PB&J Sandwiches – Una Comida Nueva

Frederick Quote Fancy

“I’ve never tasted peanut butter.”

My Mexican-American friend Sigrid tells us this as we finish packing the last of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Gifts we’ve prepared for the migrants sent to wait in Mexico. I doubt that any of them have ever tasted peanut butter either.

It will be another new experience. A new taste, a new food. Food for these journeyers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, and otros paίses.  It will be their first experience of an American-made food. Manufactured by Hormel, in a place called Minnesota.

I imagine their faces when they bite into the soft white bread. Nothing will be familiar. Even the texture of el pan will mystify. But they will be hungry. That is, all the children older than 10, and their parents too. These are the ones Mexican immigration officials say they cannot afford to feed before releasing to the shelters or streets of Juarez. There’s only enough for the very young.

How did Sigrid know this? How did she find this new need that we could fill? Why did she even take the initiative to start this new ministry – the ministry of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich makers? And how did she ever secure enough provisions to make 1,000 sandwiches, or more, weekly? Oh, and don’t forget the snacks.

Migrant snacks
An abundance of snacks donated by the El Paso community

Well, but this is El Paso, after all. And, in typical El Paso fashion, El Pasoans respond to the need. You should know this by now, Pauline. It’s the reason you are here. The reason you uprooted yourself and created a new life in the desert. Something new that nourishes you. While you nourish the needy.

Always, you receive more than you anticipate. More than you give. I have come to know this in a way I never have before.

And something else.

I watch my fellow volunteers gathered around the tables. Take them in as they remove disposable gloves from sweaty hands, finish conversations, prepare to head home and scrub the smell of peanut butter out from underneath fingernails.

From 80-something-year-old Kay to 20-something-year-old Sy, these are the soul friends I’ve made along the journey. The ones who show me what is possible.  A world where everyone has enough to eat. Where abundance is shared. And laughter, prevalent.

Migrant PB&J
Friends gathered at local restaurant finish packing migrants’ PB&J snack bags

I recognize it, too, in the loyal “Usual Suspects.” The folks who made the beans and rolled them into tortillas to feed traveling migrants passing through our Loretto Nazareth shelter. Whenever our supply got low – I’d text Sue or Jeanette, prime “suspects” in this stalwart group with the “unusual” name.

Miraculously, more burritos would appear. Week after week. For years.

Now they’ve swapped bean burritos for PB&J sandwiches.

Still, they participate in a loaves and fishes story.

How do I give words to the beauty of this real-life parable? Of this fulfilling nourishment that’s been manufactured right here, in El Paso?

A quote from Frederick Buechner comes to me: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, that place turned out to be accompanying migrants in El Paso shelters.

And is this where God is calling me now?

To Sigrid’s mother’s Mexican restaurant on the west side? To spoon grape jelly onto processed white bread? Slather peanut butter from end to end? To join dedicated friends to make sure migrant families whom we can no longer receive can at least receive a bit of protein before they find their way into the streets of Juarez?

frederick Buechern 2

No matter. It has simply come down to this. Hunger can be filled by a small act of kindness placed between two slices of bread.

May more of us acquire a taste for it.peanut butter jelly Jiff

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Love in #ElPaSOStrong

El Paso Strong Love

Davis was the first to check on me. Thousands of miles away, yet he knew what was unfolding in El Paso before I did. And he wanted to make sure I stayed away.

Incredulous, I quickly checked the news. It was worse than I had feared.

But the hate that brought that young man all the way from Dallas to inflict so much pain and fear in our beautiful community was overpowered tonight by the love of El Paso.

Tonight our community came together – it looked like thousands of us – at Ponder Park just behind the Cielo Vista Mall where this hate-filled act took place. We came to pray together at an interfaith vigil. To share our pain, our grief. To support one another. To show the nation, and the world, who we are. And what it means to be #ElPasoStrong.

There was music. There were beautiful prayers and heartfelt messages offered by leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, B’nai B’rith, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths. I could feel the healing and the power in the words. I knew Love’s presence was among us and within us.

El Paso Strong crowd Aug 2019
Some of the families gathered for the 2-hour long event

There’s so much love and warmth in this city. I think that’s what I felt right from the beginning when I first came here. And that’s why I have felt so connected to this community.

I had been planning to write my next post about my trip to Alaska, what I experienced there, the insights I received. But that will have to wait for another time.

Because tonight, this is what I want to write about more than anything. The unbelievable example of love this community has shown.

For one another. For the stranger. For the immigrant. For the suffering.

Yes, the love in El Paso is so strong. So very strong.

El Paso Strong

In one very powerful exercise, a female speaker asked us to turn to someone next to us that we didn’t know and ask them if they were alright.

I turned to a stranger. “Are you alright?”  I asked sincerely.

Her eyes moistened, as she said, “I’ll get through it.”

Immediately I felt my own tears.

And then she asked me the same question, and I agreed. Yes, we will get through it. And I’m glad I’m here.

Then the speaker said if we noticed that person got teary eyed, give them a hug. And so this stranger and I hugged. Our hearts mutually hurting for this place we love. And simultaneously beginning to heal.

At one point during the event, we heard car engines revving as they drove around the park. I heard shouts but could only make out the word “Alabama.” Strange and unnerving. People turned to see what was happening. Faces concerned, apprehensive.

This is what such an act of terror can do. Put people on edge. Make a once very safe community not feel so safe. Create a reason to have a large police presence at a gathering that not so long ago wouldn’t have required any police.

I know that this past year things have changed in terms of threats being wielded at El Paso and at the hospitality centers where I volunteer. Knowing the hate that’s been growing unchecked, I take these threats seriously and have been concerned. But I continue to do what I do, where I do it, because of this love.

As Bishop Seitz said, prayer heals.

El Paso Strong Mexican_American flags
A participant at the prayer vigil displays both the Mexican and U.S. flags

Our community’s love is much more powerful than hate.

We know how to love our neighbors, no matter what side of the Rio Grande they live on.

And love is stronger than death.

Most importantly, El Paso will always love. No matter what is wielded at us. That’s what we know how to do.

Maybe some people at the top could learn from this community’s example.

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.

Sold Out

Voice of voiceless statue

In a matter of weeks, all the dinner tables were sold out. At $50 a plate.

Who would pay such an exorbitant price for a dollop of pinto beans, rice, and a tortilla?

Or spend their Saturday night witnessing reenactments at the border that make you feel uncomfortable?

And who would delay their family vacation in Colorado so they could attend?

Yet, these were the people who came to Annunciation House’s annual Voice of the Voiceless fundraiser recently.

We were there to support Ruben Garcia’s calling – a calling he has been passionately following for more than 41 years.

We were there because all of us have been touched in some way by the migrant poor at our door. Whether it’s through personal encounters at the dozens of hospitality centers set up throughout the Borderland community or through personally witnessing the harsh conditions under which many have been held after their arrival, such as the fenced-in outdoor areas under the port of entry bridge.

For us, eating this simple plate of food is more than symbolic. It is an act of solidarity with our brothers and sisters. It is a statement that we will not sell out. Our integrity, our values, our care for one another in our common humanity – these are not for sale.

Good Samaritans like Teresa Todd, who was the winner of this year’s Voice of the Voiceless Border Witness award, have proven that. BTW, she is the one, along with her entire family, who delayed their vacation so they could personally attend our dinner.

Teresa Todd_Voice of Voiceless 2019
Teresa Todd, second from left, with our border volunteers

I was thrilled to discover Teresa was this year’s recipient. I had recently read a New York Times article about how this single mother, a well-respected elected official and county attorney of Jeff Davis County, was being prosecuted for helping three El Salvadoran migrants who had flagged her down on a Texas road one night.  The three siblings hadn’t eaten for days. The young men’s 18-year-old sister, Esmeralda, was lying on the ground in pain, unable to walk. Her muscle tissue was being eaten up.

Teresa told us that as a mother, as a Christian, as a woman whose parents raised her to care for those in need, she did the right thing. Thinking of her own teenage sons, she helped the three young people into her car and made some calls to local officials for help. Instead of assistance, Teresa was taken into custody by Border Patrol and accused of “harboring aliens.”

Now she is facing federal charges.

Teresa saved the life of Esmeralda that night. And she told us she would do it again.

No matter the current political climate.

She didn’t sell out her values. She acted with courage and compassion. And she kept her moral character and integrity intact.

Unfortunately, we as a nation are not.

As Ruben told us that night, “…the relentless and insidiousness process of dehumanizing human beings is threatening the core of our being.”

That is why Ruben chose this year’s fundraiser’s theme, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident,’ as a reminder.

“What is being done to refugees stands in stark contradiction of the fundamental principles and values that brought the United States into existence,” he told us.

Time and again we have heard the word ‘crisis’ used to justify practices that violate the very character of a nation that has been 243 years in the making. The real crisis on the border is a crisis of character and morality.”              Ruben Garcia

Neither Ruben nor Teresa are alone in believing this. Many others are expressing or thinking similar beliefs about our moral compass.

This was evidenced by the numerous out-of-state donors listed in our program this year. Sponsors from North Dakota to Maryland, from Alabama to Indiana.

I thank God for people like Teresa Todd and people across the country who have stepped up to volunteer or financially support those who are suffering in our name.

And I pray for all of us, as a country, that we do not “sell out.” That we stop finding ways to justify or ignore cruel and inhumane treatment of others because our business is thriving or our economy is doing well.

When we do so, then we have sold our integrity for greed. We have lost our moral compass. compass true north

And we cannot continue to claim that immigration is about observing the law when we as a country ignore the law when it isn’t convenient or doesn’t match our current agenda.

This was so evident when articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were read at the VoV dinner. The United Nations General Assembly declared these fundamental human rights in December 1948 as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations.

We, as the United States of America, are in defiance of articles such as Article 14, the right to seek asylum; Article 16, the protection of the family; and, most especially, Article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Voice of Voiceless 2019
Lady Liberty holds a different message these days

 

I believe our country is at a crossroads.

We are still evolving into the real truth of the words of our forefathers: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Let us declare that these truths are not for sale.

Article 5: https://youtu.be/jL6IH1AesW4

Beautiful Connections

airplane window
The Uber driver pulled up right on time, at the impossibly early hour of 4:50 a.m. I stood under the white spotlights of the overhang at the front entrance of my niece’s apartment building outside Washington, DC. A sole figure with two suitcases by her side. He could not have missed me. Only the birds announcing their predawn celebration accompanied me.

The tall, brown-skinned man introduced himself before lifting my heavy load into the trunk of his car. Already, in just the few words we had spoken, I thought I recognized Tedor’s accent. After we chatted a bit, I felt comfortable enough to ask his country of origin. He wanted me to guess and tried to give me a geography lesson, which doesn’t work well with me. But after I incorrectly guessed Kenya, and he revealed that it was a neighboring country, I knew my first inclination had been correct. He was from Ethiopia – the same country as my young friend whom I’d been visiting in detention for over a year in El Paso.

I so appreciated the connection that I began to share a bit of Abdinoor’s story. (I have been using the pseudonym Mathias in my blog posts to protect my friend, Abdinoor, and I am happy to finally be able to reveal his real name. Sweet, intelligent, upstanding young Abdinoor has entered Canada, where he is receiving refugee status and is no longer being treated like a criminal. Now he can finally go visit his mother in Kenya.  Although I am thrilled for him, I feel it is our loss.  And our shame.)

Then Tedor and I shared a little of our own stories.  I learned he had been living in the Washington area for three years, along with his family. When I told him I’d lived in Virginia for 30 years, he expressed great surprise. “But you look so young! I thought you were only in your 30’s!”

It had been quite dark when he’d picked me up, so I figured he must not have seen my face clearly. Still, I was really liking this guy.

“You look young because you have love in your heart,” he explained, after I’d revealed my age. “That’s important. To have love in your heart.”

I agreed, of course.

Tedor said he appreciated my kindness, noting that few people he picked up spoke to him. Some don’t even say hello or good morning. They keep their eyes cast downward, gazing into their phone screens during the entire ride.

I tried to imagine that – someone not even acknowledging another human being inside that small, confined space.  I remembered how, as much as I loved the diversity in the DC metro area, the congestion and stressful lifestyle could make it hard to connect.

But what a sweet connection I had made with this stranger in the shorter than 15-minute ride to the airport. Isn’t this what it’s really all about, I thought, as I left his little red car feeling much better than I’d had when I’d dragged myself out to the curb that morning? And Tedor clearly was in good spirits, too.

Isn’t it about kindness and connection? About recognizing our common humanity? About seeing how we are really more alike than anything?

Quilt-in-DC_2_t750x550
Not the exact words I saw, but close enough

Later, as my jet rose above the Washington National Monument, I glanced out the window to say goodbye to my beloved Virginia when I noticed an incredible message displayed on the lawn.

Incredible, because of how it spoke to my heart.

There, beaming up at me were the words: “You are not alone. No estás solo.”

Talk about connection! Who had created this message, I wondered? For whom and what was it intended?

It didn’t matter, because in that moment, it was surely meant for me.  Meant to carry my spirit forward, to face the growing challenges of our work at the border and to comfort me in the further letting go that I’d experienced on this trip to Virginia.

I had just let go of my son – again.  Let go of many special things we’d put aside for when he moved into his own place in the lower 48 – something he’d decided was not going to happen anytime soon. So we’d had to let things go for a song, or even less. And I had to let go of the idea that he would live a little closer than the ridiculously long and challenging time it takes to get to Nome by plane.

Davis toddler
I let go of the boy, but kept the story books and the rocking chair

But because that message was also in Spanish, I felt it calling me back to El Paso. To the migrants we accompany, who face far more grievous ways of letting go than I ever will. Asylum seekers, like Abdinoor, stuck in detention, far away from families and anything familiar. And mothers who are still separated from their children, toddlers, and even their babies.

Their forced “letting go” makes mine pale in comparison. My connection with them helps me keep things in perspective.

And if all that wasn’t enough, when I got down the escalator at the El Paso airport, I unexpectedly ran into someone I knew.

Not just anyone.

Sr. Fran was the woman who’d made my first volunteer experience here possible back in 2014. We greeted each other with surprised smiles and warm hugs, genuinely glad to see each other.

I knew I was home.Quotes_Creator_no estas solo

 

Wonderment

Dogwood

In less than 24 hours I’ll be back in Virginia. Yay!!!

And in one short week I will attempt to visit all my friends, my sister and her family, maybe catch blooming dogwood trees, hike Shenandoah, and soak in as much of the beauty of the greening Virginia countryside shot through with the colors of spring as possible.

Oh, yes, and Davis will be there, too.

It seems improbable – all that I have planned. And I’ve not even finished packing yet!

As I flit from one preparation to the next, I can’t help but consider the contrast of all this juiced activity from the Southwest Sangha silent retreat weekend I just completed at a Franciscan retreat center — a beautiful connection for me. Two days of relearning the art of slow, focused movement. Of sitting, walking, and eating in meditative silence. As our Dharma teacher, Michael, reminded us from the first moments of our arrival, we have no place to go and nothing to do.

Then, from that place of being as still and silent as possible, I jumped right into a flurry of activity, beginning Sunday afternoon, as I repacked and headed to El Paso to meet friends and walk over the border for margaritas and a bite to eat. I planned to spend the night in El Paso since I was scheduled to be at Casa del Refugiado early Monday morning, which meant Monday was a full and tiring day at the center.

Now here I am, in between unpacking and repacking, getting some writing in, and making sure the bathrooms are clean before I head out tomorrow.

Although it may all sound frenzied and stressful, that’s not what I’m feeling.

On the contrary.

Despite the to-do list and the fullness of the three days following the retreat, I am feeling rather pensive and content. I’m remembering the significance of the sacred art of pausing during my day. The gift of being able to be quiet and still enough to recall who I am underneath all the inner chatter.

An interesting question Michael posed this weekend was, how much time do you spend in silence each day? Many of us were committed to two 20- or 30-minute sits a day. Michael sits for 6 hours each day! Of course, he lives at a lay monastery where he has devoted his life to this practice. Still, he recommended we work towards it.

Really?

But, kidding aside, his suggestion made me reflect on just how much of a priority is my spiritual practice? How often do I simply pause and allow myself “to be” in sacred space?

In reality, it is all sacred space. The key is, am I still enough to pay attention? How receptive am I to God’s ever-present “murmurings” throughout my day? To being still long enough to recognize that I – my little ego – am not the one who is in control?

I’ve been reflecting on this even more so since I’ll be returning to Virginia tomorrow. A place I love. A place I left precisely because I listened within the silence.  And what I discerned in that receptive silence were “the murmurings of God” calling me to the desert.

To trust enough to surrender to what I couldn’t understand.

Coming across these words by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche who died two weeks ago, reminded me about this sacred inner space. And how it can inspire someone to make drastic life changes – as it did for Vanier.

Many of us are not aware of the sacred space within us,
the place where we can reflect and contemplate,
the space from which wonderment can flow
as we look at the mountains, the sky,
the flowers, the fruits and all that is beautiful in our universe,
the space where we can contemplate works of art.
This place, which is the deepest in us all,
is the place of our very personhood,
the place where we receive the light of life and the murmurings
of the Spirit of God
.
It is the place in which we make life choices
and from which flows our love for others.

Of course, it takes practice, to allow myself to trust this place of “nowhere to go and nothing to do.”  It is, after all, countercultural.

But I have come to recognize that the God of my longing is right here, in the wonder of this contemplative moment. Being faithful to the inner stillness is what makes the difference as to whether I will catch the “wonderment” of God’s presence, or push on, grasping the reins tighter.

Like Michael did on this retreat, my Pathwork teachers, Living School teachers, every spiritual teacher I’ve ever had, recommends fidelity and surrender to the stillness in order to deepen our union with God. They call us to move beyond our culture’s preferences, to surrender to something not of our own making.

That’s what Jean Vanier did. And how powerful, how amazing the result! Truly he taught us how the “wonderment” of love can flow through us.

Jean Vanier L'Arche
Photo credit: Elodie Perriot. Courtesy of L’Arche

Whether it’s the Christ path, the Buddhist path, or some other spiritual path, when we are still and aware, we cannot but be moved by the presence of this infinite love, calling us to wonderment.

So, I will remember, as I prepare for yet another vacation in which I have more to do before leaving than I have time to accomplish, that what’s left to “accomplish” at the end of the day is not important. But how I pay attention to the wonderment of the God of love that wants to flow through me – well, that is essential.

To Live While Dying

Sr Janets memorial

“I don’t want to die while dying. I want to live while dying.”

Over a week ago I attended a Resurrection Mass for the woman who uttered these words while knowing cancer would soon end her life.

Sr. Janet fulfilled that desire. She lived her life fully. Even while in pain.  Even when she could no longer rise from her bed. She expressed gratitude for the simplest gifts she noticed from her pillow. She was imbued with joy. A love for the poor. And a light that filled me every time I was in her presence, just as it filled Sacred Heart Church on that Friday.

It reminded me that although physically, Sr. Janet was my age, spiritually, she is ageless. Her light lives on.

That’s not just some cliché.

I experienced this light from the moment I stood and watched her sisters proceed down the aisle in single file, their love and their grief palpable in the single white rose each of them carried.

white rose

I felt it again as her good friend Fr. Bill shared how she became a doctor so that she could practice what she called “poverty medicine,” providing health care to those who needed it most but couldn’t afford it. I was blessed to have visited Proyecto Santo Niῇo, a clinic Sr. Janet cofounded for children with special needs in Anapra, the very poorest section of Ciudad Juarez.

I recognized it in Matthew 25:35-40, the Gospel passage she had wanted to be read at the memorial.

There wasn’t anyone in that church who didn’t understand why.

She fully lived these words. As do so many in this El Paso-Juarez border community.

“Then the king will say to those on his right: ‘Come, receive my Father’s blessings. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me. Imprisoned and you came to visit me.’

“Then the just will ask: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were ill or in prison?’ The king will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-40)

As I looked around, recognizing so many friends and fellow volunteers filling the pews, I felt incredibly blessed to be part of this community. To learn from people who teach me, every day, the meaning of those words.

Like Ruben Garcia, of Annunciation House, who managed to slip into a pew during the Mass. Even with his ever-mounting and never-ending responsibilities, he took the time to come.  Because he knows, just as Sr. Janet knew, that God identifies first and foremost with the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.

Choosing a life of serving the poor matters. It increases our capacity to love. It electrifies our joy. It magnifies our light.

That’s surely what I saw in Sr. Janet.  I saw it in the joy of her vocation, joy in her faith, and joy for the poor.

She has shown me – as has this special border community – that living this vocation matters. Even though we cannot explain or understand it, living a life in love, of love, for love, matters. It’s what lasts.

anapra women (1)
At Anapra clinic moms learn to care for their children, who receive medical attention made possible through the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati

Whether it’s being with the poor in Anapra, at the clinic where Sr. Janet patiently instructed and loved severely disabled children and their mothers. In the hospitality centers, where Sr. Janet, myself, and thousands of volunteers have given of themselves and been changed and graced in the experience.  Or in this community that shows incredible hospitality to strangers, whether they’re coming to volunteer, to simply visit and learn the truth about our border, or to escape desperation and violence.

Like Dylan Corbett said at the Hope Border Institute event Monday night:

 “El Paso is showing the rest of the country, and the world, how to treat people with dignity and humanity….What we are creating here should be a model for our government.”

What we are creating here, I believe, is the kingdom of God made manifest.

It is the difference between simply existing to get the most out of this life or fully living to give the most of who we are.

In the end, our physical existence is temporary. The light of our love is not.

If we are not grounded in this light and love, then nothing we do makes sense. Thank you, Sr. Janet, for being grounded in love.

Cause No Suffering

Casa del Refugiado cots
Rows of donated cots at Casa del Refugiado

For nearly four hours I sat on a metal folding chair doing intake for the steady stream of people coming before me. I was at our newest hospitality site, Casa del Refugiado, and it’s a requirement at all our sites. Take down all the asylum seeker’s information from their ICE documents. But it can take a while when you’ve just received 150 families

I tried to write quickly, yet it seemed every time I looked up, more tired, worn, brown-skinned faces looked back at me, sitting in rows of white folding chairs, awaiting their turn. The children, who surely must have been hungry, were incredibly well-behaved.

Each time a parent and child came to my table, I smiled and introduced myself, trying to reassure them, especially the children, that this is a safe place. I was limited to brief encounters and kind smiles. Until a young woman, with a strong presence, sat down at my table. Her 24-year-old husband and 4-year-old son stood beside her. The boy had a shock of gray hair above his left ear, like a little man aging prematurely. Mixed in with his dark mane, it stood out, begging for me to ask a question. But I didn’t.

The expressionless mother answered my questions matter-of-factly, about birthdates, country of origin, which relative was sponsoring them in the U.S., until we got to the question about health. We’re required to ask is if they have any health issues, anything we need to know about. Turns out her little boy has vertigo. She explained that he takes medication, which the family had brought with them, but CBP had taken away.

“Why?” I asked.

She didn’t know.  “He just took it,” she said, and she flung her arm across the air, sweeping away the now invisible medicine, in imitation of the agent’s action.

I had heard of this happening from other volunteers – how some agents have taken both children’s and adult’s medication (including epileptics), for no given reason. Thrown it away. But this was the first time it had happened to someone I was interviewing.

I got curious. Had she been exposed to other maltreatment I’d heard about?

“When you were with el migra (their name for immigration agents) did you sleep on the ground or on a cot?”

Migrant families in US custody are sleeping on the ground under a bridge in El Paso
Asylum seekers held under the Paso del Norte Bridge in El Paso, March 2019 (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

En la tierra,” she said. Her face visibly changed as she told me this. Her eyes softened. Her voice almost caught in her throat. “Hacίa frίo.” (It was cold.)

I paused and looked at her.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I reached out and touched her arm on the table before me. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

Maybe it was my tender gesture. Maybe she felt safe enough to release her feelings, even if only just a little bit. But finally she let the tears come. As this now very vulnerable woman sat before me, I wanted to cry, too.

Not just for her, but for all the others like her. Those who’d had children’s sweaters taken away, baby blankets and extra layers of clothing removed. Those who’d slept on the ground, huddled with their children against their chests, with maybe a thin Mylar covering. Those who’d gone without basic necessities.

Like the mother who came to us with a baby who’d been in the same diaper for four days. A fellow volunteer told me about the child’s terrible rash.

They come to us hungry.  Some say they eat only once a day with el migra.

For months now I have been hearing about harsh circumstances some asylum seekers undergo once they turn themselves over to Border Patrol.

Some are held in cramped holding cells and sleep on the floor. Others are placed in makeshift tents and sleep on the ground. I understand that it can be difficult to accommodate the increasing numbers. Yet our churches and other nonprofits continue to step up to meet basic humanitarian needs. We provide cots and blankets. Three meals a day. Baby formula and diapers.

Casa del Refugiado Esperanza
A message of hope inside Casa del Refugiado

And, even if provisions are not possible, it is one thing to be unable to alleviate another person’s suffering. It is quite another to cause it.

What excuse is there for kicking someone sleeping on the ground? Screaming at frightened children? Knocking someone in the head because he is indigenous and doesn’t understand your instructions given in Spanish? Threatening a mother with words like “your children will die for abandoning your country” after her husband was murdered?

Yet, this is what some asylum seekers have reported. One man described his experience with el migra as “seven days in hell.”

Granted, not all Border agents are like this. Some are kind and compassionate. Some have even brought us donations.

But for those who harbor harsh anti-immigrant feelings or carry unprocessed anger and stress, it is much too easy to abuse those under your care. Without oversight of makeshift shelters, and with increasing public maligning of immigrants, I fear more, and worse, is happening.suffering servant

No matter where you stand on this issue, what happens to other human beings under our care matters.

 

And if I claim to follow Jesus, a suffering servant himself, I will do what I can to relieve suffering.

And more than that.

Because I have experienced the unconditional compassion and mercy of God and I am created in that image, if I do not offer the same to others, then I am a fraud.  I am no lover of God.

Janet McKenzie_Jesus
“Jesus at Gethsemani” painting by Janet McKenzie

My Decade After David (AD)

Purple flower growing on crack street, soft focus, blank text

April 18, 2009. It was a Saturday morning. One of those cloudless, vibrant blue-sky spring mornings in Virginia. The kind of morning that sends people outdoors early. To garden, do yardwork, see what’s growing that needs to be cut. And that’s where David was. Outdoors. Mowing the lawn.

It was also Easter week. Less than a week earlier, we’d celebrated the gift of resurrection and new life.

Springtime. Easter. A dying of what had been. Transformation. New life.

The symbolism of all that has not been lost on me.

This being the 10th anniversary, I wanted to take the entire day to do something special to commemorate this man in my life – a man who appreciated my sense of adventure, even if he didn’t always want to come along.

David SWEC
Can’t you just hear him saying, “You want me to go where?”

He was secure enough to let go and say, “You go, honey.”

And while I went exploring outdoors, he stayed indoors watching “the game.”

So, for today, in honor of David letting me be free to fully be myself, I planned a hike and quiet time in nature, bringing my journal along.

 

But first I had a mammogram. Something I’d scheduled months earlier without thinking about what date it fell on. Funny thing is, as I was filling out the paperwork at the imaging center this morning, I remembered the first mammogram I had done after David died. Only one month had passed. When I got to the line in the paperwork that requested an emergency contact, I stopped. My eyes filled with tears. Who would be my emergency contact now? I couldn’t put Davis. He had just turned 15. I thought of neighbors, friends, my sister in Raleigh. But I didn’t want to put anyone else’s name. I only wanted David to be there for me.

This morning, filling out the paperwork, it all felt quite different. None of that unbearable well of grief threatening me like an undertow. None of that sadness knowing I can’t go back to the way things were.

Instead, I felt happy with my new life. I recognized how blessed I am. How free I am to choose, every day, how I want to live.

That recognition in itself, of how far I’ve come, was worth the discomfort of the mammogram.

I used to think, especially in the beginning, why am I still here? Why did David have to die? Why couldn’t it have been me? In the midst of my grief, I would tell myself that Davis needed his dad more than he did me. It may seem silly now, but I genuinely felt inadequate for the task of raising a teenage son on my own. I felt unprepared – mentally, emotionally, financially. I worried about so many things.

Over time I’ve come to see that, beyond what my insecure ego was telling me, I do have a purpose. And it’s not simply raising Davis well. Although that was certainly extremely important in itself.

I am here to learn how to love. It’s a lesson I’ve been slowly learning. And I have a long way to go.

Organ Mtn Rock in shade
A rock in the shade – what more could you want?

During my hike I stopped to sit on a rock (what else can you sit on in the desert?) to write in my journal about David and the “deathless beauty” of love, as Jim Finley explains it.  How this love that can never die is pouring itself out as my life and everything around me. How that same love that David and I expressed for each other is alive in other couples I see caring for each other.  I especially recognize it in those who have been married a long time and have these little expressions of familiarity and endearment. The preciousness of it makes me smile. I’m thinking about this love when I get a text from Davis, all the way in Nome, telling me how much he loves me and his dad, and he’ll be thinking about us today.

Yes, love is deathless. No matter what form it takes. No matter how physically distant it seems.

It pours itself out infinitely. Encompassing everything. And 10 years later, I’m still learning to pause and take it in.

Organ Mountains April 2019
View of Organ Mountains on this glorious spring day

Thirsty

Universal+Christ+Conference+3

 

I have been thirsty. I didn’t realize how much until recently.

Two weeks ago I attended the rich and powerful Universal Christ Conference. Based on Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s new book, which has already made it to the New York Times Bestseller list, the three days challenged and inspired me.

But life being the way it is, after I got home, I quickly moved from one thing to another and had little time to reflect on or sit with all that I’d experienced. I’ve barely read much of the book.

Yet, words, insights, phrases, and affirmations have stayed with me. Especially the affirmations.

For three days, Rohr, joined by Rev. Jacqui Lewis, John Dominic Crossan, and artist Janet McKenzie, invited us into deeper awareness of the truth of these beautiful lines:

“God loves things by becoming them.”

“Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God.”

“God’s life and our life are not separate; they are one life.”

Although I’ve known this deep within me, recognizing this boundaryless love and living from this place of oneness is more like an evolving transformation. Surely the fullness of knowing this requires nothing less than an experiential understanding, a “knowing” that is a lifelong lesson.

Considering my personal time constraints over the weekend, I couldn’t venture too deeply into these truths.

But there was someone who instantly took me deeper that weekend and served as my spiritual mentor. Jacqui Lewis.

It was Jacqui who deeply affirmed and inspired me. It was she who apparently turned into my “messenger,” even bringing me the gift of tears, as I interiorly experienced the answer to her question:

“Where is the crucified body of Christ today?”

And it was she who helped me to recognize my spiritual thirst – a thirst I hadn’t claimed.

A thirst to be brave enough to speak truth to power.

A thirst for tenderly loving all the wounded places where I find the crucified body of Christ.my cross

Including myself. For I know that when I love, comfort, and revere the crucified Christ in me, then I am able to do so for others.

But when Jacqui first posed that question for our consideration, instantly what came to me was the people who come to us at the border. I clearly saw it.

There! There is the crucified body of Christ to me. In these suffering migrant families.

The tears came as I felt such a strong pull on my heart. Not unlike what I had first experienced five years ago that catapulted me to El Paso. I felt this so powerfully, it reaffirmed why I do what I do.

That was such a gift!

Because sometimes, I admit, I forget. It’s understandable, considering I’ve been accompanying migrant families, off and on, for 4 ½ years now.

And Jacqui, with her impassioned plea, kept challenging me, to affirm my light, not censor it.

She asked:

“What if the most fundamental aspect of our identity is that we are each anointed and appointed by The Holy One, by Spirit—to preach good news to the poor, liberty to the captive, and sight to the blind? What if we take seriously being the body of the Christ—that we are the hands, feet, and heartbeat of the Living God? What if we are Word made flesh, Love made flesh, Light made flesh?”

What would that kind of anointing ask of me, specifically?

While I was attending this conference, images of news back in El Paso appeared on my phone. Images of parents and children penned behind fencing under the Paso del Norte Bridge where Border Patrol claimed they were justified in keeping them. For days, the people slept on the cold, gravely ground. With little food, little to cover them in the 30-degree nighttime temps. A few port-a-johns were lined up on the dirt. The people were subjected to name calling and verbal abuse. There were allegations that Border agents were waking the people during the night and forcing them to stand every few hours.

And there was my answer.

This anointing demands I bravely respond to such injustices. That I not be silent in the face of maltreatment of others. And while speaking truth to power, I also recognize this “outpouring” of love in everyone. Not easy.

thirst heart water

I imagine what this would be like. If we all recognized the Christ within.

It would be a place of abundance, where no one thirsts, no one is hungry. The place in Isaiah, chapter 55, that Jacqui read to us on our first day of the conference. A promised place of abundance for everyone.

“All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

I thirst for this living water.

I’m going to need it if I am to fulfill the job description we were given at this conference: to resurrect the crucified body of Christ everywhere we encounter it.

Everywhere.

“You take pleasure in the faces of those
Who know they thirst.
You cherish those
Who grip you for survival.”
(Rilke)