“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.
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.
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
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.
“Being in detention” has a whole new meaning for me.
Since coming to El Paso, I’ve become accustomed to associating the word “detention” with undocumented immigrants. I’ve seen that the reality of what it means to “be detained” is harsh and costly. For all of us.
Recently I visited the detention facility for adult immigrants in El Paso. I had been told that detention is not a prison, but that’s not how I felt as I walked that compound. I’ll describe it to you, and you can form your own opinion.
But first, a bit of background information.
Currently, the United States has approximately 250 detention facilities for undocumented immigrants. There are separate detention centers for undocumented youth and for young children, which I have visited as well. But that’s a whole other story, complete with its own difficult statistics and heartbreaking realities.
Many of these facilities are run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but a growing number of detention facilities are now privately-run, profit-making businesses that seek to keep their beds filled. The particularly disturbing side of that fact is, unlike the federally-run facilities, these businesses have little oversight.
The cost to taxpayers to detain undocumented immigrants is about $120 per person per day and, thanks to a “bed mandate” Congress passed in 2009, our country detains at least 34,000 immigrants per day. In other words, there’s a quota—a minimum amount of beds that must be filled. At a cost of more than $2 billion a year. And that’s just for the detention centers. In fiscal year 2012 alone, the U.S. Government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement. That amount continues to rise.
Now for my visit.
Sr. Rita, the assistant chaplain at the adult detention facility here in El Paso has invited me to join her and Sr. Kathy as they offer their weekly session of Capacitar to the women inmates. Capacitar teaches practices that integrate body, mind, and spirit to help heal trauma, stress, anxiety, and other issues. Both of the sisters have been trained in Capacitar and offer it at the center to bring healing to the women. They never know which women, or how many, will show up for the sessions. But they trust that whoever comes will receive what she needs.
To enter the facility, Sr. Kathy and I first drive into a secure complex housing administrative offices of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol. The complex is surrounded by a chain link fence. Guard at the gate. IDs needed. The usual security procedures. But then we drive deeper into the complex toward a section that clearly intends to keep whatever is inside from getting out. Coiled barbed wire runs atop the high chain link fencing surrounding the area. Multiple layers of secured entryways exist between me and the other side.
We park at the main building and Sr. Kathy reminds me to leave everything in the car: my purse, notebook, water bottle. The only thing I am allowed to take inside—my driver’s license to hand over to the guard for identification. Once inside we sign in and wait for Sr. Rita, who will escort us to the barred entrance and through the layers of security.
When Sr. Rita arrives, I clip on my plastic visitor badge and follow her out to the main gate. The guard pushes a button and a long section of the fence rattles open, allowing us in. We step forward, and I hear the click of the lock as the fence rolls back in place behind us. Then we move through a narrow fenced-in passageway to another locked entrance. A female voice behind a dark-paned glass booth asks for my name and visitor badge number. The unseen woman pushes another button and the barred gate buzzes open, ushering us onto the grounds of the detention center.
Bright sunlight pounds the stark concrete. I am surrounded by cement and white buildings of various shapes and sizes. On the pavement, painted white lines run parallel from one building to another, a narrow space between them. Sr. Rita explains that the residents must stay within the lines whenever they are outside. They cannot walk outside the lines. Guards are posted to ensure the rules are followed.
The residents wear colored uniforms—cotton slacks and V-necked short-sleeved tops—based on their behavior or criminal record. Violent or dangerous criminals are assigned red. Those who’ve committed minor crimes or misdemeanors wear orange. Those whose only offense is to have crossed the border wear dark blue. Most people wear dark blue. The blues never mingle with the reds, Sr. Rita explains. And the men are always separated from the women. Even when they walk outside, one group must wait until the other passes before moving on. The men are not allowed to pass by the women. I ask why and Sr. Rita says it’s not a good idea. Some women fear the men. Being that close can cause a traumatic reaction based on the women’s past experiences. I don’t have to ask why.
The room where we will offer Capacitar has four concrete walls, one side plastered with a beautiful mural of a flowered hillside overlooking the ocean. I glance at this scene every once in awhile to change the mood I’m viewing outside the window as I wait for the women to arrive. Finally the women emerge in their dark blue pants and tops, making their way in single file, as a guard leads them along the white-lined narrow pathway to our building.
The women hesitate as they enter, waiting for direction. We hand out magic markers and we all write our first names on white adhesive tags and stick them onto our shirts. Glad to use the little Spanish I know, I introduce myself to each of the women and say their names aloud. This feels sacred to me, the speaking of each woman’s name, acknowledging the individual underneath the blue uniform. We take our seats and I look around at these women—some young, some middle aged—and wonder what they have endured to get here. Two of the women can’t be more than early 20’s, their faces full of that youthful exuberance, which shines even here in this place of concrete and barbed wire. I think of the statistics I’ve learned about the high percentage of women who are raped along the way. And I wonder.
With music playing from an iPod, we teach the women Tai Chi and acupressure points to relieve stress and anxiety. We move together in a circle, our bodies free and flowing. The two young women smile at each other and giggle. I notice a visible change in the energy in the room. For nearly two hours, we instruct them in self-care before they will return to their barracks with whatever memories they carry within their minds, bodies, and hearts.
After the session is over, I use the little Spanish I can muster to speak to one of the young women. As soon as I say I’m from Virginia, a huge smile spreads across her face. “My mother and brother are in Alexandria,” she says in broken English. I tell her I lived in Alexandria for many years. Suddenly, like a child delighted with herself, she speaks another English word. “Boyfriend.” Her boyfriend, too, is in Alexandria. I ask her in Spanish how long she’s been in this center. Three months, she answers. On March 10 she will be sent back to El Salvador. I cannot imagine she will stay there very long.
As I say goodbye to each of the women, I pray silently for their journeys. I will not see them again. I want to offer them something.
Before we leave, Sr. Rita shows us around the rest of the “campus.” She tells me that this is one of the better run detention facilities. She points out the large, long barracks with their tall multi-paned windows that let in light. Inside, guards are on duty 24/7. We are not allowed to enter. We tour the medical building with its isolation room for those who come with suspected contagious diseases, the library where the detainees come to research information for their cases (even though many of them cannot read or write), and the building where new detainees are processed. On the way out of this building, I notice a flyer that reads: “Feeling sad, lonely, depressed, anxious? Don’t give up. There is help.” I can’t catch the rest of the words before we have to move on. But I wonder what feelings I would have locked up in such a place, a long way from home and family, my future in someone else’s hands. And I wonder why the flyer is in English.
As we leave the building, a van pulls up. They’re bringing in new captives—people who have just been caught at the border. The back doors open and a guard steps out leading a man bound with chains around his ankles.
“I’ll never get used to that,” Sr. Rita tells me as I watch the guard unchain him.
As we return to the main desk to pick up my driver’s license and sign out, I think about how fortunate I am to be “legal,” to have all the necessary identification needed to live in this country without fear of being removed from my home or family. Why am I so fortunate to have been born here and not in some poverty-stricken country? I feel the weight of this responsibility. Because it is a tremendous responsibility—to have been given so much when so many are in need. And in such need that they will risk anything to leave their situation behind. Familiar words of Jesus pop into my head: “To the one who has been given, much will be expected.”
Late afternoon on Friday, I’m spending my last day in February in one of the poorest sections of Juarez, Mexico. I have come to stay with three Franciscan sisters who live and work here so that I could learn more about them, their ministry, and why they would choose to live in such a place. They invited me, so I said yes, answering the call of both my inquisitive writer and compassionate heart. I know that this section of Mexico is not the safest –(I can hear the snorting and huge exhalation of carbon dioxide from some people reading this)–but many people live their lives in this kind of environment, the sisters among them.
Sisters Josefina and Carol have lived here five years, arriving in 2009, at the height of the drug cartel violence. Thousands of innocent people were being killed, victims of random shootings or mistaken identity (although this still happens but not to the degree it once did). While many people fled Mexico at that time, transporting their belongings across the bridge into El Paso, the sisters headed in the opposite direction carting furniture and other possessions to their new home. People were shocked. Why were the sisters moving into such a dangerous place? To understand, you’d have to know who these women are.
They took up residence in a parish house in the second poorest colonia in all of Juarez. The neighborhood’s dirt roads are rocky and full of potholes. Many homes are crumbling stone facades. Graffiti plasters walls and storefronts and even the church building next door to where the sisters live. Signs of the gangs who live here.
I asked Sr. Carol if she had any fears about coming here. She did. But she knew this was where she was called to be. The sisters have established a presence here. They walk the dusty streets visiting homes, bringing Eucharist, support, and God’s love. Through generous donations of people back in the United States, the sisters distribute food to 60 of the neediest of the needy families every month: portions of beans, rice, sugar, and oil. They march in demonstrations for justice and peace, in solidarity with the families who have lost their sons and daughters to the violence of the drug cartels.
Sr. Arlene, the third sister who lives here, works at the human rights center associated with the parish. Initially started as social outreach 12 years ago, as the violence escalated, along with the torture, it was clear the center needed to focus on human rights abuses. Since the police are the ones doing the torturing, acquiring forced confessions on fabricated charges, working theses cases can be tricky, to say the least. In 2011 the federal police raided the center, busting doors and removing files. They claimed they were chasing drug dealers.
When I first arrived here last night, Sr. Carol handed me a scrapbook she’d put together of photos and newspaper articles of their years here. The first page I turned to displayed a newspaper photo of a young man lying on the street, his face and chest splattered with blood — the sisters’ introduction to Juarez. I read the numbers of those who have been executed, the thousands of “forced disappearances.” So many innocent people tortured, killed, gone. From university students at a party at the wrong place and the wrong time, to mothers shot down in front of government buildings while protesting the wrongful and violent deaths of their sons. In 2012, 60,000 deaths were attributed to drug-related violence in Mexico.
It’s hard to fathom the intense grief of this country of mourning parents. As I read these cases, I feel my own mother’s heart. And yet I don’t let myself feel it too much. At least not in this moment here in the sisters’ house, sitting in their bright pink kitchen. But their statue of St. Francis greeting me at the doorway tells me that I will allow myself to feel this. He reminds me that only in taking the risk of opening my heart to feel will I truly connect with life. And with the God within.