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

 

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Wade in the Water

rio_grande

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

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

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

He did not make it across the Rio Grande.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juarez shelter
Juarez shelter; photo from El Paso Times

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

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

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

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

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

Still, the river can be deceptive.

The water churns, swirls, gains power.

So many stories are buried in its silt.

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

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

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

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Freedom and Solidarity

Sea lions closeup
Sea lions lounge together on rocks in Kenai Peninsula

Alaska.  What a spectacular, breathtaking vacation!

But I wasn’t two days into it when I realized something.

Just how much I needed this break.

How much I needed to relax.  Have fun. Do whatever the heck I wanted. And, most particularly, I needed to get away from the border.

Yes, I did say that.

It had become more of a weight than I realized. This daily barrage of disheartening news, of mistreatment of other human beings, of lack of due process and other human rights abuses.

I needed a break from the weight of our border reality.

And I didn’t know just how much until I had left it all behind.

My phone went silent. No more daily text messages about how many families were being sent to which shelters. How many volunteers were needed where.

No more disturbing news about what was happening — unless I chose to look at it on my phone.

And every day I got to choose.

Choose how I was going to spend the day. Where I was going to go. How long I’d stay. What and when I was going to eat. Whether or not I wanted to splurge on some unanticipated treat.

Plane view
My biggest treat – the view from this 4-seater plane

Adventure was my companion. Spontaneity became my best friend.

I felt special, spoiled, so grateful, and so free.

As I reflected at the end of each day, I saw how privileged I was to have such freedom. I also noticed how easy it is to to get lost in a bubble – that kind of enclosed space in which only what affects me, and those I care about, is all that matters.

It’s true I had to put El Paso aside for awhile. To not think about the border. Yet, despite the need for self-care, I found I could not take the people out of my heart. I know this because I readily and easily talked about the border situation whenever anyone asked me where I was from or what I did.

One stranger who sat down next to me at the Seattle airport in between connections genuinely thanked me afterwards for informing her about this side of the immigration story.

Being a voice of truth in solidarity with those who are hurting is a responsibility that I believe comes with this unbelievable freedom.

Tomorrow is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its abolition. This is another area in which I am coming to better understand my privileged freedom. And the need for solidarity.

Recently I heard from a presenter at our gathering in Albuquerque that as a result of our Living School experience, we are more aware of the pain in the world. Certainly the Living School has brought more awareness to the plight of people of color and of the marginalized.

I think that what is also true is that as a result of my experiences at the border and my exposure to the driving factors of migration, I am more aware of the pain in the world.

And in my awareness of this pain lies my awareness of my responsibility to be in solidarity with a hurting world.

No matter where I find myself. Whether doling out donations to migrants or gliding over gorgeous glaciers in Denali.

Ann Voskamp Quotes_Creator

 

Love in #ElPaSOStrong

El Paso Strong Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Paso Strong

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

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

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

Immediately I felt my own tears.

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

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

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

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

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

As Bishop Seitz said, prayer heals.

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

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

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

And love is stronger than death.

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

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

She Knocks

child-knocking-on-door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I know need a little help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In one of her last letters, Etty prophetically writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Sold Out

Voice of voiceless statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now she is facing federal charges.

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

No matter the current political climate.

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

Unfortunately, we as a nation are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I believe our country is at a crossroads.

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

Let us declare that these truths are not for sale.

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

#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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Beautiful Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agreed, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredible, because of how it spoke to my heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not just anyone.

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

I knew I was home.Quotes_Creator_no estas solo

 

To Live While Dying

Sr Janets memorial

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

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

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

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

That’s not just some cliché.

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

white rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cause No Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused and looked at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

And more than that.

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

Janet McKenzie_Jesus
“Jesus at Gethsemani” painting by Janet McKenzie