Women and Children First


Remember the movie The Unsinkable Molly Brown? Just the other day I was thinking about that scene on the Titanic’s lifeboat where Debbie Reynolds, who plays the colorful Molly Brown, gives up her fur coat and then her dress to keep those women and children from freezing. Back in the days of the Titanic, when lives were threatened, putting women and children on lifeboats first was an “unwritten law.”

It was the humane thing to do.

Guess that image came to mind because since I’ve been home, I can’t forget them. I mean the women, especially the mothers, and children I met  and heard about in Texas. And there’s something else I can’t forget. The inhumane treatment many of them experienced, either in crossing the border or after they arrived.

Like the Guatemalan woman who was kidnapped in Mexico, where she was abused and raped for months until she managed to escape. By the time she made it to San Diego she was 8 months pregnant. After ICE processed her information, an agent shackled her — chains around her wrists and ankles — and put her on a plane to El Paso. The chains encircling her ankles were so tight, they broke the skin. By the time she got off the plane, she was bleeding and in pain. The ICE agent in El Paso asked her why she hadn’t said anything to the agent on the plane.

“I did tell him it was hurting me,” she said.

I guess the threat that a woman 8-months pregnant posed was too much of a risk to loosen those chains.

And then there are the women and children who are transferred to so-called family detention centers. Texas has two of these privately run facilities, holding thousands of mothers and children, including babies. It’s basically akin to putting them in prison. Some have been incarcerated since last fall.

Sr. Pat, who volunteers at the Dilley detention facility near San Antonio, told me of a woman she’d met who had been there since August! It’s strange how even violent criminals have a right to due process in this country. But not immigrant mothers whose only “crime” is showing up at the border.

Sr. Pat says the children are losing weight. They can’t eat the food the facility serves. There’s a commissary, but if a mom wants to buy her child juice, it costs $4. She says more than one attorney who has come to speak with the women about their case has anonymously added money to their client’s commissary account.

What gets to me the most is the traumatizing affect this environment is having on innocent children. And the fact that we are basically punishing them and their mothers, many of whom have legitimate cases for asylum. This from a country that prides itself on promoting justice and defending human rights.

The New York Times had an excellent editorial on this subject last week. You can find it at http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/opinion/end-immigration-detention.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region%C2%AEion=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=1&referrer

Thankfully, more people are speaking out against the inhumane practices of family detention centers. Women and children should not be treated this way. Certainly not by one of the wealthiest nations in the world.

Like Molly Brown, we can be wealthy, and kind and compassionate, too. There’s room in our lifeboat for these women and children.

mock up detention
mock up detention “room” at Voice of the Voiceless fundraiser

The Gift of Esther


I can’t believe I’m writing this. Esther died today.

Less than three weeks ago she came into my room at Grandview house and said she had some news. Esther never even ventured into my room, so when she pulled out a chair and sat down, right away I knew this was serious. She told me she had cancer and it had spread throughout her body. I was in shock. We all were.

Esther was the Sister of St. Joseph with whom I’d been living since I arrived in El Paso in early December. Over the past few months she’d been losing weight. I thought it was due to the stress of managing this big house by herself. Although I was helping as much as I could, having volunteers coming and going every two weeks or more, trying to feed them all, keep the house clean, and manage the bills, all seemed like a huge responsibility to me. And I wasn’t 70+ years old.

Then Esther had developed this unrelenting back pain on top of the weight loss. Still I didn’t attribute it to anything serious. Esther was just too spunky and vibrant. A former phys ed teacher, she’d often break into song. Remembering a show tune or classic that somehow related to the situation at the moment, she’d simply start singing. Not the least self-conscious at all. Even though she rarely got through the first line or verse before forgetting the rest.

I found this endearing.

So was her addiction to doing the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. Whenever I came down to breakfast, I knew if I sat down with her, I could expect to be drilled.

“How many letters?” I’d ask.

But she’d already have moved on to belting out the next clue. It was too much for my mind that early in the morning. Sometimes I’d eat my cereal in my room.

The thing is, I love Esther. But at first, I wasn’t even sure I liked her.

When I came to live at Grandview house, she questioned me. She didn’t understand why I had left everything behind. What was I looking for? More than once she told me she could never do what I was doing. And she wasn’t too keen on the idea that I was writing three days a week instead of working every day with the immigrant families at the hospitality center where all the other volunteers at Grandview spent their time. So, I offered to give her one full day a week of chores to help towards my room and board.

Still, I don’t think she trusted me. Or my ability to live like a missionary and adjust to the situation. Our relationship didn’t exactly start out on stable ground.

But as she saw how I adapted to making meals with whatever lay stored in the cupboard, how I rarely asked for anything, how I was available whenever she needed me, she eased up. And I grew less resentful. Prayer helped. So did my commitment to being there.

And then, very subtly, Spirit slipped in and taught me how to open my heart to this woman. Showed me how to see her more clearly. Like the night Esther shared her faith story with me. How she’d been a teacher for years, focusing on herself, before she experienced a grace-filled moment that changed her life and caused her to join a religious congregation.

The day Esther handed me a large sum of cash to manage groceries because she had to be away from the house for several days, I thought I’d cry. It was more than the fact that she trusted me. Without saying a word about it, I knew we’d grown fond of each other.

By the time my birthday came around at the end of March, she was asking me what I’d choose if I could have my favorite meal. And then she went and bought fresh tuna steaks and told me to invite a friend to dinner. This from a woman who had worried aloud more than once about what the grocery bill was running.

As Esther grew weaker, I felt especially blessed to be at Grandview. I actually enjoyed lugging the trash cans up and down the steep driveway every week. And pulling the weeds popping up out of the pavement and along the hillside. It would have been easy to stay there longer.

The morning I’d packed up my car and was ready to head out of El Paso, Esther and the other Sisters at the house gathered round to bless me on my way. The beauty of this gift — Esther had prepared the blessing. When I looked into her eyes to say goodbye, I recognized my own heart.

Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March
Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March

I’m treasuring Esther’s gift tonight.