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.

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“Jesus at Gethsemani” painting by Janet McKenzie
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Rediscovering Christmas (or How I Spent My Christmas Eve)

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The El Paso Star atop the Franklin Mountains

Christmas Eve morning.

I open the doors of la sala, and the stench affronts my nostrils.

The odor of weary travelers who have not washed for days wafts through the air. I try not to breathe too deeply.  About 60 parents and their children sleep on blankets spread across the floor.

I am the shift coordinator at Loretto Nazareth. The person “in charge” for the next several hours. The one responsible for these refugees who were brought here last night to get them out of the cold after CBP deposited them onto the street. Combined with our other guests still sleeping snugly in their rooms, the number of people in my care totals well over 100.

Intake has not yet been done for those who arrived during the night. They’ll need orientation. Phone calls to relatives and sponsors will need to be made. Showers taken, clean clothing dispersed, and rooms assigned as available.

Because it’s Christmas, and because this situation has been on the local news, people continuously arrive at our door throughout the day. Some bring Christmas gifts. Toys for the children, new winter coats, fresh fruit, candy and cookies.

Others come offering assistance. “What can we do?”  They’ve left their Christmas Eve preparations behind.  One couple arrives with their adult son who’s visiting for Christmas. They help in the clothing room for a couple of hours before announcing they have to pick up their daughter flying in for the holiday. But before leaving, they ask if they can give any guests a lift to the airport. A husband and wife stop by to offer a room in their home. “We saw it on TV. We want to help.”

Nazareth winter coats 2018
Storing donations of 50 boxes of children’s brand new winter coats

The overabundance of gifts, the donations, the offers of help – one could simply attribute this to the Christmas spirit. But I know better. This is El Paso. This has been the community’s response for decades.

And what I am experiencing at Nazareth is happening in temporary shelters throughout the city.  Every day.  I only do this twice a week. Some do it every day.

But this special day happens to be particularly long.

Because it’s Christmas Eve, my replacement is with family. Other volunteers are ill. The Annunciation House volunteer in charge of scheduling us is doing her best to find someone. I wind up doing a 12-hour shift.Ruben G

Exhausting, but unusual for me. I think of Ruben, our director, and I wonder if he ever sleeps.

When I finally leave, feeling rundown and ready to crash, I consider reneging on my fellow volunteer’s unexpected invitation earlier that day. Discovering I’d be alone tonight, Yvonne insisted I share Christmas Eve dinner at her mother’s with her extended family.

I know if I go home now, I won’t eat. It’s better that I accept.

And I’m so glad I do.

Of Mexican-American heritage, Yvonne’s family treats me as their own. A stranger welcomed into their private lives on a very personal occasion. Yvonne even has gifts for me she somehow found time to purchase that afternoon.

Later at home, needing to unwind, I sit at the base of my Christmas tree where I’ve placed Yvonne’s precious gifts. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. For Yvonne’s generosity. Her family’s hospitality. For the people of El Paso. And for the sudden awareness of God’s gift in bringing me here. The amazing graces of this place.

It’s true, I missed being with my son. I didn’t get the warm coziness of Christmases past spent with my husband, the comfort of eggnog rum sipped by a glowing fire, Christmas carols sung outside my door, beautifully wrapped presents under the tree.

Instead I got something much more.

The gift of living out the Gospel narrative of the Nativity.

pregnant mary-on-donkey

I didn’t find it in the pretty, pale-faced figurines and the adorable sheep hovering over a babe laid in my manger beneath the tree. This romantic, cozy scene is nothing like the reality.

I found it in the remembered odor of la sala. In realizing that Joseph and Mary, weary travelers unable to wash for days along their long journey, would have had the same scent. Could their fears also be the same as our refugee families? Poor and away from home and loved ones, afraid in the night as they awaken in a strange environment?

I found it in the baby born in a dirty, smelly place in which his olive-skinned parents were only passing through. None of them were citizens of Bethlehem. Even the shepherds were nomads. Scruffy men adding to the stench with their wool coverings.

On a deeper level, I am shown God’s connection to the poor and lowly. God’s identification with the meek and uncertain beginnings of a child born not in his own land. Whether in Bethlehem or El Paso.

How could we celebrate Christmas and miss this message?

How could we miss the Christ born through the lowliness and surrendered “yes” of a young, migrant couple who listened, not to the law, but to their “inner authority”?

Yet, I am certain El Paso has not missed it.

The tremendous gift of love displayed that Christmas night is made visible in El Paso.

In our community’s unlimited generosity and selfless giving. In our volunteers, supporters, and donors. Here I find the manifestation of the Incarnation.

And not only on one night. Day after day, year after year, El Pasoans show up to serve the poor and lowly. They are teaching me the meaning of love incarnated. And, through this ministry, God is teaching me how to love “the lowly.”

To love the Christ, in all His manifestations.

 “Only the humble believe God and rejoice that God is so free and grand, that he works wonders where we lose heart, that he makes splendid what is slight and lowly. Indeed, this is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly. ‘God has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.’ God in lowliness—that is the revolutionary, the passionate word of Advent.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Holy Night

Holy Womb

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-son
Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

Call me crazy but I love this season of quiet waiting in darkness.

It beckons me to be still. To sit for a long while in the silence and listen deeply.  If I am wise enough, I heed that call, as I did earlier this month when I gifted myself with a three-day silent retreat at a nearby hermitage.

Some wonder, why do you need time in silence when you live alone? Believe me, it’s not the same. At home there’s the pull of ever-present concerns in my surroundings, the to-do list sitting on my desk, my phone’s popping messages that distract even when it’s silenced. Case in point – since returning from my retreat, it’s taken me weeks to be able to sit down to write about the experience!

But that has only given me more opportunities to “see” more deeply the powerful gift I was given.

At the hermitage I unplugged from everything.  Let go of the daily text messages and continuous needs of our refugee hospitality shelters. Let myself simply “be.” And, eventually, I was able to silence the inner voices. My hope was that, like Mary, I could even be silent enough and present enough to fully receive what the Spirit offered. And surrender to it.

As soon as I entered the hermitage, it struck me. A large reproduction of Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” – the same painting Henri Nouwen used on the cover of his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son – hung squarely on the wall facing me. It’s my favorite Nouwen book, one that speaks to all the parts of myself that need accepting and embracing.

Clearly this was no coincidence.

The painting begged for reflection. I knew I’d have to comply.

But it wasn’t until my third and final day that I received the real gift. The day I decided to pull the rocking chair up close and finally contemplate the painting.

It didn’t take long for me to see myself in all of the “faces” of the painting, from the self-righteous brother to the humbled younger brother soaking in parental love. Similar to Henri Nouwen’s experience, I was aware of myself in all of these “characters.”

But I waited, open and surrendered, to see what else might emerge.  In the upper, far left-hand corner, I began to notice the outline of a figure I’d not seen before. Barely visible in the painting’s dark hues. So faint, it could be easily missed.

The outline appeared unmistakably feminine. Its invisible face positioned high enough to “oversee” and encompass all the figures.

So insignificant. And yet…

The longer I sat, the more I saw in this mysterious image the dark and nurturing safety of a womb large enough and sacred enough to have room for all these “parts” of myself. A loving refuge, like God’s “Holy Womb.”

But could it be that I was this womb, too? This loving, nurturing “Holy Womb”?

kissing_the_face_of_God

I often think of myself as insignificant. And yet….

After returning home, a friend sent me a beautiful Advent/Posada message related to our ministry of hospitality here in El Paso. She noted that “genuine hospitality requires an openness of space, time, and hearts to those others have rejected – or find insignificant. Mary seemed like an insignificant woman and Bethlehem like an insignificant town. But we know God places great value in what can seem to many insignificant.”

My friend’s words stirred something familiar. What had at first gone unnoticed about the painting now became powerfully significant. The revelation of the Word made flesh happened in such a dark and loving Holy Womb as this.

Mary, who seemed so insignificant – young, poor, traveling on the margins – revealed herself to be the Holy Womb that births the greatest love the world has ever known.

Could it not also be that I am pregnant with God? Just like Mary. That all of us are? Including the refugees we serve? These people who travel on the margins, unknown to most of us, despicable to some of us. They seem insignificant. And yet…

Quotes_Creator_Holy Womb

In the days and weeks that followed my time at the hermitage, I have come to recognize how, like Mary, I have listened deeply, with the desire to say yes to the truest within me. I have been “obedient” to the deepest voices within me. How else would I have wound up here, in the desert? So far away from my dear Virginia home.

Like Mary, I have said “yes” without worrying about the consequences. Isn’t this how the Holy Womb gives birth? In me? In you? In the least among us?

Isn’t this how the greatest love the world has known is born? Again and again?

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.

ann-voskamp-quote-gratitude-precedes-the-miracle

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)

Merton on Men, Animals, and God’s Will

Merton-quotes-about-love

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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I Have Confidence

Maria-in-front-of-the-bus_Salzburg

Like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, I have confidence.

Confidence in what exactly? That’s a question I had to ask myself recently after reading an NPR article on what Americans have confidence in – or don’t.

Based on a recent poll, NPR found that Americans don’t seem to have much confidence in any institution. Not in Congress. Not in their political parties, nor the president, nor big business. Not in banks nor the media. Not even in public schools.

But there is one institution in which Americans apparently have a lot of confidence.

The military.

As much as 87 percent of Americans said they have “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military,” according to the poll.

That’s a 30-percent increase from the 1970s.

At first, reading this was upsetting.

I mean, for a country that overwhelmingly claims to be Christian, this somehow didn’t sit right with me. Trusting in force and firepower. In violent means to an end. Not that Christianity hasn’t been violent throughout the centuries. Still, I do believe we are evolving.

I also believe this growing confidence in the military equates to a growing fear and anxiety in our society. Perpetuated by what we’re fed.

Daily.

Anyone could easily tap into that fearful place by listening to the news or political pundits. Or by following the barrage of negativity coming across social media. Or coming down the pipeline from Washington.

So, for my own sanity, I decided to pause. Take a breath.

And in the silence, ask myself, “What do you have confidence in, Pauline? What do you trust?”

What came to me immediately is that I have confidence in what I cannot see, yet I know is present in everything.

I have confidence in love. The Source of love that we cannot fully grasp with our finite minds, yet upholds us in everything.

This love permeates nature. It causes the sun to rise every morning and the moon to shine in the darkness.

gorgeous sunrise

Everything and everyone is a manifestation of this love. Nothing exists outside of it.

I have confidence that love is present in everything. It prevails in the midst of negativity and deep darkness. Even in the violence, in the madness, in the disease and desperation.

And although love won’t intervene, I trust in this love to heal the repercussions of violence. To show up in each of us as acts of mercy and compassion. Selfless kindness. Sacrifices made for another.

It heals what seems impossible to heal.

And it accomplishes this through me, and through you.

I have confidence in this love. And I have confidence in me. Because, as St. Catherine of Genoa said, “My deepest me is God.”

My true Source is love.

Sometimes, trusting in that is the only thing that saves me.

Funny, but after I reflected on this, I found myself breaking into song. Suddenly singing “I Have Confidence” just like Maria in The Sound of Music.Maria-bold confidence

I picture Maria in her little jacket and funny hat, carrying her guitar case along a picturesque Salzburg street as she makes her way to the von Trapp mansion. She’s belting out a song to her little scared self about what she has confidence in. She needs to remind herself. Because she’s venturing into completely unknown territory.

And it feels a bit frightening. As the uncertain future easily does.

But as she sings, Maria grows stronger as she remembers her Source of confidence, present in the sunshine and the rain. Present in her.

Maybe we all need to sing along. And trust in what really matters.

child singing

If You Knew the Gift

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Imagine someone gives you a precious gift and you never open it.

Most of us, I believe, are living with such an unopened gift. We have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten that we are “the beloved.”

Maybe we are afraid to acknowledge and claim our “belovedness.” Maybe we can’t believe it’s true.

Somehow it’s easier to claim what we perceive as “wrong” with us. The places where we fall short. Where we don’t measure up or haven’t succeeded enough. So we walk around with these interior wounds and scars. And much of the time our inner pain gets projected “out there.”

But what if we could be retaught and remember that we are the beloved? What if we could open ourselves to claim the gift that we truly are?

compassion Jack KornfieldIf each of us could hold ourselves with such acceptance and compassion, no matter what shows up in us, what then?

 

Henri Nouwen, a spiritual teacher and writer, said a lot about this in his book Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

“To be chosen as the Beloved of God is something radically different. Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice.”

I know when I claim the gift of my belovedness, I can’t help but open myself up to love. Love for myself and love for those around me. If more of us were able to do that, I don’t think we could possibly treat one another with hateful comments or hurtful actions. We would feel so incredibly graced, we would want nothing more than to give that love out to others. Because we would know the truth.

But, as Nouwen said, the real work of prayer is to become silent enough to hear the voice that calls us the beloved.

Henri Nouwen_Quote

The God whom I love dwells within and never ceases to remind me that I am the “beloved.” But I admit that most days I am hard-pressed to really take that in. And to understand the depth of that love.

But there are moments.

Like Monday morning.

For some reason, I awaken around 3 a.m., with a dream half-remembered. And the word “Beloved” on my lips. I breathe into it and feel myself smile with joy. Because even in my half-awake state, I “know” the truth. This is not something I can explain. But I “know” it.

And I know that this gift has been given to me in the early morning hours when I am too sleepy to fight it, to discount or disbelieve it. I simply take it in.

And I pray.

Teach me to come back to You again and again, and lose my “self” in You so that I may recognize the true treasure I possess – life in You, with You, for You, of You. This is my belovedness.

There is no other gift I need.

There is nothing more.

May each of us come to know and live from this truth. The gift of being the beloved.

 

henri-nouwen-heavy-heart

 

What You Do to Me

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I have never felt so close to the truth of these words.

They have never been as powerful for me as they are now.

Sure, I’ve volunteered before.  Served dinner to homeless men. Worked in an after-school program with juveniles in a housing project. Visited strangers in nursing homes. Manned a phone at a survival crisis hotline. Mentored single moms and their kids. Even volunteered at an orphanage in Bolivia.

Each of these have been rewarding in themselves.

But nothing like what I experienced on Thursday.

I’ll try to explain.

The morning started out busier than usual.

The moment I walk through the door at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center, I’m bombarded with requests. A couple of moms stand at the doorway of the hygiene room waiting for Pampers. Someone needs Tylenol. Someone else wants cough medicine for her child. Families are lined up ready to head out and pile into a van waiting to take them to the airport. One mom hugs her bare arms, looking cold in a pink tee shirt. Some of the children don’t have coats.

“Where are you going? What state?” I ask Nanci, the mom of one of the coatless children.

“Maryland,” she tells me.

“Oh, necesita un abrigo,” I say and run off to the clothing closet to retrieve whatever coats I can find before they’re herded out the door.

With only a few volunteers working in the office, it can feel impossible to try to handle the needs of 100-150 people. Because that’s what we’ve been seeing the past several weeks as the number of migrants and refugees arriving daily has been doubling and tripling.

We do the best we can. Sometimes we make decisions by the seat or our pants.

Like now.

My first priority is to get these travelers coats for their journey. Then I dole out the appropriate-sized Pampers and am about to head to the medicine room when Adolfo, our center coordinator, asks me to accompany the van driver to the airport. It’s his first time driving solo and he doesn’t know what to do.

So off I go. Me. The driver. Four moms. And eight kids.

Although we’re not required to accompany them all the way to their gates, it’s something I like to do. After all, none of these women have ever flown before. They don’t know the language. They don’t know what they’re doing. Their fear and anxiety are palpable.

So, I ask the airline agent for a special pass to accompany the moms and their children through security and to their gates. And I ask her to please have someone help the women who will be making connections in overwhelming Dallas. I’ll walk each of them to their gates, show them the letter and number matching the one on their ticket. Review several times the flight number, the boarding time, the time the plane actually leaves, the difference between their two boarding passes if they have a connecting flight.

At security, I wait while each of the adults are patted down thoroughly, their belongings picked through, their papers scrutinized. It takes a while.

Passersby look at us. We must be a sight. The women in their ankle monitors like criminals wear. The white trash bags we’ve given them to store their few articles of clothing. They stand out like refugees, but I know they’ve already been through much worse.

The last mom is nearly finished when Nanci comes over, looks right at me, and begins showering blessings over me. Blessings for my health, for my life, and I don’t know what all else, but she goes on and on. I’m not getting everything she’s saying and I tell her I don’t understand.

“You’re an angel from God,” she repeats slowly.

“Yes, you’re an angel from God,” Estrella, another mom, pipes in.

I feel my eyes moisten.

This is not just a clichéd expression. These women sincerely appreciate my kindness. A kindness that probably no one has ever shown them before.

I want to protest that “I’m no angel.”

But I simply say, “It is my pleasure.”

Because it is.

And in this moment, I recognize something. It’s there in Nanci’s eyes.

sacred_heart_of_jesus

Christ is right here in front of me.

Reflected in this woman. A woman who had been a stranger. And who now is a reflection of the heart of Christ.

In this moment, I understand, more fully than I have before. How these people who live on the margins are close to Christ.

“What you do to me.”

And I know exactly why I am doing this.

Even more clearly than when I made the initial decision to come to El Paso.

And I know why I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.what-you-do-to-me

 

 

Love in a Mosque

islamic-center

Thursday I found myself praying in a mosque. For the first time. Hopefully, not my last.

Although a Christian woman, I chose to be here. To join my friend Rob, whom I am visiting in Raleigh, and his friend Steve – also Christians. Rob and Steve have been visiting this mosque every Thursday for months. An expression of solidarity.

It was Steve’s idea. As anti-Muslim rhetoric grew more vicious, and frightening, he felt the need to do something positive. So they come at 5:30. One of the five times daily that Muslims gather to pray.

They sit among Muslim men in folding chairs spread out on bright green prayer rugs. And they pray. Silently. Respectfully.

The people have noticed their presence. And welcomed them. It doesn’t matter that Rob and Steve clearly are not Muslim.

On this particular night, I take a seat in the back, where the women gather. A shawl draped over my head covers my shoulders and bare arms. As I sit, I become aware that this might be risky. Associating with Muslims these days can be dangerous. Innocent people have been killed. Simply for being near a mosque. Or appearing to be Muslim.

A smiling man walks over to hand me literature entitled “What Is Islam?” I leaf through the pages as the women wander in with their children.

I read things I did not know. For instance, Islam means to be at peace with God and His creatures. “Being at peace with His creatures implies living in peace within one’s self, with other people, and with the environment.”

I consider this statement – that one of the aims of Islam is “to emphasize the oneness of humanity as a whole and the Oneness of the Creator….”

Hmm. The Oneness of all. That’s the reason I am here.

I pray silently for that Oneness to be realized. For unity. For compassion. For peace.

I watch the women demonstrate their own prayer to this Oneness.

They stand, arms stretched out before them, palms raised in worship. They utter words I don’t understand. They kneel, bend forward, forehead to the floor.

An act of surrender. A humbling expression of devotion.

Present. Open. Surrendered.

That is what I see. That is what I experience. And I mirror it back to them.

I remain in contemplative silence for awhile. A passage from the gospel of John surfaces: “God is love. And he/she who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him/her.”

In this space, I recognize our connection to the One whose power surpasses all.

That connection is Love.

abide-in-love

I like to think that this choice that Steve and Rob have made, and I along with them on this Thursday night, delights God. That in choosing to be in love and solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, we are co-creating a world of love, beauty, and truth. For more years than I can remember I have prayed to co-create such a world. Thanks to Rob and Steve, I am being shown how.

Gerald May once commented while sitting in a prayer circle on a winter retreat when the electricity went out, “Here in this darkened room we are saving the world.”

A bold statement? Maybe.

But on that Thursday night, in a brightly lit room, with green prayer mats, I, too, experienced that possibility. Abiding in love with one another, we are saving the world.

One sacred moment at a time.

Why Should I Care?

stuffed-animals
I scrub toilets, mop floors, disinfect cots, and breathe in a mixture of bleach and water that’s giving me a slight headache.

moppingI’m helping Sr. Mary Beth, another volunteer at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, clean the rooms our guests have vacated. Guests, as in the immigrant families who have passed through our doors, staying for one night, maybe two, before heading to relatives elsewhere in the states.

As I heave the wet mop across the linoleum, I feel some resistance. Cleaning bathrooms is not my favorite way to be of service. So, why am I doing this? Why am I cleaning up after these strangers? People I will never see again. People who might not even be grateful for what I’m doing. And, some might be quick to add, haven’t played by the rules.

I remember the angry faces in the news last summer protesting all the families and kids streaming over the border. And, more recently, the disheartening comments I read online with  messages like,  “Send them back!”  How appalled they’d be if they knew what I was doing here. “Why?!!” they’d surely ask.

I ask myself that question, too, as I carry a trash bag of shitty-smelling diapers out to the dumpster.

But then ICE calls, promising 20 new guests this afternoon. And I’m too busy to think about my answer.

The government van pulls up around lunch time and deposits some families at our door. A father with his little girl, wisps of her pigtails loosening from their crooked elastics. A couple carrying a baby and shepherding in a daughter about 5 years old. Another young couple with three little girls under 6 in tow.

Dirty faces, tangled hair, smelly clothes. All of them.

After doing the intake and settling the families into their rooms, I ask the mom with the three little girls, “Necesita ropa limpia?” Do you need clean clothes?

An obvious question, but the mother hesitates, then nods apprehensively. We search the clothing room for shoes and warm sweaters, tops and pants. Plenty of selections for the adults, but it’s slim pickings for the girls.

Next I help the father with his little girl. She’s wearing lavender crocks with no socks. Her feet are darker than the rest of her. She needs socks and a pair of pants. They’re headed to Delaware. But I can’t find any girl’s jeans. Or any pants at all to fit her. Her little legs are bare beneath her skirt and I think of the long, cold bus ride ahead and the freezing temps up north. I suddenly have this urge to run out and buy several pairs of girls’ size 5-6 jeans, but I can’t leave the center at the moment.
blue jeans
We’re out of girls’ jackets and sweaters, too. There’s not much I can offer in the way of clothing. But there is something I can offer. Something fun.

We’ve got these precious gift bags that were prepared and donated to the center by schoolchildren last summer. The kids made tons of them, and we still have some in storage. Simple Ziploc bags, they’re loaded with crayons, a pair of socks, a soft huggable toy or doll, a few quarters, blank notepad with colored pencils, and a handwritten note saying “welcome, friend, to my country.”

I go to the storage room to grab a few bags for the pantless, sweaterless girls. But I’m in for a surprise.

The bags are stored in their original mailing box, so, out of curiosity I check out the return address. Brewster, Massachusetts! So the bags weren’t prepared by local schoolchildren after all, as I had thought. They actually come from the children of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church.

This warms my  heart — not only because Massachusetts is my native state — but because it’s so far away from the border! The children of Brewster remind me it’s not only the people in El Paso who care about these migrant families.

And they also remind me of why I care. It’s not about what anybody else thinks of what I’m doing. And I’m not doing it for the thanks. I’m doing it because they are human beings. And they matter. They matter to me.

When I hand two of these gift bags to the sweet little sisters from Guatemala, they squeal their thank you’s. I give their younger sister’s bag to the mother. Mom looks it over and points to the children’s hand-printed message alongside their picture.

Message the children of Brewster, MA, included in gift bags. "Welcome, my friend, to my country."
Message the children of Brewster, MA, included in gift bags. “Welcome, friends, to my country.”

“Yes,” I say. “It’s a gift from these children.”

A gift to all of us.

 To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself…No work is enough to satisfy the human soul. Only the satisfaction of having touched another life and been touched by one ourselves can possibly suffice. Whatever we do, however noble, however small, must be done for the sake of the other. Otherwise, we ourselves have no claim on the human race.

~ from LISTEN WITH THE HEART by Joan Chittister