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.
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.
When Facebook had the 10-year challenge recently, I had to stop and think. Do I want to go there? Because 10 years ago, my husband was alive. To post any pics of myself in 2009 would be to post pics of a different self.
In early 2009 I was still part of a family unit of three, with an identity I could name and be confident in – wife, mother, self-employed writer/editor, active community member.
Months later, those foundations would come crumbling down as I struggled with my grief, feeling the shock of the unspeakable. Years later, I am rediscovering who I am in ways I could not have imagined. In a place I never imagined I’d be.
Sometimes it astonishes me, how much I’ve learned, how far I’ve traveled, all that God has done in my life, in those short 10 years.
For starters, I had to take on all the basic chores David did that I took for granted, like the grocery shopping, cooking, even the laundry. Yes, I was definitely spoiled.
And David liked to do things with precision and care, while I flitted through chores. And sometimes life.
After he died, I’d wished I’d paid more attention. To everything. How he prepared that special Panko-crusted salmon. How he handled a budget. How he folded those blasted fitted sheets.
Honest to God, nobody could fold fitted sheets like David. Not even my neat-freak friend who came over to do the laundry in my first week of grieving. She admitted she couldn’t do it with such precision.
It may seem funny, but every time I fold fitted sheets, I think of him. In this simple act, I remember so much love, care, nurturing, safety, and security. I know that’s a lot to see in a neatly folded sheet.
It’s a memory of a love that has carried and upheld me all these years. And it’s more than just David’s love. It’s a love in which we both exist.
So, I was willing to take that challenge. To go back and look at a picture of us. To reread and reflect on journal entries from that year.
What astonished me was how strong my faith was in the midst of such pain. How I was able to see and write about his death so clearly. How I was already deepening my trust in the Love to which I am being asked to surrender.
As one of my spiritual teachers says, the immediacy of what is is trustworthy. It’s all trustworthy. Because that is where God is, in the immediacy of this moment.
Since this is the 10th anniversary year, I’m going to risk sharing something very personal. It seems right to do so, to honor my love for David, to acknowledge the healing that can happen, and the amazing ways God can use us in the most painful of circumstances.
This entry is dated April 19, 2009, the day after he died:
My dearest David,
I can’t understand, so I won’t waste time trying. I know you wanted to be here for Davis. But although you can’t be here physically, your spirit is with us, and I know I will feel your presence throughout our lives. I know you’re going to help me from where you are. I also know that you are going to finally understand how much you are loved, and that gives me peace. No one loved me and accepted me and supported me as much as you did. You helped me to grow in so many ways. You were so devoted to me and to Davis. I tried to tell you how much I appreciated you, but it wasn’t enough – I know that because I needed to tell you this every day.
I’m going to miss you saying, “Hey, I didn’t get my kiss this morning.” And I’m going to miss you bringing me my coffee and doing all the little things you do to please me. I’m going to miss seeing the pleasure you got from Davis, witnessing how proud you were of him and how you would choke up talking about him sometimes. I’ll miss your generous heart, your bear hugs, your look of disgust at my wild ideas but how you went along with them anyway, your desire to help those in need, your willingness to see things differently, your wisdom in helping me to see things differently, your ability to turn to God under stress.
Everywhere you went, you thought of me and Davis. How could that be any different now? I KNOW this life is not the end of our journey. We were only beginning to deepen our soul’s journey together. It has been a very powerful and beautiful experience to share this life as your wife. I believe this – that I will recognize you in something or someone somewhere in a moment of awareness and my heart will smile because I will know you are with us.
People marvel at how I can be so strong. I am hurting, I cry, I’m deeply pained by the physical loss of you, but I believe we are being upheld in love and strength because both Davis and I know that in God we live and move and have our being. This experience truly solidifies that for me.”
So, I may not have learned how to properly fold fitted sheets in 10 years. But I have learned to discover grace in the painful challenges. And to trust where love wants to take me.
Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up
where you are.
You have been stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender. (Rumi)
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.
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.”
I open the doors of la sala, and the stench affronts my nostrils.
The odor of weary travelers who have not washed for days wafts through the air. I try not to breathe too deeply. About 60 parents and their children sleep on blankets spread across the floor.
I am the shift coordinator at Loretto Nazareth. The person “in charge” for the next several hours. The one responsible for these refugees who were brought here last night to get them out of the cold after CBP deposited them onto the street. Combined with our other guests still sleeping snugly in their rooms, the number of people in my care totals well over 100.
Intake has not yet been done for those who arrived during the night. They’ll need orientation. Phone calls to relatives and sponsors will need to be made. Showers taken, clean clothing dispersed, and rooms assigned as available.
Because it’s Christmas, and because this situation has been on the local news, people continuously arrive at our door throughout the day. Some bring Christmas gifts. Toys for the children, new winter coats, fresh fruit, candy and cookies.
Others come offering assistance. “What can we do?” They’ve left their Christmas Eve preparations behind. One couple arrives with their adult son who’s visiting for Christmas. They help in the clothing room for a couple of hours before announcing they have to pick up their daughter flying in for the holiday. But before leaving, they ask if they can give any guests a lift to the airport. A husband and wife stop by to offer a room in their home. “We saw it on TV. We want to help.”
The overabundance of gifts, the donations, the offers of help – one could simply attribute this to the Christmas spirit. But I know better. This is El Paso. This has been the community’s response for decades.
And what I am experiencing at Nazareth is happening in temporary shelters throughout the city. Every day. I only do this twice a week. Some do it every day.
But this special day happens to be particularly long.
Because it’s Christmas Eve, my replacement is with family. Other volunteers are ill. The Annunciation House volunteer in charge of scheduling us is doing her best to find someone. I wind up doing a 12-hour shift.
Exhausting, but unusual for me. I think of Ruben, our director, and I wonder if he ever sleeps.
When I finally leave, feeling rundown and ready to crash, I consider reneging on my fellow volunteer’s unexpected invitation earlier that day. Discovering I’d be alone tonight, Yvonne insisted I share Christmas Eve dinner at her mother’s with her extended family.
I know if I go home now, I won’t eat. It’s better that I accept.
And I’m so glad I do.
Of Mexican-American heritage, Yvonne’s family treats me as their own. A stranger welcomed into their private lives on a very personal occasion. Yvonne even has gifts for me she somehow found time to purchase that afternoon.
Later at home, needing to unwind, I sit at the base of my Christmas tree where I’ve placed Yvonne’s precious gifts. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. For Yvonne’s generosity. Her family’s hospitality. For the people of El Paso. And for the sudden awareness of God’s gift in bringing me here. The amazing graces of this place.
It’s true, I missed being with my son. I didn’t get the warm coziness of Christmases past spent with my husband, the comfort of eggnog rum sipped by a glowing fire, Christmas carols sung outside my door, beautifully wrapped presents under the tree.
Instead I got something much more.
The gift of living out the Gospel narrative of the Nativity.
I didn’t find it in the pretty, pale-faced figurines and the adorable sheep hovering over a babe laid in my manger beneath the tree. This romantic, cozy scene is nothing like the reality.
I found it in the remembered odor of la sala. In realizing that Joseph and Mary, weary travelers unable to wash for days along their long journey, would have had the same scent. Could their fears also be the same as our refugee families? Poor and away from home and loved ones, afraid in the night as they awaken in a strange environment?
I found it in the baby born in a dirty, smelly place in which his olive-skinned parents were only passing through. None of them were citizens of Bethlehem. Even the shepherds were nomads. Scruffy men adding to the stench with their wool coverings.
On a deeper level, I am shown God’s connection to the poor and lowly. God’s identification with the meek and uncertain beginnings of a child born not in his own land. Whether in Bethlehem or El Paso.
How could we celebrate Christmas and miss this message?
How could we miss the Christ born through the lowliness and surrendered “yes” of a young, migrant couple who listened, not to the law, but to their “inner authority”?
Yet, I am certain El Paso has not missed it.
The tremendous gift of love displayed that Christmas night is made visible in El Paso.
In our community’s unlimited generosity and selfless giving. In our volunteers, supporters, and donors. Here I find the manifestation of the Incarnation.
And not only on one night. Day after day, year after year, El Pasoans show up to serve the poor and lowly. They are teaching me the meaning of love incarnated. And, through this ministry, God is teaching me how to love “the lowly.”
To love the Christ, in all His manifestations.
“Only the humble believe God and rejoice that God is so free and grand, that he works wonders where we lose heart, that he makes splendid what is slight and lowly. Indeed, this is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly. ‘God has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.’ God in lowliness—that is the revolutionary, the passionate word of Advent.”
Call me crazy but I love this season of quiet waiting in darkness.
It beckons me to be still. To sit for a long while in the silence and listen deeply. If I am wise enough, I heed that call, as I did earlier this month when I gifted myself with a three-day silent retreat at a nearby hermitage.
Some wonder, why do you need time in silence when you live alone? Believe me, it’s not the same. At home there’s the pull of ever-present concerns in my surroundings, the to-do list sitting on my desk, my phone’s popping messages that distract even when it’s silenced. Case in point – since returning from my retreat, it’s taken me weeks to be able to sit down to write about the experience!
But that has only given me more opportunities to “see” more deeply the powerful gift I was given.
At the hermitage I unplugged from everything. Let go of the daily text messages and continuous needs of our refugee hospitality shelters. Let myself simply “be.” And, eventually, I was able to silence the inner voices. My hope was that, like Mary, I could even be silent enough and present enough to fully receive what the Spirit offered. And surrender to it.
As soon as I entered the hermitage, it struck me. A large reproduction of Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” – the same painting Henri Nouwen used on the cover of his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son – hung squarely on the wall facing me. It’s my favorite Nouwen book, one that speaks to all the parts of myself that need accepting and embracing.
Clearly this was no coincidence.
The painting begged for reflection. I knew I’d have to comply.
But it wasn’t until my third and final day that I received the real gift. The day I decided to pull the rocking chair up close and finally contemplate the painting.
It didn’t take long for me to see myself in all of the “faces” of the painting, from the self-righteous brother to the humbled younger brother soaking in parental love. Similar to Henri Nouwen’s experience, I was aware of myself in all of these “characters.”
But I waited, open and surrendered, to see what else might emerge. In the upper, far left-hand corner, I began to notice the outline of a figure I’d not seen before. Barely visible in the painting’s dark hues. So faint, it could be easily missed.
The outline appeared unmistakably feminine. Its invisible face positioned high enough to “oversee” and encompass all the figures.
So insignificant. And yet…
The longer I sat, the more I saw in this mysterious image the dark and nurturing safety of a womb large enough and sacred enough to have room for all these “parts” of myself. A loving refuge, like God’s “Holy Womb.”
But could it be that I was this womb, too? This loving, nurturing “Holy Womb”?
I often think of myself as insignificant. And yet….
After returning home, a friend sent me a beautiful Advent/Posada message related to our ministry of hospitality here in El Paso. She noted that “genuine hospitality requires an openness of space, time, and hearts to those others have rejected – or find insignificant. Mary seemed like an insignificant woman and Bethlehem like an insignificant town. But we know God places great value in what can seem to many insignificant.”
My friend’s words stirred something familiar. What had at first gone unnoticed about the painting now became powerfully significant. The revelation of the Word made flesh happened in such a dark and loving Holy Womb as this.
Mary, who seemed so insignificant – young, poor, traveling on the margins – revealed herself to be the Holy Womb that births the greatest love the world has ever known.
Could it not also be that I am pregnant with God? Just like Mary. That all of us are? Including the refugees we serve? These people who travel on the margins, unknown to most of us, despicable to some of us. They seem insignificant. And yet…
In the days and weeks that followed my time at the hermitage, I have come to recognize how, like Mary, I have listened deeply, with the desire to say yes to the truest within me. I have been “obedient” to the deepest voices within me. How else would I have wound up here, in the desert? So far away from my dear Virginia home.
Like Mary, I have said “yes” without worrying about the consequences. Isn’t this how the Holy Womb gives birth? In me? In you? In the least among us?
Isn’t this how the greatest love the world has known is born? Again and again?
Soon Davis will be here celebrating the holiday with me. I don’t have to be told how fortunate I am.
At the same time, I’m also aware that many will be missing a loved one at their Thanksgiving table this year.
Those who are still seeking news of a family member among the 700 or more missing in the California fires. Those whose loved ones were among the dozens of victims of mass shootings in the past several months, from a bar in Thousand Oaks to a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Sometimes it all feels like too much. We turn away. We turn off the TV. We find something else to occupy our minds.
Thanksgiving. Grieving. The two don’t quite go together.
Or do they?
Although we don’t have any control over when tragic, painful circumstances will strike our lives, our world, what I’ve discovered is what I do have control over – how I respond.
And, inadvertently, how grieving and gratitude can occupy the same space.
I remember reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl years ago. One of the many things that struck me was a scene in which this man in the concentration camp is out working on the rock pile in the gray, predawn hours, concerned about his wife, and he turns to see the glory of the sun beginning to light up the sky as it rises in the distance. Even in what seems like a hopeless situation, he recognizes this as a moment of grace.
Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life – her diaries written during WWII – wrote: “I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life.”
Etty found herself in the midst of a frightening era of unspeakable atrocities. She also found herself on her knees, giving thanks for unspeakable beauty and grace-filled moments.
It seems when I, too, am brought to the edge of raw grief, I go to my knees. In surrender. In vulnerability and humility. Calling upon my Higher Self, the Holy dwelling within.
And then I discover the grace in my situation.
The grace that was there all along but I didn’t have the eyes to see. Until that moment.
Gratitude, grace, and grief can indeed occupy the same space.
I’ve learned this. And I am still learning it.
Learning it from my spiritual teachers, in Pathwork, the CAC Living School, Insight Meditation, and others, who continue to remind me that whenever life’s “disturbances” pull me down, I can pause and choose what to focus on.
And I’m learning it from our “guests” at the Loretto Nazareth hospitality center. Even after the kind of suffering they’ve experienced, they are still filled with gratitude for small kindnesses.
And every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of a parent and child on their knees before the crucifix displayed in our common area. In prayers of thanksgiving for their safe journey. And for their long journey ahead.
Something beautiful alongside the sorrow.
There is room for all of it.
And, in every moment, something to be grateful for.
The dictionary defines it as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.”
I looked it up because, honestly, sometimes I wonder about my fidelity.
It’s true, I am committed to volunteering at the Loretto-Nazareth hospitality center two and now three days a week since the increase of refugee families arriving. It’s true, I am faithful to accompanying those in need and speaking out against anti-immigrant rhetoric whenever I can.
But I wonder…
How am I faithful when I fail so often?
Many times in one week, for instance.
It’s so hectic at Nazareth that, at times, I’m brisk with the people, shooing them out of our office, putting up a hand and telling them in a sharp voice to wait as I try to answer the phone’s incessant ringing or respond to another sick child’s need for Motrin or prepare a travel care package for the next family going out the door. I sense my irritation, the shortness in my response.
I am not proud of that.
It’s easy for me to feel irritated when I am pulled in so many directions and have difficulty completing even one task in a reasonable amount of time.
Then there are times when I have questions and doubts about what I am doing. The sensibility of caring for this steady stream of people – most of whom will be sent back to their country. Some will try again. Others won’t get the chance.
I find myself wondering how El Paso can keep this up. How it will all end – this seemingly endless mass of suffering people coming to our door. And the thousands railing against them rather than attempting to consider the possibility that intelligent, thoughtful solutions could help relieve some of this suffering rather than adding to it.
I know that a huge part of me wants to make things be different. Less pain. Less suffering.
And I also know that I am not perfect. I don’t have all the answers. And who am I to know or understand how God will use the pain and suffering we are experiencing now?
With yesterday being the Feast of All Saints, and today the Feast of All Souls in the Catholic tradition and el Dia de Los Muertos in the Mexican culture, I thought about the faithfulness of all those who have passed from this life. Family, loved ones, saintly ones.
A litany of them. Most were just ordinary people who did extraordinary things. With fidelity to a heart laid bare to the suffering of the world.
As my teacher Jim Finley explains, this is what fidelity is – laying your heart bare to the suffering and responding to it from this place of vulnerability, allowing God to work through you from that place. A place where love bears the suffering and doesn’t flinch, doesn’t turn away from it, doesn’t minimalize or deny it.
Sooner or later, we begin to see how our whole life has been an ongoing fidelity to the deepening of the love to which we’ve been awakened. But there is no awakening to this love without also a dimension of suffering involved.
So, how am I faithful?
Every time my heart is laid bare to the suffering around me, including my own, and I don’t pull back but remain with it.
Every time I am willing to let go of my own agenda and don’t require or expect things to be different than they are.
Every time I pause and realize that I am not operating alone, I am not doing this “work” alone, for I would never have the means, the energy, the stamina, the fulfillment, the courage, and the joy I am experiencing if I were.
I find solace in remembering that the saints were ordinary people, too. That they couldn’t necessarily see the bigger picture either. That they, too, probably got on their own case when they slipped and failed for the second and third and fourth times.
The difference is they remained faithful to this extraordinary love. No matter the challenges.
All I am asked is to do the same – respond with love and fidelity to the need that’s right in front of me.
It’s that simple. And it’s not that easy.
But I can count on my connection with God, with the Holy within me. And I can recall what it felt like when fidelity to the suffering in front of me expanded my heart.
The wonderful thing about saints
is that they were human.
They lost their tempers,
scolded God, were egotistical
or testy or impatient in their turns.
Made mistakes and regretted them.
Still they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven.
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.
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.
“Pan. It’s the universal symbol,” Ruben tells us. “What better way to celebrate Annunciation House’s 40-year history than to share this bread together?”
It’s not exactly your ordinary dinner table. Or your typical Catholic Mass.
We’re gathered in a small parking lot outside a deteriorating building in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso. The oldest and poorest section of the city, only blocks away from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Exhaust fumes dissipate into the air as a city bus drives by. Passing motorists slow down to gawk. What could be going on here, they wonder?
Sitting on hard benches and stadium folding chairs, we listen to Ruben explain the importance of sharing this “meal.” A Eucharistic meal in thanksgiving for 40 years of being able to welcome migrants and refugees.
In celebration, Fr. Bill has created an “altar” covered by a colorful shawl from a women’s cooperative in Juarez. Momentarily, we’ll be sharing Eucharist together.
People of all ages and faiths surround me. Twenty-something-year olds mingle with retired sisters. Couples have brought their children. A toddler paddles past me, followed by her mom, who was once an Annunciation House volunteer.
This is a community unlike any other. I call it community at its best.
The faces of mostly everyone in this gathering are familiar. And those I don’t know are not strangers. We share something quite simple – in some capacity, we all have volunteered to accompany the migrants and refugees who have come through Annunciation House. And we all share a passion for justice for immigrants.
Every one of us has stepped out of our comfort zone in some aspect of our lives to follow that passion. Many have left other parts of the country, like myself, and eventually moved here. Others, who were raised in El Paso, have responded just as faithfully.
Each of us has chosen to accept an invitation to follow a “call.” And each of us has been deeply affected in the process.
For that reason, tonight, being in this unusual space breaking bread together feels especially powerful.
Tonight, Annunciation House is Eucharist. So are the quarter of a million people who have been welcomed and fed in this place. They, too, are Eucharist.
In her book, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully, Ann Voskamp reminds us of the meaning of the word Eucharisteo – to be grateful, to remember with thanks.
“Thanks feeds our trust,” Ann writes. Gratitude is “opening the hand to receive the moments. Trusting what is received to be grace. Taking it as bread.”
Bread for the journey.
This is the “bread” that feeds me. This is what I am remembering to give thanks for.
I open my hands and take what is blessed, broken, and shared, in thanksgiving for this moment. In thanksgiving for these people with whom I am sharing this Eucharist tonight. And in thanksgiving, most especially, for the people who have passed through these doors. With so little – and sometimes with nothing – they come and they teach me about real trust and gratitude. About the real meaning of sharing your bread, your brokenness, your blessings.
They teach me what Ann means when she says that Eucharisteo – thanks – “always precedes the miracle.”
Ruben, our executive director, has taught me that, too. He learned long ago what I have taken years to discover – you give thanks for the little you have and it multiplies. You give of yourself, and you get what you need when you need it. People show up to help. Supplies are replenished. Food multiplies.
I’ve witnessed such miracles time and again.
At Annunciation House and the temporary hospitality houses associated with it, the “work” and the needs seem to never end. At the end of a long day there is always much more to be done. Lately, the number of people seeking asylum has drastically increased. We all seem to be feeling overextended. Yet we know we will be given what we need to get up the next morning and face it again. Nourished for another day. With trust and gratitude.
Sharing this simple, sacred bread tonight fills me with that awareness and assurance.
We are indeed blessed. This simple “meal” is indeed a feast. A feast of compassion and mercy and gratitude. For the blessings and the brokenness.
May I continue to learn the meaning of Eucharisteo. To practice gratitude in every moment. And, as Ann recommends, to “…eat the mystery of the moment with trust.”
“If you oppress the poor, you insult the God who makes them; but justice shown to the poor is an act of worship.” (Proverbs 14:31)
Photographers no longer shadow us down the hallways as we tend to our guests. No more wanna-be volunteers show up at our door unannounced after having driven for hours from places like Denver or Phoenix. No more “angry moms” spend their mornings preparing breakfast and lunch for our migrant families as a positive response to their outrage.
Gone are the headlines about crying toddlers torn from the arms of their mothers and fathers. Gone are the news reports about abuses at detention centers.
Our lives are back to normal. Whatever “normal” is these days.
For those of us on the border, it may feel like we’re on our own again. It may seem as though people don’t care.
But I know that’s not true. I know you are listening, dear reader. I know that you do care. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.
So, I’d like to make you aware. Better inform you about the “norm” for so many who do feel as if no one cares. About the maltreatment asylum seekers face, especially when they hail from African countries. About the abuses that occur. About the loneliness and isolation.
Once you know, my hope is that you will not forget. And that you will take some small, positive action from where you are. Make a difference in at least one other lonely or abused person’s life that will add to the growing wave of merciful acts done in the name of humanity.
So that others will know they are not alone.
As you may know, I have been visiting asylum seekers detained at the ICE El Paso Processing Center through a nonprofit called CIVIC. CIVIC stands for Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, and Jan, our local program administrator, has done a super job of connecting volunteer visitors with lonely people holed up in these prisons.
Some detainees have not had a visitor in over a year. They wait for Jan to connect them with an available volunteer. They feel so alone. Forgotten. Powerless.
Until last month when African asylum seekers at our detention facility became empowered.
They risked creating and signing a petition against the El Paso DHS ICE Field Office for “improperly and impartially” denying their parole and treating them unfairly. They claim they escaped persecution in their home countries and came here for safety, only to be persecuted at the hands of ICE officers and detention guards.
The majority of them have been in ICE custody for more than a year. They all arrived legally as asylum seekers at one of our EP ports of entry and had positive credible fear interviews, yet they remain in “immigration proceedings.” Proceedings that seem to have no end to them.
They have a right to parole through the Damus decision. And they have watched as parole is granted to Latin American detainees, especially to Cubans, awaiting their hearing, while their parole is unjustifiably denied.
At an alarming number.
A little background on the Damus decision. A teacher from Haiti, Ansly Damus has been confined in Ohio for more than a year-and-a-half. He fled his homeland fearing violence and political persecution and asked for asylum. An immigration judge granted him asylum not just once, but twice. But the government appealed those decisions and Damus remains locked up indefinitely even though he poses no threat and is eligible for parole. The judge has ruled that ICE violated its own procedures by not granting Damus release under what’s known as humanitarian parole.
That’s what our African detainees are petitioning for. Humanitarian parole.
On a personal note, I’ve been seeing my young Ethiopian friend, whom I call Mathias, for nearly nine months now. He’s been locked up for over a year. His birthday is coming up in early October. He’s told me he doesn’t want to spend another birthday behind these walls. Celebrate another year of his young life on hold.
It feels like such a small thing. To visit someone only once a week or a few times a month. It never feels like enough. And then he sends a letter saying how I make him strong and comfort him, how he is happy to have someone “on the outside” who cares. He says it’s not easy to be in detention, but he is “learning about life” and learning that there are “good-hearted people in this world like CIVIC.”
He is learning…and so am I.
I am learning that sometimes it feels like our hands are tied. That it feels like we are alone to face the wall or the tempest before us. But we are not.
Sometimes God shows up as the person accompanying us. Or the one accompanied.
Don’t forget this. Be the one who cares.
.NOTE: I am creating a new blog – same theme, different look. I hope to link it to this one, and I hope you will continue to follow me on this journey.