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.

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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.

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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

Breaking Bread on the Journey

bread chunk

Pan. It’s the universal symbol,” Ruben tells us. “What better way to celebrate Annunciation House’s 40-year history than to share this bread together?”

It’s not exactly your ordinary dinner table. Or your typical Catholic Mass.

We’re gathered in a small parking lot outside a deteriorating building in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso. The oldest and poorest section of the city, only blocks away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Exhaust fumes dissipate into the air as a city bus drives by. Passing motorists slow down to gawk. What could be going on here, they wonder?

Sitting on hard benches and stadium folding chairs, we listen to Ruben explain the importance of sharing this “meal.” A Eucharistic meal in thanksgiving for 40 years of being able to welcome migrants and refugees.

In celebration, Fr. Bill has created an “altar” covered by a colorful shawl from a women’s cooperative in Juarez. Momentarily, we’ll be sharing Eucharist together.

People of all ages and faiths surround me. Twenty-something-year olds mingle with retired sisters. Couples have brought their children. A toddler paddles past me, followed by her mom, who was once an Annunciation House volunteer.

This is a community unlike any other. I call it community at its best.

The faces of mostly everyone in this gathering are familiar. And those I don’t know are not strangers. We share something quite simple – in some capacity, we all have volunteered to accompany the migrants and refugees who have come through Annunciation House. And we all share a passion for justice for immigrants.

Every one of us has stepped out of our comfort zone in some aspect of our lives to follow that passion. Many have left other parts of the country, like myself, and eventually moved here. Others, who were raised in El Paso, have responded just as faithfully.

Each of us has chosen to accept an invitation to follow a “call.” And each of us has been deeply affected in the process.

For that reason, tonight, being in this unusual space breaking bread together feels especially powerful.

Tonight, Annunciation House is Eucharist. So are the quarter of a million people who have been welcomed and fed in this place. They, too, are Eucharist.

In her book, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully, Ann Voskamp reminds us of the meaning of the word Eucharisteo – to be grateful, to remember with thanks.

Ann Voskamp_1000gifts

“Thanks feeds our trust,” Ann writes. Gratitude is “opening the hand to receive the moments. Trusting what is received to be grace. Taking it as bread.”

Bread for the journey.

This is the “bread” that feeds me. This is what I am remembering to give thanks for.

I open my hands and take what is blessed, broken, and shared, in thanksgiving for this moment. In thanksgiving for these people with whom I am sharing this Eucharist tonight. And in thanksgiving, most especially, for the people who have passed through these doors. With so little – and sometimes with nothing – they come and they teach me about real trust and gratitude. About the real meaning of sharing your bread, your brokenness, your blessings.

They teach me what Ann means when she says that Eucharisteo – thanks – “always precedes the miracle.”

Ruben, our executive director, has taught me that, too. He learned long ago what I have taken years to discover – you give thanks for the little you have and it multiplies. You give of yourself, and you get what you need when you need it. People show up to help. Supplies are replenished. Food multiplies.

Miracles happen.

ann-voskamp-quote-gratitude-precedes-the-miracle

I’ve witnessed such miracles time and again.

At Annunciation House and the temporary hospitality houses associated with it, the “work” and the needs seem to never end. At the end of a long day there is always much more to be done. Lately, the number of people seeking asylum has drastically increased. We all seem to be feeling overextended. Yet we know we will be given what we need to get up the next morning and face it again. Nourished for another day. With trust and gratitude.

Sharing this simple, sacred bread tonight fills me with that awareness and assurance.

We are indeed blessed. This simple “meal” is indeed a feast. A feast of compassion and mercy and gratitude. For the blessings and the brokenness.

May I continue to learn the meaning of Eucharisteo. To practice gratitude in every moment. And, as Ann recommends, to “…eat the mystery of the moment with trust.”

Quotes_Creator_Gratitude

“If you oppress the poor, you insult the God who makes them; but justice shown to the poor is an act of worship.” (Proverbs 14:31)

Out Here on Our Own

alone Girl on mountain

The press has gone.

Photographers no longer shadow us down the hallways as we tend to our guests. No more wanna-be volunteers show up at our door unannounced after having driven for hours from places like Denver or Phoenix. No more “angry moms” spend their mornings preparing breakfast and lunch for our migrant families as a positive response to their outrage.

Not anymore.

Gone are the headlines about crying toddlers torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Gone are the news reports about abuses at detention centers.

Our lives are back to normal. Whatever “normal” is these days.

For those of us on the border, it may feel like we’re on our own again. It may seem as though people don’t care.

But I know that’s not true. I know you are listening, dear reader. I know that you do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.

So, I’d like to make you aware.  Better inform you about the “norm” for so many who do feel as if no one cares. About the maltreatment asylum seekers face, especially when they hail from African countries. About the abuses that occur. About the loneliness and isolation.

Once you know, my hope is that you will not forget. And that you will take some small, positive action from where you are. Make a difference in at least one other lonely or abused person’s life that will add to the growing wave of merciful acts done in the name of humanity.

So that others will know they are not alone.

As you may know, I have been visiting asylum seekers detained at the ICE El Paso Processing Center through a nonprofit called CIVIC. CIVIC stands for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, and Jan, our local program administrator, has done a super job of connecting volunteer visitors with lonely people holed up in these prisons.dont_forget_me

Some detainees have not had a visitor in over a year. They wait for Jan to connect them with an available volunteer. They feel so alone. Forgotten. Powerless.

Until last month when African asylum seekers at our detention facility became empowered.

They risked creating and signing a petition against the El Paso DHS ICE Field Office for “improperly and impartially” denying their parole and treating them unfairly. They claim they escaped persecution in their home countries and came here for safety, only to be persecuted at the hands of ICE officers and detention guards.

The majority of them have been in ICE custody for more than a year.  They all arrived legally as asylum seekers at one of our EP ports of entry and had positive credible fear interviews, yet they remain in “immigration proceedings.” Proceedings that seem to have no end to them.

They have a right to parole through the Damus decision. And they have watched as parole is granted to Latin American detainees, especially to Cubans, awaiting their hearing, while their parole is unjustifiably denied.

At an alarming number.

A little background on the Damus decision. A teacher from Haiti, Ansly Damus has been confined in Ohio for more than a year-and-a-half. He fled his homeland fearing violence and political persecution and asked for asylum. An immigration judge granted him asylum not just once, but twice. But the government appealed those decisions and Damus remains locked up indefinitely even though he poses no threat and is eligible for parole. The judge has ruled that ICE violated its own procedures by not granting Damus release under what’s known as humanitarian parole.

That’s what our African detainees are petitioning for. Humanitarian parole.

On a personal note, I’ve been seeing my young Ethiopian friend, whom I call Mathias, for nearly nine months now. He’s been locked up for over a year. His birthday is coming up in early October. He’s told me he doesn’t want to spend another birthday behind these walls. Celebrate another year of his young life on hold.hands-tied

It feels like such a small thing. To visit someone only once a week or a few times a month. It never feels like enough.  And then he sends a letter saying how I make him strong and comfort him, how he is happy to have someone “on the outside” who cares. He says it’s not easy to be in detention, but he is “learning about life” and learning that there are “good-hearted people in this world like CIVIC.”

He is learning…and so am I.

I am learning that sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. That it feels like we are alone to face the wall or the tempest before us. But we are not.

Sometimes God shows up as the person accompanying us. Or the one accompanied.

Don’t forget this. Be the one who cares.

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.NOTE: I am creating a new blog – same theme, different look. I hope to link it to this one, and I hope you will continue to follow me on this journey.

Walk With Me

Las Cruces August sunset
Sunset viewed on my evening walk

I’m learning to walk again.

Relearning the power of what it means to walk with another. To show up. To connect.

Even in silence. Even in the midst of language barriers.

And discovering how vulnerable you can be in the process.

Recently I was invited to join a group of volunteers who will lead walking meditations at the CAC Conspire conferences. This weekend I’ll be co-leading my first one.

Even though my interest in walking meditation began years ago, I usually practiced it alone. On my own terms. With my heart intact.

Then last spring while attending an “intensive” with fellow Living School students in Albuquerque, I joined a morning walking meditation. We walked silently in pairs. Shoulder to shoulder. Our slow footsteps in sync.

I didn’t know the woman walking beside me, other than that she was from Wales. Not a word had passed between us prior to this walk.

But somehow, during our 45 minutes of slow, mindful stepping, I felt deeply connected to her. I prayed for her, for her needs, for her peace and happiness. And she apparently was praying for me.

Afterwards, we hugged and then she hesitantly said she had something to tell me.
During our walk, she’d had a powerful vision about me. She wasn’t sure what it meant, but she figured I needed to hear it.

Clearly, she felt vulnerable in sharing the message she’d received. As I listened, so did I. She must have noticed my eyes moistening. Caught the tears I tried to swallow.

Although she knew nothing about me, this woman’s words and vision were amazingly right on target. Letting myself become even more vulnerable, I began to share a bit of my story.Brene Brown courage
Barbara Holmes, an African American theologian, author, teacher, contemplative, and a recent Living School presenter, tells us that there are stories within us. Important stories that we need to share.

“We need to spend more time telling our stories to one another,” Dr. Holmes says.

Her words, and my vulnerability on that morning walk, remind me of the connection that can happen when we walk alongside someone and share our story.

It makes me aware of the tremendous vulnerability of the migrant men and women who share their stories with me and my fellow volunteers. Stories sometimes shared on a late-night walk accompanying a refugee mom and her kids to the Greyhound bus station where they will spend the night before leaving for a very early departure. Stories shared as we accompany a dad and son up the escalator at El Paso airport.

Powerful stories that emerge from within and invite us to pause and to listen.

Linda at EP airport
Linda, my friend and fellow volunteer, walks a mom and daughter to security at the El Paso International Airport

And sometimes it’s not about talking at all. Sometimes it’s about simply coming together and listening together in stillness.

When we do this, we discover who we are.

“Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear the truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone.”   Rachel Naomi Remen

Will you walk with me this evening? Take my hand and help alleviate my fear? Share my joy? Feel my suffering? Know my heart?

Whether it’s walking together on a downtown street in El Paso or a dirt path in the bosque (woods), you sometimes discover “The Beloved has passed this way in haste.”

And sometimes you discover that the Beloved is you.

 

Checkpoint on Pain

new mexico welcome

Last week I drove up to Albuquerque for my annual CAC Living School symposium. That means I had to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint.

Driving regularly on southwest Texas or New Mexico highways, I’ve gotten used to it.

I know the routine.

I slow down to a crawl until I’m face to face with a Border Patrol agent.  I roll down my window. He sees my white face, asks if I’m a U.S. citizen. I say yes. He answers, “Have a nice day.” I drive off. He never asks for my I.D. Never checks my car for smuggled goods, or people for that matter.

There’s no doubt it’s racial profiling. But that’s the way it is.

Border Patrol checkpoint

Usually it’s pretty quick. Even when the cars ahead of me are not driven by Anglos. They have to show their I.D.s or documentation, of course. Often the agent looks in the car. But there’s no hesitation.

Not this time.

This time a few cars were lined up ahead of me. The agent was slowly thumbing through the pages in his hand, as the driver waited. He looked over each one carefully, then returned to the first page and started the process over again, as if he wasn’t quite satisfied.

This agent seemed to not want to accept the documents he was holding were legitimate. Or else he wanted to make the brown-skinned driver squirm.

While waiting, the woman in the car in front of me jumped out and opened her back hatch. She pulled out a suitcase and removed what looked like two passports. The woman was Hispanic.

Finally, after fingering through the pages a few more times, the agent let the first car go. Then the second car drove up. He poked his head down, asked a few questions and let the driver go.

Then it was the Hispanic woman’s turn. She handed over two passports, for herself and her passenger. One was blue like a U.S. passport, the other dark green. The color of a Mexican passport.Mexican passport

The agent flipped open the U.S. passport, then put it aside. When he opened the other passport, he hesitated. He looked at it, looked at her, looked at it again. Then he just held it between his fingers, waiting.

By now I could feel myself growing angry.

“C’mon, buddy! Either it’s legitimate or it’s not!” I shouted in my car with the windows still closed.

He stood there for a few moments more. Not doing anything. Not asking any questions. Just holding the passport. Then he handed them both back to the woman.

Next it was my turn.

“U.S. citizen, ma’am?” With a downturned mouth, he demanded rather than asked the question.

“Yes.”

“Anybody traveling with you?”

“No.”

“You’re free to go,” he scowled. Forget the “have a nice day.”

The negativity coming through the open window was palpable.

Clearly, this man was in pain. But it upset me, how he was projecting that pain onto others, especially people of darker complexions.

He could do a lot of damage with the power and the position he had.

The thing is, none of us escapes pain in our lives. We all have places of wounding and brokenness. Oblivious to this brokenness, we inflict our pain onto others.

Right now, in our country, it feels as though we are experiencing this at a magnified level…this projection of pain onto others.

We’re having a hard time looking within ourselves. Letting ourselves feel the extent of our sadness, our hurt, our grief, our need for healing, our failure to be responsible for one another. We don’t want to feel it.

And what we won’t acknowledge and take responsibility for, we are bound to repeat. Without self-awareness, we can numb ourselves to the atrocities committed against others.

In fact, this is something we’re trying to address at the Living School. The unacknowledged painful effects of racism and white privilege. I’d say it’s causing a reaction in us.

For me, being a writer, I naturally want to write about what I witness. I pay attention to the pain and suffering I see in those I accompany at the border. In the encounters I have with others.

Hemingway write hard black
It shows me how we are not separate at all. It shows me how I feel the same fears, hide out in the same ways, and want to close off my heart to those who have hurt me. Just like most of us do.

But in writing about it and letting myself feel it, maybe I can become more aware. Soften the pain. Create my own checkpoint for the ways I block off the borders of my heart. And not repeat this very human pattern of inflicting pain.

With or Without You

Quotes_Creator_20180714_220517

Don’t make me cry, David.

I’m standing in front of the fresh cherries display at Sprouts, considering how many to buy while simultaneously pondering a brave new step in my life when I suddenly recognize the tune being piped in overhead.

It’s U2’s “With or Without You.”

Without warning, a familiar feeling floods me. The band U2 was one of David’s favorites. And this particular song has a special meaning for me. So many years ago, deep in the midst of my grief, I listened to that song over and over. It both consoled and pained me.

In my mind, I felt as though I couldn’t live without David. And yet I knew I would.

That was over nine years ago now and yet instantaneously David comes into my awareness. And, as if in recognition of the decision I’m about to make, his voice, gentle and strong from somewhere inside me, says:

“I’m proud of you, honey.”

I hear and feel this as clearly as if David were standing beside me, whispering these familiar words into my ear.

It takes all the effort I have to keep myself from crying right there in the middle of the produce aisle. And because I don’t want to look that vulnerable, my demanding voice says, ‘don’t make me cry.”

I manage to hold back the tears.

Somehow knowing he would leave this earth before I did, David tried to prepare me for his death. As if that were possible.

Mr. Serious. Mr. Practical. He even planned financially to take care of me and Davis after he’d be physically absent.

What I didn’t know was that he would take care of me emotionally in difficult, doubting moments that test my ability to fully love myself. Just by “reliving” and remembering his unconditional love for me.

He was the first person in my life to really see and accept me. The first to tell me how he appreciated my courage, my strength, my beauty, and my independence. It was such a gift. To have someone see me for who I truly am and not who they think I should be or want me to be.

It was his love and confidence in me that allowed me to declare not long after his death:

“I’m learning to let go of any attachment to what I thought my life would be and opening to limitless possibilities.”

And that desire, to live my life fully – no matter how different from what I’d planned – is what brought me to the border.

I am reminded of this as I live my life here and make choices that are countercultural. Choices that are not popular with my family and possibly further alienate me from them.

stand-in-your-truth-

It’s not easy, to stand in my truth and keep my heart open in the face of old hurts, misguided assumptions, distorted perceptions that come at me. Whether it’s from strangers, or, most especially, from people I love.

Yet I believe God desperately wants us to keep loving and to know how unbelievably precious we are, how unconditionally loved we are, in the face of everything that comes at us. Sometimes the only way Love can do that is by sending us a message through someone who loves or has loved us that much.

For me, that person is David.

Complete vulnerability. That’s what David gave me. And that is what love asks of us.

We are meant to give ourselves away. And I know, in giving myself, I get so much more!

I am reminded of someone else who gave himself away for us. To show us the path of Love. To show us what is possible when you give it all away. And how transformational that is.

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Love is the only answer in this crazy, confused, painful, joyful, fearful, beautiful, and insecure world. Love is the only power that will transform and save us.

And it waits for us to say “yes” to it.

“Through the storm we reach the shore
You give it all but I want more
And I’m waiting for you”

(Lyrics from “With or Without You”)

Ignite Your Divine Spark

sparkler-677774_1920
Sometimes your fire can be rekindled instantly. Your inner spark ignited. For me, it happened recently by a most unlikely source.  A 12-year-old Girl Scout.

And it’s been illuminated since!

It started over two weeks ago when we received news that our former hospitality site at the Loretto Nazareth Living Center was reopening! The new owners of the building had decided to give Annunciation House use of their unused wing again as a temporary shelter for the migrants and refugees processed by ICE.

Its two long hallways, dozens of hospital-type rooms with individual bathrooms, large kitchen and dining area meant we could receive more “guests.” Employ more volunteers. Offer better care.

We were “back in business.”

Just entering the familiar space that morning made me happy. Remembering the special memories, the many graced encounters we’d experienced during the previous 2 ½ years we’d occupied this place…it’s hard to explain.

children's pictures
Drawings and colored pages of children who have passed through our doors

But there was lots to do. The place had been closed for over a year. All our supplies, donations, and volunteers had moved on. It meant everything would have to be replenished.

Then the El Paso Girl Scouts, Troop #883, showed up.

I had been told they’d be bringing donations and that Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, was coming to personally thank them. I just didn’t know the magnitude of their efforts until, assisted by somebody’s mom, the girls carried in armload after armload of their collections.

Soon nearly our entire office floor was awash in a sea of colorful tote bags. Bright yellows, blues, purples, greens, oranges, whites, and reds brimming with snacks and toiletries stuffed in individual Ziploc baggies.

“We have more in my garage when you’re ready for them,” the mom said.

My curiosity won out.

“Whose idea was this?” I asked. “How’d you get all these donations?”

That’s when Natalie spoke up.

She said she’d attended the protest in Tornillo when the news first came out that children separated from their parents would be housed in a tent there. That’s where she learned about Annunciation House and decided to help with supplies for the traveling families. She posted something on her Facebook page and soon financial donations poured in. Not only nationwide but from people as far as away as the UK and Australia.

Natalie said she was “heartened” by the response.

So was I.

Honestly, I had been feeling weary from all that’s been happening at our border. And elsewhere in the country. All the cruelty, the lack of decency and civility to one another, the suffering we’re causing.

Finley suffering world

I have to admit that I’d been struggling not to let the state of my own mind and heart be affected by what was happening around me.

 

And then Natalie and Girl Scout Troop #883 reminded me of something.

The divine spark within. It’s there in all of us.

In some cases, it’s covered over by lots of layers. Layers of hurt and pain and fear. We’re seeing evidence of that in many ways these days.

But I want to tell you that it’s alive and well in El Paso. I witness it every time I step over the threshold at Nazareth.

This week we began receiving some of the reunified families. And if this week is any indication, it’s going to be crazy, chaotic, exhausting.

And amazing.

“Such joy!” is how Lisa, a friend and volunteer, expressed her feelings at witnessing these families back together.

Now that Annunciation House has been “in the news” as one of four places in the country to which ICE will deliver the thousands of parents and children they are reuniting, volunteers are coming out of the woodwork.

This week Natalie’s mom came to Nazareth with other moms to make breakfast for our families. Calling themselves “the angry mothers group,” they donned tee shirts that expressed their support of the families. Those moms who didn’t know Spanish smiled a lot at our guests. They made our families feel like they were human beings. And let them know that somebody – although a “stranger” – cared.

we_are_the_wall
Tee shirt worn by “angry moms”

People from all walks of life, all faith denominations, all skin colors and cultures – they are all showing up at our door wanting to help.

And they are on fire too!

Not only because they want to do something positive in the face of such abominable treatment to our fellow human beings, but because they too are recognizing what I and my fellow volunteers have been recognizing in the faces of these migrants and refugees since day 1.

The face of Christ. The divine spark.

And that spark is igniting their own spark.

Dorothy Day says:

“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up….If we love each other enough, we are going to light the fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”

Maybe your spark will be ignited too. Wherever you are.

Maybe we all will someday recognize that this divine spark, this love has been there all along. Waiting for us to wake up. To remove our blindness. To catch on fire with the awareness of who we truly are.

Every single one of us.

Borders can be quilts

True Freedom

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“There’s nothing I can do,” he tells me.

He’s told me this countless times before.

Always with the same calm, trusting composure. And I have come to accept the acceptance in his words, knowing that his deep faith guides him.

But tonight…tonight I feel the anger growing inside me.

Tonight I want to slam my fists on the table, pound the glass between us, yell at the guards or his deportation officer, or better yet, the anonymous person who wrote this dreadful form letter Mathias has just slipped under the thick glass that divides us.

The letter that states our government continues to work with his government to take him back, even though we both know that since he has no passport or other legal documents, it’s highly unlikely his country will ever accept him. They’ve already said they can’t take him.

The letter that states he must not interfere with the process (a statement that would be laughable if it weren’t so ridiculous).

And, finally, the worst part, the letter that states he must remain locked up until October. Three more months of not knowing. With no guarantee any decision will be made even after that time.

Mathias, the young man I visit in detention, lost his asylum case back in April. Not unusual in El Paso. Denial is happening at an even higher frequency here than elsewhere.

We know he is supposed to be deported. But he waits in this liminal space as the two countries go back and forth, indifferent to the life they are impacting.

Three more months in limbo. Or is it hell?

I know the food isn’t good. I know that whenever he is allowed outdoors – always accompanied by a guard – he must stay within the narrow areas outlined in white on the cement. He cannot venture outside these lines.

I know about the locked metal doors that seal behind you, the tall barbed-wire fences and the full barracks where the TV plays loudly throughout the day. The difficulty he has in trying to pray.

And yet, I tell him I wish I could trade places with him. Even as I say it, I know I am sincere.

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He is already so thin, he cannot afford to lose any more weight. I would gladly lose it for him. I would take on the monotony of his structured day, assigned to wear a navy jump suit, allowing others to make decisions for me. In such a situation, so completely out of my control, I would be forced to turn to God while perched on this ledge in liminal space, feeling like a confined criminal when I am anything but.

This is Mathias’s situation. And he no more deserves it than I do.

This young man who followed the law, coming to a U.S. port of entry to present his case for asylum. As international law allows.

god-as-mother

The thing is, I care about Mathias. I have come to know him as a man of integrity. I have watched him deal with the stress and uncertainty of his situation with courage and tremendous trust in God.

When he tells me, “There is nothing I can do,” I hear and see in his face his ability to accept “God’s will,” as he puts it. He trusts God to care for him.

 

Yet he tells me he longs for freedom. After all, he has been confined for more than a year already.

I think of this as I drive home and discover Interstate 10 is closed. Traffic crawls as it’s diverted off the highway. I feel so tired and frustrated, knowing this will double the time it normally takes to get back to Las Cruces. I swear aloud.

Then I think of Mathias. Locked in his barracks tonight. Sleeping soundly, ever since he has learned to accept his situation.

Stressed behind my steering wheel, cursing tonight’s road construction, I suddenly wonder, who is more free?

Sometimes I have trouble accepting life on life’s terms. Despite his age, Mathias is my teacher. He reminds me of the importance of returning to my Source. My true freedom. And did I mention he is Muslim?

“He [or she] who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others.”    Thomas Merton

Virginia Is for Lovers

Virginia Jennifers home June 2018
View from my friends Jennifer & Rob’s yard

I love Virginia. I was so thrilled to be back visiting my former home that I pretty much wandered around with a continuous smile.

First there was the effects of all that spring rain. Virginia’s mountains and hillsides glowed with a vibrant green carpet. Trees and vegetation along the roadsides were so full, they seemed to reach out to embrace me.

I treasured hikes and gatherings with dear friends. Enjoyed surprise encounters with old friends at a special wedding. Spent time with Davis – always a treat – and got to see the wonderful adults some of his high school friends have become.

Virginia has given me so many precious memories and such special heart connections, who wouldn’t smile?

Even crossing the state line and seeing the familiar “Virginia is for lovers” slogan got me.

Virginia is for lovers

But I can’t say my entire trip was filled with goodness and happy thoughts.

Back home at the border things were heating up. Even before I left El Paso, we were seeing cases of asylum seekers being jailed and their children taken from them. In the week that followed my departure, a difficult and painful situation had deteriorated from bad to worse.

Not that I was watching TV news. But between emails from friends and contacts back home, along with snippets of Internet news, I couldn’t ignore what was happening.

Soon, along with the joy of being back in Virginia, I was carrying a heaviness on my heart. It accompanied me into bed at night and awoke with me every morning.

Seeing faces in the news similar to those of the families I accompany, knowing the pain and distortion they were being subjected to, I couldn’t rest easily. After all, I’ve listened to their stories, played with their shy children, prepared and eaten plate after plate of reheated rice and beans with them.

Maybe right about now you’re asking, how does this relate to the title of your blog post?

I admit that finding words to express all I’ve been experiencing these days is challenging.

But I’ll try.

Sunday while hiking in the Gila National Forest, I met a Navy veteran who’d lived in Virginia. When he discovered Virginia had been my home for 30 years, he shared his not-so-positive opinions about the commonwealth.

Far from the “Virginia is for lovers” motto, he saw Virginians as racists still living in the pre-Civil War era, honoring the Confederacy, stuck in time. (I should note he was Caucasian.)

Clearly, his “reality” differed greatly from mine.

Not that there aren’t people who act this way, but this is not the Virginia nor the Virginians I know.

This guy’s stereotype was not indicative of the special place where we raised our son.

Davis learned about love in Virginia. He learned compassion, not judgment. Acceptance, not racial profiling. He learned to meet people where they are and be generous with what he has.

My heart connection with Virginians has created a different reality.

It’s those heart connections – both in Virginia and on the border – that prevent me from lumping people into derogatory categories. Or labeling them “racists,” “animals,” “criminals” who are “infesting” us.

I could not malign and dismiss the people of Virginia any more than I could the families of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who come to our hospitality houses.

Why? Because living on the cusp of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve experienced a different “reality.” Thankfully, a reality many of my Virginia friends wanted to hear about. And I’m so grateful for their listening open, loving hearts.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.” 
― Corrie ten BoomThe Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

I agree that love IS the strongest force in the world. Love can turn things – and people – around.

And something else about love.

Love is strong and fierce in defense of those it loves. Love is not cowardly. It takes risks. Lovers do not sit quietly by while those they love are maligned.

My Guatemalan Muse
Painting of a Guatemalan mother and child by Diego Sisay that hangs above my writing desk

I don’t intend to be silent in support of people I have come to love.

I make no apologies for the pain and anger I feel in my heart when I see a video of a Guatemalan mother, reunited with her 5-year-old son at the airport, sobbing into him as she tells him in Spanish that she loves him.

The pain that we have been inflicting on these children is a violent act. It is anything but love. It goes against the grain of what love is.

It goes against who I am.

This is not a time for silence or inertia. It’s a time for lovers – lovers in the true sense of the word – to speak up.