Merton on Men, Animals, and God’s Will

Merton-quotes-about-love

I struggle with how to respond to words and actions that strike at the heart.

“They’re animals.”

“They’re criminals. They don’t deserve consideration and compassion.”

“We have lost our soul.” These last words from Ruben Garcia at the recent Voice of the Voiceless fundraising dinner for Annunciation House, with the theme “If the World Knew,” especially struck my heart. “Our country has lost its soul,” he told us.

Is it true?

I don’t know how to respond.

I wonder how do I convey, through my words, the haunting wails of a child separated from his mother? Or the pain expressed by a woman whose husband – her sole supporter – is forcibly taken from her without her being able to say goodbye? What words exemplify the distress I have been feeling that these “deeds” are done in our name?

What could I possibly write? And how is God asking me to respond?

Part of my assignment with the Living School of Contemplation and Action is to read mystics like Thomas Merton. This morning, I spontaneously opened his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, and discovered the words I was searching for.

Close up of dirt with small sprouting green buds

So I will let him write this post for me.

Just as a forewarning, having written this in 1961, Merton uses a lot of male pronouns and nouns. I have occasionally added “woman” to this excerpt, and I have italicized and boldened some text that especially speaks to me, but his message shines through nonetheless.

“If you want to know what is meant by ‘God’s will’ in man’s life, this is one way to get a good idea of it. ‘God’s will’ is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. You can call this, if you like, the basic tenet of the Natural Law, which is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to one another what we would not want another to do to us. In other words, the natural law is simply that we should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves. The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other [men and women] as if they were [men/women]. Not to act as if I alone were a man, and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.

“Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other [man/woman] effectively as a human being, ‘is willed for me by God under the natural law.’ Whether or not I find the formula satisfactory, it is obvious that I cannot live a truly human life if I consistently disobey this fundamental principle.

“But I cannot treat other men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.

“…Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting [men/women] to one another in His own Life and unity. ‘I in them, and Thou, Father in Me, that they may be made perfect in One…And the glory which Thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be One as we also are One.’” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76-77)

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A Good Place to Land

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Aerial view of Las Cruces, New Mexico

Today is the 9th anniversary of David’s passing, and I’m marveling at where I’ve landed. Only last week, I moved again.

No, I didn’t stray very far from El Paso. Just over the border in New Mexico. But it’s a good move. I’ve bought my own place in a great community, and it means I’m putting down roots. Settling in. Ready to really sink my teeth into my life here.

Back in 2009 I could not have envisioned this life. A life without him. A life far from dear friends and a community that fully supported and surrounded me and Davis through our grief.

A life outside my beautiful Virginia.

Now I can’t imagine going back. Not being able to accompany and support the asylum seekers who arrive at our door. I can’t imagine not being able to witness firsthand and speak up about the realities of the Borderlands – the name for our area, from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM.

Las Cruces Organ view
A view from my morning walk

Because the reality is so much different from what you hear in the news or from the mouths of political pundits on TV. Or on Twitter.

I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve met. About perseverance and faith against all odds. About the challenges of living with tremendous uncertainty. The kind that’s life-threatening and beyond heartbreaking.

And, most especially, about the nature of our true home. The home within.

Still it feels good to have landed in my new physical home. A place with a different kind of beauty, where I still have my circle of friends and a community committed to social justice and caring for “the other.”

 

Las Cruces fields
Outside my new neighborhood

 

A safe place.

Yes, El Paso and the Borderlands are safe. In fact, El Paso continues to be counted as one of the safest U.S. cities for its size. I have always felt safe here. I teach English to adults at a church that’s within walking distance of the border. The little hospitality house where I volunteer is downtown, also close to the border. Mexican shoppers cross over daily and support our economy.

This is why what we hear in the media about the border is so disturbing. Like the idea of the president sending the National Guard. It’s ridiculous to us. We believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money and our resources. The truth is, apprehensions at the border have decreased significantly. The numbers are way down.

We also know the truth about the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico and how that story, in the hands of this president, exploded into some far-fetched, fear-based fantasy. Not to mention that many of these asylum seekers are from Honduras, a country whose recent election was considered a fraud, except by our president. He supported the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández – an authoritarian leader in one of the most violent nations in the world. We continue to send military aid to Honduras while their military police abuse and kill grassroots activists and the poor and marginalized. With rampant crime and human rights abuses, it’s no wonder Hondurans are fleeing.

Honduran election protests

One young woman whom ICE delivered to us shared how the people are desperately poor. Desperate people do desperate things. She and her roommate were both raped in their apartment, and everything they had was stolen. They had nothing left. They were not safe. And they had no recourse. The police could not or would not help them. She fled, not knowing this rape would result in a pregnancy until months later.

Yet she shows no resentment. She even smiles when she speaks about this baby. She seems to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. I wonder if I could land with such grace.

But then again, after David died, I didn’t think I’d ever land someplace gracefully and securely again. At least not without that bottomless well of pain accompanying me.

I’ve discovered that’s not true.

And moving to Las Cruces, with its tree-lined streets, and a little cooler temperatures and a lot more greenery – all within a short drive to El Paso and still within my border community – well, it’s like landing in the best of both worlds.

With so many blessings, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world around me and not give back. I know David would approve.

Me&David

A Special Thank You on International Women’s Day

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Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. The perfect day to say thank you to all of you out there who supported Blanca, the woman I wrote about in my last post. She is one remarkably strong woman.

And soon she will be reunited with her family! I’m thrilled!

You should be, too. Through your prayers and donations, we surpassed our goal of $8,000! In future blog posts, I hope to share more about Blanca’s progress.

But in the meantime, make sure you join the rest of the world in celebrating the special women in your life. Those strong, courageous and nurturing women who’ve mentored you. Guided you. Loved you. Taught you. Helped you to be the compassionate, caring, and wise being you are.

If you missed the opportunity today, you’ve got the rest of the month since March has been designated Women’s History Month. Another fact I didn’t know until recently.

When I was studying Spanish in Bolivia a couple of years ago, International Women’s Day was a big deal. Wives, moms, grandmothers, girlfriends, sisters. Women in all kinds of roles all over the city of Cochabamba were receiving gifts, YouTube videos, cards of praise and poetry. Messages came through billboards, radio and TV, advertisements, phone texts. It was an even bigger deal than Mother’s Day.

Yet it was news to me. I not only didn’t know that there was such a thing as International Women’s Day, but that people in other countries honored it so seriously.

What happened to us, I wondered?

But this month I feel like we celebrated in grand style by helping to free Blanca.

A widow in pain. A mother who would do anything for her family. A woman who has the kind of courage that needs to be honored today.

This day we gave at least one woman hope. And realized what is possible.

In honor of International Women’s Day, I’m posting a few good quotes from women. These quotes speak to my path. The path I’ve chosen.

And I’d say you’ve probably chosen this path, too.

Thank you.

“If you don’t get out of the box you’ve been raised in, you won’t understand how much bigger the world is.” – Angelina Jolie

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.”– Helen Keller

“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” – Malala Yousafzai

malala-yousafzai

Waiting in Darkness

Light-Shines

As the darkest day of the year approaches, I’m finding hope in the darkness.

My own darkness, that is.

I’ve been silent because it’s been hard to put words on a page. Hard to express what I’ve been experiencing.

A couple of months ago I entered a darkness, a place where I felt hopelessly negative and stuck. And it was painful.

Despite the pain, I recognized it as an invitation from Spirit. Draw near. Delve deeper. There’s more to discover. More that hinders you from fully realizing all that you are in Me.

So, I reached out for help.

I’ve no idea where this will take me, but I’m willing to go deeper. I’m willing because I believe my faithfulness in saying yes to this invitation will allow the manifestation of what longs to be born in me.

“The birth of the Word in the soul,” as my Living School teacher Jim Finley puts it. Through our fidelity to these yeses, to what shows up unexpectedly in our lives, Christ is incarnate in the world, he says.

But, for now, I sit in the Advent season of expectant darkness.

Rumi darkness candle
I sit in the silence and wait. I wait because there is nowhere else to go. I wait with hopefulness, with the courage and trust it takes to say yes. To accept what is before me. And I wait with an awareness that infinite Love is loving me in this place. And a recognition that this, too, is part of my spiritual journey.

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. Each of us has our own moments of waiting in darkness. Sometimes it’s dealing with a chronic illness. Emotional pain. An unexpected medical diagnosis. The death of a loved one. Separation from one’s children.

Here at the border we’ve been getting more asylum seekers lately. We’re especially seeing an increase in refugees from African countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, and Cameroon, where violence has caused many to flee. I’ve begun visiting a few of these young men detained in the El Paso detention facility while they await their court date. They are not much older than my own son. Every one of them has had life-threatening experiences to get here. And every one of them has been separated from their families. If they are sent back, they will be killed.

I wonder how they remain hopeful. How they say yes to the darkness.

One young man I visit tells me his mother knows nothing about where he is. She doesn’t know if he’s safe, or even alive. I think of what that must be like for her – waiting for news. Wondering and worrying. Is she able to say yes to this darkness? To accept this part of her journey? welcoming door

 

I think of Finley’s words: “… your ongoing yes is the incarnation.”

And then I recall a very young woman so many years ago. Her willingness to say yes with courage and trust to what presented itself in the silent darkness led to the incarnation. The birth of Christ in the world.

In the silent darkness of the night, no matter how dark, no matter how uncertain, God speaks the Word in the soul.

Like Mary, fidelity to that yes is my journey, too. It is changing my life.

Life’s water flows from darkness.
Search the darkness, don’t run from it.
Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.
-Rumi

 

 

 

 

The Miraculous Mole Maker

MexicoMainlandOaxacaFoodMoles

It’s Friday night. And I’m indulging in chicken smothered in a spicy chocolate sauce while a Fandango dancer clicks her heels on a small wooden block in the middle of the room.

I can’t say I’m a big fan of mole. It’s not something I would order in a Mexican restaurant. Not something that leaves me with a healthy feeling in my stomach.

And the Fandango dancing is basically one enthusiastic woman and two instrumentalists.

But I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

I’m surrounded by good friends, lots of like-minded folks who want to support a good cause, and an awareness of what is possible when one person takes positive action.

Tonight, that would be my friend Cristina.

She totally planned and organized this evening’s fundraiser to rebuild a migrant center in Oaxaca. A safe haven for refugees passing through Mexico that was severely damaged by the recent earthquake. She’s volunteered there, as have others here tonight, and she wanted to help. She’s made all the food for the evening, from the Mexican hot chocolate, to the cheese and bean quesadillas, to her famous mole. She even found the Fandango dancers.

Earlier in the day, Cristina, who lives in Juarez, crossed the bridge to begin preparing. Arms loaded with Mexican chocolate, fresh Oaxaca cheese, freshly made tortillas, and gallons of milk, she wanted this to be an authentic Oaxacan meal.

Yet she had no idea how many people would show up. How many plates to prepare.

There she stands in the kitchen all night long – her smile bright, her energy unlimited, as she loads up plate after plate.

No sign of slowing down from the cancer that has invaded her body. She says nothing about it, speaks only of God’s goodness. Her face shines.

miracles

To me, Cristina is “full of the Spirit.” She sees what is needed and responds. And she does it with grace.

Like the center she opened for abused and traumatized teens in Anapra. Through games and dance and art, she teaches them body, mind, and spirit practices to help them heal.

Like the volunteering she does at the clinic for disabled children where she patiently teaches children who can’t speak how to mouth letters.

 

Cristina has chosen to fully live. No matter what is attacking her body.

And she reminds me of the good that one person can do.

I see so much of that. So much good in humanity. Not just in Cristina.

It’s true, we all know the tragedy one person can inflict. We’ve seen it again this week in Las Vegas. But I see so much more out of that tragedy. I see the people who responded with goodness. Those who risked their own lives to rescue others. Those who lined up and waited 8 hours to give blood. Those who responded to the “Go Fund Me” site set up for the victims. Another example of an event planned without knowing how many would respond. Who could have anticipated that they’d raised $1M in 7 hours?

Time and again I witness the good in humanity.

And it’s worth repeating. Miracles can happen through the actions of one person. It’s amazing.

I may even become a fan of mole.

goodness quote

I Shall Not Live in Vain

I shall not live in vain
I shall not live in vain

Emily Dickenson’s poem “I Shall Not Live in Vain” adorns the wall of Karen’s studio where I currently work part-time. Knowing me and my journey, Karen kindly offered me a job at her home-based business while I sort out what’s next.

I like working for Karen. I like that she’s a creative entrepreneur, fulfilling her vision, designing a much-needed product. And she’s doing it with kindness, compassion, and generosity — both for her employees and her clients. Plus, once I spotted that Emily Dickenson poem on the wall, I knew we shared a similar philosophy. A philosophy about our life’s purpose.

ishallnot live in vain words

Yesterday Karen showed me a short news clip about a sweet, six-year-old boy named Jayden from Georgia. Jayden’s father died when Jayden was very young, and recently his mom died in her sleep. Jayden now lives with relatives, and for a while, everyone around him was feeling pretty sad. So Jayden decided to do something about it.

With the help of his aunt, he began purchasing tiny toys, like plastic neon green dinosaurs and purple rubber ducks, and handing them out to strangers. Everyone Jayden meets gets a toy. The boy’s intention — to make people smile.

As I watched this remarkable young boy get such delight in giving away these trinkets, and the hugs and huge grins he received in return, I realized what a special gift he has. At six-years old, Jayden has already found his purpose. Spreading joy.

Some adults I know say they still haven’t found their purpose. They don’t know their true work, or their true worth. They think what they’re doing isn’t enough. Sometimes I hear that message in their comments about how I inspire them. About how they couldn’t do the kinds of things I’m doing.

Yet I see and hear people doing inspiring things every day. Right where I am.

Like my teacher friend who has taken three motherless siblings under her wing. Every few months she treats them to a special outing, and for a while, they get to have a special woman in their life give them one on one attention.

Or my dear friend Jeanine who for the past year has taken on the responsibility of caring for my dog while I followed a call to mission. They bonded so well, my dog is now her dog. And even though he’s aged and requires much more attention, Jeanine never complains. Yet she doesn’t think she’s doing much. Whenever I try to express how thankful I am for her taking this on, she tells me she admires me.

I have several other friends like this. They think their lives are ordinary. But I know that each one of them is extraordinary. Because of who they are. Because of what they offer. The aching they’ve eased. The pains they’ve cooled. The joy they’ve spread. And the hearts they’ve kept from breaking.

Each of us has a unique purpose. It can be really simple. And right in front of you. All you have to do is recognize it, and claim it. And then you, too, shall not live in vain.

Midwife to a Soul

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July 1st would have been Esther’s 75th birthday. This post is in honor of her.

The night I moved into the house on Grandview Avenue in El Paso, I questioned myself. Again.

What am I doing here, in this little bedroom? In yet another new place amidst strange surroundings? What can I bring to this situation at the border? What difference can I possibly make in the lives of these migrant families fleeing their desperate lives of violence and poverty?

It was December 14. Both Gaudete Sunday — the third Sunday of Advent marked by joy in the midst of darkness — and the beginning of Las Posadas — the reenactment of Joseph and a pregnant Mary seeking shelter the night her baby was to be born. Earlier I’d joined Esther and the Latino community in downtown El Paso, going door to door, asking the same question that was on my heart: “Do you have room? Is there a place for me here?”

The irony of the situation didn’t elude me.

But it wasn’t like I didn’t have a place to stay. Granted, it wasn’t “home,” but Esther had agreed to take me in, after all. All she knew was that I wanted to serve the migrants and refugees. She took a chance. She agreed to support me.

I looked out from my bedroom window — a high-paned glass that ran the entire length of the wall. Thousands of yellow flickering lights spread across Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, reaching toward the mountains. How many people out there are suffering tonight, I wondered? How many face a future desperately more uncertain than mine? How many are unsafe? In that moment, my life, my concerns, felt small by comparison.

And in that moment I realized, this isn’t about me. My being here in El Paso. It’s not about me striving to make something happen. To succeed at whatever it is I think my purpose is. No. This is about being willing and open. Willing to allow Spirit to use me. Open to whatever wants to be born in this situation. Open to allowing things to be as they are. I simply need to take my small self out of the equation.

Later that night I sat down on my bedroom floor and wrote this poem:

The Midwife of God
Emmanuel
God with us
Within me
Grasping my hands
As the hot pains of labor
Sharp and prolonged
Cry for relief
Searching my eyes
For the answer to one vital question:
Am I willing
To take on this labor
As midwife,
To be present to all that comes?
Am I willing
To support the life
Struggling to be born?
Day and night
The pain continues
Sweaty brow, clammy hands,
a raw dryness in my throat
Still I stand alongside
the moaning laborer
Rooted in solidarity
Committed to the cause
Until what emerges
Elicits a glorious light
Erasing the memory
And exuding hope
In the familiar darkness.

midwife_John-ODonohue-quote

Months later, questions remain. And I remember to look for signs of the Source of life in the uncertainty. Signs like Esther, who stood by as midwife to the seed planted in me in El Paso. Signs like the words of encouragement and praise from friends who’ve been inspired by my journey. Possibly inspired to give birth to their own seeds of longing sprouting within.

Signs like the light that came to earth so many years ago, that shone in the darkness of an otherwise ordinary night in the desert.

The Gift of Esther

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

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

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

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

I found this endearing.

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

“How many letters?” I’d ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m treasuring Esther’s gift tonight.

What Love Looks Like

unconditional-love
Today is the sixth anniversary. It happened on a Saturday morning, not unlike this one. David died looking up at a bright blue spring sky. Warm sunshine beaming down.

It doesn’t seem like it could be six years already. And yet it feels like forever since I heard him call me “honey,” touched his skin, felt his body close to mine, and smelled his scent as I nuzzled my nose into his beard.

It’s true what they say — your life changes forever once you lose someone you love that much. Certainly my life and my son Davis’s changed forever on April 18, 2009. But I’m sure Davis would agree with me — our lives didn’t change in a negative, feeling resentful, why-did-this-happen-to-me kind of way.

Sure, it’s taken time for us to heal. To move through the tough, painful feelings and come out the other side. To begin to recognize the blessings in the pain. You realize you’ve grown and matured in ways you couldn’t have otherwise. You realize this is your path.

When Davis and I talk about losing David, we agree. We’ve made choices and gone in directions neither of us would have if David were still alive.

That’s not to say that we would have chosen this — to live our lives without this generous, loving man beside us, supporting us. But here’s what we do choose — we choose to live full lives without him.

David is the reason why I came to El Paso. With his passing, I wanted to know what else was in store for my life. I started to seek what that might be. And I had the freedom to go find it.

But it’s much more than that. It’s about what David taught me for the 28+ years he was in my life.

He taught me how to love.

Through our relationship I learned what unconditional love might look like. He was the closet thing to it that I’d ever experienced. And that’s what gave me the courage and the willingness to open my heart to strangers. To be vulnerable in places where I’d previously been so protective. To be willing to trust.

Little by little I’ve been learning this lesson. I’m sure it’s a lifelong lesson.

But today, on this anniversary, I wanted to acknowledge this:

Because of you, David, I know what love looks like. Because of you, I carry it within me wherever I go.
Thksg2008David

Drawing the Face of God

children_painting

Imagination, innocence, and trust. Qualities I love about children.

On the days I’m fortunate enough to serve at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, I get to witness these qualities. Interacting with the children is the highlight of my day.

But when the migrant children first come through our doors, their faces reveal anything but trust.  Their eyes search me, as if for a sign. Some cling to their parent’s side or try to crawl in their mother’s lap. Others sit quietly on folding chairs as I explain to their parents where they are and ask the necessary questions to fill out our paperwork. Sometimes when I bend down to tell a child my name and ask his or hers, I get no answer. The little girl glances away shyly. The little boy pulls closer in to his mother. I wonder what they’ve experienced on their journey. And I’m aware of the place they just came from—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility.

I ask if they are hungry. And I smile. A lot.

After a while, they respond. They begin to trust that we really do care about them here and that this place is safe. Once a child joins in my game of peek-a-boo or lets me chase him like a make-believe dragon, I feel reassured that despite whatever they’ve experienced, their imagination and innocence are still intact.

Besides, once they see the toy room, they can’t hold back. Before long, I hear the sounds of giggles traveling down the hall and plastic wheels being dragged across the linoleum. Or I’ll walk by and catch a budding artist concentrating on her picture. Later she’ll ask me for tape so she can add it to our wall collection of drawings from the hundreds of children who’ve passed through this center. Most likely her colorful drawing will include words like “blessed” and “thank you” and “God.”  Always the children are thankful. No matter what they’ve experienced.

Luis, a young man who volunteers at Nazareth, knows a lot about the migrant children. About their innocence and imagination. Their trust. And their faith. In addition to taking classes, studying, and juggling a full schedule, for the past six years Luis has volunteered with his church’s immigrant ministry. On weeknights and some weekends he visits and works with the children and youth confined to detention centers.

These children are what our government calls UACs — unaccompanied alien children. That means they’ve come to the border without a parent. Unaccompanied children under 12 are put in a foster care-type system until they’re reunited with a parent or deported. Youth 12-17 are placed in a very structured and secured detention center.

When Luis asks the children why they’ve come, the top two reasons he hears over and over are:

#1 – “To be with my parents/my mother.”  Often the child’s parent came to this country years ago to work and support the family. Some haven’t seen their mother since they were toddlers.

#2 – “To escape the violence.” Now more than ever children tell Luis of being threatened by gangs. Girls often don’t even go to school for fear of being raped. They tell him no one can protect them.

Luis has many stories about the children and youth he’s encountered. Tough stories to hear. Stories about the pain of being separated from parents for years. Stories about things children shouldn’t have to endure.

But Luis has something else, too. A very special scrapbook filled with drawings and letters from the children. They say how blessed they are to have known Luis. In their neatly printed letters, they thank him and thank God for him.

child's drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe
child’s drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe

And then there are the drawings. So precious. A seven-year-old’s version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A young teen’s intricate painting.

But there’s one unusual drawing that Luis especially likes to explain.

One day he’d asked the little kids at the center to draw a picture of what God looks like to them. Six-year-old José presented a colorful, oblong-shaped object up at the top of his page with his name above it.

Not having a clue as to what it was and not wanting to hurt José’s feelings by trying to guess, Luis simply asked him.

“An airplane,” the little guy answered.

Confused, Luis asked, “So, José, why is God an airplane?”

“Because God is fast like an airplane. And I know that if I have God in my heart, God will be the fast plane that will take me to my mom.”

Nazareth face of Godcloseup

Trauma. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

This is what these children experience. Yet they remain innocent. They still have faith and trust in a God who is present no matter what. And their imagination soars. Just like José’s airplane.

It makes me wonder. If I’d been through what these kids have, how might I draw God?