A Friend Such as Rob, #LegacyofLove

Reunion Sept 2019
Rob, surrounded by some of the many women who loved him

Why are we here? Ever ponder that question? My dear friend Rob lived the answer.

It’s hard for me to write about someone so special to me who’s not yet been gone two weeks from this life.

But Rob’s legacy deserves to be shared. And his legacy as my friend and “brother” is something I need to write, to honor one of the most important men in my life. That’s not an exaggerated statement. Although Rob wasn’t my blood brother, he couldn’t have been closer to me if we had been born of the same mother. He knew me so well, and understood and accepted me better than any sibling.

And he taught us all so much.

Of course, if Rob were alive, he’d be reading this rolling his eyes and leaving some sarcastic comment. And he most certainly would be reading it, because Rob read and commented on nearly every post I’ve written since I started this blog 6 1/2 years ago! He only missed in the past couple of months as his beleaguered breathing made even getting up out of bed a chore.

So, why read this post if you didn’t know Rob? Because you’ll learn something about what it means to live with courage and humility, to live your life to its fullest expression, even, and especially, in the face of a disease that you know will take you too soon. Maybe you’ll understand a little more about the true meaning of the words “surrender,” “acceptance,” and “loving presence.”

And if you’re lucky, you’ll encounter someone like Rob whose unique expression of love for you will arrive exactly when you need it. And it will forever impact how you love others going forward.

I met Rob late summer 2008, less than a year before my beloved David died. We’d met at Sevenoaks, months before we were to start the Pathwork program together. Yet, without hesitation, Rob hopped in the car for the 4-hour drive from Raleigh to attend David’s memorial service.

Two weeks later, I was in this terribly painful place. If you’ve experienced the sudden death of a spouse, you know what I’m talking about. All your family and friends have gone home and the shock of what happened sets in. The going to bed every night and waking up every morning alone seems unbearable. You wonder if you’ll get swallowed up in this grief. That’s where I was. So, I picked up the phone early Saturday morning and called Rob, not knowing he wasn’t at home in Raleigh, but visiting friends off the coast of Seattle, where it was 3 hours earlier. Not yet dawn.

It didn’t matter. He got out of bed and stepped outside so as to not disturb anyone else in the house. He listened. He cried with me. And he let his heart stretch as he both stayed with me in my suffering and witnessed an amazing sunrise over Mt. Rainier. Wanting to share that precious moment, he described the beauty unfolding before him, and he helped me recognize that beauty and joy could exist simultaneously with pain and sorrow. That all of it was moving and flowing, and held by a loving God.

dawn at mt Rainier
Dawn at Mt. Rainier

Rob, being the poet that he was, wrote a beautiful poem about that experience – a powerful moment that solidified our heart connection.

From then on, Rob became my #1 supporter, thoroughly trusted friend, and personal cheerleader.

I grieved. He listened.

I wrote. He read and encouraged me to publish my writing.

I loved to dance. He introduced me to InterPlay – improvisational movement, because he knew I needed this freedom of expression in my life.

I questioned my decisions as a single mother handling a teenage son. He offered his wisdom and experience from raising three sons.

I anguished over what to do with David’s many and varied collections. He helped wherever he could, including hauling shopping bags full of David’s tee shirts – collected from every place we’d visited – to his quilter friend in Raleigh. She made two gorgeous quilts: one for me and one for Davis. And when Rob delivered them, he sat with me as I fingered the material and cried over the memories.

I became passionate about immigration and human rights abuses and moved to El Paso. He sent me links to related articles, financially supported my causes, and connected me to a teacher friend offering a segment on immigration at a private middle school, who then invited me to do a presentation for her classes.

I wondered, with David gone, who would remember my birthday and special dates? Rob kept a record and sent greetings on that morning, letting me know he was thinking of me. Even this April, in the midst of tough nights and sometimes rougher mornings, he sent me a message on the anniversary of David’s death.

quilt2
My exquisite quilt of David’s tee shirts

All these gifts – and so much more – Rob gave me. I’ve been considering what I possibly gave him in return. Except my love. I hope that was enough.

Rob didn’t need much else. He had an ever-widening circle of friends as his heart opened further and further. He had a devoted and fulfilling relationship with his wife Maureen. She was his confidante, his support, his first and only love for more than 47 years.

All this Rob did while balancing his own journey with death as cancer arrived in his body less than two years after we’d met. Then I, along with Maureen and all his friends, received the gift of watching a transformation happen, as Rob walked, and sometimes crawled, along the spiritual path cancer took him on. Not easy for a man who was used to being in control.

In this “divine dance,” as he called it, he learned to let go of his ego’s attachment to self-importance and self-reliance. He slowly put down his roles as a knowledgeable physician and “fixer.”

And he let the Divine teach him to be astonished by the sacredness of life. To be present to whomever was standing in front of him, from a much softer, vulnerable place. To risk fully expressing all his gifts, with spontaneity and joy.

It was a beautiful dance to observe. Although painful, because we knew the outcome.

Still, as Rob demonstrated, no one can grow or be transformed living in a bubble of comfort. He struggled with painful challenges, with wanting to be alive for his newly arrived grandchildren.

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Rob with first grandchild, Nina

But he also recognized graces, small miracles “happening all around us if our eyes are open enough to see and our hearts are soft enough to feel.”

 

To me, this expresses how Rob came to terms with his “powerlessness”:

“Transformation is not about great spiritual experiences but coming to terms with our own human weakness as we experience it. … [P]owerlessness is the greatest power there is because it enables one to simply be more and more a channel of God’s power and love.” (Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable)

If our purpose here is to care for one another, to become fuller expressions of God’s power and love, then, Rob, you definitely accomplished that mission. Yes, my dear friend, I am amazed and grateful for having you in my life. What a gift it’s been to have such a friend!

“To be human

Is to become visible

While carrying

What is hidden

As a gift to others.”

 (From David Whyte’s: “What to Remember When Waking”)

 

 

On Being a Midwife

egg nest-843231_1920Today is a special day. April 18th. The anniversary of David’s death.

But this year, it’s especially meaningful because that date falls on the same place in “time” that it fell on the day David passed. Easter Saturday.

Knowing that this sacred season is filled with special graces, I’ve been taking it slow, going within. Paying attention. And I’ve received one heck of an unexpected, insightful gift. From an unlikely source. The popular Netflix series “Call the Midwife,” based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of midwifery in 1950’s poverty-stricken East London

First off, I should explain that I’m always behind when it comes to watching anything on TV or otherwise. So, you’ll understand when I say I’m only on season 1. Last week I was watching episode 7, a Christmas story about a newborn being abandoned on the convent steps by an unwed teenager. But it was the scenes around the tragic life of Mrs. Jenkins that held my unexpected gift.

Years earlier, newly widowed with five children to feed, Mrs. Jenkins had made the excruciating decision of turning herself and her brood over to the “care” of one of England’s notorious workhouses. All of her children had died there, malnourished and mistreated. Now she lives in abominable conditions, neglecting her health and hygiene, and the midwife/nurse Jenny Lee is sent to care for her.

In one particularly moving scene, Nurse Jenny, joined by Sr. Evangelina, comes to her home to bathe her. Like a silent intruder, I watch as the two women attempt to remove Mrs. Jenkins’ shoes, stuck to her feet after all these years, and tenderly disrobe her for her bath. With her thin, naked back exposed, O Come, O Come Emmanuel plays over this intimate undertaking. Surely this is God dwelling with us and in us, so evident by the love and care with which these two women lower Mrs. Jenkins into the bath, cover her frontal area as they sponge her back so that she will not feel any shame or discomfort. She appears wide-eyed in disbelief over what they are doing for her.

I cry easily. This selfless act strikes my heart open. No doubt because it’s achingly beautiful.

But it’s something more.

Something deeper that I can’t yet express or identify. The removal of Mrs. Jenkin’s shoes, the tender touches the two women applied to her body. The water and washing.  The one who had difficulty accepting and receiving such care.

It’s all so familiar.

It takes a few days before I understand this scene’s personal significance. Before another tender scene involving water and washing surfaces in my memory.  A scene involving someone who also had difficulty receiving. My husband.

It’s January 2009. David is cashing in on a silly gift I’d given him for New Year’s Eve: a handwritten, magic marker-colored I.O.U. for a foot bath and massage.

David was the serious one in our relationship. I was the let’s-find-some-new-adventure half of our marriage. While he provided stability and focus, I dabbled in creativity and wonderment. Knowing that he would ignore this holiday, let it pass without any fanfare, as he would have so many others if not for me and Davis, I decided to come up with a novel idea. Create a stack of I.O.U.’s, each one a personal treat: a free backscratching, dinner at his favorite restaurant, homemade breakfast any weekend. He chose the foot bath and massage first.

foot-massage-2133279_1920It’d be an understatement to say I was surprised. David – agreeing to such indulgent treatment? David, the guy who could barely handle receiving attention on his birthdays?

But I was grateful. Grateful for this opportunity to lavish him with care.

And months later, I would be grateful for this memory.

As I prepared the footbath, David sat waiting quietly in his favorite easy chair. He wore his terrycloth robe – the one article of clothing I would hold onto longer than anything else he’d owned, as if his scent would never fade. I placed the footbath on the carpet before his feet. And now, this man, this devoted husband who’d given me so much through our years together, allowed me to kneel before him and lovingly wash and caress his tired feet, to gingerly massage his toes, bent and inflamed with diabetes, to rub lotion on his calloused heels, hardened by years of neglect. In giving this to him, I received in return his humble appreciation, visible in his moist eyes as he simply said afterward, “Thank you, honey. That’s the best gift you could’ve given me.”

It was the last gift I would give him. And it turned out to be his gift to me.

Less than three months later he would die unexpectedly. A heart attack taking him too soon on that glorious Easter Saturday morning. A morning not unlike the one I experienced today.

Call Jennifer shell broken

In the Midwife episode, after her bath, Mrs. Jenkins appears to be renewed. Wearing the new coat Nurse Jenny obtained for her, she walks upright, no longer carrying the weight of shame. She’s recognized something in herself through the eyes of love. Through their tender attentiveness, Nurse Jenny and Sr. Evangelina had practiced a different kind of midwifery.

A midwife is an intermediary, someone who meets you in the middle of what you’re expecting and assists you all the way through it to the other side. Hadn’t that been what I had done for David, without even realizing it? Holding that in-between space for him? Helping him to receive and accept the selfless, abundant love that awaited him over the threshold he would soon cross?

The irony is that David had been an arbitrator, a labor relations mediator. He had been the one who’d calmly held this in-between place for others, the place between what is and what is possible. He had taught me how to be that for him.

Eleven years is a long time. I no longer grieve as I once did, no longer fear that the well of grief is bottomless. It isn’t.

I have learned that love takes many forms. That it truly is stronger than death. That every act of self-giving love, of selfless service, brings us closer to the threshold of waking up into who we truly are. The Beloved in God.

Maybe I did walk David home.  Maybe I helped him cross that threshold.  And maybe once again, it’s David who’s given me the real gift.

walking each other

Over the Bridge

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Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

On Thursday I ventured over the Bridge of the Americas into Juarez. Not quite like over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

Not at all.

I was on a mission. And I didn’t have a song in my heart or a pumpkin pie in my lap. I simply carried the two things I knew I would need: my passport and my willingness.

It turned out to be more than enough.

We rode in a nondescript white van – myself and two fellow female volunteers. Our driver, a 29-year-old Peace Lutheran volunteer and grad student, had crammed boxes filled with satchels of toiletries and packages of new underwear for adults and children into the back. Insulated bags of warm burritos sat on the floor behind me.

Our destination – no shelter of warmth, but pop-up campsites just over the border where dozens of families had erected tents while they await their “turn” to cross the bridge and request asylum.

These “campers” were mostly Mexican nationals fleeing violence in their home states. Places like Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Guerrero, where cartels seemed to be especially powerful. Places where they’d left behind family homes. Maybe a small farm or herd of animals. Maybe not much of anything. Except their fears about keeping themselves and their children safe.

But Customs and Border Protection agents stop them before they can cross one of the international bridges. They’re told CBP can’t handle them. They’ll have to put their names on a list and wait until their number is called. A process called “metering.”

Over the months since this practice has been put into place, asylum-seeking families, afraid to lose their place in line, have pitched tents close to the bridges. And they wait.

In the meantime, church groups from El Paso all the way to Las Cruces have been bringing food over almost daily. Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarians…they come to feed the people stranded here.

This was to be my first experience witnessing these campsites.

I didn’t know what to expect.

So my prayer before starting out that morning had been that I would have eyes to “see.” That I would be open to whatever I would encounter at the tent “city” where we were to deliver these donations.

The camp is easy to spot. A nest of tents encircling a small park. Wet clothing hanging from atop fences and trees.

Juarez tent city
One of the little tent encampments we visited

As soon as we park and unload, people start lining up. They are used to this routine.

But, once they see the goodies I have in these boxes, it doesn’t take long before any semblance of a line dissolves. Eager children surround me.

I finally stop trying to tell the children to get in line. I let go of my desire to make it more orderly, each one waiting his or her turn. I simply give everything away until the boxes are empty.

Afterwards, while another volunteer pours extra water into people’s empty containers, I speak with a couple of the women. How long have you been waiting to be called, I want to know? Two months, they both say.

Two months! Just to cross over and be processed!

I want to ask if they’re aware they will have to come back here and wait again. Unless they are lucky enough to be released to their family sponsors.

I want to ask if they know how slim their chances are.

Maybe they do. Maybe they know that, especially for Mexicans, the chances of winning asylum are remote.

But maybe they have no place else to go. Maybe they figure even a glimmer of hope is worth holding onto while they sleep on the ground.

As I listen, I realize that I have never known such desperation. I cannot identify with these women living in little tents covered with plastic garbage bags in a crowded and dangerous city. I have nothing to compare it to. I feel so disconnected.

Later, reflecting on this experience, I remember my intention. My willingness to see.

So, I look up the definition of “connection.” human-connection2

The relationship among people and objects across the barrier of space.

 

And then I remember something. Words that come in so clearly in the middle of my meditation:

“Have you been with me this long and still do not see me? Not know me?”

Humbled by how blind I am, I say again, “I want to see.”

 

It had seemed like such a small action. This crossing the bridge to hand out food and new underwear.

But it wasn’t. Not for them. And certainly not for me.

Because taking this small step has shown me. Your love is the bridge. Your love is the connection to recovering my sight.

And I know the way by heart.

Lord I want to see

 

 

 

A Conversation with the Moon

heart-moon

A spiritual connection can come so easily in nature. At least it does when I am open and trusting, like a child, to the mystery. That’s when I discover nature gifts me with answers to my inner questions.

Recently, it happened my last night in Paria Canyon – my last night sleeping under the Milky Way. I had left the cover of my tent off so I could gaze up at the nearly full moon and the preponderance of stars filling the heavens. Feeling comforted and secure, I asked the moon about a concern I had on my heart – a concern about suffering.

And I fell asleep with Sister Moon shining into my tent.

During the night, she gave me a powerful insight through my dreams. I scribbled it all down in my journal, and maybe I will write about it more in depth later on.

But journaling about that experience reminded me of another conversation I’d had with the moon.

Late March 2014.  I had just returned from my first time volunteering in El Paso. The two months I’d spent there had affected me in ways I hadn’t expected. I felt changed somehow.

Already, I was transitioning from my life in rural Virginia.

But I didn’t know that then.

I’d like to share that 2014 journal entry.  Because it expresses the uncertainty I felt about the way forward. It reveals how Love upheld me in my loneliness. And it affirms the benefit of listening inwardly.

God did speak to me in the silence of my heart. And I’ve learned how to listen.

overlooking great room
Looking out the windows from the staircase of my log home

March 2014: Last night I had a conversation with the moon.

It’s easy to do, where I’m living now, from my log home in the woods. Standing in my great room, its huge A-frame windows opening to the trees and sky, I noticed the misty white light pouring in, casting itself in great gulps across my country carpet with its images of bears and moose and acorns.

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the expansive sky filled with stars tried to soothe and remind me that I am not alone.

loft_sideview
The rafters in my great room

It feels so very different from my sojourn in El Paso – this place in the woods.  Here it’s absolutely still.

When I pause and listen, I hear complete silence. Only the occasional light tinkling of my wind chimes dangling from my porch as a breeze catches them. A gentle interjection. No freight trains blaring their horns as they cross intersections. The daily trains passing through El Paso are a distant memory now. The open, expansive sky hovering above millions of twinkling yellow lights dancing across two border cities – it too has faded. Replaced by a sheath of woods, concealing all neighbors.

So, I asked the moon – my most attentive neighbor – what am I doing back here? In the silence and solitude. Is it to regain my balance? Is it to truly learn what patience and trust mean?

I tend to believe this prayer that I have been saying regularly: “I am exactly where I am meant to be.”  I whispered it to myself in the moonlight. And Sister Moon, she seemed to nod in agreement, reassuring me in the silence.

In the morning, I am greeted by a plump robin perched on a branch as I take my daily morning walk down my long gravel driveway. In the midst of the waning winter cold and these bare branches, I recognize the nourishment that’s been given this creature. She’s obviously been fed well and is quite healthy as she awaits spring’s return. Spirit has given me a gift this morning through this robin – an awareness of God’s providential care.

I begin to notice a few other signs of life.

The bird’s nest in the rafters on my porch.

The small stream of water that runs down the hillside of my property.

But no other human voice. No other sound to match the sighing of my breath as the day passes as it has like so many before it: soundlessly.

Is this how You are caring for me? Through the lonely, silent beauty of nature? What am I to make of this? Whom can I talk to, besides the sky and the earth and the moon?  I am seeking answers, and they come so slowly, so subtly, through these sources. Maybe that is the point. Maybe the answer I seek will come through the uncertainty in waiting. Maybe this is how You have been asking me to listen all along – in the solitude of nature, in the silence of my own heart.

“You will hear my voice in the silence”

A Pilgrim in #Paria

Tiny figures against red rocks

May I stay forever in the stream.”

These poetic words from Mary Oliver were the farthest from my mind while hiking in Paria Canyon recently.

In fact, my mantra had become two simple words: “Stay upright.”

A prayer I uttered to the heavens each day as I focused on my footing while keeping up with my more experienced comrades.

Because between avoiding shoe-sucking mud resembling quicksand, stepping in and out of a flowing stream strewn with glistening rocks, and learning to lift my own weight along with a heavy backpack onto rocks above knee height, keeping my balance was not guaranteed. Teetering on my own two feet is something I do on a good day when I’m walking on a flat sidewalk carrying nothing more than a set of car keys and a cell phone.

I actually did quite a bit of praying on this adventure.

Not that I was scared. My trepidation pretty much disappeared after the first day. That is, once I’d decided to stop listening to that voice in my head questioning what the hell I thought I was doing when I’d agreed to let this challenging, narrow canyon be my first-ever backpacking trip.

I had to make up my mind to get beyond the discomforts. Things like constantly walking in wet shoes with sand and silt that, by the end of the day, lay heavy on the top of my socks, and attempting to accurately use and carry “human waste bags” – these were completely new experiences for me. And they were a little disconcerting.

Outside my tent that first night, the repetitive rhythm of the stream running by and the innumerable stars overhead soothed me. Seeing the massive Milky Way again reminded me of the last place I’d seen it so visibly – my Virginia home in the woods. A place where, despite the challenges that came with living alone and so close to nature, I’d often received spiritual gifts and guidance.

Here, with the majestic beauty of the red canyons rising up around me in the darkening sky, I chose to fall into trusting the rhythm of this adventure, to regard it as a pilgrimage, for that’s what it was. A journey into a place of raw and glorious nature. A place where I felt small and insignificant.

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As I prayed to let go, I knew that in my insignificance lies the presence of the Infinite.

My prayer transformed my attitude overnight. I eased into the next day. Slipping on my still-wet shoes, I silently chanted my usual morning psalm, and off I went, both my head and my footsteps lighter.

In fact, I felt so light, I volunteered to carry an extra bladder of water, increasing the weight of my pack to about 30 pounds. Since fresh water springs were few and far between, this would become a regular practice, but for now, I happily took on this new experience. My two-word mantra ever present.

By late afternoon, my toes hurt, the heat of the sun bore down on my bare arms, and the additional weight of the pack on my back began to strain my right shoulder. A memory surfaced. Davis, 3 years old, plopping himself down in the dirt, whining and claiming he couldn’t make it up the hill we were climbing on our way back from a hike. I hoisted him up and continued on, stopping every now and then to readjust his weight on my back or catch my breath. How much did he weigh then, I wondered?

This question swiftly turned my attention to other memories. Memories of stories from others who journey across uncertain and uncomfortable paths. Across sand and desert carrying, not 30-lb backpacks, but 30- or 40-lb children on their backs.

As I walked, I carried the stories of the people I have accompanied. The story of the mother who carried her disabled child. The story of the 19-year-old who carried a pregnancy caused by her rapist in a homeland where no one could protect her. The story of the boy who carried nothing, except the pain of badly blistered feet.

I also carried the story of my privilege, to be able to take this journey for pleasure. A story that would end in a few days, with a hot shower and a cheeseburger with fries and a beer waiting for me at Marble Canyon Lodge.

I forgot about my feet. My prayer turned to the people. For their journey.

I cannot separate myself from them. Any more than I could separate myself from the mud always at my feet or the clumps of tiny red and violet flowers that popped up along the path or the towering red sandstone.

Gorgeous view

This is the collective story. It belongs to the Infinite. And I must honor it all.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”
Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays

This is what it means to be a pilgrim on a journey.

Spiritually Fed

Sevenoaks Sanctuary
The “little sanctuary” at Sevenoaks in Madison, Virginia

I’ve recently returned from a week-long visit back east. My Virginia friends will probably wonder why I didn’t tell them I was coming. But this trip was solely for a reunion at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison.

At least that’s what I thought when I started planning it. However, God had other plans.

Before long nearly 100 middle schoolers had entered the picture.  But more on that in a moment.

First, I need to express how spiritually nourished I felt being back at Sevenoaks. The minute I stepped on that 130-acre wooded property again, I began to remember the many graces I’d received throughout my years there.

Sevenoaks is a special place where I and these now very close friends had first met and gathered more than 10 years ago, to begin some deep work together. It was a journey towards healing and transformation.  With lots of pain, and pleasure, too, along the way.  The opportunity came at a time when I was ready, and in need of taking that journey. I started this program only months before David died.

Sometimes, because I lived only minutes away, I would come over just to spend time on the land. To be alone in the sacredness of nature. And to listen to God speak to my inner being. And it was there in the silence of nature and in the depth of that program that I had begun to understand that God had placed a new calling on my heart.

And now here I was again surrounded and held by Mother Earth, the forests, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rich, red earth. Whether standing amidst a grove of cedars, meditatively walking the labyrinth under a canopy of trees, or praying in the little sanctuary in the woods, all of it filled my heart and soul with gratitude.

Sevenoaks Cedar Circle
Entrance to my favorite path at Sevenoaks

I thought I was spiritually filled up.

And then I headed to Raleigh.

My plan had been that, on the tail end of my trip, I would drive down with my friend Rob and spend the remainder of my time with him and his wife before flying out of Raleigh the next day. It was unusual for me to book an afternoon flight when traveling back to El Paso from the East Coast. Especially with the 2-hour time difference. But at the time I didn’t think much about why I hadn’t scheduled a morning flight.

Not until weeks later when the “coincidence” surfaced.

Rob discovered that Lucy, a family friend and teacher of World History and Language Arts at a private middle school in the Raleigh area, was offering her 7th graders a long-term program focusing on the various issues of immigration and refugees. When Rob told her where I lived and what I did, she wanted to know if I’d come speak to her classes about El Paso and my experiences at our border.

I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

What has been so difficult for those of us living in El Paso these days is not being able to do much in the face of the alarming and false anti-immigrant narrative and policies that are sending asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Juarez. Most Americans have no understanding of the border reality. I had been praying and asking God, what can I do now in the service of love? Making PB&J sandwiches didn’t seem to be enough. I had turned back to writing more.

And then I received Lucy’s invitation.

If I was willing, she wanted me to give presentations to all four classes, back to back, enabling me to reach all 7th graders. That meant I would have to be there the entire morning.

Now I understood why I had delayed my flight. I could say yes to Lucy. And yes to what I clearly felt was Spirit’s response to my prayer.

After standing before students for 3 ½ hours, my mouth dry, my mind feeling like mush, I realized I had never spoken so long in my life. And never so effortlessly and smoothly. Never had I taken follow-up questions so easily. Clearly I had gotten myself out of the way and let Spirit take over. Clearly it wasn’t “me” doing the talking.

I had simply asked to be a voice, an instrument, through which Spirit could reach the hearts of these youths.

And the best part was I could tell they were listening. They were engaged. By their surprised expressions and concerned questions, I knew that they were learning about something they had had no clear understanding of beforehand.

Afterwards, Lucy and her colleague Matt were so appreciative of my willingness to do this. But they have no idea how thankful I am for them. How grateful I am to know there are teachers like this who want to educate youth about all sides of such an important issue, help them think for themselves, and learn empathy along the way.

Certainly they have no clue how I was spiritually fed that morning. How they allowed me to be a voice for those God has clearly put on my heart. And to have had it be part of my journey back to Sevenoaks seems especially mystical.

El Paso star
The journey of following the star led from Sevenoaks to El Paso

 

The Humanity Before Us

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The young mother was still breastfeeding when they took her from her baby. She was only 16, giving Immigration the right to put her in a detention facility for minors.

It didn’t seem to matter – what that meant, removing her from her husband and 5-month-old daughter with whom she was traveling. She was considered an “illegal.” She had no rights. The action taken didn’t have to make sense.

But I’m afraid this post isn’t about recounting a story from last summer, when ICE was separating parents from their children. Nope. It happened just four days ago.

Santiago, her 21-year-old husband, showed up at our shelter, carrying their fussing baby and a heaviness we couldn’t help him shake.

The volunteer doing intake held her emotions intact as he sputtered the details of his story. But the child, free to express herself, howled and squirmed in her father’s arms.

Santiago attempted to keep his voice level. But he could barely hold it together. How was he going to feed this child, he wanted to know? What would she eat without her mother’s milk and nourishment? Would she survive?

He peppered questions at Sr. Lil, my friend who was shift coordinator at Nazareth that day.

As his sad tale spread, the other mothers crowded around him. The women took turns holding the little girl close to their chest, snuggling against her neck, cooing sweetly in Spanish. A few offered to coax the little one to suckle the nipple of a plastic baby bottle we happened to have on hand. Someone filled it with bottled water and Nido powdered formula – a popular brand with our Central American families. Another one showed Santiago how to hold the baby as she was nursing so she’d feel secure.

baby-bottle-feeding-bw
Sample stock photo; not our “real” baby

But who would help him feel secure, I wondered?

Luckily, a doctor who occasionally volunteers her time at Nazareth happened to show up that day. She checked the baby and reassured Santiago that not only was his daughter in good health, but she would adjust to the formula. She would survive. No need for him to worry about that.

Yes, she would survive. Children often do. No matter what they’ve experienced. Surviving and thriving are two different things, however.

And what about the baby’s mother? I think about her in a facility with other teenagers. I wonder if her nipples are leaking. If that heaviness she’s feeling in her breasts and in her heart closes in on her at night when she longs for her child. I wonder if she attempts to hide her breasts and her despair in her aloneness. Or if she’s found a friend in whom to confide.

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What it’s like for our young mother in detention

I’ve never met this mom. I didn’t meet Santiago either, or his little girl. Lil told me about them the day after it happened, her voice unable to hide the distress still lurking in her heart.

I wish I could tell you I’ve gotten used to these stories. That my heart doesn’t feel for this young family, especially the mother.

But then again, I’m glad I haven’t “gotten used to it,” that I haven’t numbed myself to what hurting people feel. That I can remember what it was like to be a mother to a little one, to hold my nursing baby in my arms, in awe of this wordless bond we’d created.

I don’t apologize for citing the preciousness of such a bond. Nor for calling out the cruelty of separating a mother and her breastfeeding baby.

I wonder, if God loves as a mother, how can we ignore the divinity in the human love of a mother for her child? And be the one to cause such suffering?

Yes, I hear about the numbers coming. I know it’s challenging for us. We’re doing the best we can here in El Paso. And that’s the question I ask of myself, and of all of us – Are we doing the best we can to address the humanity before us? To consider that maybe there are more positive solutions to what we’re calling a “humanitarian crisis”? And to ensure we do not have a hand in causing the suffering.

How Did I Get Here?

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Bishop Mark Seitz, of diocese of El Paso, offers a prayer at the interreligious service at Anapra border wall

Some days I wonder.

Like today as I found myself at the border wall in Anapra singing songs, listening to Scripture, and spotting now-famous faces who had come to join our interreligious border witness ceremony sponsored by the Hope Border Institute. Catholic bishops from all over Texas and Mexico’s border cities joined local rabbis, priests-both male and female-, social activists, and, of course, Catholic sisters, who have a mighty presence in El Paso, in a sign of solidarity.

We were here, at the border fence in Anapra, to offer public witness to the real-life stories of real immigrants who are part of our community. To respond to what Bishop Seitz calls “dark times.” To show that those of us who have real-life encounters with immigrants have a different view of this so-called emergency.

I came across so many friends and dear acquaintances in the crowd it took me awhile before I realized Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was among us.

I had to stand back for a moment and take it all in.

How did I get to this place in the desert that has now become oft-mentioned in the news?

A place that is portrayed in varying ways depending on who’s doing the portraying and their political agenda.

A place that has become, for me, an unexpectedly beautiful community.

One that stretches in solidarity all the way from Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley to Las Cruces, NM. And now up to Albuquerque– another community that has begun to receive asylum seekers released by ICE.

A solidarity that even extends to the other side of that wall where people from Anapra, the poorest barrio in Ciudad Juarez, sang of joy and hope and the promise of God, as we snapped pics through the slats in the iron fence and exchanged blessings.

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Photo taken through slats of border wall of Corpus Christi parish musicians in Anapra

And even on THAT side of the fence I recognized people I know.

Like Sr. Josefina with whom I stayed for a weekend in Juarez five years ago when I first came here to volunteer. It had been my first experience with devastating poverty. I had returned to Virginia forever changed.

And Fr. Bill Morton, the Columban father who chose to leave El Paso and live with the poor in Anapra. He’s happier than he’s ever been.

These faces, these stories– they answer the question of how I got here.

The Spirit that spoke to me then is just as strong now. I feel it as I look over the crowd of like-minded souls. I hear it as I’m blasted by the sound of the train barreling through, yards behind our ceremony — its deafening horn a regular “treat” in El Paso. I see it in the golden hues of the setting sun enveloping the Franklin mountains.

These are each precious evidence of a God who astonished me by putting this place on my heart.

I listened. Now I’m here.

And in the End

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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.

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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.”

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The Birthday Gift

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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