I struggle with how to respond to words and actions that strike at the heart.
“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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’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.
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.
“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