The Humanity Before Us

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The young mother was still breastfeeding when they took her from her baby. She was only 16, giving Immigration the right to put her in a detention facility for minors.

It didn’t seem to matter – what that meant, removing her from her husband and 5-month-old daughter with whom she was traveling. She was considered an “illegal.” She had no rights. The action taken didn’t have to make sense.

But I’m afraid this post isn’t about recounting a story from last summer, when ICE was separating parents from their children. Nope. It happened just four days ago.

Santiago, her 21-year-old husband, showed up at our shelter, carrying their fussing baby and a heaviness we couldn’t help him shake.

The volunteer doing intake held her emotions intact as he sputtered the details of his story. But the child, free to express herself, howled and squirmed in her father’s arms.

Santiago attempted to keep his voice level. But he could barely hold it together. How was he going to feed this child, he wanted to know? What would she eat without her mother’s milk and nourishment? Would she survive?

He peppered questions at Sr. Lil, my friend who was shift coordinator at Nazareth that day.

As his sad tale spread, the other mothers crowded around him. The women took turns holding the little girl close to their chest, snuggling against her neck, cooing sweetly in Spanish. A few offered to coax the little one to suckle the nipple of a plastic baby bottle we happened to have on hand. Someone filled it with bottled water and Nido powdered formula – a popular brand with our Central American families. Another one showed Santiago how to hold the baby as she was nursing so she’d feel secure.

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Sample stock photo; not our “real” baby

But who would help him feel secure, I wondered?

Luckily, a doctor who occasionally volunteers her time at Nazareth happened to show up that day. She checked the baby and reassured Santiago that not only was his daughter in good health, but she would adjust to the formula. She would survive. No need for him to worry about that.

Yes, she would survive. Children often do. No matter what they’ve experienced. Surviving and thriving are two different things, however.

And what about the baby’s mother? I think about her in a facility with other teenagers. I wonder if her nipples are leaking. If that heaviness she’s feeling in her breasts and in her heart closes in on her at night when she longs for her child. I wonder if she attempts to hide her breasts and her despair in her aloneness. Or if she’s found a friend in whom to confide.

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What it’s like for our young mother in detention

I’ve never met this mom. I didn’t meet Santiago either, or his little girl. Lil told me about them the day after it happened, her voice unable to hide the distress still lurking in her heart.

I wish I could tell you I’ve gotten used to these stories. That my heart doesn’t feel for this young family, especially the mother.

But then again, I’m glad I haven’t “gotten used to it,” that I haven’t numbed myself to what hurting people feel. That I can remember what it was like to be a mother to a little one, to hold my nursing baby in my arms, in awe of this wordless bond we’d created.

I don’t apologize for citing the preciousness of such a bond. Nor for calling out the cruelty of separating a mother and her breastfeeding baby.

I wonder, if God loves as a mother, how can we ignore the divinity in the human love of a mother for her child? And be the one to cause such suffering?

Yes, I hear about the numbers coming. I know it’s challenging for us. We’re doing the best we can here in El Paso. And that’s the question I ask of myself, and of all of us – Are we doing the best we can to address the humanity before us? To consider that maybe there are more positive solutions to what we’re calling a “humanitarian crisis”? And to ensure we do not have a hand in causing the suffering.

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Hard to Love

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I am weary.

Lately I feel overwhelmed. Like I’m trying to manage the unmanageable.

That’s understandable when I’ve got 140 people, or more, at the Nazareth center and only two volunteers to help me.

Rarely do I feel in control of what’s going on around me. I veer from one hot priority to another.

Before, my fellow volunteers and I called it “organized chaos.” Now, I organize nothing. I’m never able to successfully complete a task before being pulled away to something else and then often forgetting what I’d put aside. We have so many needs, I’m always neglecting something.

The reason?

Over the past several weeks, the number of immigrant families requesting asylum at the El Paso border has spiked. These days ICE processes and releases anywhere from 500-700 people a day to our community’s hospitality shelters!

And it doesn’t appear that will slow down. Nothing positive’s being done to address the root causes. Money is not being spent in these countries to counter the lies smugglers are spreading.

Yet, what’s amazing to me is that our community has continued to step up. Every time I marvel at the number we’ve assisted, we’re asked to do more.

And we do.

Somehow another church opens its space. The bishop makes an appeal and more volunteers show up. A local grocer makes another delivery of fresh fruit. fruit apples

Someone drops off more bottled water or packages of new underwear.

But it’s a drop in the bucket.

Still, we keep going. Even when it’s hard.

As Kim, my friend who volunteers at two of the hotels that receive families daily, reminds me, “I do it because I know, this is not about me.”

We all know there’s a bigger picture here.

And we keep responding because, for us, the alternative is unacceptable.

To drop these very vulnerable people onto the streets with no resources, no money, no food, no idea of how to get to where they’re going – that’s not something we can or want to do.

Yet, this “work” challenges me. It challenges me to love even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I’m exhausted. And even when, in my limited mind, I deem someone “not worthy.”

There are those who will tear at your heart. And those who will try your patience.

Even worse, there are many who prey on immigrants. Like the smugglers in their countries who are egging them on, charging $7,000 to $8,000 per family now, with fake promises of visas and work once they get here. And like some folks in our country who are making money and taking advantage of the situation.

Greed has a way of showing up in the most vulnerable of places.

Wiped out and weary, I’ve turned to Dorothy Day. Her writings help me. It certainly wasn’t easy for her to serve the desperately poor and homeless, day in and day out. Live in squalor conditions with them. At times endure their ungratefulness or attempts to take advantage.

Dorothy struggled too. The work was endless. At the end of the day, much was left undone. Especially difficult was that she daily recognized the enormity of the suffering around her.

But Dorothy was grounded in God and in her spiritual practices.  Her connection to the love of Christ sustained her.

She writes:

“It is no use saying that we are born 2,000 years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts….And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.” (“A Room for Christ,” December 1945)

Dorothy not only believed this, she lived it. She challenges me to love, even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I feel inadequate.

And to remember why I’m asked to do so.

In a 1964 issue of The Catholic Worker, she asked herself, “What are we accomplishing for them anyway, or for the world or for the common good?”

What is it I think I am doing anyway, giving my energy and time to these immigrants, most of whom will be deported, the majority of whom will not be relieved of their suffering in this lifetime?

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She wrote in her essay To Love Is to Suffer, “If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction.”

There’s my answer. My fellow volunteers and I are doing the small things we can do.

We are giving these people back their dignity. At least for a while.

We are keeping vulnerable people from being deposited onto the streets.

We are offering kindness and compassion. Even when we’re exhausted. Even when it’s hard.

“If we could only learn that the only important thing is to love…to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not….It is a hard, hard doctrine.”

I hear you, Dorothy. It’s a hard, hard practice. Only by grounding myself in God can this make any sense.