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A Father’s Day Journey

parent-baby-hands

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?

onedayyouknew

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)

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Limited Vision

surrounded by trees

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.

sign above rock IMG_1369

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.