Category Archives: Immigration
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.
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.
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…
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?
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.”
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
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
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.
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.
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.
Up until now I’ve had the surety of a place to lay my head. The security of room and board. That all changed when, a little over a month ago, I decided to pursue the possibility of serving a different ministry than the one I started out with here in San Antonio. Still with Incarnate Word Missionaries, but in a different capacity.
Since arriving last July, I have been discerning and questioning, why am I here? I found the ministry in transition, with only one mom and child to serve, and, for various reasons, I clearly felt it wasn’t the best use of my gifts and talents. Most importantly — my heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t experiencing joy in the sacrifices that I’d made to be here. Yet, I knew that joy was possible. I’d felt it in El Paso.
Then I discovered Women’s Global Connection. Also a ministry of Incarnate Word Missionaries, WGC supports projects empowering women in countries like Zambia and Peru. And they had a need for a writer. It seemed like a good alternative.
So, I spoke to the director of the program and the Sisters in my current ministry and we all agreed. I should move on. The Sisters gave me until the end of October to get situated in the new ministry. I thought a month was plenty of time.
Until I realized that housing would be an issue.
It seems the only “official” housing for lay missionaries here is associated with the program I’m leaving. That means other Sisters, another intentional community, or some kind person would have to be willing to take me in. The director of the program searched for housing options for me. I searched too. By the end of the month, nothing had materialized.
But that’s not a bad thing. Because as the deadline drew near, it pushed me to go deeper into my heart. And ask those tough questions. Again. Questions like, what is the best use of my gifts and talents? What do I really want? What is my purpose here?
The response pointed me back to El Paso. Where a piece of my heart remains.
Although I needed to take this risk in coming here, San Antonio is not where I’m meant to land. Another, and greater, risk is being asked of me now. I hear my heart telling me to stop holding back. To acknowledge and trust my gifts. To use them in the service of others. Especially my writing.
And I hear the voice calling me back to serve on the border. And write about the issues that need our attention. Issues that need a compassionate voice. The issues of immigration. And human trafficking. And the lives of those impacted by the decisions we make every day.
It will mean taking an even greater risk, though, because I don’t know how I’ll support myself. I don’t yet know for sure who will take me in. I have the possibility of a place to stay beginning in December. But lots of unanswered questions remain. Can I trust my inner authority? Can I trust the God who brought me here? This Loving Presence that wants me to realize the fullest expression of who I am? I’m on this adventure with God. Heading toward something I can’t reason or explain. And sometimes I do feel scared.
I wonder, isn’t this the definition of faith?
Speaking of faith…
With my other ministry ended, I started serving Women’s Global Connection, which I’ll continue doing through the month of November. The Sisters have graciously allowed me to stay in this apartment a little longer than October 31st, but I need to move by the end of the week. I couldn’t have told you for sure where I was going to be sleeping next week.
Until today. One of the staff at WGC offered me a room in her house for the month. Talk about getting what you need when you need it!
Now I have a safe place to lay my head for another month. It’s something I always used to take for granted.
But on those nights when I started feeling anxious, wondering where I’d wind up, I thought again about the children at the border — those migrating with their moms and those traveling alone. I wonder if they will be so fortunate. How many of them will have a safe place to lay their head tonight?
A week ago Sunday I was having breakfast with my son — our last meal together for a long time. Davis chose to take me to Mother’s Cupboard, a “hole in the wall” diner popular with the locals in Syracuse. This little shack didn’t look like much on the outside, but inside the place was packed with families, loud chatter, ambiance, and memories. The latter seemed odd since I’d never stepped foot in the place before. But its familiarity struck me as soon as we entered.
In the early years of our marriage, David and I would travel regularly to his hometown of Oswego to visit his failing grandmother. Our favorite breakfast eatery was Wade’s Diner, which, other than being larger than Mother’s Cupboard, was exactly like it in every way. Right down to the toasted, freshly made raisin bread I noticed as the waitress whizzed by us, balancing plates laden with cholesterol-producing delights.
Davis and I sat at the counter behind the grill where I got a great view of the action. Two middle-aged men with tattoos running the length of their arms worked in tandem as they shoveled home fried potatoes, flipped pancakes the size of dinner plates, and poured omelets onto the sizzling black surface that stretched out before us. I sat there taking it all in and smiling inside, as if I’d just been given a priceless gift. And I had.
Davis could not have known how this place would affect me. Even now it’s hard to describe. More than a fun similarity, eating this familiar food in this very familiar place, my son beside me, gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance, as if David’s spirit was letting me know that our son was going to be OK here. No need to worry. He’s being watched over. It’s something I’ve experienced before — this spiritual awareness. And it increases my faith just a little bit each time. That faith is what has allowed me to let go of my son, again and again.
I have to say, though, it wasn’t easy leaving him behind that Sunday. Because unlike when I brought Davis up to Syracuse University to begin his freshman year, this time I was leaving him, and our home, and our life as we have known it. Closing up shop, so to speak, and taking off for another adventure of sorts, this time to serve for at least a year, and asking Davis to be okay with that, to take care of himself. See ya, son. I’m heading to Texas.
During the 8-plus-hour drive back to Virginia I struggled with lots of emotions, some guilt, a little regret over not bringing him more supplies for the house he’s sharing, and lots of sadness over the separation. I cried much of the way home. But at some point in the midst of my sobbing, I suddenly considered how my letting go of my son was nothing like the letting go that the mothers of these unaccompanied children traveling from Central America through Mexico have had to endure. As a mother, my heart opened to these women’s pain and worry, and my own sorrow lessened.
I believe that every loving mother understands that no one lets go of her child easily. Even when we know our children are going someplace safe and necessary to start their own life, our hearts ache when the time of separation has come. But what would it take to send your child out the door to travel across several countries, through dangerous situations, not knowing whether they will be abused along the way or even make it alive?
For me, the answer is simple. A mother would have to believe that the risks her child would take on this journey were worth it compared to life at home. And, just as I experienced with Davis, she must have faith that her child would be taken care of. The Hispanic women I’ve met have tremendous faith, and a strong sense of family. They would do anything for their children. Even at the cost of an indefinite, or permanent, separation.
Time and again people I spoke with in El Paso who worked with children in detention centers spoke of the violence and poverty of their young lives. Yet I’ve not seen one political leader meet with and listen to the stories of these children who are streaming over the border now. Journalists use the word “humanitarian crisis,” but our politicians are not treating it as such.
I heard one governor on the news this morning say, “I empathize with the children, but…” Really? Does he even know what the word “empathy” means? The dictionary says it’s “the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings.” How can you share in something you don’t know anything about? Before we can “empathize” with anyone, we have to listen to their story.
I hope I sound as impassioned as I feel about this issue. I have come to see just how privileged my life is. Because I can make choices every day. I can choose where I want to take my son out to eat. I can choose what I want to eat every day. I can also choose to move 1,500 miles because the responsibility of caring for others is greater than my desire for being comfortable.
This week I spoke with Sr. Arlene, one of the sisters I stayed with while in Juarez, Mexico. In her ministry, she risks her life every day. I asked her why she stays in Juarez, amid the violence, the abject poverty, and the desolate landscape. Her response moved me to tears:
“In my experience 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 one to be at peace with the comfortable.”
And those tears, for me, are a clue. A clue that I do, in fact, have a calling to serve those who won’t ever have the choices that I do. Those who will never experience the comfort of places like Mother’s Cupboard. But they can experience the spiritual comfort of a loving God. I can at least bring them that.
I got a shot right between the eyes yesterday morning. Via my iPad. I needed it, for sure. It’s been three months since I’ve returned from El Paso and I’ve fallen into old patterns. Maintaining my house. Doing errands. Worrying about getting everything done before I leave for my year-long assignment in San Antonio. In other words, focusing on me and my needs.
It’s easy to do. Especially when you have responsibilities and a long “to do list” lurking in the back of your mind as well as on your computer screen. In my case, that list includes packing up and preparing my home to rent while I’m away. Since I live in a log home in the woods surrounded by quiet and natural beauty, it’s a perfect fit for a vacation home. But to put my house in the pool of rental homes with the company I’ve chosen, I had to give it a cute name. “Magical Tree House” seemed appropriate.
I planted my “magical tree house” on a hillside, overlooking the mountains (in fall and winter months) and surrounded by trees that arch over my private road. Although they provide luscious shade in the summer heat, the trees also block much of the sky. Every morning I walk down the end of my road to take in the expanse of rolling meadows and mountains that compose our rural county’s landscape. In El Paso, I simply stepped outside the door where I was staying in the valley area to view a vast blue sky spread out before me. Every morning. Blue sky, sunshine, a seemingly endless horizon that stretches into Mexico and the desert beyond. To say that I’d been feeling the view from my tree house is limited would be an understatement—literally and otherwise.
And that leads back to the wake-up call from my iPad.
In my little tree haven, I’d been feeling distant from life at the border. Not just physically. I mean it’s easy to click on those daily emails I get from various interfaith groups and other organizations about immigration issues, quickly breeze through them and hit delete. In the midst of what I’m handling I can’t possibly be expected to respond. Right?
But the issue keeps tugging at my heart. And I can’t ignore the fact that the news media is now heavily reporting on the massive numbers of unaccompanied migrant children traveling across the U.S./Mexico border — a topic I actually wrote about on my blog back in February when I first became aware that upwards of 60,000 children were expected this year. In fact, I wrote about this topic for Las Americas’ May newsletter, the nonprofit that I’ve continued to write for since returning to Virginia. While living on the border and talking with the religious sisters and the social workers who work with these children, I got a different perspective from that presented by political pundits as to why these children are coming. And, as a mother myself seeing the little ones in the detention centers, I could only think of my own son and how desperate our situation would have to be for me to let him travel alone through such dangerous territory. No mother could make such a decision easily. If at all.
So, wanting to get the perspective from someone on the border whom I trust, I opened my iPad and clicked on the Annunciation House website (www.annunciationhouse.org ) to see if Ruben Garcia, director of this hospitality house in downtown El Paso that’s been taking in refugees and immigrants for 36 years, had anything to say about this phenomenon.
I found a YouTube clip on the home page — one I’d not seen before. The clip, called “A Place at the Table,” was made in 2007, yet it addresses the same issues concerning immigration that we’re failing to address today. You can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJ1W8EViVD4&sns=em
The video starts with the sound of a train — a sound oh so familiar to me during those many nights in the house on Gallagher Street when I awoke to freight trains rushing across intersections, their horns blowing through the darkness of my bedroom. My reaction is immediate. I start to cry. Who can say why my heart feels this connection? But it’s there. As clear as the passion evident in Ruben’s voice as he shares the true meaning of Jesus’ gospel message. He reminds me why I’m doing this. He helps clear my vision again. To a certain extent.
Because even though I feel this calling, this longing to follow my heart, I can’t yet see too far ahead. Nor can I see what God is doing in me. It’s true, I am relinquishing my house, yet that doesn’t feel too difficult. Relinquishing my dog — now that’s hard. Even though Cody’s going into the home of good friends who love him and will give him more attention and better care than I ever could, still, when I put my arms around his neck I feel the sadness of how little time I have with him. At 13, Cody’s an old dog. Anything can happen.
And then there’s my only son. I’ll be living further away from him than I ever have. Not that he needs me to be that close. He knows I’ll always be available to him. But still. It’s a strange feeling. Leaving behind the life I’ve known. For who knows what? I’m not completely sure. Nor do I know where it will lead. It’s definitely one of those “jumping-off places.”
Yet I’m not alone in this. Just a little over a week ago I participated in a special farewell ceremony for a like-minded friend about to embark on a six-week discernment retreat. She’d left her job months ago, certain that was no longer where she belonged, but unsure of the way forward. On that Friday evening five females gathered with her for a “liturgy for leaping” ceremony, as she called it, before she went off to listen to where Spirit was calling her next. Each of the women there, myself included, had experienced her own leaping-off point into the unknown. Together we acknowledged the courage, the fear, and the sacredness of “the leaps of faith we take in our lives,” and yet how necessary these leaps are for each of us to be who we truly are.
For me, this excerpt from “Praise What Comes,” a poem by Jeanne Lohmann, particularly expresses why we leap:
At the end there may be no answers
and only a few very simple questions: did I love,
finish my task in the world? Learn at least one
of the many names of God?
At the intersections,
the boundaries where one life began and another
ended, the jumping-off places between fear and
possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,
did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?
I hope my vision continues to expand. Beyond any anxious thoughts of what I’m letting go of and what I might find. Beyond the comfort of my tree house. Into glimpses of the holy in everyone and everything that leaps onto my path.
Two weeks back from my sojourn to El Paso and I’m missing, of all things, the bus rides.
Whenever the sisters couldn’t get me to where I needed to go, I hopped on a city bus. During these hour-long-plus bus rides (involving some transfer along the way), I encountered many people. Usually I was the only white-faced rider. The sole gringo. I didn’t mind that at all. In fact, I felt surprisingly alive amidst the mostly Hispanic passengers.
The bus teemed with the juiciness of life. Young moms grasping the hands of wobbly toddlers, community college students plugged into their iPads and Smart phones, old women toting canes and shopping bags, tired men wearing dark green work clothes or the occasional business suit. I often caught my Hispanic travelers—from young men, to middle-aged women, to the elderly—in what was for me a particularly enamoring practice: just as the bus would take off, they’d make the sign of the cross and then kiss their thumb and forefinger as a prayer for safety and a sign of reverence for their God.
At times people would lug their groceries onboard. I watched one woman and her young daughter unload a Wal-Mart shopping cart heaped with groceries onto the bus platform in anticipation of their bus’ arrival. It took them several trips to pile everything onto the cement. I wondered how the bus driver would react when he saw their load, but I witnessed no impatience on his part as they stepped on and off the bus methodically carrying the groceries and stacking them as securely as possible. I imagined this was a regular practice for them.
There were funny moments too. Like when the bus lurched suddenly, causing a couple of beer cans to fall out of a plastic grocery bag and roll down the aisle, their owner laughing as she chased after them, joking in Spanish. Or when a young woman wearing a short, black leather jacket, black eyeliner, and black fishnet stockings that revealed flesh all the way up to the hemline of her cropped black mini skirt got on board, strutting slowly down the aisle. The middle-aged man sitting in a front seat lowered his dark shades as she passed. Shortly thereafter he headed to the back of the bus.
When not paying attention to the passengers around me, I became engrossed in reading The Great Work of Your Life, the book recommended to me during my first full week in El Paso. It became, and has been, a messenger and guide for my current stage in life, as it deals with discovering your dharma, or sacred purpose, and how to live it “full out.”
Rereading excerpts from this book, now that I’m back in Virginia, helps me remember. You see, part of me is afraid I’ll forget. Forget what I learned. Forget the richness of life I experienced. That I’ll somehow “miss the bus” and remain in my quiet, peaceful, and safe surroundings. But I know that’s not really possible. Not now. Too much has changed. I’ve changed.
I can’t ignore the images of the people I met. Or the messages about deportations and the stalling of immigration reform in Congress that keep popping into my email box. I choose not to ignore them. Next week is the National Week of Action for Administrative Relief from Deportations. According to the Immigration Interfaith Coalition, 1,100 people are being deported every day and predictions are that by the end of April, 2 million people will have been deported under the Obama Administration. For me, now, this has a very personal side. I know about the stories of families being separated. Some of those being deported are parents of children who are U.S. citizens. The children remain behind and are either put in foster care or in the care of relatives. Or if they go with their parents, they are thrust into a country, culture, and language that is foreign to them, and that poses many threats.
I remember when I was teaching English to Hispanic adults and we got onto the subject of immigration reform. One of my students asked me what I thought about it. Every student’s eyes were on me, waiting, wondering what this white woman would say. My answer might have surprised them. They were accustomed to hearing, or expecting, something different from white America. My student then shared that her neighbors of more than 20 years had recently been deported. Taken away one day, just like that. They had been good people, she said, the sadness in her voice and eyes so palpable.
Since returning home, I’ve been discerning where to go from here. Attempting to listen further to my heart. And considering the risks I will take. In The Great Work of Your Life, author Stephen Cope describes what listening for divine guidance, or what some of us call “the will of God,” involves. Among other things, it involves asking for guidance, actively listening, allowing yourself to be surprised, testing the guidance, praying for the courage to take action, and then letting go of the attempt to eliminate risk.
Cope says, “The presence of risk is only an indication that you’re at an important crossroads. Risk cannot be eliminated, and the attempt to eliminate it will only lead you back to paralysis. In important dharma decisions, we never get to 100 percent certitude.”
That’s funny. Those words about the lack of certitude in following one’s calling are the same words I heard from Ruben Garcia—the director of the refugee and immigration house of hospitality called Annunciation House. And from Fr. Bob—a Columban father and missionary now serving in downtown El Paso. And from Alma. Alma, the wonderful massage therapist I visited via yet another bus ride. While kneading my sore muscles, she asked about my journey and discovered how and why I had come to El Paso. Then she shared a special story. Her indigenous people from Mexico had a ceremony for women when they turned 52, an age that is seen as a significant period in their lives, a time when women “cross over” into becoming elders in the tribe, and their focus now changes to one of serving the community. As she spoke of this ceremony and the letting go of old roles and patterns, symbolized by the woman breaking her old dishes, one at a time, as she releases her old life, I wondered, where could I sign up? And why don’t we have these kinds of threshold ceremonies in our culture as we pass from one significant stage into another?
Before I left El Paso, one of my English students gave me a gift: a dragonfly pin. At the time I had no idea that the dragonfly symbolizes transformation and a “change in the perspective of self-realization.” According to information I found on the web, the symbolism of the dragonfly includes “maturity and a depth of character. …the kind of change that has its source in mental and emotional maturity and the understanding of the deeper meaning of life.” (http://www.dragonfly-site.com/meaning-symbolize.html
Hmm. Am I coming to understand the deeper meaning of life? Is my perspective changing? Am I being transformed?
I believe so. I think I’m ready to take the risk involved in serving something greater than myself. I’m on for the ride. Without knowing where it will end.
Stories of the children. That’s what gets to me the most.
I can give you all the facts and figures about unaccompanied children, known as UACs (yes, there’s an acronym even for this). I can tell you that in 2012 alone, more than 24,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S./Mexico border were detained. Some estimates are that this year the Department of Homeland Security expects to pick up 55,000 to 60,000 children. While the number of undocumented adults coming is decreasing, children are crossing in record numbers. And they range from less than 1 year to 17 years old.
I can give you the reasons why the children come. To be reunited with their parents already here. To find work to support the families they left behind. To avoid a life of poverty and unfulfilled dreams. To escape the violence, abuse, crime, and forcible gang recruitment rampant in their countries. The majority come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where teens are often threatened if they do not join a local gang. Some journey without assistance, but for others, their parents will pay coyotes, or smugglers, anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 to guide them across the border. Parents weigh taking this risk alongside keeping their child in a dangerous and hopeless situation.
But beyond the factual information lie the personal, heartbreaking stories of one child after another. I have heard many of these stories while in El Paso. Stories from health care and case workers who work with immigrant children at the detention centers. Part of their job is to speak with the children, obtain information about their circumstances, let them know their rights, and help them understand what is happening to them.
One of the psychologists who works with the children (and asked not to be identified because of the nature of her work) told me sometimes she meets with as many as 50 to 60 children in one day.
“It is a privilege for me to be there,” she says. “I have seen the face of God in them, with them, and through them.”
She walks with these children for a little while. She listens to their stories. They tell her what they have endured. Experiences that no child should have to endure.
“It’s heavy sometimes, but it’s beautiful,” the psychologist says.
The word “heavy” seems understated for what I’ve heard: a 14-year-old boy tortured in Mexico while making his way here. A 13-year-old girl kidnapped and trafficked for sex. An 11-year-old girl sexually abused by an uncle, fleeing her home, hoping to be reunited with her mother, only to face more sexual abuse along the way. Drug cartel members kidnapping children to “fill an order” for U.S. buyers. And a six-year-old boy seeking work for his family.
Despite how crazy this sounds, in Latin American cultures, when a child comes from a poor family, it’s not unusual to be sent out into the streets to bring in income. Many children have been working since they were six.
I have visited two of types of places where children are detained: Southwest Key—a model accredited program for youth; and Lutheran Services Center—a transitional foster care center for children 12 and under. Both are well-run facilities where the children receive educational instruction, including English classes. At Lutheran Services, the children are sent home with a foster family in the evenings and on weekends. Southwest Key is a live-in facility with locked doors and a security system. The children are detained, on average, for one to two months while a case worker processes their case. Then they are released to a parent or relative until their court date, which will determine whether or not they will be deported.
El Paso can hold 250 children in these centers. Some children apprehended elsewhere in the states are flown here at the expense of the U.S. government. These types of shelters, as well as the training given to the foster families, are funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“When I first heard that children were in detention in the United States, it shocked me,” says the psychologist. “There’s a saying in Spanish, ‘The cage may be made of gold, but it is still a cage.’”
Despite her concern for the children, she has a certain peace and faith about what she does.
“I know that my mission is to be present and to listen to their stories,” she says.
Her words strike me. I’ve heard them before. As I questioned my own ministry here in El Paso, these same words had come to me: my purpose is simply to be present to what’s happening. Offer what I can. And be present. Not easy. Especially when being present means feeling the pain.
The other day Sr. Fran told me about a 13-year-old boy she’d met who had left his Central American homeland to find work in the United States to support his family. His father was blind and he had eight siblings. Since he was the oldest, he took it upon himself to be responsible for his family . He made it across, starving and dehydrated, and immediately attempted to find odd jobs doing yard work. Very late on the night of the end of the second day, fearing he would die, he knocked on a woman’s door and begged her to call immigration to pick him up.
I do not know this boy’s fate. Nor do I know the fate of so many other youngsters who unbelievably made it across only to face the threat of being returned to these same situations. I fear some of these children will go from one hell to another.