Being Truthful

Howard Thurman do not be silent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day they received none. Zero.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here I am, trying again.

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

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

These are their choices.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come Alive Howard-thurman-22491

Over the Bridge

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Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

On Thursday I ventured over the Bridge of the Americas into Juarez. Not quite like over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

Not at all.

I was on a mission. And I didn’t have a song in my heart or a pumpkin pie in my lap. I simply carried the two things I knew I would need: my passport and my willingness.

It turned out to be more than enough.

We rode in a nondescript white van – myself and two fellow female volunteers. Our driver, a 29-year-old Peace Lutheran volunteer and grad student, had crammed boxes filled with satchels of toiletries and packages of new underwear for adults and children into the back. Insulated bags of warm burritos sat on the floor behind me.

Our destination – no shelter of warmth, but pop-up campsites just over the border where dozens of families had erected tents while they await their “turn” to cross the bridge and request asylum.

These “campers” were mostly Mexican nationals fleeing violence in their home states. Places like Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Guerrero, where cartels seemed to be especially powerful. Places where they’d left behind family homes. Maybe a small farm or herd of animals. Maybe not much of anything. Except their fears about keeping themselves and their children safe.

But Customs and Border Protection agents stop them before they can cross one of the international bridges. They’re told CBP can’t handle them. They’ll have to put their names on a list and wait until their number is called. A process called “metering.”

Over the months since this practice has been put into place, asylum-seeking families, afraid to lose their place in line, have pitched tents close to the bridges. And they wait.

In the meantime, church groups from El Paso all the way to Las Cruces have been bringing food over almost daily. Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarians…they come to feed the people stranded here.

This was to be my first experience witnessing these campsites.

I didn’t know what to expect.

So my prayer before starting out that morning had been that I would have eyes to “see.” That I would be open to whatever I would encounter at the tent “city” where we were to deliver these donations.

The camp is easy to spot. A nest of tents encircling a small park. Wet clothing hanging from atop fences and trees.

Juarez tent city
One of the little tent encampments we visited

As soon as we park and unload, people start lining up. They are used to this routine.

But, once they see the goodies I have in these boxes, it doesn’t take long before any semblance of a line dissolves. Eager children surround me.

I finally stop trying to tell the children to get in line. I let go of my desire to make it more orderly, each one waiting his or her turn. I simply give everything away until the boxes are empty.

Afterwards, while another volunteer pours extra water into people’s empty containers, I speak with a couple of the women. How long have you been waiting to be called, I want to know? Two months, they both say.

Two months! Just to cross over and be processed!

I want to ask if they’re aware they will have to come back here and wait again. Unless they are lucky enough to be released to their family sponsors.

I want to ask if they know how slim their chances are.

Maybe they do. Maybe they know that, especially for Mexicans, the chances of winning asylum are remote.

But maybe they have no place else to go. Maybe they figure even a glimmer of hope is worth holding onto while they sleep on the ground.

As I listen, I realize that I have never known such desperation. I cannot identify with these women living in little tents covered with plastic garbage bags in a crowded and dangerous city. I have nothing to compare it to. I feel so disconnected.

Later, reflecting on this experience, I remember my intention. My willingness to see.

So, I look up the definition of “connection.” human-connection2

The relationship among people and objects across the barrier of space.

 

And then I remember something. Words that come in so clearly in the middle of my meditation:

“Have you been with me this long and still do not see me? Not know me?”

Humbled by how blind I am, I say again, “I want to see.”

 

It had seemed like such a small action. This crossing the bridge to hand out food and new underwear.

But it wasn’t. Not for them. And certainly not for me.

Because taking this small step has shown me. Your love is the bridge. Your love is the connection to recovering my sight.

And I know the way by heart.

Lord I want to see

 

 

 

Spiritually Fed

Sevenoaks Sanctuary
The “little sanctuary” at Sevenoaks in Madison, Virginia

I’ve recently returned from a week-long visit back east. My Virginia friends will probably wonder why I didn’t tell them I was coming. But this trip was solely for a reunion at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison.

At least that’s what I thought when I started planning it. However, God had other plans.

Before long nearly 100 middle schoolers had entered the picture.  But more on that in a moment.

First, I need to express how spiritually nourished I felt being back at Sevenoaks. The minute I stepped on that 130-acre wooded property again, I began to remember the many graces I’d received throughout my years there.

Sevenoaks is a special place where I and these now very close friends had first met and gathered more than 10 years ago, to begin some deep work together. It was a journey towards healing and transformation.  With lots of pain, and pleasure, too, along the way.  The opportunity came at a time when I was ready, and in need of taking that journey. I started this program only months before David died.

Sometimes, because I lived only minutes away, I would come over just to spend time on the land. To be alone in the sacredness of nature. And to listen to God speak to my inner being. And it was there in the silence of nature and in the depth of that program that I had begun to understand that God had placed a new calling on my heart.

And now here I was again surrounded and held by Mother Earth, the forests, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rich, red earth. Whether standing amidst a grove of cedars, meditatively walking the labyrinth under a canopy of trees, or praying in the little sanctuary in the woods, all of it filled my heart and soul with gratitude.

Sevenoaks Cedar Circle
Entrance to my favorite path at Sevenoaks

I thought I was spiritually filled up.

And then I headed to Raleigh.

My plan had been that, on the tail end of my trip, I would drive down with my friend Rob and spend the remainder of my time with him and his wife before flying out of Raleigh the next day. It was unusual for me to book an afternoon flight when traveling back to El Paso from the East Coast. Especially with the 2-hour time difference. But at the time I didn’t think much about why I hadn’t scheduled a morning flight.

Not until weeks later when the “coincidence” surfaced.

Rob discovered that Lucy, a family friend and teacher of World History and Language Arts at a private middle school in the Raleigh area, was offering her 7th graders a long-term program focusing on the various issues of immigration and refugees. When Rob told her where I lived and what I did, she wanted to know if I’d come speak to her classes about El Paso and my experiences at our border.

I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

What has been so difficult for those of us living in El Paso these days is not being able to do much in the face of the alarming and false anti-immigrant narrative and policies that are sending asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Juarez. Most Americans have no understanding of the border reality. I had been praying and asking God, what can I do now in the service of love? Making PB&J sandwiches didn’t seem to be enough. I had turned back to writing more.

And then I received Lucy’s invitation.

If I was willing, she wanted me to give presentations to all four classes, back to back, enabling me to reach all 7th graders. That meant I would have to be there the entire morning.

Now I understood why I had delayed my flight. I could say yes to Lucy. And yes to what I clearly felt was Spirit’s response to my prayer.

After standing before students for 3 ½ hours, my mouth dry, my mind feeling like mush, I realized I had never spoken so long in my life. And never so effortlessly and smoothly. Never had I taken follow-up questions so easily. Clearly I had gotten myself out of the way and let Spirit take over. Clearly it wasn’t “me” doing the talking.

I had simply asked to be a voice, an instrument, through which Spirit could reach the hearts of these youths.

And the best part was I could tell they were listening. They were engaged. By their surprised expressions and concerned questions, I knew that they were learning about something they had had no clear understanding of beforehand.

Afterwards, Lucy and her colleague Matt were so appreciative of my willingness to do this. But they have no idea how thankful I am for them. How grateful I am to know there are teachers like this who want to educate youth about all sides of such an important issue, help them think for themselves, and learn empathy along the way.

Certainly they have no clue how I was spiritually fed that morning. How they allowed me to be a voice for those God has clearly put on my heart. And to have had it be part of my journey back to Sevenoaks seems especially mystical.

El Paso star
The journey of following the star led from Sevenoaks to El Paso

 

Manna in the Desert

Las Cruces August sunset
Sunset over my desert home

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a metaphor. Or a Bible story.

There’s a desert. Grumbling. (That would be me.) Perceived lack of food and water.

And, always, brown dust. The promise of a strong sun.

Desert sun over Organs
Sun rising over Las Cruces mountain range

 

And more.

The sufferings of those around me. Those who make their way through the desert. Remembered Bible stories fuel their hope. Stories of manna in the desert. From a God who never abandons them. A God who provides unusual food. Water from an unlikely source.

Sometimes that source is people I know. People at a shelter that waits for them to arrive. Empty cots longing to caress them into sleep. Give them dreams beyond imaginations held in their homelands. Dreams that only come when a rock transforms into a pillow.

This God source has provided in other ways as well.

With provisions for times when it feels as though the desert takes too much. Too great a toll of flesh demanded for the promised freedom. Too great a toll on desperate travelers forced into a more desperate Juarez. Too great a toll on exhausted, hungry children arriving with abuelas, tίas and tίos. They are taken from the only family they know. Pulled away and placed in shelters far from the desert, in rural American countrysides, hidden from view.

The toll seems unforgivable. Unimaginable to us who remain in the desert, watching, bearing witness to the inhumanity.

“Where is God in this?” we ask.Chihuahuan Desert

Where is God in the long aridity? When it feels like provisions are lacking?

In asking the question, the answers come.

I begin to notice provisions for the journey. The gifts in the sand.

The tireless female attorneys, mothers themselves, crossing the port of entry daily. Checking on clients. Seeking those with hearings in unsympathetic El Paso courtrooms. Holding up in the heat, the long lines at the bridge. No matter how few asylum cases they will win. Unfaltering despite the odds.

Manna in the form of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. El Paso volunteers now prepare these sandwiches for migrants waiting in Mexico to be processed. The people are hungry.peanut_butter_and_jelly_2

And Mexican federal immigration officials do not have the provisions to feed so many before releasing these families to shelters. Or worse – the streets of Juarez. The migrants – and the Mexican agents – welcome PB&J manna with smiles.

Provisions of friendship. The gift of camaraderie – of soul friends committed to the refugee, to the hurting, to those fleeing enslavement, a life of extortion.

We come together, share food and drink. Sing songs of a world we know is possible. The gift of laughter lightens the burdens. Our common prayer rises to the “column of cloud” guiding our journey.

Provisions of expression, of expelling the grief. Lisa offers the gift of her therapist skills, a free-will offering to those of us “living on the cusp,” living in the midst of the atrocious effects of the pharaoh’s dictates. She desires to help us. Her provisions fall like manna from the sky, alighting on our souls so in need of nourishment.

This heart I’ve been given – this too is a gift, a “talent” I’ve been asked to magnify on the journey. Even though it sometimes feels like a curse. A weakness. A vulnerability that needs alteration.

Then Brother Lalo gifts me with the words of St. Paul: “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” He tells me this is what comes to him when he thinks of me.

His supportive words, another provision in this desert. A reminder of another Bible story. The weak will befuddle the strong.

Yes, I call these “provisions for the journey.” And I hear God ask, can you trust that you’ll be given what you need? Just for today? Can you trust that I’ll be with you again tomorrow? Even when night descends?

Quotes_Creator_2Cor I am strong

 

 

 

Beautiful Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

I agreed, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredible, because of how it spoke to my heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not just anyone.

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

I knew I was home.Quotes_Creator_no estas solo

 

Cause No Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused and looked at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

And more than that.

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

Janet McKenzie_Jesus
“Jesus at Gethsemani” painting by Janet McKenzie

The Birthday Gift

birthday gift for you
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.
balloons-1786430_1280
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.

Quotes_Creator_Etty Hillseum

Contradictions in Costa Rica

Tortuguero-National-Park-boat
A trip up the canal along Tortugero National Park

I experienced paradise for nearly two weeks. Every morning in Costa Rica I’d wake up happy.

And that’s despite getting up much earlier than usual.

The cacophony of birds greeting the dawn just wouldn’t let me sleep. Nor would the howler monkeys. With their loud calls seemingly so close to my window, I felt as though someone had planted my bed smack in the middle of the jungle.

But I’d jump up, no matter the hour, excited and eager to get out there and see what amazing colors and species of bird, animal, and plant I’d find today.

Costa Rica defines abundance.

For such a small country – it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface – Costa Rica has nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An overabundance in my book. I couldn’t even keep up with the numbers. Something like 600 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – at least 150 species of frogs, over 500 species of trees.

Every day was an adventure in joyful exploration. An encounter with tremendous beauty.

Daily, I found myself expressing gratitude for this incredible earth we’ve been placed on.

But everything wasn’t perfect. Neither in Costa Rica nor elsewhere on the planet.

While on vacation I wasn’t watching the news, but I couldn’t get away from what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. I continued to view emails and messages from friends and reliable news sources.

So, I was aware that the caravan of Central Americans had been denied entry to the U.S., with the claim that Border Patrol had reached its capacity and was unable to accept and process the asylum seekers, most of whom were mothers and children. I knew, too, that this was a charade. The caravan had been anticipated. It had been in the news for days. There was no reason, other than political, as to why Border agents weren’t prepared to receive them.

Meanwhile, back in El Paso, my fellow volunteers were helping an unusually high number of migrants. Texts and emails were coming through, rapidly and daily, for more volunteers, as ICE delivered more than 400 asylum seekers to our “hospitality houses” during the week I was gone.

It was such a contradiction. One border outside Tijuana unable to process a little more than 100 people who had been expected to arrive while another port of entry was taking in an unexpected 100 or more a day.

I couldn’t help but think about it. I imagine a hard stone wall, filled with anger, fear, and prejudice, stacked up against some people’s hearts, to keep from feeling their humanity towards immigrants. It is this wall, I suspect, that keeps us from feeling the pain and outrage over our government’s practice of now separating children – as young as 2 years old – from their mothers at the border. Mothers who have fled their country in order to save their children. Now suffering even greater heartbreak.

It felt like such a contradiction within myself, too.

One minute I was telling a co-traveler how Costa Rica makes my heart happy, and the next, I was explaining to another how the tragic and troubling situation at the border hurts my heart.

And both were true.

I don’t pretend to understand why there is such pain in an abundant universe.

This is the world we live in: one that can be both paradise and prison, both filled with immeasurable joy and immense sorrow.

And my faith lives in the midst of these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions.

When I ask my inner being, what am I to do, I hear that my task is simply to learn to love. Love those in sorrow and pain, and love those who wound and hurt them because of their own pain and ignorance. Learn to hold all of this suffering and let my heart feel and expand in the process. Which really isn’t that simple, is it?

But this is what connects me to the One who has created such inexpressible beauty in nature and such vulnerable hearts capable of unimaginable pain.

It may seem contradictory, but both are gifts – treasures hidden in plain sight.

A Good Place to Land

Las_Cruces01.gif
Aerial view of Las Cruces, New Mexico

Today is the 9th anniversary of David’s passing, and I’m marveling at where I’ve landed. Only last week, I moved again.

No, I didn’t stray very far from El Paso. Just over the border in New Mexico. But it’s a good move. I’ve bought my own place in a great community, and it means I’m putting down roots. Settling in. Ready to really sink my teeth into my life here.

Back in 2009 I could not have envisioned this life. A life without him. A life far from dear friends and a community that fully supported and surrounded me and Davis through our grief.

A life outside my beautiful Virginia.

Now I can’t imagine going back. Not being able to accompany and support the asylum seekers who arrive at our door. I can’t imagine not being able to witness firsthand and speak up about the realities of the Borderlands – the name for our area, from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM.

Las Cruces Organ view
A view from my morning walk

Because the reality is so much different from what you hear in the news or from the mouths of political pundits on TV. Or on Twitter.

I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve met. About perseverance and faith against all odds. About the challenges of living with tremendous uncertainty. The kind that’s life-threatening and beyond heartbreaking.

And, most especially, about the nature of our true home. The home within.

Still it feels good to have landed in my new physical home. A place with a different kind of beauty, where I still have my circle of friends and a community committed to social justice and caring for “the other.”

 

Las Cruces fields
Outside my new neighborhood

 

A safe place.

Yes, El Paso and the Borderlands are safe. In fact, El Paso continues to be counted as one of the safest U.S. cities for its size. I have always felt safe here. I teach English to adults at a church that’s within walking distance of the border. The little hospitality house where I volunteer is downtown, also close to the border. Mexican shoppers cross over daily and support our economy.

This is why what we hear in the media about the border is so disturbing. Like the idea of the president sending the National Guard. It’s ridiculous to us. We believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money and our resources. The truth is, apprehensions at the border have decreased significantly. The numbers are way down.

We also know the truth about the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico and how that story, in the hands of this president, exploded into some far-fetched, fear-based fantasy. Not to mention that many of these asylum seekers are from Honduras, a country whose recent election was considered a fraud, except by our president. He supported the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández – an authoritarian leader in one of the most violent nations in the world. We continue to send military aid to Honduras while their military police abuse and kill grassroots activists and the poor and marginalized. With rampant crime and human rights abuses, it’s no wonder Hondurans are fleeing.

Honduran election protests

One young woman whom ICE delivered to us shared how the people are desperately poor. Desperate people do desperate things. She and her roommate were both raped in their apartment, and everything they had was stolen. They had nothing left. They were not safe. And they had no recourse. The police could not or would not help them. She fled, not knowing this rape would result in a pregnancy until months later.

Yet she shows no resentment. She even smiles when she speaks about this baby. She seems to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. I wonder if I could land with such grace.

But then again, after David died, I didn’t think I’d ever land someplace gracefully and securely again. At least not without that bottomless well of pain accompanying me.

I’ve discovered that’s not true.

And moving to Las Cruces, with its tree-lined streets, and a little cooler temperatures and a lot more greenery – all within a short drive to El Paso and still within my border community – well, it’s like landing in the best of both worlds.

With so many blessings, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world around me and not give back. I know David would approve.

Me&David