Beautiful Connections

airplane window
The Uber driver pulled up right on time, at the impossibly early hour of 4:50 a.m. I stood under the white spotlights of the overhang at the front entrance of my niece’s apartment building outside Washington, DC. A sole figure with two suitcases by her side. He could not have missed me. Only the birds announcing their predawn celebration accompanied me.

The tall, brown-skinned man introduced himself before lifting my heavy load into the trunk of his car. Already, in just the few words we had spoken, I thought I recognized Tedor’s accent. After we chatted a bit, I felt comfortable enough to ask his country of origin. He wanted me to guess and tried to give me a geography lesson, which doesn’t work well with me. But after I incorrectly guessed Kenya, and he revealed that it was a neighboring country, I knew my first inclination had been correct. He was from Ethiopia – the same country as my young friend whom I’d been visiting in detention for over a year in El Paso.

I so appreciated the connection that I began to share a bit of Abdinoor’s story. (I have been using the pseudonym Mathias in my blog posts to protect my friend, Abdinoor, and I am happy to finally be able to reveal his real name. Sweet, intelligent, upstanding young Abdinoor has entered Canada, where he is receiving refugee status and is no longer being treated like a criminal. Now he can finally go visit his mother in Kenya.  Although I am thrilled for him, I feel it is our loss.  And our shame.)

Then Tedor and I shared a little of our own stories.  I learned he had been living in the Washington area for three years, along with his family. When I told him I’d lived in Virginia for 30 years, he expressed great surprise. “But you look so young! I thought you were only in your 30’s!”

It had been quite dark when he’d picked me up, so I figured he must not have seen my face clearly. Still, I was really liking this guy.

“You look young because you have love in your heart,” he explained, after I’d revealed my age. “That’s important. To have love in your heart.”

I agreed, of course.

Tedor said he appreciated my kindness, noting that few people he picked up spoke to him. Some don’t even say hello or good morning. They keep their eyes cast downward, gazing into their phone screens during the entire ride.

I tried to imagine that – someone not even acknowledging another human being inside that small, confined space.  I remembered how, as much as I loved the diversity in the DC metro area, the congestion and stressful lifestyle could make it hard to connect.

But what a sweet connection I had made with this stranger in the shorter than 15-minute ride to the airport. Isn’t this what it’s really all about, I thought, as I left his little red car feeling much better than I’d had when I’d dragged myself out to the curb that morning? And Tedor clearly was in good spirits, too.

Isn’t it about kindness and connection? About recognizing our common humanity? About seeing how we are really more alike than anything?

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Not the exact words I saw, but close enough

Later, as my jet rose above the Washington National Monument, I glanced out the window to say goodbye to my beloved Virginia when I noticed an incredible message displayed on the lawn.

Incredible, because of how it spoke to my heart.

There, beaming up at me were the words: “You are not alone. No estás solo.”

Talk about connection! Who had created this message, I wondered? For whom and what was it intended?

It didn’t matter, because in that moment, it was surely meant for me.  Meant to carry my spirit forward, to face the growing challenges of our work at the border and to comfort me in the further letting go that I’d experienced on this trip to Virginia.

I had just let go of my son – again.  Let go of many special things we’d put aside for when he moved into his own place in the lower 48 – something he’d decided was not going to happen anytime soon. So we’d had to let things go for a song, or even less. And I had to let go of the idea that he would live a little closer than the ridiculously long and challenging time it takes to get to Nome by plane.

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I let go of the boy, but kept the story books and the rocking chair

But because that message was also in Spanish, I felt it calling me back to El Paso. To the migrants we accompany, who face far more grievous ways of letting go than I ever will. Asylum seekers, like Abdinoor, stuck in detention, far away from families and anything familiar. And mothers who are still separated from their children, toddlers, and even their babies.

Their forced “letting go” makes mine pale in comparison. My connection with them helps me keep things in perspective.

And if all that wasn’t enough, when I got down the escalator at the El Paso airport, I unexpectedly ran into someone I knew.

Not just anyone.

Sr. Fran was the woman who’d made my first volunteer experience here possible back in 2014. We greeted each other with surprised smiles and warm hugs, genuinely glad to see each other.

I knew I was home.Quotes_Creator_no estas solo

 

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To Live While Dying

Sr Janets memorial

“I don’t want to die while dying. I want to live while dying.”

Over a week ago I attended a Resurrection Mass for the woman who uttered these words while knowing cancer would soon end her life.

Sr. Janet fulfilled that desire. She lived her life fully. Even while in pain.  Even when she could no longer rise from her bed. She expressed gratitude for the simplest gifts she noticed from her pillow. She was imbued with joy. A love for the poor. And a light that filled me every time I was in her presence, just as it filled Sacred Heart Church on that Friday.

It reminded me that although physically, Sr. Janet was my age, spiritually, she is ageless. Her light lives on.

That’s not just some cliché.

I experienced this light from the moment I stood and watched her sisters proceed down the aisle in single file, their love and their grief palpable in the single white rose each of them carried.

white rose

I felt it again as her good friend Fr. Bill shared how she became a doctor so that she could practice what she called “poverty medicine,” providing health care to those who needed it most but couldn’t afford it. I was blessed to have visited Proyecto Santo Niῇo, a clinic Sr. Janet cofounded for children with special needs in Anapra, the very poorest section of Ciudad Juarez.

I recognized it in Matthew 25:35-40, the Gospel passage she had wanted to be read at the memorial.

There wasn’t anyone in that church who didn’t understand why.

She fully lived these words. As do so many in this El Paso-Juarez border community.

“Then the king will say to those on his right: ‘Come, receive my Father’s blessings. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me. Imprisoned and you came to visit me.’

“Then the just will ask: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were ill or in prison?’ The king will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-40)

As I looked around, recognizing so many friends and fellow volunteers filling the pews, I felt incredibly blessed to be part of this community. To learn from people who teach me, every day, the meaning of those words.

Like Ruben Garcia, of Annunciation House, who managed to slip into a pew during the Mass. Even with his ever-mounting and never-ending responsibilities, he took the time to come.  Because he knows, just as Sr. Janet knew, that God identifies first and foremost with the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.

Choosing a life of serving the poor matters. It increases our capacity to love. It electrifies our joy. It magnifies our light.

That’s surely what I saw in Sr. Janet.  I saw it in the joy of her vocation, joy in her faith, and joy for the poor.

She has shown me – as has this special border community – that living this vocation matters. Even though we cannot explain or understand it, living a life in love, of love, for love, matters. It’s what lasts.

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At Anapra clinic moms learn to care for their children, who receive medical attention made possible through the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati

Whether it’s being with the poor in Anapra, at the clinic where Sr. Janet patiently instructed and loved severely disabled children and their mothers. In the hospitality centers, where Sr. Janet, myself, and thousands of volunteers have given of themselves and been changed and graced in the experience.  Or in this community that shows incredible hospitality to strangers, whether they’re coming to volunteer, to simply visit and learn the truth about our border, or to escape desperation and violence.

Like Dylan Corbett said at the Hope Border Institute event Monday night:

 “El Paso is showing the rest of the country, and the world, how to treat people with dignity and humanity….What we are creating here should be a model for our government.”

What we are creating here, I believe, is the kingdom of God made manifest.

It is the difference between simply existing to get the most out of this life or fully living to give the most of who we are.

In the end, our physical existence is temporary. The light of our love is not.

If we are not grounded in this light and love, then nothing we do makes sense. Thank you, Sr. Janet, for being grounded in love.

Cause No Suffering

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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

Thirsty

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I have been thirsty. I didn’t realize how much until recently.

Two weeks ago I attended the rich and powerful Universal Christ Conference. Based on Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr’s new book, which has already made it to the New York Times Bestseller list, the three days challenged and inspired me.

But life being the way it is, after I got home, I quickly moved from one thing to another and had little time to reflect on or sit with all that I’d experienced. I’ve barely read much of the book.

Yet, words, insights, phrases, and affirmations have stayed with me. Especially the affirmations.

For three days, Rohr, joined by Rev. Jacqui Lewis, John Dominic Crossan, and artist Janet McKenzie, invited us into deeper awareness of the truth of these beautiful lines:

“God loves things by becoming them.”

“Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God.”

“God’s life and our life are not separate; they are one life.”

Although I’ve known this deep within me, recognizing this boundaryless love and living from this place of oneness is more like an evolving transformation. Surely the fullness of knowing this requires nothing less than an experiential understanding, a “knowing” that is a lifelong lesson.

Considering my personal time constraints over the weekend, I couldn’t venture too deeply into these truths.

But there was someone who instantly took me deeper that weekend and served as my spiritual mentor. Jacqui Lewis.

It was Jacqui who deeply affirmed and inspired me. It was she who apparently turned into my “messenger,” even bringing me the gift of tears, as I interiorly experienced the answer to her question:

“Where is the crucified body of Christ today?”

And it was she who helped me to recognize my spiritual thirst – a thirst I hadn’t claimed.

A thirst to be brave enough to speak truth to power.

A thirst for tenderly loving all the wounded places where I find the crucified body of Christ.my cross

Including myself. For I know that when I love, comfort, and revere the crucified Christ in me, then I am able to do so for others.

But when Jacqui first posed that question for our consideration, instantly what came to me was the people who come to us at the border. I clearly saw it.

There! There is the crucified body of Christ to me. In these suffering migrant families.

The tears came as I felt such a strong pull on my heart. Not unlike what I had first experienced five years ago that catapulted me to El Paso. I felt this so powerfully, it reaffirmed why I do what I do.

That was such a gift!

Because sometimes, I admit, I forget. It’s understandable, considering I’ve been accompanying migrant families, off and on, for 4 ½ years now.

And Jacqui, with her impassioned plea, kept challenging me, to affirm my light, not censor it.

She asked:

“What if the most fundamental aspect of our identity is that we are each anointed and appointed by The Holy One, by Spirit—to preach good news to the poor, liberty to the captive, and sight to the blind? What if we take seriously being the body of the Christ—that we are the hands, feet, and heartbeat of the Living God? What if we are Word made flesh, Love made flesh, Light made flesh?”

What would that kind of anointing ask of me, specifically?

While I was attending this conference, images of news back in El Paso appeared on my phone. Images of parents and children penned behind fencing under the Paso del Norte Bridge where Border Patrol claimed they were justified in keeping them. For days, the people slept on the cold, gravely ground. With little food, little to cover them in the 30-degree nighttime temps. A few port-a-johns were lined up on the dirt. The people were subjected to name calling and verbal abuse. There were allegations that Border agents were waking the people during the night and forcing them to stand every few hours.

And there was my answer.

This anointing demands I bravely respond to such injustices. That I not be silent in the face of maltreatment of others. And while speaking truth to power, I also recognize this “outpouring” of love in everyone. Not easy.

thirst heart water

I imagine what this would be like. If we all recognized the Christ within.

It would be a place of abundance, where no one thirsts, no one is hungry. The place in Isaiah, chapter 55, that Jacqui read to us on our first day of the conference. A promised place of abundance for everyone.

“All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!”

I thirst for this living water.

I’m going to need it if I am to fulfill the job description we were given at this conference: to resurrect the crucified body of Christ everywhere we encounter it.

Everywhere.

“You take pleasure in the faces of those
Who know they thirst.
You cherish those
Who grip you for survival.”
(Rilke)

The Humanity Before Us

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The young mother was still breastfeeding when they took her from her baby. She was only 16, giving Immigration the right to put her in a detention facility for minors.

It didn’t seem to matter – what that meant, removing her from her husband and 5-month-old daughter with whom she was traveling. She was considered an “illegal.” She had no rights. The action taken didn’t have to make sense.

But I’m afraid this post isn’t about recounting a story from last summer, when ICE was separating parents from their children. Nope. It happened just four days ago.

Santiago, her 21-year-old husband, showed up at our shelter, carrying their fussing baby and a heaviness we couldn’t help him shake.

The volunteer doing intake held her emotions intact as he sputtered the details of his story. But the child, free to express herself, howled and squirmed in her father’s arms.

Santiago attempted to keep his voice level. But he could barely hold it together. How was he going to feed this child, he wanted to know? What would she eat without her mother’s milk and nourishment? Would she survive?

He peppered questions at Sr. Lil, my friend who was shift coordinator at Nazareth that day.

As his sad tale spread, the other mothers crowded around him. The women took turns holding the little girl close to their chest, snuggling against her neck, cooing sweetly in Spanish. A few offered to coax the little one to suckle the nipple of a plastic baby bottle we happened to have on hand. Someone filled it with bottled water and Nido powdered formula – a popular brand with our Central American families. Another one showed Santiago how to hold the baby as she was nursing so she’d feel secure.

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Sample stock photo; not our “real” baby

But who would help him feel secure, I wondered?

Luckily, a doctor who occasionally volunteers her time at Nazareth happened to show up that day. She checked the baby and reassured Santiago that not only was his daughter in good health, but she would adjust to the formula. She would survive. No need for him to worry about that.

Yes, she would survive. Children often do. No matter what they’ve experienced. Surviving and thriving are two different things, however.

And what about the baby’s mother? I think about her in a facility with other teenagers. I wonder if her nipples are leaking. If that heaviness she’s feeling in her breasts and in her heart closes in on her at night when she longs for her child. I wonder if she attempts to hide her breasts and her despair in her aloneness. Or if she’s found a friend in whom to confide.

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What it’s like for our young mother in detention

I’ve never met this mom. I didn’t meet Santiago either, or his little girl. Lil told me about them the day after it happened, her voice unable to hide the distress still lurking in her heart.

I wish I could tell you I’ve gotten used to these stories. That my heart doesn’t feel for this young family, especially the mother.

But then again, I’m glad I haven’t “gotten used to it,” that I haven’t numbed myself to what hurting people feel. That I can remember what it was like to be a mother to a little one, to hold my nursing baby in my arms, in awe of this wordless bond we’d created.

I don’t apologize for citing the preciousness of such a bond. Nor for calling out the cruelty of separating a mother and her breastfeeding baby.

I wonder, if God loves as a mother, how can we ignore the divinity in the human love of a mother for her child? And be the one to cause such suffering?

Yes, I hear about the numbers coming. I know it’s challenging for us. We’re doing the best we can here in El Paso. And that’s the question I ask of myself, and of all of us – Are we doing the best we can to address the humanity before us? To consider that maybe there are more positive solutions to what we’re calling a “humanitarian crisis”? And to ensure we do not have a hand in causing the suffering.

Hard to Love

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I am weary.

Lately I feel overwhelmed. Like I’m trying to manage the unmanageable.

That’s understandable when I’ve got 140 people, or more, at the Nazareth center and only two volunteers to help me.

Rarely do I feel in control of what’s going on around me. I veer from one hot priority to another.

Before, my fellow volunteers and I called it “organized chaos.” Now, I organize nothing. I’m never able to successfully complete a task before being pulled away to something else and then often forgetting what I’d put aside. We have so many needs, I’m always neglecting something.

The reason?

Over the past several weeks, the number of immigrant families requesting asylum at the El Paso border has spiked. These days ICE processes and releases anywhere from 500-700 people a day to our community’s hospitality shelters!

And it doesn’t appear that will slow down. Nothing positive’s being done to address the root causes. Money is not being spent in these countries to counter the lies smugglers are spreading.

Yet, what’s amazing to me is that our community has continued to step up. Every time I marvel at the number we’ve assisted, we’re asked to do more.

And we do.

Somehow another church opens its space. The bishop makes an appeal and more volunteers show up. A local grocer makes another delivery of fresh fruit. fruit apples

Someone drops off more bottled water or packages of new underwear.

But it’s a drop in the bucket.

Still, we keep going. Even when it’s hard.

As Kim, my friend who volunteers at two of the hotels that receive families daily, reminds me, “I do it because I know, this is not about me.”

We all know there’s a bigger picture here.

And we keep responding because, for us, the alternative is unacceptable.

To drop these very vulnerable people onto the streets with no resources, no money, no food, no idea of how to get to where they’re going – that’s not something we can or want to do.

Yet, this “work” challenges me. It challenges me to love even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I’m exhausted. And even when, in my limited mind, I deem someone “not worthy.”

There are those who will tear at your heart. And those who will try your patience.

Even worse, there are many who prey on immigrants. Like the smugglers in their countries who are egging them on, charging $7,000 to $8,000 per family now, with fake promises of visas and work once they get here. And like some folks in our country who are making money and taking advantage of the situation.

Greed has a way of showing up in the most vulnerable of places.

Wiped out and weary, I’ve turned to Dorothy Day. Her writings help me. It certainly wasn’t easy for her to serve the desperately poor and homeless, day in and day out. Live in squalor conditions with them. At times endure their ungratefulness or attempts to take advantage.

Dorothy struggled too. The work was endless. At the end of the day, much was left undone. Especially difficult was that she daily recognized the enormity of the suffering around her.

But Dorothy was grounded in God and in her spiritual practices.  Her connection to the love of Christ sustained her.

She writes:

“It is no use saying that we are born 2,000 years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts….And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.” (“A Room for Christ,” December 1945)

Dorothy not only believed this, she lived it. She challenges me to love, even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I feel inadequate.

And to remember why I’m asked to do so.

In a 1964 issue of The Catholic Worker, she asked herself, “What are we accomplishing for them anyway, or for the world or for the common good?”

What is it I think I am doing anyway, giving my energy and time to these immigrants, most of whom will be deported, the majority of whom will not be relieved of their suffering in this lifetime?

dorothy day AZ quotes

She wrote in her essay To Love Is to Suffer, “If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction.”

There’s my answer. My fellow volunteers and I are doing the small things we can do.

We are giving these people back their dignity. At least for a while.

We are keeping vulnerable people from being deposited onto the streets.

We are offering kindness and compassion. Even when we’re exhausted. Even when it’s hard.

“If we could only learn that the only important thing is to love…to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not….It is a hard, hard doctrine.”

I hear you, Dorothy. It’s a hard, hard practice. Only by grounding myself in God can this make any sense.

 

How Did I Get Here?

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Bishop Mark Seitz, of diocese of El Paso, offers a prayer at the interreligious service at Anapra border wall

Some days I wonder.

Like today as I found myself at the border wall in Anapra singing songs, listening to Scripture, and spotting now-famous faces who had come to join our interreligious border witness ceremony sponsored by the Hope Border Institute. Catholic bishops from all over Texas and Mexico’s border cities joined local rabbis, priests-both male and female-, social activists, and, of course, Catholic sisters, who have a mighty presence in El Paso, in a sign of solidarity.

We were here, at the border fence in Anapra, to offer public witness to the real-life stories of real immigrants who are part of our community. To respond to what Bishop Seitz calls “dark times.” To show that those of us who have real-life encounters with immigrants have a different view of this so-called emergency.

I came across so many friends and dear acquaintances in the crowd it took me awhile before I realized Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was among us.

I had to stand back for a moment and take it all in.

How did I get to this place in the desert that has now become oft-mentioned in the news?

A place that is portrayed in varying ways depending on who’s doing the portraying and their political agenda.

A place that has become, for me, an unexpectedly beautiful community.

One that stretches in solidarity all the way from Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley to Las Cruces, NM. And now up to Albuquerque– another community that has begun to receive asylum seekers released by ICE.

A solidarity that even extends to the other side of that wall where people from Anapra, the poorest barrio in Ciudad Juarez, sang of joy and hope and the promise of God, as we snapped pics through the slats in the iron fence and exchanged blessings.

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Photo taken through slats of border wall of Corpus Christi parish musicians in Anapra

And even on THAT side of the fence I recognized people I know.

Like Sr. Josefina with whom I stayed for a weekend in Juarez five years ago when I first came here to volunteer. It had been my first experience with devastating poverty. I had returned to Virginia forever changed.

And Fr. Bill Morton, the Columban father who chose to leave El Paso and live with the poor in Anapra. He’s happier than he’s ever been.

These faces, these stories– they answer the question of how I got here.

The Spirit that spoke to me then is just as strong now. I feel it as I look over the crowd of like-minded souls. I hear it as I’m blasted by the sound of the train barreling through, yards behind our ceremony — its deafening horn a regular “treat” in El Paso. I see it in the golden hues of the setting sun enveloping the Franklin mountains.

These are each precious evidence of a God who astonished me by putting this place on my heart.

I listened. Now I’m here.

And in the End

in the end
Recognize this familiar lyric from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album?

I’ve been silently singing that one line for the past week. It showed up around the time Pres. Trump called our situation at the border “a humanitarian crisis.” I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.

I didn’t listen to his speech. I knew it would be filled with inaccuracies, exaggerations, and worse. So I stayed away. But I understand he used the word “crisis” at least six times. I also know that he called the situation at our border a crisis of our nation’s “heart and soul.”

Crisis – the word means “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger.” Its synonym is “disaster” – one of Trump’s favorite words.

I’d have to agree with him on this one – our nation’s heart and soul are in danger. But not for the reasons he implied.

We are in danger of losing our ability to recognize ourselves in one another. And, more troubling, we are in danger of losing our ability to trust love over fear.

Living at the border, I have a clearer picture of what that means.

I also have a better understanding of what living in “crisis” really means. Every day I have opportunities to witness how the migrant families we accompany live with intense difficulties, trouble, or danger, and, most of the time, with all three.

Every day I have opportunities to witness how these people, along with our volunteers, choose to trust love over fear.

16 writing prayers to god
Our families writing prayers to God

It’s a beautiful opportunity, to watch the power of love unfold, as we care for those in crisis and listen to their troubling stories.

In the process, my life and the lives of my fellow volunteers have been changed.

Here are some examples of what, to me, define crisis.

A Honduran minister came to us with his 10-year-old son. He was worried about being sent back because, in Honduras, he had started a successful clinic for drug addicts and, as a result, his son’s life had been threatened. The gangs felt he was taking business away from them by rehabilitating people.

An El Salvadoran woman had carried her handicapped son across Mexico while her 8-year-old son held the hand of her 4-year-old.  She fled because her husband had been killed and she was afraid that if she, too, were murdered, her children would end up on the street, and her handicapped son would be seen as useless and killed outright.

As a business owner, one mother from Guatemala constantly experienced extortion.  When it got tough for her to meet the gang’s demands, they threatened to return and take her daughter. She and her daughter left before they could fulfill that promise.

One man, headed to his sister’s in Los Angeles with his daughter, couldn’t sleep and needed help calming his nerves.  Turns out he had experienced the murder of five family members, one of whom had been shot in the face.

A 14-year-old boy from Honduras had walked for weeks with his father to arrive at the border.  When a volunteer noticed his swollen foot and ankle, she asked him to remove his shoe and sock. She was shocked to find very little skin remained on his toes and the bottom of his foot.  He had a fungal infection superimposed with a bacterial infection, yet he had not complained.

A Guatemalan mother arrived with two teenaged sons; a third, the eldest, had been killed by a gang, causing her to flee in fear of what might happen to her other two. She shared how she fears bringing them up in this new country, how they might be influenced by this culture. Does this sound like a woman who’s glad she left home and country?

She’s not alone. Many migrants tell us of the beauty of their country. Despite the violence, they miss home.

“Once there was a way to get back home…”

That’s another line from that Beatles’ tune.  It causes me to wonder, what if this is what it’s all about after all? Showing each other love to help us get back home.

In the end, isn’t it really all about how well you’ve learned to go beyond your fears? And how much love you’ve offered?

I’m here to tell you there is hope, even in the midst of this “crisis.”

quotes_creator_walking each other

Rediscovering Christmas (or How I Spent My Christmas Eve)

El Paso star
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

Fidelity

John Nava communion of saints
A section of John Nava’s Communion of Saints tapestry at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Los Angeles

Fidelity.

The dictionary defines it as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.”

I looked it up because, honestly, sometimes I wonder about my fidelity.

It’s true, I am committed to volunteering at the Loretto-Nazareth hospitality center two and now three days a week since the increase of refugee families arriving. It’s true, I am faithful to accompanying those in need and speaking out against anti-immigrant rhetoric whenever I can.

But I wonder…

How am I faithful when I fail so often?

Many times in one week, for instance.

faithfulness

It’s so hectic at Nazareth that, at times, I’m brisk with the people, shooing them out of our office, putting up a hand and telling them in a sharp voice to wait as I try to answer the phone’s incessant ringing or respond to another sick child’s need for Motrin or prepare a travel care package for the next family going out the door. I sense my irritation, the shortness in my response.

I am not proud of that.

It’s easy for me to feel irritated when I am pulled in so many directions and have difficulty completing even one task in a reasonable amount of time.

Then there are times when I have questions and doubts about what I am doing. The sensibility of caring for this steady stream of people – most of whom will be sent back to their country. Some will try again. Others won’t get the chance.

I find myself wondering how El Paso can keep this up. How it will all end – this seemingly endless mass of suffering people coming to our door. And the thousands railing against them rather than attempting to consider the possibility that intelligent, thoughtful solutions could help relieve some of this suffering rather than adding to it.

I know that a huge part of me wants to make things be different. Less pain. Less suffering.

And I also know that I am not perfect. I don’t have all the answers. And who am I to know or understand how God will use the pain and suffering we are experiencing now?

With yesterday being the Feast of All Saints, and today the Feast of All Souls in the Catholic tradition and el Dia de Los Muertos in the Mexican culture, I thought about the faithfulness of all those who have passed from this life. Family, loved ones, saintly ones.

A litany of them. Most were just ordinary people who did extraordinary things. With fidelity to a heart laid bare to the suffering of the world.

As my teacher Jim Finley explains, this is what fidelity is – laying your heart bare to the suffering and responding to it from this place of vulnerability, allowing God to work through you from that place. A place where love bears the suffering and doesn’t flinch, doesn’t turn away from it, doesn’t minimalize or deny it.

Sooner or later, we begin to see how our whole life has been an ongoing fidelity to the deepening of the love to which we’ve been awakened. But there is no awakening to this love without also a dimension of suffering involved.

Jim Finley_Quotefancy-

So, how am I faithful?

Every time my heart is laid bare to the suffering around me, including my own, and I don’t pull back but remain with it.

Every time I am willing to let go of my own agenda and don’t require or expect things to be different than they are.

Every time I pause and realize that I am not operating alone, I am not doing this “work” alone, for I would never have the means, the energy, the stamina, the fulfillment, the courage, and the joy I am experiencing if I were.

I find solace in remembering that the saints were ordinary people, too. That they couldn’t necessarily see the bigger picture either. That they, too, probably got on their own case when they slipped and failed for the second and third and fourth times.

The difference is they remained faithful to this extraordinary love. No matter the challenges.

All I am asked is to do the same – respond with love and fidelity to the need that’s right in front of me.

It’s that simple.  And it’s not that easy.

But I can count on my connection with God, with the Holy within me. And I can recall what it felt like when fidelity to the suffering in front of me expanded my heart.

The wonderful thing about saints
is that they were human.
They lost their tempers,
scolded God, were egotistical
or testy or impatient in their turns.
Made mistakes and regretted them.
Still they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven.

Phyllis Mc Ginley (1915-19780) American writer

Communion of Saints