Ground Zero. “The front lines.” The “beachhead.”
This is how U.S. Attorney General Sessions described El Paso on his recent visit. Apparently, I’m living in the middle of a war zone.
“This is where we are making our stand,” Sessions added.
A stand in the battle to stop the drug cartels and gangs from coming into our country. Even though, in reality, El Paso is one of the safest cities in the U.S. If Sessions is looking for gangs, he might want to search a little deeper in his territory up in Washington.
He’s also taking a strong stand against those who are trying to enter the country illegally. Sessions’ message for migrants and refugees was, “…you should do what over 1 million other immigrants do each year, wait your turn and come lawfully.”
That statement said it all to me. Either he is vastly misinformed, or he just doesn’t care that what he is saying is not possible.
Wait your turn and come lawfully?
First, no one who is fleeing for their lives or those of their children can “wait their turn.” Secondly, most people needing to migrate are not able to obtain “legal” entry, no matter how much paperwork they complete, how many hoops they jump through, and how long they are willing to wait.
Translated, I take his message to mean nobody’s going to be allowed in, we’re at war with immigrants, and El Paso is the beach of Normandy.
God help us.
Will all this hardline rhetoric and militaristic nationalism coming out of Washington protect us? Not likely.
But what it will do – and already has done – is put people at further risk. Further jeopardize people whose lives are in danger. Put us at war with other countries, whether figuratively or literally. And put us at war with each other. The latter is already happening on Twitter and other forms of social media, on college campuses, and on the streets among protesters.
Frankly, I’m tired of all the negative rhetoric. The divisive words. The messages of hate and separation. Especially when they’re applied to the border, to Mexicans, and to immigrants.
So, I’m turning the rhetoric around and recognizing El Paso for what it is.
Ground Zero for compassion. For hope.
Because the people of El Paso are some of the kindest, most generous, most compassionate, faith-filled people I know. Whether they are here “with papers” or not.
Imagine that. Compassion and hope.
Right here at the beachhead.
At Ground Zero I’ve learned a lot about what it means to serve others. To live my faith and follow the corporal works of mercy. If you’re not familiar with them, in Catholic teaching the corporal works of mercy are seven ways we can extend God’s compassion and mercy on earth – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, visit the sick, and bury the dead.
The volunteers I work with in El Paso do this in innumerable ways.
Every day. Right here. From Ground Zero.
“Each time someone stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others…he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” Robert Kennedy
I want to send forth this ripple. Live as a light of compassion. Rather than a voice of animosity and fear.
Imagine what that would be like. Imagine the possibilities.
“Hope looks at all things the way a mother looks at her child, with a passion for the possible.” Br. David Steindl-Rast
This YouTube video of Pentatonix is a good place to start. You might call it ground zero.
Davis’s hair is thinning.
We were sitting across from each other in a restaurant in Nome when I first noticed it. The hair draping his forehead wasn’t really covering his forehead.
“Are you losing your hair?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” he said disgustedly. “And I’m only 23, Mom!”
But Davis knew, just as I did, the sad reality. He’s inherited his dad’s hair genes.
When I met David, he was 28 and already balding. It made him appear way too serious for me. Only 21, just out of college, I wasn’t ready for someone who looked like he could have three kids, a dog, and a minivan! And it didn’t help that he smoked cigars and liked expensive wine.
But luckily, we stayed connected. It took me a while, but I finally realized what a treasure David was.
Fortunately, bad hair genes isn’t the only thing Davis has inherited from his dad. He’s also got David’s level of maturity and generosity of spirit. His compassion. His ability to thoughtfully weigh a situation before he speaks.
And, observing him in Nome, I noticed something else.
Faced with an unusual and challenging environment, Davis adapted. Very well.
Better than I would have to such a harsh, frigid climate in an isolated place that gets down to as little as 3 ½ hours of daylight in December.
I certainly admired him for that. I probably would have hibernated in my room and slunk into a depression.
But not Davis. He immersed himself in the culture and the community. Joined their indoor sports teams. Helped out at community functions. Accepted invitations for traditional outdoor activities.
And he got to know the people. To pay attention to their customs and their culture. To their traditions. Their way of living.
While interviewing me for his audio blog, he shared that what had most impacted him about Alaska wasn’t the difficulty of living in the darkness. Or living without his active social life and cable TV.
It was the people. The folks in the communities and villages he’s visited.
Many live with very limited income. In the outlying villages, many are poor. They live without even basic infrastructure. Some have difficulty finding potable water. Yet they share with him whatever they have.
He says that, going forward, it’s the generosity of the people and their simple way of living that have inspired him to do something meaningful with his life. To live more simply and appreciate the little things. To recognize that consumption at the expense of others is not the answer.
Of course, Davis is my son, too. And a lot of what he described sounded like words that came out of my mouth not that long ago in describing the poor I’d met at the U.S-Mexico border.
The generosity and simplicity of people who have so little. Their faith and joy of living.
Oftentimes they are people living in the shadows. The poor. The undocumented. Those living on the margins of society. Or in tiny villages in western Alaska.
Already, Davis knows that life isn’t just about him and his needs or wants. He has an ability to see “the other” and be open to those who are different from himself. To open his mind and heart to understand their lives. And to want to use his gifts and talents to make a positive contribution.
What more could a mother ask for her child?
So, yes, Davis did get his dad’s genes. He’ll have to deal with the premature hair loss. But he’s gotten so much more out of the deal. I believe he’s gotten the best of both of us.
NOTE: You can catch Davis’s interview of me on his audio blog at: http://www.knom.org/wp/blog/2017/03/03/impressions-of-nome-from-a-visitor-a-majestic-place-pauline-hovey-says/
I’ve been feeling it again lately.
On December 2nd, David’s birthday, I found myself crying. That’s unusual. Several birthdays have passed since his death and they haven’t caused such a reaction in me.
But that day I missed him.
I was feeling particularly tender and vulnerable. Continuing to live in this uncertain, “in-between” place was affecting me.
And there was something more.
A little over three months ago, in the predawn hours, I awoke to a message on my phone from a good friend from the past. Lisa had reached out to me because her husband had just died. Shocked out of my groggy half-awake state, I texted back that I was here if she wanted to talk.
Lisa and her husband Kevin had been good friends of ours in the early years of our marriages when we lived in Connecticut. We’d stayed in touch after moving away and even wound up living in the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. Occasionally we’d meet halfway for family camping trips.
We had this history together. We’d begun our marriages around the same time. Had both experienced the years of longing for a child and waiting and hoping and waiting some more. Finally rejoicing in each other’s gift — a son for me, a daughter for Lisa. Our friendship was comfortable and comforting.
Listening to Lisa that morning, my own grief came back to me just as clearly as if I were reliving it with her. I remembered how I’d felt as if a hole had been ripped through my heart. How else can you describe losing your best friend and most intimate partner? The person you tell everything to, share everything with. The one who knows you better than anyone. The love of your life.
Yes, I understood that pain. I could empathize. But what surprised me is how easily I felt this grief again. I remembered how bottomless and debilitating it had felt. How at times I’d thought I couldn’t possibly heal.
More than anything in that moment, I wanted to take that pain from my friend. Even if it meant I had to relive it for her.
Because I have crossed over this threshold, I know I can survive it. And much more than that — I know that joy and love and fullness of life exist even in the midst of such pain. I already know this.
But Lisa doesn’t. At least not yet.
I got off the phone that morning asking, why so much pain? Why must we experience so much pain?
I don’t really know the answer to that question.
But I do know that if I close my heart off to feeling as a result of my deep loss, I will close myself off from the greatest adventure and fulfillment of my life.
Here’s what is clear to me:
That grief and the healing power of transformation are connected.
That compassion has grown in me because of my own grief.
That grieving is not a singular event . The door to my heart has been broken open; I can’t go back to allowing myself not to feel.
That all of it is sacred and trustworthy. Even the painful stuff.
And I can trust the One who remained with me through the deepest darkness of my grief.
Many of us are grieving at this time of year. Some of it is due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, which can magnify our loneliness and pain, especially when we’ve lost loved ones.
Some of the grief, I believe, is due to this recent presidential election. I know I have felt anxiety and a real sadness for those who are vulnerable, including Mother Earth. There’s a collective grieving happening. I’ve heard this from others as well.
For me, the call is to live with greater compassion. Even, and especially, if it means feeling the pain of the other.
As insight meditation teacher Tara Brach explained in a recent talk on Bodhisattva for Our Times, going through your personal grief brings you to the universal.
She says, “Let grief transform you. Then make a conscious choice to be a light.”
That in itself is reason enough for me to allow myself to feel the pain of grieving. I want, and I choose, to be a light in the darkness.
“We’re all in it together and we can trust that even in the long, dark nights of winter our hearts are turning toward the light.” (Tara Brach)
That would be me.
For six weeks in Bolivia. I was a stranger at someone else’s table. Living with a family I didn’t know. In a country where I could barely speak the language. In the midst of a different culture. Where everything looked, smelled, and tasted different.
It didn’t take long to realize, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Or Virginia.
Or anywhere that even resembled the home I knew. Everything felt different. And I felt so alone.
True, that was months ago. But the memory of those feelings has stayed with me.
I actually think the mother of the house where I was living in Bolivia had a preconceived image of me as an American. And maybe she had a little attitude too.
Now the tables are switched.
I’m the one with a little attitude toward foreigners.
You might find that surprising. After all, why would I travel so far from home to return to the U.S.-Mexico border to serve migrants and refugees if I had an attitude?
Truthfully, I’m happy to be back serving at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. It feels right to be here.
I knew it the first day I walked through the door and was among “the people” again. I found myself smiling for no particular reason throughout the day.
Even though I never stopped moving from the moment I stepped inside the place. And was exhausted by the time I left.
The thing is, so many people are coming. More than I’d ever seen when I was serving here last year.
It’s not so easy to spot those in desperate need this time. It’s not black and white. If it ever was.
Immigration is such a complex issue.
What got me was I was noticing some conflicting feelings arising. A judging, critical side.
I mean I’m aware that I have this side of me, but I didn’t like the fact that it was coming up here, in relation to the migrants whom I’ve felt such compassion for. In a place where I’m serving alongside some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. The people of El Paso. People who still, after more than two years, continue to fully operate this center through their donations and volunteer hours.
So, the other night I went to bed with these questions on my heart.
“How do I keep my heart open and let go of trying to be judge and jury? How does love respond to this situation? What do you ask of me?”
On the verge of sleep, an image of Jesus in his passion came to me. The pain and suffering he endured. The terrible loneliness.
Then I “heard” his question: “Did I do this only for those who deserve it?”
Such a powerful and humbling response! The truth of it hit me hard.
Because I knew. I certainly don’t “deserve” this gift. In fact, I often take it for granted. And I doubt I fully appreciate it.
In that moment, I understood.
Love has nothing to do with fairness or with who deserves it.
Love invites everyone to the table. No one is excluded. And preconceived images are left at the door.
Granted, it’s challenging to love as Christ loved.
I don’t know if I can do it. But this is my practice.
This is why I am here.
It’s the early morning hours. The day before the memorial service for the Dallas police officers.
I awaken in a hotel room just outside the city. Photos of the five officers and two African-American young men who were killed appear in my mind. And tear at my heart.
I think of their families. The ones who’ve loved them and are left behind to grieve.
My heart breaks for the pain we cause each other, for the violence we resort to so easily to resolve our differences, to make our voices heard.
There is another choice.
But it’s harder. Because it involves letting go of our own agenda.
It means putting aside our pride and our judgments. And our preconceived notions about who is “right” and who is “wrong.”
It means being willing to see and listen to the other person.
And letting Christ’s love guide our steps.
That option seems so far away. Especially in the midst of the ongoing onslaught of hate-filled insults, of angry words and demeaning lies raging over social media and throughout this political campaign.
So I do the only thing I can do. I offer prayer. And ask where God is in this.
A familiar question pops up.
“Have you been with me all this time and still do not know me?”
It’s a question Jesus asked of his disciples along their journey together.
And this is the response that comes.
I am African-American. I am Mexican American. I am Native American. I am Muslim. I am Christian. I am Buddhist.
I am the police officer who risks his life every time he protects yours.
I am the youth calling for peaceful protests after his father is killed.
I am the man with knotted hair standing at the stoplight with his cardboard sign asking for help.
I am the undocumented little Guatemalan girl languishing with her mother in a Texas family detention center.
I am the young mother in Bolivia who abandoned her baby because she could not feed yet another child.
I am the 10-year-old boy stolen from his family and forced to become a soldier.
I am the Syrian who fled his home with his young son after their lives were threatened.
I am the family in sub-Saharan Africa unable to eat tonight because there is no food.
I am in you. I am in the neighbor next to you. And in the neighbor across the ocean whom you have yet to meet.
All lives matter to me. Because I am all life.
I am compassion. I am understanding. I am love without borders.
I am peace in a world that does not know peace because it does not know me.
I wait for you in the stillness. In the silence. There you will see me.
And know me for the first time.
It happened to me again. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
When the subject came up, I felt a familiar passion rising in me, seemingly out of nowhere.
And it wasn’t like I had instigated it.
The incident happened last weekend.
I was at a gathering of people from my church community when a woman I hadn’t seen in about two years came up to me. She wanted to know how my “mission” at the border had turned out.
Wow. The border. After just having spent several weeks in Bolivia and being back home in Virginia for a year, that experience seemed so far away. And yet it didn’t. Because as soon as I started to talk about the border, I was right there again.
I didn’t know where to begin. How to tell her everything I had witnessed. How to share the stories of the people. How to explain the misinformation and downright lies that have been spreading across this country about immigrants.
But her friend cut in. “I don’t have anything against immigrants, as long as they come here legally.”
And I could tell by looking at her face that this woman had no interest in what I had to say on the subject.
Our mutual friend — the woman who’d engaged me in this conversation — looked sympathetic. But then she admitted that she agreed with her friend.
I felt myself reacting to such a blanket statement that puts the problem in a neat little box. “If they want to come here, they should follow the rules.”
I started to argue that, yes, we need rules and regulations but do you know what it takes to get here legally? And how impossible it is for many people who are desperate? That what we really need is immigration reform to fix our broken system. But I’d lost her, too.
So, I stopped talking.
But inside, I felt the fire again. I experienced again the injustices of what’s happening.
And how ignorant we are of our role and responsibility.
And how American companies — privately-run detention facilities are just one example — benefit off the backs of immigrants.
And how the migrant poor, who have clearly suffered a lot, have more faith and generosity than I’ve ever had. I remembered their stories and their faces.
And I remembered again why I say that I can’t be at peace with a completely comfortable lifestyle anymore.
And why I can never not listen to my heart again. I’ve experienced too much to go back.
Recently, when I was on the plane heading from Bolivia to Miami, I discovered one of the Maryknoll priests I knew from Cochabamba was on the same flight. We chatted for a while about Bolivia, the people, the culture, the poverty.
“You will never be the same,” he said.
Little did he know. God had already awakened my heart. Three years ago. In the border town of El Paso.
I haven’t been the same since.
A new baby arrived last week at the orphanage. When I got there on Wednesday, I found her sleeping in a crib — a tiny dark-haired bundle wrapped in a yellow blanket. She was less than one week old.
Her name was printed in black magic marker on the placard above her crib. The women who work at the Salomon Klein orphanage named her. Abandoned, she came with nothing. No first or last name. No birth date. They think she was born on Easter Sunday.
When I changed Adriana’s diaper, I noticed the brown remains of her umbilical cord. What a way for this precious new life to begin.
But the sad truth is, Adriana’s situation is not unusual. During the four weeks I volunteered, three new babies appeared. Either they’d been abandoned or removed from an unsafe home. Now their home is a room lined with cribs filled with babies and toddlers under 2. There aren’t enough arms to cradle these children. Not enough voices to coo their names and let them believe, even for a little while, that the world revolves around them.
That’s what I normally try to do. But, for whatever reason, this day was different.
I changed more diapers than usual. Rubbed ointment onto red, raw bottoms and wondered how many more little ones lay in their cribs or sat in the play yard with wet, coarse cloth wrapped around their behinds waiting for someone to discover their need. But I couldn’t keep up while tending to tears and keeping toddlers from crawling on top of each other.
The mood was anything but tranquilo.
Babies who normally lay quietly in their cribs cried uncontrollably. I picked them up, one after another, cooing, cradling, calling their names, but the crying didn’t stop. My friend and fellow volunteer noticed the reason first.
“Look at the time,” she said. “They’re hungry.”
It was nearly 5:30 p.m. Well past the time for their second bottle. We mentioned it to one of the staff and she said the bottles were coming. But not soon enough.
During the next 15 to 20 minutes, my friend and I tried to console inconsolable babies. We carried them around the room, rocked them, sang to them. Feeling helpless all the while. We both remarked that this must be what it’s like for migrant and refugee mothers who can’t feed their hungry children. The experience was short-lived, but very vivid. It has stayed with me.
And, it brought another insight. Something even more powerful.
As I held little Pablo, his tiny mouth quivered, he was crying so hard. He couldn’t hear my voice calling his name so sweetly. With his eyelids squeezed shut, his face tight with the pangs of hunger, he couldn’t possibly take in the love I was offering him. His hunger and pain were too great.
Now I understand.
This is how it must be for a loving God who is trying to get through to me when I am hurting. Because I was hurting and crying out in Cochabamba. I’d experienced some painful challenges, and I felt abandoned and alone. But like these children, my hunger and pain kept me from recognizing the presence of the love that’s been holding me through all of it. I couldn’t see it with my eyes squeezed shut.
And like I did for these children, the One who longs for me simply held me in my spiritual blindness.
This love is so patient. It is kind and compassionate. It is willing to wait with me. Until I finally take in what I need. What it’s been offering all along.
Another adventure. This one involving a ride in a taxi trufi to an unfamiliar area “off the beaten path.” (I now have a clearer vision of just what that term means.)
Since arriving in Cochabamba, I’ve been wanting to visit my Bolivian friend, Maria Laura, a tía (auntie) at the Villa Amistad for children. I met Maria Laura back in November when I visited Amistad and I have been praying for and writing to her ever since. Seeing her was at the top of my list during my six-week stay, but so far, I’d been unsuccessful.
In the first place, getting to Amistad isn’t exactly easy. Although public transportation in Cochabamba is cheap and easy to use, with buses, taxis, and taxi trufis (sort of like an old van or VW bus) running constantly throughout the city, there’s only one taxi trufi you can take to the outskirts where Amistad is located. Taxi trufi #119. And it doesn’t run very often. Apparently not many people travel in that direction.
I discovered this the first time I tried to take #119. As I waited and waited and waited on the main Avenida Simon Lopez, taxi trufis bearing every number BUT #119 passed by: 101, 123, 120, 118, 19. Their numbers just close enough to #119 to instill both hope and frustration in me as the sun beat down on my unprotected head. Within seconds of each other, taxi trufis with the same number passed by, only adding to my frustration. I finally gave up and took a taxi — a lot more expensive than the 2 Bolivianos a taxi trufi requires, but, hey, I wanted to get there sometime that day.
Maria Laura was not at Amistad that afternoon. But at least I got to play with the children. And I discovered that taxi trufi #119 really does exist because I took it back to the city. The key, apparently, is to have patience and perseverance.
On my second attempt, I was ready. Armed with the knowledge of how #119 operated, I waited patiently as, once again, what seemed like hundreds of other taxi trufis zoomed by. Finally, #119 appeared. I stuck out my arm and waved it down like an experienced Cochabambina. But Maria Laura was not at Amistad that afternoon either. She’d had to accompany a child to the hospital.
You might think my third attempt was the charm. And it was. But not without incident.
On the Saturday morning before Easter I tried calling the Amistad office to let them know I was coming. Nobody answered. I decided to go anyway.
This time #119 came relatively quickly. A good sign, I thought. But the rickety van was nearly full, requiring me to sit behind the driver facing backwards. We soon veered off the main avenida and headed up the rocky dirt roads I’d come to recognize. As we drove along, I kept turning my head to watch for the Villa Amistad sign. It wasn’t until the driver parked under the shade of a lone tree and turned off the motor that I realized I’d missed my stop. He put his hand out, waiting for his 2 Bolivianos, expecting me to get out of his van.
“Do you know the Villa Amistad?” I asked him in my best Spanish. He did not.
“Do you know the name of the street it’s on?” he asked me. I did not.
He said some thing else in Spanish, and I knew I had to get out. I stepped onto this dirt road in the middle of who knows where, with no idea of how to walk to Amistad from there. Was I concerned? Just a little bit.
Then this woman in a white sombrero with black braids and missing teeth ventured over. Somehow she knew I didn’t belong here. When I asked if she knew the Villa Amistad, which, of course, she didn’t, another driver overheard, and called out to me.
I finally make it to Amistad only to find that the guard at the gate won’t let me in. I’m not expected after all. And it’s Saturday, so the administrative staff isn’t working.
“You need to call the director on your cellular,” he says.
“I don’t have a cell phone,” I tell him.
He can’t let me in.
Then this little angel appears. Madelyn, one of the young girls who lives at Amistad and knows me from previous visits, saunters by, and I call out to her. She explains to the guard that she knows me and that it’s OK for me to see Maria Laura. He agrees to retrieve my friend and bring her to me.
What followed turned out to be my best Easter gift. Maria Laura met me at the gate. I got to embrace my friend. Touch her. See her eyes smile back at me. Ask about her health. Share some simple but precious words.
It lasted maybe 15 minutes. And then I turned and headed back down the rocky road to wait for taxi trufi #119. My heart full of joy. And fully aware of the gift I’d just been given to culminate Semana Santa in Bolivia.
I’ve been wanting to write about love. It seemed like something I needed to do in response to the growing hateful, fear-filled outlandish messages bombarding the news. Especially from our political candidates.
My heart hurts as I hear entire groups of people being lambasted. For their religion. Or their race. Or the color of their skin. Based on misconceptions and downright lies.
I wonder where are the voices of reason and common sense? Where is the voice of love?
I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis and his visit to the U.S. It’s hard to believe he was here only months ago. Addressing Congress with words of tolerance, acceptance, mercy, and compassion. People seemed to embrace him and his message. Members of Congress were suddenly quoting him. Including my own Congressman Robert Hurt from Virginia.
Back in late September, Congressman Hurt was saying what an honor it was to meet the Pope and how his message, “reminded us of our obligation to help those who are in need, treat our fellow man with respect and dignity, and do our best to pass on the great blessings we have receive to future generations.”
Apparently my Congressman has forgotten his own words because these days he’s proposing anything but that. Maybe he thought Pope Francis was referring only to our obligation to care for American children and America’s future. That somehow closing off our borders to desperate refugee children and their parents is acceptable. That opening our hearts to those outside our borders escaping extreme violence and life-threatening situations — like the refugees from Syria and Central America — is not our obligation.
Many have joined him. Some voices have been shouting: “We have to take care of our own first.”
Well, I’m not getting on that bandwagon.
Because this is not about me and mine. This is about us. The human race. It’s about learning the lesson of meeting people where they are. With tolerance. Acceptance. An open mind. And love.
It’s not easy. But it’s why I’m here. To learn to love. And to follow the One who came to earth over 2,000 years ago to teach us about love. If I proclaim to follow him, then I have to be love in this world. As best as I can.
I came here to love. That is all. It is the hardest thing. And it is everything.
Funny thing. Pope Francis mentioned four famous Americans in his remarks to Congress. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Each of them had something to say about love when they were alive. Their words speak to what’s happening now in our country. And to why it’s important that we speak out and be the voice of love in the world. Read some of their quotes below.
Then ask yourself, as we come upon this season of Christmas, what does the birth of Love Incarnate mean in my life?
It is only love that can overcome the fear that is at the root of all war.
“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.” (From Dorothy Day, Selected Writings)
“We must cry out against injustice or by our silence consent to it. If we keep silent, the very stones of the street will cry out.” –Dorothy Day