth Hospitality Center, from the house on Grandview, which sits atop a hill offering an impressive view of downtown El Paso and spreading out across Juarez, Mexico. Images from simply paying attention.

In the segundo barrio — the poorest section of El Paso, where homeless men loiter in the mornings and early evenings waiting for the Opportunity Center to open its doors for coffee and a meal, where fast food containers and crushed beer cans collect in gutters, where barred windows and bail bond shops proliferate — the people paint their fences lavender and robin’s egg blue and plant rose bushes and gardens on their tiny plots producing an amazing array of yellows and reds and purples that rise up in defiance of anyone who would call this place poor.

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neighborhood fence
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Early morning view of the mountains into Mexico
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flower garden in the barrio
students on spring break serving families at Nazareth
students on spring break serving families at Nazareth
Migrant Way of the Cross at Mt. Cristo Rey
Migrant Way of the Cross at Mt. Cristo Rey
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local church celebrates national migrant week
child's drawing at Nazareth Hospitality Center
child’s drawing at Nazareth Hospitality Center

Simple Joys

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Recently two little girls from Guatemala arrived at our door wearing something I’d never seen on a child. Men’s sweatpants.

Admittedly, the girls and their mother appeared a little more disheveled and a little wearier than most of the migrants that show up at Nazareth. Their massively tangled black hair encircled brown faces streaked with dirt so ingrained, their skin appeared to hold various shades of darkness and light. Permanently.

It wasn’t until Mary Beth bent down to help the children remove their worn-out sneakers that she noticed their clothing. With no laces, broken soles, the tongues flapping and tattered, the shoes were what first caught her attention. worn-out-shoes

But just above the tongues of the sneakers hung gray, baggy pants rolled up at the ankles, spreading out 100 times wider than the width of these thin girls, and then rolled several times over and cinched at the waist. Startled, Mary Beth motioned to me.

“They’re wearing men’s sweat pants,” she nearly whispered.

I had to take a look for myself.

She was right.

If they’d wanted, the girls could have ducked down under the waistband and swum around. I couldn’t imagine them trekking all the way from Guatemala through Mexico wearing these oversized pants.

Yet they had. And neither the girls nor their mother seemed bothered in the least by this. They simply smiled at our attention.
worn out sandals

While Mary Beth helped the family find appropriate clothing, I went off to get bath towels and toiletries for their showers. As I laid out the clean towels on the cots in the their room, I couldn’t help notice what they’d brought with them. Two brown paper sacks sat like fat, wrinkled cabbages on their cots. Twisted at the neck, the bags bulged and split from the weight of the belongings stuffed into them. It was everything they had.

Later, when I escorted the three of them to the showers, I realized the girls had already donned their newfound clothing. One wore a pastel top and jeans, the other, a white dress printed with colorful flowers.

“A dress!” I said to her in Spanish. Her response — nothing but teeth as she smiled up at me, her expression revealing everything. For a moment, I felt as happy as she did. All because of a second-hand dress.

They were still in the shower when it was time for me to leave. Since I wouldn’t be back for a few days, I knew I wouldn’t see this little family again. They’d be gone by tomorrow.

I wanted to do something more. So, I went to the storage room and got a couple of gift bags with crayons and notepads and little TY stuffed animals and placed them on the girls’ cots. It was fun to imagine the joy on their faces when they’d return to their rooms and find them.

But here’s something I’ve noticed.

In the process of doing whatever it is I think I am doing for the people here, something wonderful happens. Each time I learn a little more from their simple faith. Their trust. Their joy. Something about what it really means to live with uncertainty. To trust the journey to something beyond oneself. And to be happy in the midst of it all.

choose-joy

The Voice of the Beloved

belovedness_claim

 

Since today is my birthday I decided to write about something special to me. The voice that calls me beloved.

It’s what brought me here. It’s what sustains me.

And it’s what speaks to me from the depths of any confusion or concern, fear or uncertainty I may experience. Calling me to be still. And know my belovedness.

I experienced it again over the weekend when I came up against a tough, unavoidable situation, in which, for various reasons, I wound up being alone in the house to deal with a very miserable guest. As this woman began projecting her blame and misery onto me, I felt her negative energy threatening to zap my own. I struggled to stay grounded and centered in the midst of it. I envisioned a circle of light around me for protection. And I avoided her as much as possible. But it was tough.

On Sunday a reflection from Inward/Outward showed up in my email box. As I read Kayla McClurg’s words, I heard the voice of love calling me back to remembering who I am. Towards the end of her reflection, Kayla quotes Raymond Carver’s poem “Late Fragment” — a short poem he wrote on his hospital bed when he was dying.

By the time I got to the last line, I knew what I had lost sight of in the presence of the energy-zapping woman.

raymond carver_best fragment

Kayla then asks: “Are we, too, learning to call ourselves beloved, to feel ourselves beloved on the earth? Are the fragments making us whole?”

In the midst of her questions, an inner voice asked, Do you know yourself as the beloved? Do you allow yourself to feel it, to take it in, and to live with the truth of this in your soul?

In all honesty I knew that, on most days, I did not. And I suspect that I’m not the only one who has difficulty with this.

But Spirit fully intended for me to get the message this time. Later that evening, when I picked up Henri Nouwen’s book Discernment, hoping to read a little before going to bed, these lines came up within the first paragraph:

“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us God’s beloved. Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

The core truth.

The crux of our existence is that we are beloved.

The voice of Love tells us this. Again and again and again. Until at last we can accept it and fully take it in.

This being Holy Week in the Christian tradition, I was reminded how, at the end of his life, Jesus was certainly surrounded by negative energy. Daggers of hatred. Projections of fear and misery. Yet always he walked the earth grounded in the love of the One who sent him, able to hear the voice that called him the beloved. Despite what was going on around him.

So, in my meditation, I ask Jesus, “Did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?” Tears forming as I ask the question because I know the suffering and intense humiliation he endured. “I can’t imagine why you would have…”

And then the answer comes: “Yes, because I drew you to myself.”

A response so beautiful. So loving. So beyond what I can fully understand. Unless I know myself as the beloved.