Her name was Irlanda. I’d never known anyone by that name and I would know her for less than 24 hours.
Months later I’m barely able to conjure up her face. But Irlanda’s words to me — they left a deep impression. One that reminds me why I left home.
Just weeks into my service at the Nazareth Hospitality Center in El Paso, Irlanda and her scrawny, eight-year-old son with the impossibly innocent smile show up at our door. I’m still struggling through Spanish phrases and trying to understand people’s questions. Still learning how to make these strangers feel welcomed, what questions not to ask, and how to listen with my eyes since my ears aren’t doing me much good.
Always there’s lots to be done at Nazareth. Rooms to be cleaned. Intake records to be entered into the system. Volunteer drivers to be called for rides to the bus station. Clothing to be sorted and folded on the tables in the donation room where the next arrival of women will soon dig through the neatly stacked piles seeking a pair of jeans to fit their short, lean figures.
But that day I take time to accompany Irlanda and her son to the moneygram office so they can obtain the cash a relative has sent for their 3-day bus trip. Located just around the corner and a few blocks down on Montana Avenue, the place isn’t hard to get to. But for a young woman from a village in Guatemala, walking along streets loaded with cars, stores, and stoplights could be an overwhelming adventure.
I offer to go with her. As we walk, I fumble through conversing in Spanish.
Suddenly Irlanda stops and points her son’s face toward the sky. “Mira!” she tells him.
A jet plane soars overhead.
Mother and son stand close together, smiles spreading across their faces.
I can only imagine what it must be like to see an airplane for the first time.
And then I’m imagining all the firsts they’ll be experiencing on this journey. At bus depots. Transfer stations. Places where she tries to buy food.
She admits to me that she’s scared. Scared of what she’ll find in this country. This woman who has traveled thousands of miles across dangerous Mexico with her young son. I’m praying people will be kind.
Later in the day, it’s time for the driver to come take Irlanda and her son to the bus station. We hug goodbye. She asks God to bless me and surprises me by saying she thanks God for me. Her eyes reveal the impact I have made. Then she says something that really humbles me. How I am following what the Bible teaches by loving my neighbor and welcoming the stranger.
All I did was show her some kindness. She has given me much more.
That night, back in my room, I write in my journal:
“This is why I am here. This is what I want to do. Be present to these people and share special, intimate moments between human beings on the journey. We’ve shared each other’s lives for a moment. Our paths will never cross again. But meeting Irlanda has left a mark that touches my soul.”
Irlanda reminded me of the call within. A call I experienced long before I met her.
These days I feel worlds away from the border of El Paso. But I haven’t forgotten.
Can you risk opening your heart to the call within? Maybe you’ll discover why you are here.
Where do I belong? It’s a question I’ve asked many times over the course of this journey. It came up whenever I found myself starting something new and unexpected. Facing unfamiliar surroundings.
That happened a lot this past year.
I moved so many times the post office didn’t know how to handle my forwarding requests. Neither did I!
Late July I started out in a simple room in a convent in Mexico City to attend the missionary program’s two-week orientation. My ministry began in a one-room apartment in San Antonio — a place where I felt more alone than in my cabin in the woods. By early November I had changed ministries, and locations — a coworker’s guestroom in the suburbs. Then on to my cousin’s outside of Austin while I awaited news about El Paso, where my heart continued to call me. Not willing to wait until mid December when “permanent” housing would be available, I moved to two different locations in El Paso before finally settling into my little bedroom at Grandview House.
With each move, I’d mindfully set up my personal things, trying to create sacred space as best I could. On my little altar, my special talismans and touchstones offered comfort.
Uprooted so many times, it’s a wonder I could feel grounded at all. Sometimes I’d stand in the middle of a kitchen trying to remember which drawer held the silverware. Or I’d awaken during the night, needing to pee. Disoriented, I’d have to sit up and be fully conscious of my surroundings before I could find the bathroom.
The journey challenged me for sure.
But even in the midst of it, I wrote in my journal:
“I am not lost. I have not lost my grounding. I am sure-footed as I walk the trail, feeling my emotions as well as my certainty that I want to follow this path all the way through to the other side. I trust the wisdom and guidance of my heart and Spirit. I trust something deeper and more imaginative than reason.”
Like the migrants and refugees I served in El Paso, I learned what it means to depend on God, to trust in the mystery called “divine providence.”
Primero Dios. The migrants’ favorite saying. Always God came first in their lives. With simple faith they surmounted grueling circumstances. Trusted they’d be given what they needed.
Like them, I found the Universe provided exactly what I needed along the way. Often at the very last minute. Almost as if to sharpen my ability to trust. In God. In myself.
And something else, too. I found that this very loss of control over my circumstances is what led to my freedom. I finally didn’t have to know what was coming next. I didn’t have to figure it out.
Now I’m back “home” in Virginia. Friends ask if I am settled in. I don’t think I ever will be. Settled in. Because home doesn’t feel like where I belong anymore.
So, where do I belong?
That question no longer preoccupies me.
During the course of this journey I have learned what it means to belong to myself. To belong to the God within. I have learned that I belong nowhere — and everywhere. My true home is within God.
And I have come to understand — in a way I didn’t before — that I can never be separated from that “home.” No matter where I find myself.
Once again, John O’Donohue’s poetry resonates:
“At its heart, the journey of each life is a pilgrimage,
Through unforeseen sacred places
That enlarge and enrich the soul.”
Last week I drove nearly 1,900 miles from El Paso across Texas — more than a day’s drive in itself and, for me, a reaffirmation of why I wouldn’t want to live in Texas — all the way to Virginia. When I crossed the VA state line I let out a hoot. Everything was so beautiful! And colorful! The lush green hillsides. The grazing black and brown cattle. The white dogwoods. The purple and pink blossoms. Even the bright green layer of pollen everywhere. No more desert sands and rocky landscapes. I was so happy to be home.
Still, it was hard to leave El Paso.
But I made a conscious choice to return to Virginia. Mainly, I wanted to give Davis the option of coming home this summer. He’s been so supportive of me ever since I decided to go on this “mission.” It’s been a lot for a young person to take on — having his mom go off on an adventure so far from home. Yet he never once complained. Now I want to be there for him.
And there were other reasons on the list, too. The fact that I need to make a decent income again certainly was up there. So, it was time to come home.
But leaving El Paso — no, that wasn’t easy. Part of me is still there.
It’s not easy to adjust to life in the mainstream again either.
Like yesterday, for instance, I bought two different kinds of cereal. Both were healthy choices and they were on sale. It seemed like a good decision. But this morning when I opened my cupboard and saw those boxes sitting on the shelf, I almost cried.
It’s been a while since I’ve had choices.
In fact, having even one box of cereal I like is a special treat. To be able to choose from two felt a bit overwhelming.
Maybe that’s hard for you to understand, but for the past nine months I’ve not had much control over my life. Not much choice about what I was going to eat. Or buy. Or who I was going to eat with. Or live with. Sometimes it was a lot more challenging than I’d imagined.
But each time I’ve thought, “This is too hard,” grace stepped in and reminded me that anything I was experiencing was only a taste of what the people I was serving have experienced from day 1.
The thing is, if you’re poor, you don’t have choices.
Unlike me, many people I’ve met on this journey are not free to go home whenever they want. Those forced out of their homes by violence and hunger do not have choices. Not if they want to live.
I suspect that most people coming to the Nazareth Hospitality Center didn’t want to leave home. Given a choice, I’m sure they wouldn’t have stepped out their door into the unknown, leaving everything familiar behind — their country, their language, their customs and values, their relatives and neighbors — to risk traveling thousands of miles to the U.S.-Mexico border where they hoped something better awaited them. Some talked of returning home someday. When things are different.
One woman who came to Nazareth with her two teenaged sons confided that she was scared. Her oldest son had already been killed in their native El Salvador. She feared her other two sons would suffer the same fate if she didn’t leave. But, she worried, how would this new country affect her sons? How would they adjust to this culture, so different than her own? Would it change them?
They were headed to her brother’s in Los Angeles — a city she knew would expose her sons to many things and many choices. She worried about what they’d be facing and how they’d handle it. But she feared even more the risk of losing them altogether if she’d stayed home. What choice did she have?
Her story is only one of so many I’ve heard.
Right now I don’t have the words to explain what it means to me to have the choices I do. To have the life I have. In the beautiful place I call home. And the gift of being able to choose to come back home.
Images that have inspired. Words that have settled into my soul. People who have humbled, and reminded, me why I am here.
Always, when I look, I see something more. When I listen, I hear what I missed before.
As I prepare to leave El Paso in a little more than one week — God, I can’t believe I’m saying that — I am looking and listening as deeply and as intently as I ever have. The way forward is still not clear. The lesson of dependence on God, ongoing. If I have shown courage along the way, it’s come from a deeper place that remains a mystery.
But what is clear are the images along the way. And the impressions they have made — indelible on my heart.
Here are some I’d like to share. Images from my nearly 2-mike walk to the Columban Mission Center where I work three days a week, from the Nazareth Hospitality Center, from the house on Grandview, which sits atop a hill offering an impressive view of downtown El Paso and spreading out across Juarez, Mexico. Images from simply paying attention.
In the segundo barrio — the poorest section of El Paso, where homeless men loiter in the mornings and early evenings waiting for the Opportunity Center to open its doors for coffee and a meal, where fast food containers and crushed beer cans collect in gutters, where barred windows and bail bond shops proliferate — the people paint their fences lavender and robin’s egg blue and plant rose bushes and gardens on their tiny plots producing an amazing array of yellows and reds and purples that rise up in defiance of anyone who would call this place poor.
Apparently Irish poet John O’Donohue, well-known for his Celtic spiritually, was a good friend of some of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. In fact, he’d come to San Antonio, and elsewhere, at their request. I only learned about this recently.
It’s not surprising, I suppose, given that many of the Sisters came over from Ireland years ago. Some may even have been from County Clare where he was born.
Sr. Brigid, my spiritual companion and probably my biggest supporter in San Antonio, knew him well. She hails from County Kildaire, where O’Donohue spent his early years as a novitiate. At my farewell luncheon I listened to her and other friends tell amusing stories about John as if he were an endeared brother.
I sat there wondering, how could this be?
I mean, not only because I love John O’Donohue’s poetry. Although that’s certainly true. Ever since I came across his writing a couple of years after his death in 2008, I’ve claimed him as one of my favorite poets. From the first lines I read — and I can’t even recall which poem it was — my heart lifted. My imagination blossomed. My longing awakened.
But beyond being excited and delighted about the Sisters’ special friendship with O’Donohue came another realization.
Many months before I ever considered leaving my home in Virginia I would choose and reflect on selected poems taken from his wonderful collection called To Bless the Space Between Us. One of my favorites was, and continues to be, a blessing “For Longing.”
This poem resonated with something in me I couldn’t name. But I felt it in the depths of my heart and soul. O’Donohue put me in touch with my divine longing.
Musing over those lines of poetry created a restlessness that encouraged me to take risks. To seek something beyond the familiarity of home. To imagine the possibilities of truly following my heart.
Ironically, O’Donohue’s words brought me to Incarnate Word Missionaries. They connected me with the Sisters he held so dear. And in doing so, have enabled me to learn some of the most important lessons I needed on this journey. Lessons about trusting myself and trusting my inner being, which I know as God responding to my longing. And lessons about what it means to follow your heart when nothing about doing so seems to make any sense.
Once again I see the synchronicity of events. And I’m shown something much more — the connection between heaven and earth.
The most beautiful thing about us is our longing; this longing is spiritual and has great depth and wisdom.