Secret Work

Rumi fire and smoke secret

There’s a secret work going on. Collectively and personally.

At Jardin de Milagros, where I’ve started volunteering one morning a week, the planting is a good metaphor for this secret work. As I gently push the sweet potato seedling into the hole – one among a dozen rows of holes waiting for seedlings – I wonder how it will fare. Will this tiny thing survive?

I have no idea, but it’s not mine to know. Mine is only to do my part and surrender the rest.

It’s a lesson in non-clinging, in letting go of the outcome. Like a good spiritual practice, nature is teaching me that I must allow the work to unfold under the surface, without knowing what is happening. Yet I must fulfill my responsibility in this process.

On a larger scale, I see this unfolding in the midst of COVID-19. I am asked, as we all are, to let go of any attachment to how I think this is supposed to turn out, and, instead, to open to limitless possibilities. To be willing to step over this threshold in the liminal space in which we find ourselves. And leave our egos outside the door. So that we may enter with new vision.

This requires qualities we humans do not take on easily: patience, trust, non-resistance, humility, and self-emptying, or kenosis, as it’s known on the Christian path. Not easy, but we learn through practice. By waking up and stepping up.

For me, stepping up has meant to delve more deeply into body wisdom and other spiritual exercises and resources. To daily ground in my practice so that I don’t fall prey to the anxiety, fear, and negativity circulating. To listen more intently. And to more fully enter the heart space.

I know that I am privileged, even as I write this. I sit in my living room participating in online spiritual talks and programs. I am not suffering, not going hungry, or worse, starving to death, as so many people are in countries that were impoverished before this pandemic began.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic who lived during the Black Death – a plague that wiped out one-third of the residents of Norwich – knew firsthand about the mystery of suffering and the unconditional love of a God she saw as Mother. Like all spiritual teachers, Julian recognized suffering is finite. Only Love is infinite.

And in that regard, I have a significant part to play in this cosmic evolution.

For we are in the midst of evolution. As scientist and Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio says, “Whether or not you want to accept evolution, you are in evolution.”

We need “science and spirituality to heal our divisions, deepen our compassion, and ignite the human spirit toward greater unity and flourishing,” says Sr. Ilia, who founded the Omega Center, based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s teachings of the Omega Point, the concept of “deepening toward a more unified future. Teilhard was aware that the energies of creativity bring with them a certain terror, a not-knowing what the outcome will be. Hence, he advocated radical trust in the inner presence of God and the holiness of the world.”

She says that “Teilhard would view this pandemic as an opportunity to harness the energies of love in new ways. Every act of suffering in his view is an invitation to a new creative moment, a wake-up call that something old is breaking down and something new is taking place in our midst.”

Pierre-Teilhard-de-Chardin-after-mastering-the-winds

From mystics to scientists, from wisdom teachers to ecologists, all speak of the universe as evolving in a relational field that needs our conscious contribution in love. They use words like reciprocity, flourishing in mutuality, greater relationality, a new vision and a new world, a more unified Whole, and a Divine exchange – the practice of giving-and-receiving.

Spiritual teachers like Teilhard de Chardin and the Pathwork Guide speak of how we are “instruments” in the changes taking place in the evolution into Christ consciousness. In Pathwork lecture #233, we are told: “you need to realize the importance of your task from an inner place that is not ego-involved, not steeped in vanity or pride…for a higher cause of the deepest significance.”

These teachers give me hope, and they challenge me, too.

I’m learning more and more how everything I have, I’ve been given. And I am to give it away – not cling to anything – in this dance of reciprocity. A dance in which my ego moves further away from center stage.

Volunteering at Jardin de Milagros, the garden of miracles, is one way I have chosen to participate. Owned by a retired couple, the garden produces 3 acres of fresh fruits and vegetables. They donate all of it to a food pantry in El Paso to feed the hungry. A food pantry that normally gives 3,000 to 5,000 boxes of food a month to hungry families. Now they give 5,000 a week! The garden needs volunteers. This is something I can do as an instrument of giving-and-receiving.

And since I can no longer accompany immigrants at the border, I’ve been practicing a different kind of accompaniment. Daily I energetically accompany someone who is dying or has died alone in the midst of the coronavirus. I accompany this beloved stranger into another realm surrounded by love and gratitude for his or her life. It feels like powerful “work,” emerging from my heart space.

It’s true that I don’t fully understand or know the impact of anything I am planting or praying. But I am open to the mystery of it. And trusting the love at its center. A place from which I heard:

“Take up the secret work. The wisdom of the heart knows how.”

 

#COVIDA, A Pandemic’s Lessons about Love

Italian men sing.jpg.0
Italian men performing under quarantine (Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

My 85-year-old friend Sr. Bea stands in the doorway with tears in her eyes. She wants to hug me. We cannot touch. I know she loves me, and she knows I, her.

There is something both so sweet and sad about this moment. I do not know when we will be able to hug again because of this coronavirus pandemic. Or even see each other. She seems frail and vulnerable as she hesitates to say goodbye and tries to hide her tears.

This moment is so beautifully vivid in my awareness now. The preciousness of life and of our love for one another. How much I treasure life, love, deep connection with others.

I think of my son, far up in Nome. The special moments we had nearly two weeks ago. Before COVID-19 had reached Alaska. Before Nome would nearly double in population as strangers descended upon it for the end of the Iditarod, making that little town susceptible. I had thought he would be safe, unaffected by the virus. Luckily, he remains healthy.

No matter where we live or who we are, our lives are being affected. We find ourselves coexisting in the midst of something that is not understandable nor within our control. Yet this pandemic has the potential to teach us something invaluable: how we are inexplicably connected.

That’s why I have renamed this virus COVIDA – vida being the Spanish word for “life.”  Because we truly are in this life together. We cannot separate ourselves from that fact. We live on this planet together. We breathe together.

And, as we are witnessing, in reality, no physical barriers can separate us. No 18 ft-tall steel border wall can protect us. When something like this hits, we understand that globally, we are connected. Global solidarity does matter.

From a spiritual perspective, a crisis has the potential to heal and bring us together in ways that nothing else can. It can teach us, “wake us up” to how we have been living, how we have been treating ourselves, each other, and our Mother Earth. It can teach us what we need to change. Reconnect us with our spiritual grounding, cause us to turn to our spiritual practices. Remind us of the spiritual laws of love, of brotherhood/ sisterhood, of our responsibility for one another.

Most importantly, it can remind us to turn to love rather than fear. The Love that loves us so and mysteriously “sustains us, in everything,” as my teacher Jim Finley would say.

Jim Finley_Quotefancy-

Like most people, I have been paying attention to the news. But in small doses. What has struck and uplifted me are the positive and beautiful ways people have been finding to connect. As if they cared. As if we matter to each other.

As if we instinctively know that we don’t have to physically connect to touch someone’s heart.

Strangers are performing selfless acts of kindness: neighbors offering to get groceries for the elderly and homebound, high schools donating medical supplies and face masks to hospitals, volunteers “staffing” food banks and delivering food to low-income children who are missing their school lunches. And, most importantly of all are those selfless nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals who are working such long hours and returning, day after day, to exposure to this virus.

Then there are those positive social media messages and videos. Like the young Danish doctor happy to be able to give back to her country and the elderly who supported her education and career: https://www.boredpanda.com/danish-doctor-wants-to-pay-back-to-her-country-during-coronavirus/?utm_source=smartnews&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=organic

Or the many virtual communal prayer or meditation offerings. Like Contemplative Outreach’s “United in Prayer” Day this Saturday, March 21st: https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/2020-united-prayer-day

Or like blogger Cameron Bellm, a contemplative, “writer of prayers,” and Seattle mom of two boys, who wrote this beautiful Prayer for a Pandemic

prayer for pandemic
Cameron’s prayer found at http://krugthethinker.com/2020/03/prayer-for-a-pandemic/   

As Pope Francis counseled recently, “Don’t waste these difficult days….We must rediscover the concreteness of little things, small gestures of attention we can offer….We must understand that in small things lies our treasure. These gestures of tenderness, affection, compassion are minimal and tend to be lost in the anonymity of everyday life, but they are nonetheless decisive, important.

Loving in place is possible. Even vital. In this time of COVIDA.

Sending you a big, virtual hug, Bea!

Manna in the Desert

Las Cruces August sunset
Sunset over my desert home

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

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

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

Desert sun over Organs
Sun rising over Las Cruces mountain range

 

And more.

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

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

This God source has provided in other ways as well.

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

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

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

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

In asking the question, the answers come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quotes_Creator_2Cor I am strong

 

 

 

Wade in the Water

rio_grande

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

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

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

He did not make it across the Rio Grande.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juarez shelter
Juarez shelter; photo from El Paso Times

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

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

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

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

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

Still, the river can be deceptive.

The water churns, swirls, gains power.

So many stories are buried in its silt.

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

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

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

water-1246527_1920

 

She Knocks

child-knocking-on-door

I have a little girl inside of me who’s afraid of the dark. She still believes there are monsters under the bed. She fears the face of the boogieman on the social media screens.

Lately she has been knocking on the door of my heart a lot. Asking me to let her in and comfort her.

She wants to cry. To crawl into my lap, put her face down and sob.

Such sadness she is feeling. The world seems so scary.

As the wise, experienced, adult mother who has raised my own little boy – a child who also needed comfort and reassurance when afraid – I should know how to do this, right?

And often I do. I can sit quietly and let my little one have my full attention as I cradle her tears in the cup of my heart.

But sometimes – like recently, with what I’ve heard and witnessed about our migrant families, especially the children – I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach. While the little girl in me is anxious and scared about the treatment of the children, about what is happening to those who are no longer able to come to our hospitality center, the wise mother in me is concerned about their safety. And deeply saddened by their treatment at our hands.

Puppets
Finger puppets I would give to the migrant children who stayed with us.

Distressed and sorrowful, I feel like I’m failing my own little one when she knocks on my door seeking comfort.

And I know need a little help.

Sometimes I must pray and ask the Divine Mother, my Higher Self, my Source, my Beloved – whatever name I need to use to better connect me with God in the moment – to soothe my own adult sorrow.

God always assures me that although He/She cannot take the pain away, I am never alone in it. My Beloved assures both me and my little one that feeling this sadness is not frightening. It’s a good thing.

It means we care. It means we love. It means we will act with justice and mercy.

And in turn, feeling these feelings means I can also fully feel joy, love, and beauty.

Sometimes I read children’s books to my little girl to soothe her. I let the preciousness of these stories wash over me. It feels good to do that for her.

And sometimes my Beloved gifts me with inspiring stories that soothe my adult self.

One of those gifts is Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbrook, written in 1942-1943. I’ve been turning to her beautiful words lately, this young Jewish woman who despite knowing she would die in the Nazi camps, had attained that “peace which surpasses all understanding.”

Beds at Westerbrook
Three-tiered bunkbeds in Etty’s camp at Westerbrook where Jews were crammed together. Children in Clint had no beds.

Etty recognized God’s graces all around her in the hellish camp where she was assigned. She recognized beauty in the patch of blue sky, the field of lupins, the quiet moments to herself. And she did this in the midst of what she described as “a misery beyond all bounds of reality.”

In one of her last letters, Etty prophetically writes:

 “And I also believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter.”

We all know that chapter in the New Testament. We’ve heard it recited at many a Catholic wedding.

But do we remember how it starts out: “Now I will show you the way which surpasses all the others.”

When my little one knocks, I remind both her and myself that we know the way that surpasses all others.

We know, despite any evidence to the contrary, that “Love never fails.” And the One who knocks waits patiently for us to let Love in.

Gratitude, Grace, & Grief

Close up of tableset with colorful plate for Thanksgiving party.

Thanksgiving.

Soon Davis will be here celebrating the holiday with me. I don’t have to be told how fortunate I am.

At the same time, I’m also aware that many will be missing a loved one at their Thanksgiving table this year.

Those who are still seeking news of a family member among the 700 or more missing in the California fires. Those whose loved ones were among the dozens of victims of mass shootings in the past several months, from a bar in Thousand Oaks to a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Sometimes it all feels like too much. We turn away. We turn off the TV. We find something else to occupy our minds.

Thanksgiving. Grieving. The two don’t quite go together.

Or do they?

Although we don’t have any control over when tragic, painful circumstances will strike our lives, our world, what I’ve discovered is what I do have control over – how I respond.

And, inadvertently, how grieving and gratitude can occupy the same space.

viktor_e_frankl_quote

I remember reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl years ago. One of the many things that struck me was a scene in which this man in the concentration camp is out working on the rock pile in the gray, predawn hours, concerned about his wife, and he turns to see the glory of the sun beginning to light up the sky as it rises in the distance. Even in what seems like a hopeless situation, he recognizes this as a moment of grace.

Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life – her diaries written during WWII – wrote: “I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life.”

Etty found herself in the midst of a frightening era of unspeakable atrocities. She also found herself on her knees, giving thanks for unspeakable beauty and grace-filled moments.

It seems when I, too, am brought to the edge of raw grief, I go to my knees. In surrender. In vulnerability and humility. Calling upon my Higher Self, the Holy dwelling within.

And then I discover the grace in my situation.

The grace that was there all along but I didn’t have the eyes to see. Until that moment.

Gratitude, grace, and grief can indeed occupy the same space.

I’ve learned this. And I am still learning it.

Learning it from my spiritual teachers, in Pathwork, the CAC Living School, Insight Meditation, and others, who continue to remind me that whenever life’s “disturbances” pull me down, I can pause and choose what to focus on.

And I’m learning it from our “guests” at the Loretto Nazareth hospitality center. Even after the kind of suffering they’ve experienced, they are still filled with gratitude for small kindnesses.

And every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of a parent and child on their knees before the crucifix displayed in our common area. In prayers of thanksgiving for their safe journey. And for their long journey ahead.

Something beautiful alongside the sorrow.

There is room for all of it.

And, in every moment, something to be grateful for.

Fidelity

John Nava communion of saints
A section of John Nava’s Communion of Saints tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Los Angeles

Fidelity.

The dictionary defines it as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.”

I looked it up because, honestly, sometimes I wonder about my fidelity.

It’s true, I am committed to volunteering at the Loretto-Nazareth hospitality center two and now three days a week since the increase of refugee families arriving. It’s true, I am faithful to accompanying those in need and speaking out against anti-immigrant rhetoric whenever I can.

But I wonder…

How am I faithful when I fail so often?

Many times in one week, for instance.

faithfulness

It’s so hectic at Nazareth that, at times, I’m brisk with the people, shooing them out of our office, putting up a hand and telling them in a sharp voice to wait as I try to answer the phone’s incessant ringing or respond to another sick child’s need for Motrin or prepare a travel care package for the next family going out the door. I sense my irritation, the shortness in my response.

I am not proud of that.

It’s easy for me to feel irritated when I am pulled in so many directions and have difficulty completing even one task in a reasonable amount of time.

Then there are times when I have questions and doubts about what I am doing. The sensibility of caring for this steady stream of people – most of whom will be sent back to their country. Some will try again. Others won’t get the chance.

I find myself wondering how El Paso can keep this up. How it will all end – this seemingly endless mass of suffering people coming to our door. And the thousands railing against them rather than attempting to consider the possibility that intelligent, thoughtful solutions could help relieve some of this suffering rather than adding to it.

I know that a huge part of me wants to make things be different. Less pain. Less suffering.

And I also know that I am not perfect. I don’t have all the answers. And who am I to know or understand how God will use the pain and suffering we are experiencing now?

With yesterday being the Feast of All Saints, and today the Feast of All Souls in the Catholic tradition and el Dia de Los Muertos in the Mexican culture, I thought about the faithfulness of all those who have passed from this life. Family, loved ones, saintly ones.

A litany of them. Most were just ordinary people who did extraordinary things. With fidelity to a heart laid bare to the suffering of the world.

As my teacher Jim Finley explains, this is what fidelity is – laying your heart bare to the suffering and responding to it from this place of vulnerability, allowing God to work through you from that place. A place where love bears the suffering and doesn’t flinch, doesn’t turn away from it, doesn’t minimalize or deny it.

Sooner or later, we begin to see how our whole life has been an ongoing fidelity to the deepening of the love to which we’ve been awakened. But there is no awakening to this love without also a dimension of suffering involved.

Jim Finley_Quotefancy-

So, how am I faithful?

Every time my heart is laid bare to the suffering around me, including my own, and I don’t pull back but remain with it.

Every time I am willing to let go of my own agenda and don’t require or expect things to be different than they are.

Every time I pause and realize that I am not operating alone, I am not doing this “work” alone, for I would never have the means, the energy, the stamina, the fulfillment, the courage, and the joy I am experiencing if I were.

I find solace in remembering that the saints were ordinary people, too. That they couldn’t necessarily see the bigger picture either. That they, too, probably got on their own case when they slipped and failed for the second and third and fourth times.

The difference is they remained faithful to this extraordinary love. No matter the challenges.

All I am asked is to do the same – respond with love and fidelity to the need that’s right in front of me.

It’s that simple.  And it’s not that easy.

But I can count on my connection with God, with the Holy within me. And I can recall what it felt like when fidelity to the suffering in front of me expanded my heart.

The wonderful thing about saints
is that they were human.
They lost their tempers,
scolded God, were egotistical
or testy or impatient in their turns.
Made mistakes and regretted them.
Still they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven.

Phyllis Mc Ginley (1915-19780) American writer

Communion of Saints

The Birthday Gift

birthday gift for you
I love my son more than anything, as most of you know. So, to say that I love my young friend in detention like a son is no small thing. It’s not that I love him as inexpressibly as I love Davis, yet I care about this young man as I would a son.

I know this is true because I find myself praying for Mathias in the middle of my day. I feel how much I genuinely want his well-being and freedom. Probably almost as much as he does.

Even after a very tiring Wednesday at the Nazareth hospitality center, I don’t try to talk myself out of visiting him later that night. In fact, I’ve spent nearly every Wednesday evening since the beginning of this year at the El Paso Processing Center visiting him.

And I haven’t once resented it. It’s never felt like an obligation. Something I had to do.

On the contrary, our visits have been a gift to me. For what he teaches me about acceptance, trust in God, expectations in life. We’ve created quite a bond.

That’s why when I visited him last week for his 26th birthday – his second one in this prison-like system – it wasn’t easy. Not for him. Not for me.

Both of us had expected he would have been released or deported by now. Instead, another three-month extension has passed with no answers. No explanations.

That night was tough, not being able to bring him anything to celebrate. No gift. No cake. Not even a card to slip through the slot under the glass that separates us. I forced myself to stay cheerful as I wished him a happy birthday. Trying to keep things light, I drew imaginary balloons on the glass. Blue and yellow and green and red ones, I told him, as if he were a little boy.
balloons-1786430_1280
Hoping to make him smile with my silliness. He did.

I thought there was little else I could offer.

I was wrong.

Mathias is not easily discouraged, nor is he willing to be a victim in life. That evening, this smart young man told me more about the research he’d been doing. How he had contacted the ACLU and the American Bar Association, and discovered his rights and the 180-day limit of being held in detention once you’re processed for deportation. He also learned about something called habeas corpus.

That’s where I stepped in. I knew nothing about the law, but I wanted to find out.

“Let me contact my connections at Las Americas,” I told him. “Let me find out more about your rights and how I can help you pursue this.”

I know staff at Las Americas, the El Paso immigrant advocacy nonprofit, are overloaded with pro bono cases these days. But, to my surprise, they quickly responded that they thought they could help Mathias. And they, too, wanted to get him out of this prolonged and unjustifiable detention.

I was almost giddy last night when I planned to give him the good news. But just before I’d arrived, Mathias had already been visited by an attorney from Las Americas who explained they wanted to take his case. He was jubilant as he told me. He could not thank me enough. Said he would never forget me no matter where he goes in life.

His joy filled me. And in that moment, I knew how God had used me in these simple, weekly encounters in which I’ve felt so powerless.

As I left him that evening, I realized I had indeed given Mathias a birthday gift. It was just a week late.

Quotes_Creator_Etty Hillseum

Spreading Hope

choose-hope-

Hope.

This post is dedicated to spreading hope.

It may seem like there’s not much of it around. Especially with all the disheartening and discouraging news out there. But good things are happening, too. People are mobilizing for positive change.

People like you and me.

And today you have an opportunity to join me in spreading hope.

In fact, I can’t do it without you.

That’s what this story is about. An opportunity to make a positive change in the life of one special mother and son. A mother who has already suffered so much.

Blanca is an asylum seeker who came to one of our ports of entry with her 12-year-old son, Luis, to save his life. After her husband, a military officer, in El Salvador, was assassinated, Blanca tried to stay in her country. She and her two sons moved 15 times in four years, hoping to stave off the gangs threatening them.

But without police protection, it was impossible to keep her family safe.

Her older son finally fled on his own. Eventually, Blanca and her youngest son also had to leave. And in October 2017, they arrived in El Paso, asking for asylum.

That’s when the unthinkable happened.

Rather than place them in a family detention center or release them on bond, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) separated Blanca and her child, putting her in detention and Luis in foster care.

This is a practice we never allowed before now. Until the Trump administration decided to use separation of parents from their children as a deterrent.

As you can imagine, it is heartbreaking to witness. Seeing a mother who has been separated from her child.

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Blanca and her son Luis

If you’re a parent, you can especially understand the unimaginable pain.

But here’s where you come in. With your dose of hope.

ALDEA – the People’s Justice Center, a non-profit committed to representing separated families, decided to take on Blanca’s case pro bono. And they’re located in Reading, PA!

They had to fly to El Paso to visit Blanca, research their case, and attend her hearing. And on the day of Blanca’s hearing, something amazing happened. The judge ruled she had “credible fear” and ordered her released on bond of $7,500!

This doesn’t happen often with El Paso judges. And he set her bond at a reasonable amount, to boot. Believe it or not, the average is $20,000 or more.

But Blanca has no money.  So, ALDEA set up a GoFundMe account for her.

In little over a week, we have raised nearly three-fourths of the money we need.

This gives me hope.

So many good-hearted people who want to do the right thing by a mom desperately wanting to be with her son again.

So many people who believe in what is possible.

Will you join us in spreading this wave of hope for Blanca and Luis? Any amount you donate is greatly appreciated.

And it adds to the flow of positive energy to counter and balance all that negativity out there.

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Blanca in detention (photo taken from Houston Chronicle article)

Here’s the link to the GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/FamilyReunificationBondFund

 

If you’re interested, here’s Blanca’s full story, as reported in the Houston Chronicle: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Her-husband-murdered-her-son-taken-away-a-12462658.php

Her husband murdered, her son taken away, a mother seeking asylum tells a judge, ‘I have lost everything’

 

Thank you for spreading hope.

 

A Boy from a “Shithole Country”

 

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You may have a reaction to this vulgar term. Maybe you’re tired of hearing it already.

I get it.

But please stick with me. I have a story to tell. And it matters that you read this.

My new friend – I’ll call him Mathias – sleeps on a mattress so thin, he feels the cold steel of the springs underneath him. A bullet lodged into his left side presses into him, aggravated by the hard coils of his assigned bed. He tries to sleep only on his right, but even then, the pain barely diminishes. The bullet, put there long ago by police who were supposed to protect him.

Mathias is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from one of those African countries.

He’s not a criminal. Yet, he is a prisoner.

He’s one of the detainees I visit weekly at the El Paso Detention facility.

We’ve never hugged. I’ve not been able to touch his shoulder or squeeze his hand in support. Even though I’ve longed to.

I speak to Mathias from the other side of a glass. With a phone to my ear, my body hunched forward, as if straining will help me hear his words more clearly, I listen. To stories of hardship and trauma I’ve never known.

Stories of the challenges of living in confinement.

Stories of hope.

Because Mathias does have hope. Despite all he’s experienced.

He hopes in a country that values liberty, justice, and the dignity and right to life. He hopes in a court system that will do the right thing.

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I wish I could share that hope.

Mathias was just a boy, away at school, when his entire family, threatened by corrupt police, fled the country.

It’s been years since he’s seen his mother.

He smiles when I come to see him, asks how my week was, if I’ve heard from my son, who’s only a year older than he is.

I think of Mathias’s mother, holed up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She didn’t get to say goodbye.

Mathias tried to live a “normal” life without his family. Continue school, then hold down a job, save money. But the police threatened him. He had to flee. By that time, crossing the border wasn’t easy. He couldn’t join his family in the camp. He had to get help.

His story of how he made it all the way to the El Paso port of entry is more than admirable. It’s an amazing story of the human spirit. Of faith, hope, trust.

He trusts in the promises of a free and democratic society.

Still. In spite of his shock that, after pouring out his story to Border Customs, they handcuffed him and tossed him in detention to await his fate.

And he’s not unusual.

More weary asylum seekers have been arriving at our ports of entry, fleeing violence from places as far as Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Congo, as well as from El Salvador and Guatemala. Countries that are not on the U.S. list of favorable places to migrate from.

Whether our president used those exact words or not to describe these countries is not the point. The real concern is his intention.

And ours.

Words like “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “immigrant” have become associated with something evil. Or, at least, something undesirable.asylum

Yet international law supports asylum seekers. International law says a Government is prohibited from returning someone to their country if they will be subjected to torture or persecution or death. But a recent report compiled by human rights organizations at the border documents cases where we have not been following that law.

It shows that more punitive and inhumane deterrence practices are being implemented towards asylum seekers under this administration. More human rights violations are being recorded.

Surprisingly, the report also shows, El Paso courts have one of the highest denial rates for asylum seekers. It’s a sad reality that makes no sense.

Yet, the outcome of a case is determined by the judge assigned rather than the severity of the asylum seeker’s life-threatening situation and the credibility of their supporting documentation.

I may be going against the grain here, but I am actually praying that Mathias wins his asylum case and remains in the U.S.

I am praying that more and more of these violations come to light. And that they matter to people like you.

And I pray that one day winning an asylum case will not be a rare occurrence in many of our courts.

It’s worthwhile noting that National Right to Life Day is January 22. The right to life, the dignity of a life, extends to all human beings, not just the unborn. Not just those who were lucky enough to be born in the United States.

For me, Mathias – and thousands others like him – is the voiceless little one who needs me to stand up and say, you are a child of God. You have a right to live.

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