Breaking Bread on the Journey

bread chunk

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.

Ann Voskamp_1000gifts

“Thanks feeds our trust,” Ann writes. Gratitude is “opening the hand to receive the moments. Trusting what is received to be grace. Taking it as bread.”

Bread for the journey.

This is the “bread” that feeds me. This is what I am remembering to give thanks for.

I open my hands and take what is blessed, broken, and shared, in thanksgiving for this moment. In thanksgiving for these people with whom I am sharing this Eucharist tonight. And in thanksgiving, most especially, for the people who have passed through these doors. With so little – and sometimes with nothing – they come and they teach me about real trust and gratitude. About the real meaning of sharing your bread, your brokenness, your blessings.

They teach me what Ann means when she says that Eucharisteo – thanks – “always precedes the miracle.”

Ruben, our executive director, has taught me that, too. He learned long ago what I have taken years to discover – you give thanks for the little you have and it multiplies. You give of yourself, and you get what you need when you need it. People show up to help. Supplies are replenished. Food multiplies.

Miracles happen.

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I’ve witnessed such miracles time and again.

At Annunciation House and the temporary hospitality houses associated with it, the “work” and the needs seem to never end. At the end of a long day there is always much more to be done. Lately, the number of people seeking asylum has drastically increased. We all seem to be feeling overextended. Yet we know we will be given what we need to get up the next morning and face it again. Nourished for another day. With trust and gratitude.

Sharing this simple, sacred bread tonight fills me with that awareness and assurance.

We are indeed blessed. This simple “meal” is indeed a feast. A feast of compassion and mercy and gratitude. For the blessings and the brokenness.

May I continue to learn the meaning of Eucharisteo. To practice gratitude in every moment. And, as Ann recommends, to “…eat the mystery of the moment with trust.”

Quotes_Creator_Gratitude

“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)

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Ignite Your Divine Spark

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Sometimes your fire can be rekindled instantly. Your inner spark ignited. For me, it happened recently by a most unlikely source.  A 12-year-old Girl Scout.

And it’s been illuminated since!

It started over two weeks ago when we received news that our former hospitality site at the Loretto Nazareth Living Center was reopening! The new owners of the building had decided to give Annunciation House use of their unused wing again as a temporary shelter for the migrants and refugees processed by ICE.

Its two long hallways, dozens of hospital-type rooms with individual bathrooms, large kitchen and dining area meant we could receive more “guests.” Employ more volunteers. Offer better care.

We were “back in business.”

Just entering the familiar space that morning made me happy. Remembering the special memories, the many graced encounters we’d experienced during the previous 2 ½ years we’d occupied this place…it’s hard to explain.

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Drawings and colored pages of children who have passed through our doors

But there was lots to do. The place had been closed for over a year. All our supplies, donations, and volunteers had moved on. It meant everything would have to be replenished.

Then the El Paso Girl Scouts, Troop #883, showed up.

I had been told they’d be bringing donations and that Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, was coming to personally thank them. I just didn’t know the magnitude of their efforts until, assisted by somebody’s mom, the girls carried in armload after armload of their collections.

Soon nearly our entire office floor was awash in a sea of colorful tote bags. Bright yellows, blues, purples, greens, oranges, whites, and reds brimming with snacks and toiletries stuffed in individual Ziploc baggies.

“We have more in my garage when you’re ready for them,” the mom said.

My curiosity won out.

“Whose idea was this?” I asked. “How’d you get all these donations?”

That’s when Natalie spoke up.

She said she’d attended the protest in Tornillo when the news first came out that children separated from their parents would be housed in a tent there. That’s where she learned about Annunciation House and decided to help with supplies for the traveling families. She posted something on her Facebook page and soon financial donations poured in. Not only nationwide but from people as far as away as the UK and Australia.

Natalie said she was “heartened” by the response.

So was I.

Honestly, I had been feeling weary from all that’s been happening at our border. And elsewhere in the country. All the cruelty, the lack of decency and civility to one another, the suffering we’re causing.

Finley suffering world

I have to admit that I’d been struggling not to let the state of my own mind and heart be affected by what was happening around me.

 

And then Natalie and Girl Scout Troop #883 reminded me of something.

The divine spark within. It’s there in all of us.

In some cases, it’s covered over by lots of layers. Layers of hurt and pain and fear. We’re seeing evidence of that in many ways these days.

But I want to tell you that it’s alive and well in El Paso. I witness it every time I step over the threshold at Nazareth.

This week we began receiving some of the reunified families. And if this week is any indication, it’s going to be crazy, chaotic, exhausting.

And amazing.

“Such joy!” is how Lisa, a friend and volunteer, expressed her feelings at witnessing these families back together.

Now that Annunciation House has been “in the news” as one of four places in the country to which ICE will deliver the thousands of parents and children they are reuniting, volunteers are coming out of the woodwork.

This week Natalie’s mom came to Nazareth with other moms to make breakfast for our families. Calling themselves “the angry mothers group,” they donned tee shirts that expressed their support of the families. Those moms who didn’t know Spanish smiled a lot at our guests. They made our families feel like they were human beings. And let them know that somebody – although a “stranger” – cared.

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Tee shirt worn by “angry moms”

People from all walks of life, all faith denominations, all skin colors and cultures – they are all showing up at our door wanting to help.

And they are on fire too!

Not only because they want to do something positive in the face of such abominable treatment to our fellow human beings, but because they too are recognizing what I and my fellow volunteers have been recognizing in the faces of these migrants and refugees since day 1.

The face of Christ. The divine spark.

And that spark is igniting their own spark.

Dorothy Day says:

“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up….If we love each other enough, we are going to light the fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”

Maybe your spark will be ignited too. Wherever you are.

Maybe we all will someday recognize that this divine spark, this love has been there all along. Waiting for us to wake up. To remove our blindness. To catch on fire with the awareness of who we truly are.

Every single one of us.

Borders can be quilts

Merton on Men, Animals, and God’s Will

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I struggle with how to respond to words and actions that strike at the heart.

“They’re animals.”

“They’re criminals. They don’t deserve consideration and compassion.”

“We have lost our soul.” These last words from Ruben Garcia at the recent Voice of the Voiceless fundraising dinner for Annunciation House, with the theme “If the World Knew,” especially struck my heart. “Our country has lost its soul,” he told us.

Is it true?

I don’t know how to respond.

I wonder how do I convey, through my words, the haunting wails of a child separated from his mother? Or the pain expressed by a woman whose husband – her sole supporter – is forcibly taken from her without her being able to say goodbye? What words exemplify the distress I have been feeling that these “deeds” are done in our name?

What could I possibly write? And how is God asking me to respond?

Part of my assignment with the Living School of Contemplation and Action is to read mystics like Thomas Merton. This morning, I spontaneously opened his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, and discovered the words I was searching for.

Close up of dirt with small sprouting green buds

So I will let him write this post for me.

Just as a forewarning, having written this in 1961, Merton uses a lot of male pronouns and nouns. I have occasionally added “woman” to this excerpt, and I have italicized and boldened some text that especially speaks to me, but his message shines through nonetheless.

“If you want to know what is meant by ‘God’s will’ in man’s life, this is one way to get a good idea of it. ‘God’s will’ is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. You can call this, if you like, the basic tenet of the Natural Law, which is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to one another what we would not want another to do to us. In other words, the natural law is simply that we should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves. The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other [men and women] as if they were [men/women]. Not to act as if I alone were a man, and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.

“Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other [man/woman] effectively as a human being, ‘is willed for me by God under the natural law.’ Whether or not I find the formula satisfactory, it is obvious that I cannot live a truly human life if I consistently disobey this fundamental principle.

“But I cannot treat other men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.

“…Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting [men/women] to one another in His own Life and unity. ‘I in them, and Thou, Father in Me, that they may be made perfect in One…And the glory which Thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be One as we also are One.’” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76-77)

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Davis Gets It…Again

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Annunciation House in downtown El Paso

I had Davis to myself for nearly five days over the Christmas holiday. That has to be a first.

Usually, whenever he’s home, he has friends to catch up with, numerous social engagements to attend, and at least one overnighter at a best friend’s house. But I’m not in Virginia anymore.

Here in El Paso, he had nothing on his social calendar except visiting me.

Despite my glee, I wasn’t stingy with him. I didn’t hoard his attention. I shared him with El Paso.

After all, he was the first of my intimate circle of family and friends to visit, and I was anxious to show him around. To introduce him to life at the border and expose him to the people and places that mean so much to me. I wanted to give him the full effect.

And I hoped he would understand.

On Christmas Eve, his first day, we attended the annual Las Posadas and intimate Christmas Eve Mass and dinner at Annunciation House – a hospitality house for migrants and refugees that has been operating for 40 years in downtown El Paso. Entirely run on donations and volunteers, the building is old, but it’s filled with the precious hearts and stories of those who have passed through its doors.

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A woman prays by her bed in her assigned room at Annunciation House

 

This was Davis’s first Las Posadas.  He didn’t seem to mind as we walked the street, knocking on doors, singing in Spanish – a language he doesn’t know. We followed a little girl posing as Mary, a lace shawl draped around her head, accompanied by her raggedy-dressed Joseph – both of them real-life refugees.

When we gathered back at Annunciation House, he didn’t seem to mind the peeling paint and cracked walls. Or that he had to stand during the service because there weren’t enough seats. He toured the house with one of the 20-something year-old volunteers who’ve made a year-long commitment to work and live here, and he asked thoughtful questions. He listened to fellow volunteers share stories about what this place means to them. Posole-Dish-1

Then we ate a simple Christmas Eve meal of Posole, a traditional Mexican stew made with hominy, while sitting on a hard bench alongside refugees from the Congo, Guatemala, and Honduras. Davis even scrounged up the courage to practice his French with the African woman. Not knowing either English or Spanish, she had been silent until he engaged her in conversation.

The next morning at breakfast I asked what he thought about our unique Christmas Eve celebration.

Without hesitation, he said, “I can see God is present here.”

As he spoke of the volunteers’ commitment to the people, of all the “good” and the generosity he’d witnessed, my heart filled.

He’d seen what I’d wanted him to see. After only one day!

During the rest of his trip, in quiet moments, Davis asked questions about his dad. He wanted to remember the quirky aspects of David’s personality. Hear more about his father’s childhood and the early days of our marriage.

I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I became acutely aware of David’s presence in our conversations. I felt immense warmth and gratitude.

I never wanted Davis to suffer this loss at such a young age, in the middle of the most important stage of his relationship with his father.  Yet I know he is wiser because of this experience. His life is richer, his insights deeper, his compassion more genuine.

It’s what enabled him to stand in this place at the border with me and see what I see. With an awareness and understanding that comes from the heart.

Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who’s worked with gang members in LA for 30 years and wrote the best seller Tattoos on the Heart, spoke about this in a recent interview with Krista Tippett. He says that “standing in the lowly place with the easily despised and the readily left out,” he finds more joy, kinship, mutuality. He’s discovered that “the measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship.”

Kinship

Sometimes that kinship comes in the guise of wounds.

As one of Fr. Boyle’s homies, who’d been abused and beaten throughout his childhood, explained, “How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?”

So, we have to welcome our wounds. These hurting places within us. And I think if we are not afraid to acknowledge them, and know that we are loved unconditionally in them, we will be better able to stand in that “lowly place” offering kinship to those whom society considers dismissible, disposable.

And we will see with different eyes. The eyes that saw what Davis saw in El Paso.

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A Father’s Day Journey

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I’ll be missing something important this Father’s Day.

No, I don’t mean my husband. Although I will think of David, as I do every Father’s Day, I no longer have that gaping hole in my heart. The kind of bottomless pain I couldn’t quell on holidays, birthdays, and special events during the first couple of years after his death.

I’ve moved forward with my life now, discerning a different purpose.

These days it’s other people’s pain I feel more keenly. After having ministered to and witnessed the journeys of people in El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, it’s inevitable my focus would have changed. I’m aware of just how privileged my life is in comparison.

What I’ll be missing this Sunday is the chance to meet someone I admire — Father Alejandro Solaline, the recipient of the 2015 Voice of the Voiceless Award. El Paso’s Annunciation House gives this annual award to those courageous people who speak up and witness for the oppressed and marginalized. And Fr. Solaline — a Mexican priest and human rights activist — is definitely courageous and outspoken.

Padre-Alejandro-Solalinde

As the founder and director of Hermanos en el Camino in Ciudad Ixtepec, Oaxaca, a shelter for Central Americans migrating through Mexico, Fr. Solaline knows that tens of thousands of migrants are kidnapped every year as they travel through Mexico. Many who aren’t kidnapped are raped, tortured, extorted, brutally abused, or murdered.

He knows migrants have no voice. They’ve basically been invisible. And the brutal acts against them, overlooked. Until Fr. Solaline came alone. He opened a shelter to protect them. He spoke out. Accused the corrupt Mexican police and drug cartels. Insisted the Mexican authorities stop these abuses and go after those who prey on the migrants. He soon received death threats. Had to leave the country for a while. But that didn’t stop him. He grew stronger. This small-statured man, now nearly 70 years old, had found his voice.

While in El Paso I was gifted with a special little journal on “vocation” that reminds me of Fr. Solaline’s ministry. It includes Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey and this quote from Frederick Buechner:

“…the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Fr. Solaline was supposed to have been in El Paso on April 18 to receive his award at the Voice of the Voiceless benefit dinner. But he couldn’t get across the border. Mexican authorities conveniently kept him away.

Although selfishly I would have liked for him to be at the ceremony on the 18th, which I actually attended, I think it’s appropriate that he’ll receive this award on Father’s Day. After all, he symbolizes a parent’s love, God’s love, to so many. Without ever having been a biological father himself.

Once you’re able to recognize someone’s humanity, you begin to love that person. And when you witness the grave injustices committed against that person, you can’t be silent.

As Fr. Solaline says, “God speaks, and the voices inside cannot be quieted.”

When he heard that voice many years ago, Fr. Solaline gave up his comfortable, middle-class life and asked to be sent to the poorest part of Oaxaca, where he witnessed the proliferating abuse and violence against the migrants.

Now I too feel uncomfortable living so comfortably, so far removed from what is happening in the world. How can I remain silent, knowing what I know?

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I have much to say — and, like Fr. Solaline, I hear a voice telling me, this is your journey! Use your voice to speak out against the injustices — “a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do — determined to save the only life you could save.” (from Mary Oliver’s The Journey)

Although I can’t save the lives of the migrants who suffer to make their way here, I can offer what is mine to offer: kindness, compassion, understanding, and a voice! It’s true, the only life I can save is my own, and I will save it by doing what I know I have to do — following my calling, my unique purpose.

As Fr. Solaline journeys to El Paso this Father’s Day weekend I’ll be considering my own journey. My own “new voice.” And the one life I can save.

What about you? Where does your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?
What is the one life you need to save?

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
(Mary Oliver)

Limited Vision

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View from my deck

I got a shot right between the eyes yesterday morning. Via my iPad. I needed it, for sure. It’s been three months since I’ve returned from El Paso and I’ve fallen into old patterns. Maintaining my house. Doing errands. Worrying about getting everything done before I leave for my year-long assignment in San Antonio. In other words, focusing on me and my needs.

It’s easy to do. Especially when you have responsibilities and a long “to do list” lurking in the back of your mind as well as on your computer screen. In my case, that list includes packing up and preparing my home to rent while I’m away. Since I live in a log home in the woods surrounded by quiet and natural beauty, it’s a perfect fit for a vacation home. But to put my house in the pool of rental homes with the company I’ve chosen, I had to give it a cute name. “Magical Tree House” seemed appropriate.

I planted my “magical tree house” on a hillside, overlooking the mountains (in fall and winter months) and surrounded by trees that arch over my private road. Although they provide luscious shade in the summer heat, the trees also block much of the sky. Every morning I walk down the end of my road to take in the expanse of rolling meadows and mountains that compose our rural county’s landscape. In El Paso, I simply stepped outside the door where I was staying in the valley area to view a vast blue sky spread out before me. Every morning. Blue sky, sunshine, a seemingly endless horizon that stretches into Mexico and the desert beyond. To say that I’d been feeling the view from my tree house is limited would be an understatement—literally and otherwise.

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And that leads back to the wake-up call from my iPad.

In my little tree haven, I’d been feeling distant from life at the border. Not just physically. I mean it’s easy to click on those daily emails I get from various interfaith groups and other organizations about immigration issues, quickly breeze through them and hit delete. In the midst of what I’m handling I can’t possibly be expected to respond. Right?

But the issue keeps tugging at my heart. And I can’t ignore the fact that the news media is now heavily reporting on the massive numbers of unaccompanied migrant children traveling across the U.S./Mexico border — a topic I actually wrote about on my blog back in February when I first became aware that upwards of 60,000 children were expected this year. In fact, I wrote about this topic for Las Americas’ May newsletter, the nonprofit that I’ve continued to write for since returning to Virginia. While living on the border and talking with the religious sisters and the social workers who work with these children, I got a different perspective from that presented by political pundits as to why these children are coming. And, as a mother myself seeing the little ones in the detention centers, I could only think of my own son and how desperate our situation would have to be for me to let him travel alone through such dangerous territory. No mother could make such a decision easily. If at all.

So, wanting to get the perspective from someone on the border whom I trust, I opened my iPad and clicked on the Annunciation House website (www.annunciationhouse.org ) to see if Ruben Garcia, director of this hospitality house in downtown El Paso that’s been taking in refugees and immigrants for 36 years, had anything to say about this phenomenon.

I found a YouTube clip on the home page — one I’d not seen before. The clip, called “A Place at the Table,” was made in 2007, yet it addresses the same issues concerning immigration that we’re failing to address today. You can find it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJ1W8EViVD4&sns=em

The video starts with the sound of a train — a sound oh so familiar to me during those many nights in the house on Gallagher Street when I awoke to freight trains rushing across intersections, their horns blowing through the darkness of my bedroom. My reaction is immediate. I start to cry. Who can say why my heart feels this connection? But it’s there. As clear as the passion evident in Ruben’s voice as he shares the true meaning of Jesus’ gospel message. He reminds me why I’m doing this. He helps clear my vision again. To a certain extent.

Because even though I feel this calling, this longing to follow my heart, I can’t yet see too far ahead. Nor can I see what God is doing in me. It’s true, I am relinquishing my house, yet that doesn’t feel too difficult. Relinquishing my dog — now that’s hard. Even though Cody’s going into the home of good friends who love him and will give him more attention and better care than I ever could, still, when I put my arms around his neck I feel the sadness of how little time I have with him. At 13, Cody’s an old dog. Anything can happen.

And then there’s my only son. I’ll be living further away from him than I ever have. Not that he needs me to be that close. He knows I’ll always be available to him. But still. It’s a strange feeling. Leaving behind the life I’ve known. For who knows what? I’m not completely sure. Nor do I know where it will lead. It’s definitely one of those “jumping-off places.”

Yet I’m not alone in this. Just a little over a week ago I participated in a special farewell ceremony for a like-minded friend about to embark on a six-week discernment retreat. She’d left her job months ago, certain that was no longer where she belonged, but unsure of the way forward. On that Friday evening five females gathered with her for a “liturgy for leaping” ceremony, as she called it, before she went off to listen to where Spirit was calling her next. Each of the women there, myself included, had experienced her own leaping-off point into the unknown. Together we acknowledged the courage, the fear, and the sacredness of “the leaps of faith we take in our lives,” and yet how necessary these leaps are for each of us to be who we truly are.

For me, this excerpt from “Praise What Comes,” a poem by Jeanne Lohmann, particularly expresses why we leap:

At the end there may be no answers

and only a few very simple questions: did I love,

finish my task in the world?  Learn at least one

of the many names of God?

 At the intersections,

the boundaries where one life began and another

 ended, the jumping-off places between fear and

possibility, at the ragged edges of pain,

did I catch the smallest glimpse of the holy?

I hope my vision continues to expand. Beyond any anxious thoughts of what I’m letting go of and what I might find. Beyond the comfort of my tree house. Into glimpses of the holy in everyone and everything that leaps onto my path.

The Journey to El Paso

I do not want to be a bystander in life. I want to fully live, and that means being still enough to pay attention, be fully present to myself and others as much as possible, and take action when needed. It means listening to, and following, my heart more and being willing to jump in even when I don’t know where I’ll land. This is one way of explaining why I’ve decided to volunteer with the School Sisters of St. Francis on the U.S./Mexico border to serve the immigrant population. I have no idea where this will lead. I only know that I am responding to an inner calling.

It started back in February when I traveled to El Paso, Texas, with four women from my church to learn firsthand about immigration. Kristen, our justice and charity outreach coordinator, organized the weeklong “border immersion” trip in response to our church’s growing Hispanic population and the separation she had observed between our Anglo and Latino parishioners. She hoped to bridge that gap by exposing us to the issues of immigration as experienced by those living on the U.S./Mexico border. Something attracted me about this trip as soon as Kristen mentioned it. My first thought: I can write about this. As a freelance writer I was attracted to the opportunity to learn firsthand about immigration, hear personal stories, and get the facts from those who live and work with the immigrant population. I also knew that this experience would affect me somehow. But what I didn’t count on was how it would awaken and inspire me, tugging at my longing to serve so strongly that the experience would continue to pull me weeks and even months later.

From the moment we climbed into Sr. Fran’s van to begin our immersion experience, I heard disturbing stories and facts about the plight of those crossing the U.S./Mexico border. Sr. Fran has been running these border immersion trips since 2006, hoping to eliminate the myths and misinformation many Americans have about immigrants. She had us going from 7 a.m. until dinner time, meeting with Border Patrol, the founder of a migrant farm workers’ union, a physician who offers health care to the poor, and directors and administrators of various programs, shelters, and detention facilities, all of whom inspired me in the work they do and the stories they told.  The immigrants themselves, because of their deep trust, respect, and love for Sr. Fran, welcomed us into their homes on the “colonias” — stark settlements in the desert where migrants buy a plot of land and set up a trailer.

I felt my heart opening more and more each day until one afternoon I met Ruben Garcia. Ruben is the director and cofounder of Annunciation House—a “house of hospitality” for refugees and the homeless in downtown El Paso. He and his young friends opened Annunciation House 35 years ago in their response to studying Scripture and recognizing how God “first and foremost identifies with the poor.” His stories of the people who have come through his house—some, victims of torture; others, simply trying to survive—cracked through the last of that invisible shield over my heart. Suddenly,  I started to cry. And in that moment, I knew why I had come on this trip. I knew God was calling me to something more.

That’s when I first felt the pull.

The night before we left El Paso we had dinner with the Sisters—all three of them—at Casa Alexia, their mission house. Sr. Kathy shared her work with trauma victims. Eighty-year-old Sr. Nancy brought up the issue of human trafficking, so prevalent on the border, and how she wants to attack it. Then they pitched their need for help, whether through signing up for their volunteer program or joining their order. In that moment, it wasn’t just Sr. Kathy or Sr. Nancy inviting me. I experienced a stronger invitation, coming from someplace deep within me.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain this to anyone, it’s impossible. My mind can’t make sense of it. Why do I have to go all the way to El Paso to serve? There are so many needs here. And Virginia is my home. Why would I leave this beautiful countryside of green-leaved  trees and rolling hills and ever-changing mountains for dry, flat, hot west Texas?

But truthfully, I am no longer comfortable in this place, in conducting “business as usual.” Something deeper is calling me. Something that defies weather and terrain and logical understanding. I couldn’t care less about the surroundings. It’s the people I can’t get out of my heart. And this pull to “something more.”

I have learned that matters of the Spirit can’t be explained. Yet when I listen and follow these “insights,” amazing and powerful things happen. So, a few months later, despite  anxious feelings about how I would manage to do this, I applied to volunteer with the Sisters at the border in early 2014. My application was accepted, and now here I am stepping out into the unknown with nothing more than the desire to listen to and follow my heart. In the process, I hope to serve something greater than my small self.

That’s what this blog is about: sharing my experiences and the stories of those I have met and will meet—stories that are as varied as the issue of immigration reform is complex. I hope along the way I will dispel some of the misinformation out there about immigration. And I will discover my heart’s true calling.