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Grace to Find Your Way

wandering-in-desert

Find your way. When a flight attendant uttered these words yesterday on my return flight from a brief visit to El Paso, I stopped reading my book mid sentence. Maybe she had some words of wisdom for me.

But no. Apparently “Find Your Way” is simply an American Airlines website that helps you make your connections and get to your destination. Just check the Internet and “find your way.”

If only life were that easy.

Finding your way can be a lifelong journey. Sometimes you wonder if you got on the wrong flight!

If you’re like me, you’ve realized you might as well relax and give in to not knowing where the journey will end. Or when.

But you can go forward with a willing spirit, an open heart, and a mind a little less engaged in trying to “figure it out.”

Which brings me back to El Paso.

I had to return this past weekend to attend the last module of my Capacitar training. Otherwise I wouldn’t have received my certificate acknowledging my year-long study and application of these body-mind-spirit practices. Practices that are helping people in over 40 countries, including Israel, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, who suffer from trauma, violence, or any type of stress. Practices that I have been using myself and hope to use with those I will serve in the years ahead. Wherever that may be.

I still don’t know for certain where I’m going next. But I do know I haven’t lost my way. Nor have I lost an awareness of the grace available to get me there. Grace that seems to appear as I need it. That happened a lot on this trip.

Like the frequent flyer miles I unknowingly had acquired that helped me “afford” the flight to El Paso. Like the offers of rides to and from airports, of meals, and of places to stay while there. And, most especially, the unanticipated grace of the very warm and genuine welcoming I received everywhere I went. They sure made me feel like I was home.

For the four nights I spent in El Paso I slept in three different homes. And at every one of them, I was offered a room should I decide to return to the border. I admit, it certainly feels tempting. Something about being with people who have a heart for mission — for this mission of serving the migrants and the marginalized — just feels right. But lots of questions remain.

On the table in one of the bedrooms where I stayed, a postcard-sized greeting caught my attention. A pretty picture of blue sky and birds in flight. A quote I can’t now recall.

“That’s nice,” I thought. But then I turned the card over.

As soon as I saw Thomas Merton’s name at the bottom, I knew what it was. Merton, a well-known Trappist monk, author, and contemplative, has a famous prayer, found in his book Thoughts in Solitude. It’s my favorite. And one that’s shown up at various times in my life when I needed to hear it. That’s what was on the other side of this card.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. Nor do I really know myself.
And the fact that I think I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you.

And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death
I will not fear for you are ever with me.

And you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.”

― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

A prayer of surrender. Of trust. Of humility. From a man who dedicated his life to seeking union with God. I immediately knew this prayer was yet another grace. A gift to my heart.

I figure if Merton wasn’t sure about the way forward, I don’t have anything to worry about. I’m in good company. In more ways than one.

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The Gift in El Paso

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Call me crazy but I drove to El Paso this past weekend. 550 miles one way. A straight line right through the desert along I-10. And a speed limit of 80 mph all the way. Not that I drove that fast!

My reason for going? To begin the first of four weekend trainings in Capacitar — a multicultural wellness program that I wrote about in an earlier blog. Ever since I was exposed to Capacitar during my first visit to El Paso, I’ve been attracted to it and inspired by its founder Pat Cane. Capacitar — a Spanish word meaning “to empower, bring forth”— integrates body-mind-spirit practices to bring healing to people all over the world who have experienced trauma, violence, and emotional and physical stress. (You can read more about it at http://www.capacitar.org)

Now I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to receive training and certification in this program, with the idea that I will bring it to others who need healing. Not only did I receive the assistance I needed to do this, but the sisters here in San Antonio allowed me to extend my weekend in order to take advantage of the program. I was pretty excited about how this all came together. My hope is that I can teach some of these practices to the women at our little learning center, La Casita.

But even more than feeling extremely grateful to be participating in the Capacitar training, I recognized the excitement growing in me as I drove closer and closer to El Paso.

As soon as I exited off I-10 onto Lee Trevino and headed to North Loop, I felt like I’d come home. The familiar roads. The bus route I’d taken, along with all my Hispanic neighbors. Even the Whataburger on the corner. I’d treated myself to a great chocolate shake there. I was smiling from ear to ear.

When I called my cousin in Austin to let her know I’d arrived safely, I couldn’t contain the feelings.

“I’m so happy to be here!” I blurted.

I heard her chuckle. “Nobody’s happy to be in El Paso.”

“Well, I am. My heart is happy here. It’s like being home.”

I’m sure I must have left a piece of my heart in El Paso when I left back in March. Certainly the sisters welcomed me as if I were home.

I talked to them nonstop through dinner, pouring out every detail of my journey to San Antonio. Where I am and what I’m doing. The questions and concerns that still remain.

They listened to all of it. Then one of them suggested something that struck a chord.

“Sounds to me like you’re in liminal space, Pauline.”

Hmm. Liminal space. I’d heard that term before.

Having read many books and reflections by Richard Rohr — a Franciscan and contemporary spiritual writer — I knew that liminal space meant that inbetween place where you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of a threshold, about to cross over into something yet unknown and unforeseen.

When I got back to San Antonio on Monday, I looked up Richard Rohr’s explanation of liminal space:

…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 

I’ve certainly lived through stages like that in my life. But this one feels different. It challenges me from a tougher place. Something in me knows that I will experience deeper spiritual growth and maturity. That is, if I can hang out long enough with the discomfort and the questions, not to mention my aversion to finding myself in this position. To be honest, I don’t like this version of living in liminal space.

To help me manage living here for a while, I’ve set some goals for myself:

  • Focus on the healing work of Capacitar
  • Learn Spanish while hanging out
  • Be open to the surprises, to whatever comes
  • Trust that God is with me in this
  • Look for the little graces every day —

Graces like this opportunity to participate in Capacitar. And the gift of being able to return to El Paso — at least every now and then.

 

 

Being in Detention

(source: restorefairness.org)

(source: restorefairness.org)

“Being in detention” has a whole new meaning for me.

Since coming to El Paso, I’ve become accustomed to associating the word “detention” with undocumented immigrants. I’ve seen that the reality of what it means to “be detained” is harsh and costly. For all of us.

Recently I visited the detention facility for adult immigrants in El Paso. I had been told that detention is not a prison, but that’s not how I felt as I walked that compound. I’ll describe it to you, and you can form your own opinion.

But first, a bit of background information.

Currently, the United States has approximately 250 detention facilities for undocumented immigrants. There are separate detention centers for undocumented youth and for young children, which I have visited as well. But that’s a whole other story, complete with its own difficult statistics and heartbreaking realities.

Many of these facilities are run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, but a growing number of detention facilities are now privately-run, profit-making businesses that seek to keep their beds filled. The particularly disturbing side of that fact is, unlike the federally-run facilities, these businesses have little oversight.

The cost to taxpayers to detain undocumented immigrants is about $120 per person per day and, thanks to a “bed mandate” Congress passed in 2009, our country detains at least 34,000 immigrants per day. In other words, there’s a quota—a minimum amount of beds that must be filled. At a cost of more than $2 billion a year. And that’s just for the detention centers. In fiscal year 2012 alone, the U.S. Government spent $18 billion on immigration enforcement. That amount continues to rise.

Now for my visit.

Sr. Rita, the assistant chaplain at the adult detention facility here in El Paso has invited me to join her and Sr. Kathy as they offer their weekly session of Capacitar to the women inmates. Capacitar teaches practices that integrate body,  mind, and spirit to help heal trauma, stress, anxiety, and other issues. Both of the sisters have been trained in Capacitar and offer it at the center to bring healing to the women. They never know which women, or how many, will show up for the sessions. But they trust that whoever comes will receive what she needs.

To enter the facility, Sr. Kathy and I first drive into a secure complex housing administrative offices of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol. The complex is surrounded by a chain link fence. Guard at the gate. IDs needed. The usual security procedures. But then we drive deeper into the complex toward a section that clearly intends to keep whatever is inside from getting out. Coiled barbed wire runs atop the high chain link fencing surrounding the area. Multiple layers of secured entryways exist between me and the other side.

We park at the main building and Sr. Kathy reminds me to leave everything in the car: my purse, notebook, water bottle. The only thing I am allowed to take inside—my driver’s license to hand over to the guard for identification. Once inside we sign in and wait for Sr. Rita, who will escort us to the barred entrance and through the layers of security.

When Sr. Rita arrives, I clip on my plastic visitor badge and follow her out to the main gate. The guard pushes a button and a long section of the fence rattles open, allowing us in. We step forward, and I hear the click of the lock as the fence rolls back in place behind us. Then we move through a narrow fenced-in passageway to another locked entrance. A female voice behind a dark-paned glass booth asks for my name and visitor badge number. The unseen woman pushes another button and the barred gate buzzes open, ushering us onto the grounds of the detention center.

Bright sunlight pounds the stark concrete. I am surrounded by cement and white buildings of various shapes and sizes. On the pavement, painted white lines run parallel from one building to another, a narrow space between them. Sr. Rita explains that the residents must stay within the lines whenever they are outside. They cannot walk outside the lines. Guards are posted to ensure the rules are followed.

The residents wear colored uniforms—cotton slacks and V-necked short-sleeved tops—based on their behavior or criminal record. Violent or dangerous criminals are assigned red. Those who’ve committed minor crimes or misdemeanors wear orange. Those whose only offense is to have crossed the border wear dark blue. Most people wear dark blue. The blues never mingle with the reds, Sr. Rita explains. And the men are always separated from the women. Even when they walk outside, one group must wait until the other passes before moving on. The men are not allowed to pass by the women. I ask why and Sr. Rita says it’s not a good idea. Some women fear the men. Being that close can cause a traumatic reaction based on the women’s past experiences. I don’t have to ask why.

(Source: elpasotimes. mycapture.com)

(Source: elpasotimes.mycapture.com)

The room where we will offer Capacitar has four concrete walls, one side plastered with a beautiful mural of a flowered hillside overlooking the ocean. I glance at this scene every once in awhile to change the mood I’m viewing outside the window as I wait for the women to arrive. Finally the women emerge in their dark blue pants and tops, making their way in single file, as a guard leads them along the white-lined narrow pathway to our building.

The women hesitate as they enter, waiting for direction. We hand out magic markers and we all write our first names on white adhesive tags and stick them onto our shirts. Glad to use the little Spanish I know, I introduce myself to each of the women and say their names aloud. This feels sacred to me, the speaking of each woman’s name, acknowledging the individual underneath the blue uniform. We take our seats and I look around at these women—some young, some middle aged—and wonder what they have endured to get here. Two of the women can’t be more than early 20’s, their faces full of that youthful exuberance, which shines even here in this place of concrete and barbed wire. I think of the statistics I’ve learned about the high percentage of women who are raped along the way. And I wonder.

With music playing from an iPod, we teach the women Tai Chi and acupressure points to relieve stress and anxiety. We move together in a circle, our bodies free and flowing. The two young women smile at each other and giggle. I notice a visible change in the energy in the room. For nearly two hours, we instruct them in self-care before they will return to their barracks with whatever memories they carry within their minds, bodies, and hearts.

After the session is over, I use the little Spanish I can muster to speak to one of the young women. As soon as I say I’m from Virginia, a huge smile spreads across her face. “My mother and brother are in Alexandria,” she says in broken English. I tell her I lived in Alexandria for many years. Suddenly, like a child delighted with herself, she speaks another English word. “Boyfriend.” Her boyfriend, too, is in Alexandria. I ask her in Spanish how long she’s been in this center. Three months, she answers. On March 10 she will be sent back to El Salvador. I cannot imagine she will stay there very long.

As I say goodbye to each of the women, I pray silently for their journeys. I will not see them again. I want to offer them something.

Before we leave, Sr. Rita shows us around the rest of the “campus.” She tells me that this is one of the better run detention facilities. She points out the large, long barracks with their tall multi-paned windows that let in light. Inside, guards are on duty 24/7. We are not allowed to enter. We tour the medical building with its isolation room for those who come with suspected contagious diseases, the library where the detainees come to research information for their cases (even though many of them cannot read or write), and the building where new detainees are processed. On the way out of this building, I notice a flyer that reads: “Feeling sad, lonely, depressed, anxious? Don’t give up. There is help.” I can’t catch the rest of the words before we have to move on. But I wonder what feelings I would have locked up in such a place, a long way from home and family, my future in someone else’s hands. And I wonder why the flyer is in English.

As we leave the building, a van pulls up. They’re bringing in new captives—people who have just been caught at the border. The back doors open and a guard steps out leading a man bound with chains around his ankles.

“I’ll never get used to that,” Sr. Rita tells me as I watch the guard unchain him.

As we return to the main desk to pick up my driver’s license and sign out, I think about how fortunate I am to be “legal,” to have all the necessary identification needed to live in this country without fear of being removed from my home or family. Why am I so fortunate to have been born here and not in some poverty-stricken country? I feel the weight of this responsibility. Because it is a tremendous responsibility—to have been given so much when so many are in need. And in such need that they will risk anything to leave their situation behind. Familiar words of Jesus pop into my head: “To the one who has been given, much will be expected.”

Beginning Again

The title for this blog hit me right between the eyes Sunday morning. I was checking my email for my daily “Inward/Outward” reflection from Church of Our Saviour and there it was. The perfect title. And the reflection’s message of how Jesus took the risk of “beginning again” when his early public ministry didn’t quite go the way he had expected clearly could have been written just for me.

I, too, thought I knew how things would go in my life, but have been “cast out into new lands.”  El Paso, Texas, for sure would fit that bill. Just walking around the neighborhood where I’m staying lets me know I’m not in Virginia anymore. The dusty, dry landscape, spindly trees, and expansive blue sky that stretches well into Juarez, Mexico and the sepia-toned mountains beyond are unfamiliar sights for one who’s accustomed to the lush, green, hilly countryside of the Blue Ridge Valley.

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A few of my “vicious” neighbors

Interestingly, the Sisters’ house, Casa Alexia, where I’m staying is also located in “the Valley”—an area of El Paso with a strong Mexican influence. But there’s nothing green here. Except for a few cactus. Streets are lined with single-story stone houses, some painted bright green, blue, yellow, or pink. And most are surrounded by chain link or iron fences, restraining the many dogs my neighbors seem to have. Just about everyone owns a dog. Some have two or three. I’ve learned to brace myself as I walk past fences, anticipating one of them suddenly appearing out of nowhere, jumping up against the fence and barking away as if I’m their worst enemy.

 

Front lawns are basically composed of dirt, or stones that cover the dirt. Everyone parks their cars and trucks in the front yard—a small plot of land usually cluttered with an assortment of items like old grills, upholstered couches, plastic toys, the occasional supermarket shopping cart, and—in the case of our neighbor down the street—a miniature Statue of Liberty.

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Miss Liberty shows up in El Paso

            Despite this being late January, some homes still display Christmas decorations and lights. I’ve spotted more than one plastic nativity set, half its figures fallen over in the yard. At night, a few houses switch on twinkling multicolored lights. Not sure if this is related to the Mexican culture or the strong impact of their Catholic faith. At any rate, it’s one of the  many unusual sights I’ve observed during my stay so far.

Truthfully, I had intended to write about my first week in El Paso days ago. But here I am well into my second week with a multitude of  experiences and inspiring people bulging inside my brain all trying to push their way onto the page. It’s strange how whenever I sit down to write, I have trouble forming the words. There’s so much I want to share, I don’t know where to begin. And it’s not as though I have huge blocks of time to write. After all, I’m really here as a volunteer; I go wherever and whenever the Sisters need me. So, each time I sit down to write, I feel as though I am beginning again, having to recollect my thoughts and experiences of the day, and hoping this time I’ll finish a blog post. I’ve been working on this one for several days!

Over the weekend I was given a special gift. An amazing woman named Pat Cane, founder and director of Capacitar (a Spanish name that means “to empower”), came to stay with us at the Sisters’ house for several days. Capacitar is an international program that integrates body, mind, and spirit practices to help heal victims of trauma and violence in more than 40 countries (check out the website at: http://www.capacitar.org/index.html). Pat was here to train a group in Juarez and for the final presentations and graduation of  trainers who have completed the program’s four modules in El Paso.

Pat’s story is quite an inspiration. Years ago, faced with a difficult major life change, she questioned herself, her purpose, her direction. She was forced to begin again. And from that place of uncertainty, she chose to devote her life to spreading healing and wellness practices through Capacitar.  Now 73 -years old—although her bright face and light-filled eyes make her look 10 years younger—Pat travels the world to implement this program in countries like Rwanda, Nicaragua, Ireland, and South Sudan, teaching and training others to bring healing to refugee camps, detention centers, human rights centers, and many areas impacted by trauma and natural disasters. Using tools such as visualization, Tai Chi, acupressure, and reflexology, those trained in the Capacitar program transform themselves as well as people in their families, surroundings, and in the work of their unique calling.  

Through what I can only call a synchronous event, I was invited to attend the two-day trainers’ conference and presentations. I say synchronous because when I heard about Capacitar while here last February, it intrigued me and I wanted to learn more. To be welcomed into this weekend as a participant was totally unexpected. As I listened to educators, counselors, mental health personnel, religious sisters, and community leaders give creative presentations describing the effects of Capacitar in their lives and of those facing stressful situations, from military personnel at Ft. Bliss to undocumented immigrants at detention centers, it was clear I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Some of the stories were heart-wrenching. Like the health care practitioner whose female client had crossed the border into Texas hanging onto one of many freight trains that travels up through Mexico. (Not an uncommon practice, by the way, for Latinas seeking a better life to risk jumping onto a moving freight train.) At some point the woman fell off and her foot was amputated. Now she could no longer fulfill her dream of finding work cleaning houses to support her family whom she’d left behind and for whom she was the sole supporter.  Somehow this woman will have to find another way to survive. Like so many people here, she too is beginning again.

Obviously the details of the lives I’m hearing about are much more difficult and challenging than mine. But our stories are intertwined. My questions, my fears, my doubts, my longing—these same concerns and feelings exist in everyone. They’re universal. Each of us has our own wounds that need healing. 

For the past several years I’ve done personal work to integrate body, mind, and spirit practices, which is one reason Capacitar resonates so clearly with me. Another is my desire to serve those in need. Putting these together seems like the perfect answer to my question of how to begin something new in this stage of my life. Where and under what circumstances that will happen continues to evolve. But as Capacitar so wisely claims: “healing ourselves, healing our world.”