#COVIDA, A Pandemic’s Lessons about Love

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Italian men performing under quarantine (Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

My 85-year-old friend Sr. Bea stands in the doorway with tears in her eyes. She wants to hug me. We cannot touch. I know she loves me, and she knows I, her.

There is something both so sweet and sad about this moment. I do not know when we will be able to hug again because of this coronavirus pandemic. Or even see each other. She seems frail and vulnerable as she hesitates to say goodbye and tries to hide her tears.

This moment is so beautifully vivid in my awareness now. The preciousness of life and of our love for one another. How much I treasure life, love, deep connection with others.

I think of my son, far up in Nome. The special moments we had nearly two weeks ago. Before COVID-19 had reached Alaska. Before Nome would nearly double in population as strangers descended upon it for the end of the Iditarod, making that little town susceptible. I had thought he would be safe, unaffected by the virus. Luckily, he remains healthy.

No matter where we live or who we are, our lives are being affected. We find ourselves coexisting in the midst of something that is not understandable nor within our control. Yet this pandemic has the potential to teach us something invaluable: how we are inexplicably connected.

That’s why I have renamed this virus COVIDA – vida being the Spanish word for “life.”  Because we truly are in this life together. We cannot separate ourselves from that fact. We live on this planet together. We breathe together.

And, as we are witnessing, in reality, no physical barriers can separate us. No 18 ft-tall steel border wall can protect us. When something like this hits, we understand that globally, we are connected. Global solidarity does matter.

From a spiritual perspective, a crisis has the potential to heal and bring us together in ways that nothing else can. It can teach us, “wake us up” to how we have been living, how we have been treating ourselves, each other, and our Mother Earth. It can teach us what we need to change. Reconnect us with our spiritual grounding, cause us to turn to our spiritual practices. Remind us of the spiritual laws of love, of brotherhood/ sisterhood, of our responsibility for one another.

Most importantly, it can remind us to turn to love rather than fear. The Love that loves us so and mysteriously “sustains us, in everything,” as my teacher Jim Finley would say.

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Like most people, I have been paying attention to the news. But in small doses. What has struck and uplifted me are the positive and beautiful ways people have been finding to connect. As if they cared. As if we matter to each other.

As if we instinctively know that we don’t have to physically connect to touch someone’s heart.

Strangers are performing selfless acts of kindness: neighbors offering to get groceries for the elderly and homebound, high schools donating medical supplies and face masks to hospitals, volunteers “staffing” food banks and delivering food to low-income children who are missing their school lunches. And, most importantly of all are those selfless nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals who are working such long hours and returning, day after day, to exposure to this virus.

Then there are those positive social media messages and videos. Like the young Danish doctor happy to be able to give back to her country and the elderly who supported her education and career: https://www.boredpanda.com/danish-doctor-wants-to-pay-back-to-her-country-during-coronavirus/?utm_source=smartnews&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=organic

Or the many virtual communal prayer or meditation offerings. Like Contemplative Outreach’s “United in Prayer” Day this Saturday, March 21st: https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/2020-united-prayer-day

Or like blogger Cameron Bellm, a contemplative, “writer of prayers,” and Seattle mom of two boys, who wrote this beautiful Prayer for a Pandemic

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Cameron’s prayer found at http://krugthethinker.com/2020/03/prayer-for-a-pandemic/   

As Pope Francis counseled recently, “Don’t waste these difficult days….We must rediscover the concreteness of little things, small gestures of attention we can offer….We must understand that in small things lies our treasure. These gestures of tenderness, affection, compassion are minimal and tend to be lost in the anonymity of everyday life, but they are nonetheless decisive, important.

Loving in place is possible. Even vital. In this time of COVIDA.

Sending you a big, virtual hug, Bea!

Being Truthful

Howard Thurman do not be silent

“We hope your daughter’s funeral will be cheaper than paying us.”

It’s been so hard. I’ve sat down time and again to write a new post. I couldn’t do it. Months have passed.

The above words are from a note a Guatemalan family received when they could no longer pay the gang’s extortion money. They brought the note with them, along with other evidence, for their asylum case. The Border agent didn’t care.

Now they fearfully wait in Mexico. While our hospitality center remains nearly empty.

Larry, a fellow shelter volunteer, sheds tears easily over the people. Me, not so much.

But now I’m the one crying as I write this. These days I cannot even bring myself to think about writing a post without feeling emotional.

I wonder, will it matter to anyone? Who will even read this? And will these words touch someone’s heart?

These are the questions I carry as I feel disgusted by what is happening at our southern border.

I don’t go to the shelter anymore. Haven’t for months. Friends like Larry who do go tell me they are receiving maybe a dozen asylum seekers. Sometimes fewer.

One day they received none. Zero.

I think of these people. Still. Especially the Guatemalans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorans. The ones with whom I interacted regularly. The ones who faced so much hardship to get here. Because they are still suffering.

Even though we don’t see them, we know.

They’re still fleeing the violence in their countries – countries that we have forced to sign agreements to be so-called “safe third countries.” The idea of them being safe havens is preposterous.

But the climate in which we’re living is one of preposterous claims.

It’s a climate in which words have lost their true meaning. Where truth hides deep in the recesses of a person’s – like maybe a politician’s – soul. Where it’s hidden by the fear of losing power or financial gain, or some privilege that we imagine others don’t deserve.

I recently took a daylong retreat based on Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. Howard Thurman Jesus and disinherited

I was struck by his faith that “the effects of truthfulness could be realized in the oppressor as well as the oppressed.”

I tell God I am waiting for that to happen. For truth to be realized.

And I hear, “I am waiting for you to be that voice of truthfulness.”

So here I am, trying again.

Trying to write about the truth. The truth that asylum seekers are still arriving. And being forced to sign papers that will either deport them or send them to wait in Mexico. And if they refuse to sign, a Border agent will illegally sign for them.

The truth that asylum seekers with legitimate cases have almost no chance of winning their case if they’re in Mexico. Yet if they go home, they have slim chances of surviving.

These are their choices.

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A mother sits as children take part in class at “The Sidewalk School” for immigrant children at a camp for asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

At the border in Arizona, migrants sent into Nogales, Mexico, are told they will have to travel to El Paso for their court date. People with no money will somehow have to get bus fare for themselves and their children, travel through dangerous Juarez to enter at the port of entry in El Paso for their initial hearing, and then return to Nogales to wait.

It does not matter how ridiculous, impossible, or life-threatening this is. ICE does not care. Our government does not care.

It’s true, as Thurman said, that the lives of the disinherited do not matter to the powerful.

Why else would we be spending billions on building a steel structure that will cause such irreparable harm – environmentally and socially – rather than on supporting programs and policies for mutually beneficial and humanitarian changes?

I turn to the retreat’s reflection questions. I can’t get past this one:

“What do you believe is God’s prayer for the disinherited: for racial, ethnic, social, and religious groups, refugees, immigrants, and people who still live with their backs against the wall?”

This is when the tears come. I know the answer. I am God’s prayer for the disinherited. And so are people like me.

And the truthfulness I am asked to share comes through the voices of vulnerable people. So, I share these testimonies collected by the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales from the migrants they served: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/testimonies-from-mpp/

     “We left Guatemala because the gangs were targeting my daughter. She is only 11….They followed her everywhere. When this happens, the girls become the property of the gangs, they are raped and disappeared. I had the proof that her life was in danger when I got to the border. I showed it to the agent but he didn’t care. He said I either had to return to Mexico and wait there or return to Guatemala. I said I didn’t want to do either. He said I had to, and that if I didn’t sign the papers, he would sign them for me and no one would know it wasn’t me. I never did sign any papers but here I am. He signed my name for me.”

“I told the [Border] official I didn’t know what to do when I got back to Mexico. He said, ‘you can ask your God if he will let you into the U.S.’”

“We’re not safe in Mexico. We didn’t want to come here. But to return to Guatemala would have meant the death of my husband and daughter.”

If my life is to be a prayer, as I believe it is meant to be, then certainly my voice must be a voice for the disinherited.

Come Alive Howard-thurman-22491

O Holy Darkness, O Joyful Womb

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The hermitage at Holy Cross Retreat Center

These are my o Antiphons. My own chants leading me into Christmas.

They’ve been on my heart since I took a few days in solitude earlier this month at a nearby hermitage. A practice that’s become my custom in Advent.

Time for solitude and silence. To slow it right down during a season when most of us are speeding it all up.

The spiritual gifts and graces I receive during those days away are invaluable. But this time was especially rich.

This time I took with me a quote from Jacob Boehme — one of the mystics we read in Living School– to reflect on: “God’s spirit acts only in resigned humility, which neither seeks nor desires itself.”

And I asked myself, what would it take for me to let go of everything I think I am?

Over those three days, I came to an overwhelming awareness of Infinite Love manifesting itself in finite time and space in the miracle of Christmas. And of the kind of humble surrender it took — and continues to take — for that love to incarnate.

For God needs a dark and joyful womb to create something new.

In a few nights I will gather with nearly 200 Annunciation House volunteers and their friends and family to celebrate Las Posadas. It’s true we all have experienced a dark and very challenging year in which we’ve witnessed and accompanied so many suffering people.

But it’s also true that despite the evidence in this world of confusion, fear, prejudice, violence, and greed, Love Incarnate prevails.

This gathering will be an example of that love. It will be an example of the joy that is born from serving the Holy. Of the hope that is born out of darkness.

And it will show me, once again, what extravagant love looks like when it is poured out in the flesh. And how God can act in ” resigned humility, which neither seeks nor desires itself.”

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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