Spiritually Fed

Sevenoaks Sanctuary
The “little sanctuary” at Sevenoaks in Madison, Virginia

I’ve recently returned from a week-long visit back east. My Virginia friends will probably wonder why I didn’t tell them I was coming. But this trip was solely for a reunion at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison.

At least that’s what I thought when I started planning it. However, God had other plans.

Before long nearly 100 middle schoolers had entered the picture.  But more on that in a moment.

First, I need to express how spiritually nourished I felt being back at Sevenoaks. The minute I stepped on that 130-acre wooded property again, I began to remember the many graces I’d received throughout my years there.

Sevenoaks is a special place where I and these now very close friends had first met and gathered more than 10 years ago, to begin some deep work together. It was a journey towards healing and transformation.  With lots of pain, and pleasure, too, along the way.  The opportunity came at a time when I was ready, and in need of taking that journey. I started this program only months before David died.

Sometimes, because I lived only minutes away, I would come over just to spend time on the land. To be alone in the sacredness of nature. And to listen to God speak to my inner being. And it was there in the silence of nature and in the depth of that program that I had begun to understand that God had placed a new calling on my heart.

And now here I was again surrounded and held by Mother Earth, the forests, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rich, red earth. Whether standing amidst a grove of cedars, meditatively walking the labyrinth under a canopy of trees, or praying in the little sanctuary in the woods, all of it filled my heart and soul with gratitude.

Sevenoaks Cedar Circle
Entrance to my favorite path at Sevenoaks

I thought I was spiritually filled up.

And then I headed to Raleigh.

My plan had been that, on the tail end of my trip, I would drive down with my friend Rob and spend the remainder of my time with him and his wife before flying out of Raleigh the next day. It was unusual for me to book an afternoon flight when traveling back to El Paso from the East Coast. Especially with the 2-hour time difference. But at the time I didn’t think much about why I hadn’t scheduled a morning flight.

Not until weeks later when the “coincidence” surfaced.

Rob discovered that Lucy, a family friend and teacher of World History and Language Arts at a private middle school in the Raleigh area, was offering her 7th graders a long-term program focusing on the various issues of immigration and refugees. When Rob told her where I lived and what I did, she wanted to know if I’d come speak to her classes about El Paso and my experiences at our border.

I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

What has been so difficult for those of us living in El Paso these days is not being able to do much in the face of the alarming and false anti-immigrant narrative and policies that are sending asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Juarez. Most Americans have no understanding of the border reality. I had been praying and asking God, what can I do now in the service of love? Making PB&J sandwiches didn’t seem to be enough. I had turned back to writing more.

And then I received Lucy’s invitation.

If I was willing, she wanted me to give presentations to all four classes, back to back, enabling me to reach all 7th graders. That meant I would have to be there the entire morning.

Now I understood why I had delayed my flight. I could say yes to Lucy. And yes to what I clearly felt was Spirit’s response to my prayer.

After standing before students for 3 ½ hours, my mouth dry, my mind feeling like mush, I realized I had never spoken so long in my life. And never so effortlessly and smoothly. Never had I taken follow-up questions so easily. Clearly I had gotten myself out of the way and let Spirit take over. Clearly it wasn’t “me” doing the talking.

I had simply asked to be a voice, an instrument, through which Spirit could reach the hearts of these youths.

And the best part was I could tell they were listening. They were engaged. By their surprised expressions and concerned questions, I knew that they were learning about something they had had no clear understanding of beforehand.

Afterwards, Lucy and her colleague Matt were so appreciative of my willingness to do this. But they have no idea how thankful I am for them. How grateful I am to know there are teachers like this who want to educate youth about all sides of such an important issue, help them think for themselves, and learn empathy along the way.

Certainly they have no clue how I was spiritually fed that morning. How they allowed me to be a voice for those God has clearly put on my heart. And to have had it be part of my journey back to Sevenoaks seems especially mystical.

El Paso star
The journey of following the star led from Sevenoaks to El Paso

 

PB&J Sandwiches – Una Comida Nueva

Frederick Quote Fancy

“I’ve never tasted peanut butter.”

My Mexican-American friend Sigrid tells us this as we finish packing the last of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Gifts we’ve prepared for the migrants sent to wait in Mexico. I doubt that any of them have ever tasted peanut butter either.

It will be another new experience. A new taste, a new food. Food for these journeyers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, and otros paίses.  It will be their first experience of an American-made food. Manufactured by Hormel, in a place called Minnesota.

I imagine their faces when they bite into the soft white bread. Nothing will be familiar. Even the texture of el pan will mystify. But they will be hungry. That is, all the children older than 10, and their parents too. These are the ones Mexican immigration officials say they cannot afford to feed before releasing to the shelters or streets of Juarez. There’s only enough for the very young.

How did Sigrid know this? How did she find this new need that we could fill? Why did she even take the initiative to start this new ministry – the ministry of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich makers? And how did she ever secure enough provisions to make 1,000 sandwiches, or more, weekly? Oh, and don’t forget the snacks.

Migrant snacks
An abundance of snacks donated by the El Paso community

Well, but this is El Paso, after all. And, in typical El Paso fashion, El Pasoans respond to the need. You should know this by now, Pauline. It’s the reason you are here. The reason you uprooted yourself and created a new life in the desert. Something new that nourishes you. While you nourish the needy.

Always, you receive more than you anticipate. More than you give. I have come to know this in a way I never have before.

And something else.

I watch my fellow volunteers gathered around the tables. Take them in as they remove disposable gloves from sweaty hands, finish conversations, prepare to head home and scrub the smell of peanut butter out from underneath fingernails.

From 80-something-year-old Kay to 20-something-year-old Sy, these are the soul friends I’ve made along the journey. The ones who show me what is possible.  A world where everyone has enough to eat. Where abundance is shared. And laughter, prevalent.

Migrant PB&J
Friends gathered at local restaurant finish packing migrants’ PB&J snack bags

I recognize it, too, in the loyal “Usual Suspects.” The folks who made the beans and rolled them into tortillas to feed traveling migrants passing through our Loretto Nazareth shelter. Whenever our supply got low – I’d text Sue or Jeanette, prime “suspects” in this stalwart group with the “unusual” name.

Miraculously, more burritos would appear. Week after week. For years.

Now they’ve swapped bean burritos for PB&J sandwiches.

Still, they participate in a loaves and fishes story.

How do I give words to the beauty of this real-life parable? Of this fulfilling nourishment that’s been manufactured right here, in El Paso?

A quote from Frederick Buechner comes to me: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, that place turned out to be accompanying migrants in El Paso shelters.

And is this where God is calling me now?

To Sigrid’s mother’s Mexican restaurant on the west side? To spoon grape jelly onto processed white bread? Slather peanut butter from end to end? To join dedicated friends to make sure migrant families whom we can no longer receive can at least receive a bit of protein before they find their way into the streets of Juarez?

frederick Buechern 2

No matter. It has simply come down to this. Hunger can be filled by a small act of kindness placed between two slices of bread.

May more of us acquire a taste for it.peanut butter jelly Jiff

Manna in the Desert

Las Cruces August sunset
Sunset over my desert home

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a metaphor. Or a Bible story.

There’s a desert. Grumbling. (That would be me.) Perceived lack of food and water.

And, always, brown dust. The promise of a strong sun.

Desert sun over Organs
Sun rising over Las Cruces mountain range

 

And more.

The sufferings of those around me. Those who make their way through the desert. Remembered Bible stories fuel their hope. Stories of manna in the desert. From a God who never abandons them. A God who provides unusual food. Water from an unlikely source.

Sometimes that source is people I know. People at a shelter that waits for them to arrive. Empty cots longing to caress them into sleep. Give them dreams beyond imaginations held in their homelands. Dreams that only come when a rock transforms into a pillow.

This God source has provided in other ways as well.

With provisions for times when it feels as though the desert takes too much. Too great a toll of flesh demanded for the promised freedom. Too great a toll on desperate travelers forced into a more desperate Juarez. Too great a toll on exhausted, hungry children arriving with abuelas, tίas and tίos. They are taken from the only family they know. Pulled away and placed in shelters far from the desert, in rural American countrysides, hidden from view.

The toll seems unforgivable. Unimaginable to us who remain in the desert, watching, bearing witness to the inhumanity.

“Where is God in this?” we ask.Chihuahuan Desert

Where is God in the long aridity? When it feels like provisions are lacking?

In asking the question, the answers come.

I begin to notice provisions for the journey. The gifts in the sand.

The tireless female attorneys, mothers themselves, crossing the port of entry daily. Checking on clients. Seeking those with hearings in unsympathetic El Paso courtrooms. Holding up in the heat, the long lines at the bridge. No matter how few asylum cases they will win. Unfaltering despite the odds.

Manna in the form of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. El Paso volunteers now prepare these sandwiches for migrants waiting in Mexico to be processed. The people are hungry.peanut_butter_and_jelly_2

And Mexican federal immigration officials do not have the provisions to feed so many before releasing these families to shelters. Or worse – the streets of Juarez. The migrants – and the Mexican agents – welcome PB&J manna with smiles.

Provisions of friendship. The gift of camaraderie – of soul friends committed to the refugee, to the hurting, to those fleeing enslavement, a life of extortion.

We come together, share food and drink. Sing songs of a world we know is possible. The gift of laughter lightens the burdens. Our common prayer rises to the “column of cloud” guiding our journey.

Provisions of expression, of expelling the grief. Lisa offers the gift of her therapist skills, a free-will offering to those of us “living on the cusp,” living in the midst of the atrocious effects of the pharaoh’s dictates. She desires to help us. Her provisions fall like manna from the sky, alighting on our souls so in need of nourishment.

This heart I’ve been given – this too is a gift, a “talent” I’ve been asked to magnify on the journey. Even though it sometimes feels like a curse. A weakness. A vulnerability that needs alteration.

Then Brother Lalo gifts me with the words of St. Paul: “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” He tells me this is what comes to him when he thinks of me.

His supportive words, another provision in this desert. A reminder of another Bible story. The weak will befuddle the strong.

Yes, I call these “provisions for the journey.” And I hear God ask, can you trust that you’ll be given what you need? Just for today? Can you trust that I’ll be with you again tomorrow? Even when night descends?

Quotes_Creator_2Cor I am strong

 

 

 

Wade in the Water

rio_grande

The pain of heartache flows in the narrow river. I watch the ripple from the footbridge above, feeling helpless, hopeless. There is little I can do.

Do I let my heart feel the sorrow, the grief? Sometimes I do.

Sometimes I cry with the young wife and mother who lost her 2-year-old daughter and the husband carrying her on his back. Or with the Honduran woman whose husband did not want to come but listened to his wife’s plea. “It’s only for a few years,” she told this strong man who could no longer keep his family fed and safe.

He did not make it across the Rio Grande.

Nor did the 21-year-old female who’d been sent to wait in Mexico. Alone and vulnerable. No one to protect her from imminent rape. She tried to venture back across.

El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants 2019
El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants

Taking the risk in the water was better than the risk of waiting in Juarez.

Single women, mothers with children – they are the easy targets.

I’ve heard courtroom reports of Guatemalan women pleading with the judge at their initial court hearing not to send them back. “Put me in a cell,” one tells the judge. She would rather be locked up while she waits than be “free” in the homicide capital of Mexico.

“They extorted my family for money,” another one says. “I’m afraid to go back.”

Two women sob in the courtroom, with their young children in tow. Intruders tried to rape them at their shelter.

Those of us who live at the border – we all know it’s not safe in Juarez.  There is nothing protective about this outrageously unsafe policy, the complete opposite of any kind of “protection” for migrants.

Even the El Paso City Council denounced the “Remain in Mexico” policy 6 to 1 back in July. Still, it continues.

I read about a priest who was kidnapped in early August by a gang for not letting them into his shelter to kidnap migrants. He is still missing. Another priest was killed outright in Matamoros.

Juarez shelter
Juarez shelter; photo from El Paso Times

Now at our hospitality center, Casa del Refugiado, in El Paso, a different kind of migrant passes through. The kind that can take a plane across Mexico and land closer to the border. The kind that have cell phones and are cellphone savvy enough to make their own travel arrangements quickly. Some leave our center within less than 24 hours of arriving.

Granted, not all are like this. But I hardly see the desperate, disheveled, dirty faces anymore. Those who had to leave their country just to survive. And started out on foot.

Facing extreme hardships. Extreme suffering. Extreme roadblocks along the way.

Wait in Mexico? They have been waiting. Especially the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the El Salvadorans. Waiting for justice and safety that do not exist.

So, this tiny patch of water that separates two cities, two countries, poses a minor obstacle.

Still, the river can be deceptive.

The water churns, swirls, gains power.

So many stories are buried in its silt.

I ask, what can I do? Plead? Wail?

And then I do one thing I know I am asked to do. I pick up my pen. I tell others. I write the stories, hoping those who read will know that we cannot stand on the shore watching. We, too, must wade in. Feel this churning, swirling power.

Maybe it will change us. Maybe it will cause us to act.

water-1246527_1920

 

Sold Out

Voice of voiceless statue

In a matter of weeks, all the dinner tables were sold out. At $50 a plate.

Who would pay such an exorbitant price for a dollop of pinto beans, rice, and a tortilla?

Or spend their Saturday night witnessing reenactments at the border that make you feel uncomfortable?

And who would delay their family vacation in Colorado so they could attend?

Yet, these were the people who came to Annunciation House’s annual Voice of the Voiceless fundraiser recently.

We were there to support Ruben Garcia’s calling – a calling he has been passionately following for more than 41 years.

We were there because all of us have been touched in some way by the migrant poor at our door. Whether it’s through personal encounters at the dozens of hospitality centers set up throughout the Borderland community or through personally witnessing the harsh conditions under which many have been held after their arrival, such as the fenced-in outdoor areas under the port of entry bridge.

For us, eating this simple plate of food is more than symbolic. It is an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters. It is a statement that we will not sell out. Our integrity, our values, our care for one another in our common humanity – these are not for sale.

Good Samaritans like Teresa Todd, who was the winner of this year’s Voice of the Voiceless Border Witness award, have proven that. BTW, she is the one, along with her entire family, who delayed their vacation so they could personally attend our dinner.

Teresa Todd_Voice of Voiceless 2019
Teresa Todd, second from left, with our border volunteers

I was thrilled to discover Teresa was this year’s recipient. I had recently read a New York Times article about how this single mother, a well-respected elected official and county attorney of Jeff Davis County, was being prosecuted for helping three El Salvadoran migrants who had flagged her down on a Texas road one night.  The three siblings hadn’t eaten for days. The young men’s 18-year-old sister, Esmeralda, was lying on the ground in pain, unable to walk. Her muscle tissue was being eaten up.

Teresa told us that as a mother, as a Christian, as a woman whose parents raised her to care for those in need, she did the right thing. Thinking of her own teenage sons, she helped the three young people into her car and made some calls to local officials for help. Instead of assistance, Teresa was taken into custody by Border Patrol and accused of “harboring aliens.”

Now she is facing federal charges.

Teresa saved the life of Esmeralda that night. And she told us she would do it again.

No matter the current political climate.

She didn’t sell out her values. She acted with courage and compassion. And she kept her moral character and integrity intact.

Unfortunately, we as a nation are not.

As Ruben told us that night, “…the relentless and insidiousness process of dehumanizing human beings is threatening the core of our being.”

That is why Ruben chose this year’s fundraiser’s theme, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ as a reminder.

“What is being done to refugees stands in stark contradiction of the fundamental principles and values that brought the United States into existence,” he told us.

Time and again we have heard the word ‘crisis’ used to justify practices that violate the very character of a nation that has been 243 years in the making. The real crisis on the border is a crisis of character and morality.”              Ruben Garcia

Neither Ruben nor Teresa are alone in believing this. Many others are expressing or thinking similar beliefs about our moral compass.

This was evidenced by the numerous out-of-state donors listed in our program this year. Sponsors from North Dakota to Maryland, from Alabama to Indiana.

I thank God for people like Teresa Todd and people across the country who have stepped up to volunteer or financially support those who are suffering in our name.

And I pray for all of us, as a country, that we do not “sell out.” That we stop finding ways to justify or ignore cruel and inhumane treatment of others because our business is thriving or our economy is doing well.

When we do so, then we have sold our integrity for greed. We have lost our moral compass. compass true north

And we cannot continue to claim that immigration is about observing the law when we as a country ignore the law when it isn’t convenient or doesn’t match our current agenda.

This was so evident when articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were read at the VoV dinner. The United Nations General Assembly declared these fundamental human rights in December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.

We, as the United States of America, are in defiance of articles such as Article 14, the right to seek asylum; Article 16, the protection of the family; and, most especially, Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Voice of Voiceless 2019
Lady Liberty holds a different message these days

 

I believe our country is at a crossroads.

We are still evolving into the real truth of the words of our forefathers: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Let us declare that these truths are not for sale.

Article 5: https://youtu.be/jL6IH1AesW4

The Feds Are Coming, the Feds Are Coming

El Paso downtown

We’re expecting some pretty important visitors to our little border community tomorrow. Not just one big wig from the administration in Washington, D.C., but two – U.S. Attorney General Sessions and Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Kelly.

sessions & Kelly

Apparently, they’re making the rounds, having visited Nogales, Arizona, just the other day.

But I don’t think any of us is exactly sure why they’re coming. I doubt they’re coming to breathe our arid air and tour the 15-18 ft. high border fence we already have erected along our border.

borderpatrol

 

My hope is that they actually want to learn something about the communities impacted by their immigration and border defense decisions. That they want to ask us questions and gather information about what life is really like for people living so close to Mexico before they go any farther with their costly deportation and border wall plans.

One can hope, can’t she?

But, if they’re simply coming with their own agenda, to put in place whatever they already have in mind, then God help us.

History has shown us what happens when those who govern make detrimental decisions for those from whom they are far removed, both physically and emotionally. Remember your American history and the cry “taxation without representation”? Remember what happened when the British tried to rule people in a faraway land without understanding their concerns or being willing to treat them fairly?

Now, I’m not threatening a revolution or anything. I’m just saying…

Boston tea party

Pay attention to history!

El Pasoans don’t seem to be too happy about this visit. Although we are trying to hope for the best.

In today’s El Paso Times – our daily newspaper – the editor had this to say about Sessions and Kelly’s visit:

“While they are here, they will see a border region that bears little resemblance to the rhetoric that comes from the administration they serve….

“…not the out-of-control border portrayed in certain political and media circles.

“Sessions and Kelly will see a community doing robust trade with Mexico. More than $21 billion in exports flowed from El Paso to Mexico in 2015, making us the largest exporter to Mexico among U.S. metropolitan areas. That export flow creates jobs not just in El Paso, but across the nation… (from http://www.elpasotimes.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/04/19/el-paso-much-show-sessions-kelly-editorial/100668718/)

As for our representatives, both Democrats and Republicans are hopeful too.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, said he wants Kelly and Sessions “to understand that the safety of our community has been undermined with…calls for ‘military style’ immigration roundups and with the atmosphere of intimidation and fear promoted by this administration.”

Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who represents the eastern portion of El Paso County, is, “hopeful that they will listen to the law enforcement agents on the ground and realize that a wall from sea to shining sea will be the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border….you can’t have a one size fits all solution to the border.

“We can secure the border and continue to facilitate the movement of goods and services at the same time. These are not two cities separated by an international boundary. It’s one community separated by a border.”

Some locals are taking a little more aggressive stance.

Like the recently-formed Borderland Immigration Council and Border Network for Human Rights, a long-standing human rights group. They’ll be holding a picket line and press conference tomorrow to protest “the continued rhetoric demonizing border communities and Trump administration actions to criminalize migrants and militarize the border.”

They’ll present actual cases of people who have legally sought asylum protections here and have been incarcerated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), even though they pose no danger to our community.

I’ll join them at the Federal Courthouse.

And I may not be throwing any tea overboard (a little hard to do in the desert 😊). But I will find a way – like many other like-minded Americans – to use my freedoms and my voice.

Where’s Paul Revere when you need him?paul-revere-by-wyeth

We Are All Grieving

20170210_182151 (2)
View from my apartment looking out across Mexico

We are grieving our loss. My fellow volunteers and I – the women and men who worked alongside me at the Nazareth hospitality center.

We know we’ve lost something special.

Several weeks ago, our center for migrants and refugees closed. We were told it was due to staff transitions in the main health center that owns the wing we were using. We thought it was temporary. So far, it hasn’t reopened.

But even before the center closed, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had been bringing us fewer and fewer refugees. In mid-January, our daily numbers began dropping to single digits.

The interesting thing is, all of this happened soon after I’d closed on my house, packed up all my belongings and moved here – lock, stock, and barrel. Suddenly, what I loved doing most and fed me spiritually had disappeared.

You gotta wonder what the Universe has planned.

Still, I know without a doubt this is where I am meant to be. Living close to the border. Living, as I call it, “close to the bone.”

I’m not questioning my heart’s guidance.

But I am grieving. And I’m not the only one.

I realized this last week when I unexpectedly ran into several of my fellow volunteers at a Taize service.

Volunteers like Martha. Every Tuesday, she and her friend Cuki would come to Nazareth to prepare breakfast and lunch for our “guests.” When our daily numbers jumped to well over 100, they enlisted other friends to help.  They spent their entire day there, every Tuesday.

And they’ve been doing this for nearly three years.

Martha and I were so happy to see each other that night. With moist eyes, we shared how much we missed Nazareth and “the people.”grief-loss-therapy

Without really having words to express why, we both knew the fullness of this experience had touched our lives.

Other volunteers joined our conversation. And that’s when I realized, we all were grieving.

Grieving because we missed interacting with the people who had clearly given us a gift by their presence.

Grieving because we know the tragic and violent situations that existed in these people’s lives – the reasons they fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have not changed. They’re still subjected to death threats, extortion, and gang violence. But where are they are fleeing to, we wondered?

Grieving because we know that human rights abuses are increasing – at detention facilities, at ports of entry, and elsewhere. And we don’t expect it to get better soon.

Some Customs and Border Patrol agents are turning away asylum seekers without consideration of their claims. Cases have been documented of people with credible fear being turned away at the border, like the mother who fled Guatemala after gang members killed her two sons and threatened her life. Turned away, even though those who are fleeing violence have a legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.

Or, in some cases, ICE is locking up asylum seekers. Sticking them in detention for the duration of their case, even though they pose no threat to our society. Even though they have passed their “credible fear” interview. Causing them more pain, more harm, more trauma to their children.

Here’s a recent example. Martín Méndez Pineda, a 25-year-old journalist from Acapulco, Guerrero, was detained and denied parole after seeking asylum here in El Paso. Pineda had received death threats and police beatings for his critical reports of the Mexican federal police. Only a week earlier, a female journalist had been murdered in Mexico.  Rather than assist this young man, we threw him in detention like a criminal.

Yes, we are definitely grieving over the direction our country is taking towards migrants and refugees.

Because for us, this is not just a controversial issue on the 6 o’clock news.

We have come to know “the people.” We have listened to their stories. We have accompanied them and been transformed by the encounter.

And we know they are human beings. Worthy of being treated with dignity and compassion.

El Paso Columban Missions

Please, no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration and refugees, let’s remember that these are human beings. That human rights abuses should not be part of our protocol.

And it is absolutely inhumane to separate mothers from their children as a deterrent to immigration.

All that we will accomplish by such inhumane treatment is more grief. And the loss will be much more extensive and personal than we can anticipate.

For more practical and humane suggestions for curbing the flow of illegal immigration, listen to award-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s TED talk at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/sonia+navarro+ted/15ada9caf1939193?projector=1

 

Who Will Protect the Children?

protect_child_flag

“You can lock people inside a burning house, you can close the front door, but they will find a way out.”

That’s how Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, explained why women and unaccompanied children are willing to risk their lives to come here. “The U.S. doesn’t want to recognize this as a refugee situation. They want Mexico to be the buffer, to stop arrivals before they get to our border.”

I’ve known for some time. We are paying Mexico, a corrupt government, to stop migrants and refugees from coming here to seek asylum. What I didn’t know was the extent to which corrupt immigration officials and police, gang members, kidnappers, and thieves are attacking, maiming, and killing those passing through Mexico. And basically, the U.S. is condoning whatever happens, so long as we don’t have to deal with them at our borders.

Award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario calls it a “ferocious crackdown” instituted by the Obama administration, to keep the migrants away. I read her excellent and extremely disturbing article in the October 10th issue of the New York Times. (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/opinion/sunday/the-refugees-at-our-door.html?ref=opinion&_r=1)

Sadly, the story Ms. Nazario tells of July Elizabeth Pérez is not new to me. July fled Honduras after her 14-year-old son was killed by gang members. Then they threatened her own life and that of her other children. Migrants at our center in El Paso had family members killed or threatened.

Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Guatemala and El Salvador have rampant violence. Yet some in our country claim these people are fleeing to the U.S. for free health care. Or to take advantage of our system. Some say we have enough to deal with and should close off our borders. Isolate ourselves by building a wall. Never mind that many children who are fleeing are refugees with legitimate cases for asylum.
protecting_children

But then there are people who take great risks to help. Some put their lives on the line.

Ms. Nazario mentions Fr. Alejandro Solalinde in her article. He’s the Mexican priest I highlighted in a previous post for winning the Voice of the Voiceless award. He courageously opened and runs a migrant shelter in a dangerous section of Mexico. He publicly denounces the abuses. He has to have bodyguards to protect him. Speaking out could cost him his life.

But he won’t be silent. And he won’t stop helping these desperate, frightened people.

He’s not alone in his heroic compassion for humanity.

I think of the School Sisters of St. Francis who live in Juarez, Mexico. The Sisters I stayed with for a few days on a previous stint volunteering at the border. Sr. Arlene works at a human rights center helping the families of those who have been tortured or “disappeared.”

Here’s what she said when I asked why she takes this risk:

“When I walk with others in compassion, I have been led to places not of my choosing. I have learned that compassion does not allow me to be at peace with what is comfortable.”

What’s happening in Syria and Iraq is horrendous and heartbreaking. And we have a similar situation right here. At our doorstep.

Like Sr. Arlene, I can’t live with what’s comfortable anymore. I can’t live in ignorance, fear, and isolation. I choose to risk opening my heart and doing something beyond listening to the politicians.

What about you? Will you join me in choosing to live more consciously? To be aware of what’s happening outside our own backyard? Beyond our borders? Can’t we, together, do something more to support children whose government will not protect them?

We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.Pope Francis speaking on migrants and refugees here in North America and around the world in his September 24th congressional address

protecting_a_child_for-cr-cpp1-14-638

A Father’s Day Journey

parent-baby-hands

I’ll be missing something important this Father’s Day.

No, I don’t mean my husband. Although I will think of David, as I do every Father’s Day, I no longer have that gaping hole in my heart. The kind of bottomless pain I couldn’t quell on holidays, birthdays, and special events during the first couple of years after his death.

I’ve moved forward with my life now, discerning a different purpose.

These days it’s other people’s pain I feel more keenly. After having ministered to and witnessed the journeys of people in El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, it’s inevitable my focus would have changed. I’m aware of just how privileged my life is in comparison.

What I’ll be missing this Sunday is the chance to meet someone I admire — Father Alejandro Solaline, the recipient of the 2015 Voice of the Voiceless Award. El Paso’s Annunciation House gives this annual award to those courageous people who speak up and witness for the oppressed and marginalized. And Fr. Solaline — a Mexican priest and human rights activist — is definitely courageous and outspoken.

Padre-Alejandro-Solalinde

As the founder and director of Hermanos en el Camino in Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca, a shelter for Central Americans migrating through Mexico, Fr. Solaline knows that tens of thousands of migrants are kidnapped every year as they travel through Mexico. Many who aren’t kidnapped are raped, tortured, extorted, brutally abused, or murdered.

He knows migrants have no voice. They’ve basically been invisible. And the brutal acts against them, overlooked. Until Fr. Solaline came alone. He opened a shelter to protect them. He spoke out. Accused the corrupt Mexican police and drug cartels. Insisted the Mexican authorities stop these abuses and go after those who prey on the migrants. He soon received death threats. Had to leave the country for a while. But that didn’t stop him. He grew stronger. This small-statured man, now nearly 70 years old, had found his voice.

While in El Paso I was gifted with a special little journal on “vocation” that reminds me of Fr. Solaline’s ministry. It includes Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey and this quote from Frederick Buechner:

“…the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Fr. Solaline was supposed to have been in El Paso on April 18 to receive his award at the Voice of the Voiceless benefit dinner. But he couldn’t get across the border. Mexican authorities conveniently kept him away.

Although selfishly I would have liked for him to be at the ceremony on the 18th, which I actually attended, I think it’s appropriate that he’ll receive this award on Father’s Day. After all, he symbolizes a parent’s love, God’s love, to so many. Without ever having been a biological father himself.

Once you’re able to recognize someone’s humanity, you begin to love that person. And when you witness the grave injustices committed against that person, you can’t be silent.

As Fr. Solaline says, “God speaks, and the voices inside cannot be quieted.”

When he heard that voice many years ago, Fr. Solaline gave up his comfortable, middle-class life and asked to be sent to the poorest part of Oaxaca, where he witnessed the proliferating abuse and violence against the migrants.

Now I too feel uncomfortable living so comfortably, so far removed from what is happening in the world. How can I remain silent, knowing what I know?

onedayyouknew

I have much to say — and, like Fr. Solaline, I hear a voice telling me, this is your journey! Use your voice to speak out against the injustices — “a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do — determined to save the only life you could save.” (from Mary Oliver’s The Journey)

Although I can’t save the lives of the migrants who suffer to make their way here, I can offer what is mine to offer: kindness, compassion, understanding, and a voice! It’s true, the only life I can save is my own, and I will save it by doing what I know I have to do — following my calling, my unique purpose.

As Fr. Solaline journeys to El Paso this Father’s Day weekend I’ll be considering my own journey. My own “new voice.” And the one life I can save.

What about you? Where does your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?
What is the one life you need to save?

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
(Mary Oliver)

The Generosity of Strangers

generosity 2 A house filled with women in their 70’s. That’s where I’m living now. No, it’s not a retirement village or an assisted-living community. Located on the outskirts of downtown El Paso, this boarding house belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, who reopened it recently to welcome volunteers coming to the border to work with the influx of immigrants. It just so happens that all the current residents are in their 70’s. Except me, of course.

I’m also the sole lay person at the moment. And the only one who has ventured here on her own, listening to a call within to write about the issues related to immigration, along with the personal stories. Stories of those who’ve made it across the border and those who serve them. There’s a lot to tell.

Heartbreaking stories for sure. But heartwarming stories, too. Stories about the goodness of people. Something I witness every day in El Paso.

Like these retired Sisters who come from all over the country, leaving their communities, and the comfortable and familiar, to spend two weeks or more volunteering at Nazareth Hall, a welcoming center for the refugees and immigrants detained at the border.

The dedication at Nazareth Hall is amazing. The place is run entirely by volunteers. And has been since June when the Loretto Sisters opened it in response to the influx of women and children from Central America.

Once Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases the immigrants from detention, an agent brings them over to Nazareth Hall. Then volunteers help reunite them with their families as they await their court date. Some might have to stay the night; some maybe two nights or more until their relatives can secure their travel arrangements. As they wait, these immigrant families — mostly young mothers and children — are given meals, a shower, and clothing. And they are treated with kindness and compassion. Maybe for the first time on their journey.

Generous El Pasoans volunteer to make and deliver meals, take home bedding and towels to wash, donate clothing and hygiene necessities, cover a night shift, and provide rides every day to the bus station or airport. But they can’t do it all.radical generosity

That’s why a call went out to women religious nationwide to join this effort.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., these Sisters — some of them well into their late 70’s — are on their feet, other than a short break for lunch. They clean bedrooms and bathrooms, serve meals and clean up, and accompany guests to the showers and to the clothing room where a mom chooses a coat or sweater or second set of clothes from neatly organized piles of donations sorted by size and gender. No one ever takes more than they need. And they are always grateful. For everything.

This week I started volunteering at Nazareth Hall. I want to be with the people. They’ll teach me what it really means to live with uncertainty. To do what needs to be done without complaining. And to trust in the generosity of strangers to show up. Maybe just when you need it most.