#Voices

whispering children

Sometimes the voices can be so clear.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to live the gift that has been given to me. At a deeper level there has always been a deeper truth that this is what I am supposed to be and to do. We all want that sense of meaning and purpose in our lives….Don’t let your life go by without hearing what God is asking of you. Make sure you listen.”

This voice is Ruben Garcia’s.

He spoke these words five years ago. I had been interviewing him by phone for an article on his faith journey. And although he hadn’t been offering this advice to me personally, the voice was clearly speaking to me.

I got off the phone and cried. Spirit had accessed my heart.

At the time I had recently returned to Virginia after volunteering in El Paso. I was trying to settle into a daily routine while discerning what was next. Feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. I wanted to know what God was asking of me. I wanted to have Ruben’s certitude.

For that to happen, I knew I needed to be still and listen.

I began to pay attention.

Las Cruces cloud formation
Coming upon an unusual cloud formation above Organ Mountains

 

If you’re a regular reader, you know by now that listening more deeply is what inspired me to make this grand move to El Paso.

But what keeps me here? After all, it hasn’t been a once-and-for-all kind of message.

There are moments of doubt, moments in which I’ve wondered where this is all going, what it is I think I am doing. In those challenging moments, I’ve tried to listen more deeply. Tried to pay more attention to my Higher Self and give less credence to the distrustful, worrisome voices.

And sometimes that still, small voice accesses my heart through the voices of others. Like it did that day through Ruben.

Like it does through my border community and fellow volunteers.

The voices of Joe and Linda, for example. They leave their home in California periodically throughout the year, to come to El Paso for several weeks at a time to volunteer with us.

When Joe says, “This is church – this community. It’s lifegiving,” his words resonate in my core. Yes, Joe, I truly get that.

When Linda says, “We all know that this horrible immigration system is broken, and until something is done to change that, this is what I can do,” I know this is why I am here, too. To do something positive to counter all the ill and hate being heaped onto immigrants.

2_Linda accompanying family at EP airport
Linda accompanying mother and child at airport

And when Janet, an El Pasoan who has been with us since the early days of Loretto Nazareth, says” “This has been my most powerful experience of God in others,” I hear the truth of that. Because it has been for me, too.

I’ve experienced it in the simple gratitude of the migrant women. Voices that humble me and remind me again that something greater is holding all of this: “Muy amable, gracias.  You have been so kind. You have given us back our dignity.”

Sometimes the voices pose questions. Questions that don’t require an answer, yet cause me to go deeper.

 “What are our souls longing for, that we would do this work for the immigrants?”

Sr. Missy asked me this more in amazement than anything. She’d opened her congregation’s house on Grandview Avenue to board the countless volunteers who came from out of town to help at our hospitality sites over the years. She wondered aloud about the dedication of so many.

Her question stayed with me.

In listening, I discovered that what my soul longs for – the God I long for – is right here, hidden in my encounters at the border. It is here that God continues to access my heart.

But do you realize how few people listen to that voice, much less follow it?”

This question is Peter’s, my spiritual companion. His voice carries Spirit’s desire for me to acknowledge and honor my faithfulness. And I pause, and take that in.

This Saturday, many more voices will access my heart as I attend the Voice of the Voiceless, Annunciation House’s annual fundraising dinner. It’s an opportunity to honor those who speak for the least among us. But this year’s dinner is unusual in that Ruben is honoring those who don’t normally have a voice – refugee children.

Many of us have heard these children’s voices. We’ve heard their cries for their “mami” and “papi” (mommy and daddy). We’ve heard the tapes after their separation and witnessed their pain close up. These are clearly the most challenging voices of all to hear. And they are still crying out.

Will we let God access our heart through these voices?

Annunciation VOV

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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.

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)

Fitted Sheets & the 10-Year Challenge

alaska meanddavid

When Facebook had the 10-year challenge recently, I had to stop and think. Do I want to go there? Because 10 years ago, my husband was alive. To post any pics of myself in 2009 would be to post pics of a different self.

In early 2009 I was still part of a family unit of three, with an identity I could name and be confident in – wife, mother, self-employed writer/editor, active community member.

Months later, those foundations would come crumbling down as I struggled with my grief, feeling the shock of the unspeakable. Years later, I am rediscovering who I am in ways I could not have imagined. In a place I never imagined I’d be.

Sometimes it astonishes me, how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve traveled, all that God has done in my life, in those short 10 years.

For starters, I had to take on all the basic chores David did that I took for granted, like the grocery shopping, cooking, even the laundry. Yes, I was definitely spoiled.
And David liked to do things with precision and care, while I flitted through chores. And sometimes life.

After he died, I’d wished I’d paid more attention. To everything. How he prepared that special Panko-crusted salmon. How he handled a budget. How he folded those blasted fitted sheets.

Honest to God, nobody could fold fitted sheets like David. Not even my neat-freak friend who came over to do the laundry in my first week of grieving. She admitted she couldn’t do it with such precision.fold-fitted-sheets.jpg

It may seem funny, but every time I fold fitted sheets, I think of him. In this simple act, I remember so much love, care, nurturing, safety, and security. I know that’s a lot to see in a neatly folded sheet.

It’s a memory of a love that has carried and upheld me all these years. And it’s more than just David’s love. It’s a love in which we both exist.

So, I was willing to take that challenge. To go back and look at a picture of us. To reread and reflect on journal entries from that year.

What astonished me was how strong my faith was in the midst of such pain. How I was able to see and write about his death so clearly. How I was already deepening my trust in the Love to which I am being asked to surrender.

As one of my spiritual teachers says, the immediacy of what is is trustworthy. It’s all trustworthy. Because that is where God is, in the immediacy of this moment.

Since this is the 10th anniversary year, I’m going to risk sharing something very personal. It seems right to do so, to honor my love for David, to acknowledge the healing that can happen, and the amazing ways God can use us in the most painful of circumstances.

This entry is dated April 19, 2009, the day after he died:

My dearest David,

I can’t understand, so I won’t waste time trying. I know you wanted to be here for Davis. But although you can’t be here physically, your spirit is with us, and I know I will feel your presence throughout our lives. I know you’re going to help me from where you are. I also know that you are going to finally understand how much you are loved, and that gives me peace. No one loved me and accepted me and supported me as much as you did. You helped me to grow in so many ways. You were so devoted to me and to Davis. I tried to tell you how much I appreciated you, but it wasn’t enough – I know that because I needed to tell you this every day.

I’m going to miss you saying, “Hey, I didn’t get my kiss this morning.” And I’m going to miss you bringing me my coffee and doing all the little things you do to please me. I’m going to miss seeing the pleasure you got from Davis, witnessing how proud you were of him and how you would choke up talking about him sometimes. I’ll miss your generous heart, your bear hugs, your look of disgust at my wild ideas but how you went along with them anyway, your desire to help those in need, your willingness to see things differently, your wisdom in helping me to see things differently, your ability to turn to God under stress.

Everywhere you went, you thought of me and Davis. How could that be any different now? I KNOW this life is not the end of our journey. We were only beginning to deepen our soul’s journey together. It has been a very powerful and beautiful experience to share this life as your wife. I believe this – that I will recognize you in something or someone somewhere in a moment of awareness and my heart will smile because I will know you are with us.

People marvel at how I can be so strong. I am hurting, I cry, I’m deeply pained by the physical loss of you, but I believe we are being upheld in love and strength because both Davis and I know that in God we live and move and have our being. This experience truly solidifies that for me.”

So, I may not have learned how to properly fold fitted sheets in 10 years. But I have learned to discover grace in the painful challenges. And to trust where love wants to take me.

Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up
where you are.

You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different. Surrender.  (Rumi)

And in the End

in the end
Recognize this familiar lyric from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album?

I’ve been silently singing that one line for the past week. It showed up around the time Pres. Trump called our situation at the border “a humanitarian crisis.” I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.

I didn’t listen to his speech. I knew it would be filled with inaccuracies, exaggerations, and worse. So I stayed away. But I understand he used the word “crisis” at least six times. I also know that he called the situation at our border a crisis of our nation’s “heart and soul.”

Crisis – the word means “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” Its synonym is “disaster” – one of Trump’s favorite words.

I’d have to agree with him on this one – our nation’s heart and soul are in danger. But not for the reasons he implied.

We are in danger of losing our ability to recognize ourselves in one another. And, more troubling, we are in danger of losing our ability to trust love over fear.

Living at the border, I have a clearer picture of what that means.

I also have a better understanding of what living in “crisis” really means. Every day I have opportunities to witness how the migrant families we accompany live with intense difficulties, trouble, or danger, and, most of the time, with all three.

Every day I have opportunities to witness how these people, along with our volunteers, choose to trust love over fear.

16 writing prayers to god
Our families writing prayers to God

It’s a beautiful opportunity, to watch the power of love unfold, as we care for those in crisis and listen to their troubling stories.

In the process, my life and the lives of my fellow volunteers have been changed.

Here are some examples of what, to me, define crisis.

A Honduran minister came to us with his 10-year-old son. He was worried about being sent back because, in Honduras, he had started a successful clinic for drug addicts and, as a result, his son’s life had been threatened. The gangs felt he was taking business away from them by rehabilitating people.

An El Salvadoran woman had carried her handicapped son across Mexico while her 8-year-old son held the hand of her 4-year-old.  She fled because her husband had been killed and she was afraid that if she, too, were murdered, her children would end up on the street, and her handicapped son would be seen as useless and killed outright.

As a business owner, one mother from Guatemala constantly experienced extortion.  When it got tough for her to meet the gang’s demands, they threatened to return and take her daughter. She and her daughter left before they could fulfill that promise.

One man, headed to his sister’s in Los Angeles with his daughter, couldn’t sleep and needed help calming his nerves.  Turns out he had experienced the murder of five family members, one of whom had been shot in the face.

A 14-year-old boy from Honduras had walked for weeks with his father to arrive at the border.  When a volunteer noticed his swollen foot and ankle, she asked him to remove his shoe and sock. She was shocked to find very little skin remained on his toes and the bottom of his foot.  He had a fungal infection superimposed with a bacterial infection, yet he had not complained.

A Guatemalan mother arrived with two teenaged sons; a third, the eldest, had been killed by a gang, causing her to flee in fear of what might happen to her other two. She shared how she fears bringing them up in this new country, how they might be influenced by this culture. Does this sound like a woman who’s glad she left home and country?

She’s not alone. Many migrants tell us of the beauty of their country. Despite the violence, they miss home.

“Once there was a way to get back home…”

That’s another line from that Beatles’ tune.  It causes me to wonder, what if this is what it’s all about after all? Showing each other love to help us get back home.

In the end, isn’t it really all about how well you’ve learned to go beyond your fears? And how much love you’ve offered?

I’m here to tell you there is hope, even in the midst of this “crisis.”

quotes_creator_walking each other

Rediscovering Christmas (or How I Spent My Christmas Eve)

El Paso star
The El Paso Star atop the Franklin Mountains

Christmas Eve morning.

I open the doors of la sala, and the stench affronts my nostrils.

The odor of weary travelers who have not washed for days wafts through the air. I try not to breathe too deeply.  About 60 parents and their children sleep on blankets spread across the floor.

I am the shift coordinator at Loretto Nazareth. The person “in charge” for the next several hours. The one responsible for these refugees who were brought here last night to get them out of the cold after CBP deposited them onto the street. Combined with our other guests still sleeping snugly in their rooms, the number of people in my care totals well over 100.

Intake has not yet been done for those who arrived during the night. They’ll need orientation. Phone calls to relatives and sponsors will need to be made. Showers taken, clean clothing dispersed, and rooms assigned as available.

Because it’s Christmas, and because this situation has been on the local news, people continuously arrive at our door throughout the day. Some bring Christmas gifts. Toys for the children, new winter coats, fresh fruit, candy and cookies.

Others come offering assistance. “What can we do?”  They’ve left their Christmas Eve preparations behind.  One couple arrives with their adult son who’s visiting for Christmas. They help in the clothing room for a couple of hours before announcing they have to pick up their daughter flying in for the holiday. But before leaving, they ask if they can give any guests a lift to the airport. A husband and wife stop by to offer a room in their home. “We saw it on TV. We want to help.”

Nazareth winter coats 2018
Storing donations of 50 boxes of children’s brand new winter coats

The overabundance of gifts, the donations, the offers of help – one could simply attribute this to the Christmas spirit. But I know better. This is El Paso. This has been the community’s response for decades.

And what I am experiencing at Nazareth is happening in temporary shelters throughout the city.  Every day.  I only do this twice a week. Some do it every day.

But this special day happens to be particularly long.

Because it’s Christmas Eve, my replacement is with family. Other volunteers are ill. The Annunciation House volunteer in charge of scheduling us is doing her best to find someone. I wind up doing a 12-hour shift.Ruben G

Exhausting, but unusual for me. I think of Ruben, our director, and I wonder if he ever sleeps.

When I finally leave, feeling rundown and ready to crash, I consider reneging on my fellow volunteer’s unexpected invitation earlier that day. Discovering I’d be alone tonight, Yvonne insisted I share Christmas Eve dinner at her mother’s with her extended family.

I know if I go home now, I won’t eat. It’s better that I accept.

And I’m so glad I do.

Of Mexican-American heritage, Yvonne’s family treats me as their own. A stranger welcomed into their private lives on a very personal occasion. Yvonne even has gifts for me she somehow found time to purchase that afternoon.

Later at home, needing to unwind, I sit at the base of my Christmas tree where I’ve placed Yvonne’s precious gifts. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. For Yvonne’s generosity. Her family’s hospitality. For the people of El Paso. And for the sudden awareness of God’s gift in bringing me here. The amazing graces of this place.

It’s true, I missed being with my son. I didn’t get the warm coziness of Christmases past spent with my husband, the comfort of eggnog rum sipped by a glowing fire, Christmas carols sung outside my door, beautifully wrapped presents under the tree.

Instead I got something much more.

The gift of living out the Gospel narrative of the Nativity.

pregnant mary-on-donkey

I didn’t find it in the pretty, pale-faced figurines and the adorable sheep hovering over a babe laid in my manger beneath the tree. This romantic, cozy scene is nothing like the reality.

I found it in the remembered odor of la sala. In realizing that Joseph and Mary, weary travelers unable to wash for days along their long journey, would have had the same scent. Could their fears also be the same as our refugee families? Poor and away from home and loved ones, afraid in the night as they awaken in a strange environment?

I found it in the baby born in a dirty, smelly place in which his olive-skinned parents were only passing through. None of them were citizens of Bethlehem. Even the shepherds were nomads. Scruffy men adding to the stench with their wool coverings.

On a deeper level, I am shown God’s connection to the poor and lowly. God’s identification with the meek and uncertain beginnings of a child born not in his own land. Whether in Bethlehem or El Paso.

How could we celebrate Christmas and miss this message?

How could we miss the Christ born through the lowliness and surrendered “yes” of a young, migrant couple who listened, not to the law, but to their “inner authority”?

Yet, I am certain El Paso has not missed it.

The tremendous gift of love displayed that Christmas night is made visible in El Paso.

In our community’s unlimited generosity and selfless giving. In our volunteers, supporters, and donors. Here I find the manifestation of the Incarnation.

And not only on one night. Day after day, year after year, El Pasoans show up to serve the poor and lowly. They are teaching me the meaning of love incarnated. And, through this ministry, God is teaching me how to love “the lowly.”

To love the Christ, in all His manifestations.

 “Only the humble believe God and rejoice that God is so free and grand, that he works wonders where we lose heart, that he makes splendid what is slight and lowly. Indeed, this is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly. ‘God has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.’ God in lowliness—that is the revolutionary, the passionate word of Advent.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Holy Night

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.

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.
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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

Breaking Bread on the Journey

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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.

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“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.

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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.”

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“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)