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.