Like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, I have confidence.
Confidence in what exactly? That’s a question I had to ask myself recently after reading an NPR article on what Americans have confidence in – or don’t.
Based on a recent poll, NPR found that Americans don’t seem to have much confidence in any institution. Not in Congress. Not in their political parties, nor the president, nor big business. Not in banks nor the media. Not even in public schools.
But there is one institution in which Americans apparently have a lot of confidence.
As much as 87 percent of Americans said they have “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military,” according to the poll.
That’s a 30-percent increase from the 1970s.
At first, reading this was upsetting.
I mean, for a country that overwhelmingly claims to be Christian, this somehow didn’t sit right with me. Trusting in force and firepower. In violent means to an end. Not that Christianity hasn’t been violent throughout the centuries. Still, I do believe we are evolving.
I also believe this growing confidence in the military equates to a growing fear and anxiety in our society. Perpetuated by what we’re fed.
Anyone could easily tap into that fearful place by listening to the news or political pundits. Or by following the barrage of negativity coming across social media. Or coming down the pipeline from Washington.
So, for my own sanity, I decided to pause. Take a breath.
And in the silence, ask myself, “What do you have confidence in, Pauline? What do you trust?”
What came to me immediately is that I have confidence in what I cannot see, yet I know is present in everything.
I have confidence in love. The Source of love that we cannot fully grasp with our finite minds, yet upholds us in everything.
This love permeates nature. It causes the sun to rise every morning and the moon to shine in the darkness.
Everything and everyone is a manifestation of this love. Nothing exists outside of it.
I have confidence that love is present in everything. It prevails in the midst of negativity and deep darkness. Even in the violence, in the madness, in the disease and desperation.
And although love won’t intervene, I trust in this love to heal the repercussions of violence. To show up in each of us as acts of mercy and compassion. Selfless kindness. Sacrifices made for another.
It heals what seems impossible to heal.
And it accomplishes this through me, and through you.
I have confidence in this love. And I have confidence in me. Because, as St. Catherine of Genoa said, “My deepest me is God.”
My true Source is love.
Sometimes, trusting in that is the only thing that saves me.
Funny, but after I reflected on this, I found myself breaking into song. Suddenly singing “I Have Confidence” just like Maria in The Sound of Music.
I picture Maria in her little jacket and funny hat, carrying her guitar case along a picturesque Salzburg street as she makes her way to the von Trapp mansion. She’s belting out a song to her little scared self about what she has confidence in. She needs to remind herself. Because she’s venturing into completely unknown territory.
And it feels a bit frightening. As the uncertain future easily does.
But as she sings, Maria grows stronger as she remembers her Source of confidence, present in the sunshine and the rain. Present in her.
Maybe we all need to sing along. And trust in what really matters.
You may have a reaction to this vulgar term. Maybe you’re tired of hearing it already.
I get it.
But please stick with me. I have a story to tell. And it matters that you read this.
My new friend – I’ll call him Mathias – sleeps on a mattress so thin, he feels the cold steel of the springs underneath him. A bullet lodged into his left side presses into him, aggravated by the hard coils of his assigned bed. He tries to sleep only on his right, but even then, the pain barely diminishes. The bullet, put there long ago by police who were supposed to protect him.
Mathias is a 25-year-old asylum seeker from one of those African countries.
He’s not a criminal. Yet, he is a prisoner.
He’s one of the detainees I visit weekly at the El Paso Detention facility.
We’ve never hugged. I’ve not been able to touch his shoulder or squeeze his hand in support. Even though I’ve longed to.
I speak to Mathias from the other side of a glass. With a phone to my ear, my body hunched forward, as if straining will help me hear his words more clearly, I listen. To stories of hardship and trauma I’ve never known.
Stories of the challenges of living in confinement.
Stories of hope.
Because Mathias does have hope. Despite all he’s experienced.
He hopes in a country that values liberty, justice, and the dignity and right to life. He hopes in a court system that will do the right thing.
I wish I could share that hope.
Mathias was just a boy, away at school, when his entire family, threatened by corrupt police, fled the country.
It’s been years since he’s seen his mother.
He smiles when I come to see him, asks how my week was, if I’ve heard from my son, who’s only a year older than he is.
I think of Mathias’s mother, holed up in a refugee camp in Kenya. She didn’t get to say goodbye.
Mathias tried to live a “normal” life without his family. Continue school, then hold down a job, save money. But the police threatened him. He had to flee. By that time, crossing the border wasn’t easy. He couldn’t join his family in the camp. He had to get help.
His story of how he made it all the way to the El Paso port of entry is more than admirable. It’s an amazing story of the human spirit. Of faith, hope, trust.
He trusts in the promises of a free and democratic society.
Still. In spite of his shock that, after pouring out his story to Border Customs, they handcuffed him and tossed him in detention to await his fate.
And he’s not unusual.
More weary asylum seekers have been arriving at our ports of entry, fleeing violence from places as far as Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Congo, as well as from El Salvador and Guatemala. Countries that are not on the U.S. list of favorable places to migrate from.
Whether our president used those exact words or not to describe these countries is not the point. The real concern is his intention.
Words like “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “immigrant” have become associated with something evil. Or, at least, something undesirable.
Yet international law supports asylum seekers. International law says a Government is prohibited from returning someone to their country if they will be subjected to torture or persecution or death. But a recent report compiled by human rights organizations at the border documents cases where we have not been following that law.
It shows that more punitive and inhumane deterrence practices are being implemented towards asylum seekers under this administration. More human rights violations are being recorded.
Surprisingly, the report also shows, El Paso courts have one of the highest denial rates for asylum seekers. It’s a sad reality that makes no sense.
Yet, the outcome of a case is determined by the judge assigned rather than the severity of the asylum seeker’s life-threatening situation and the credibility of their supporting documentation.
I may be going against the grain here, but I am actually praying that Mathias wins his asylum case and remains in the U.S.
I am praying that more and more of these violations come to light. And that they matter to people like you.
And I pray that one day winning an asylum case will not be a rare occurrence in many of our courts.
It’s worthwhile noting that National Right to Life Day is January 22. The right to life, the dignity of a life, extends to all human beings, not just the unborn. Not just those who were lucky enough to be born in the United States.
For me, Mathias – and thousands others like him – is the voiceless little one who needs me to stand up and say, you are a child of God. You have a right to live.
Sometimes you have to go out of your way to see the stars.
The other night a couple of friends and I drove out to Hueco Tanks State Park just outside of El Paso to go stargazing.
Used to be, I’d step out onto my back deck in rural Virginia whenever I wanted to view the stars. Most nights I could see the Milky Way, it was so darn dark out there.
Not anymore. Now I live in a place where the lights never go out.
Sometimes I miss the darkness. And I especially miss the stars.
Light years away, they seem so far from our grasp.
Not unlike our dreams.
Sometimes we desire a thing so badly, yet it feels far out of our reach.
Like reaching for the stars.
Like building a log home in the woods in central Virginia, for example.
A far-away dream of mine, yet almost unbelievably, it came to fruition. And although my time there seemed short-lived, I know that home served its purpose. It planted the seeds for what would follow. Then I heard guidance ask me to leave that dream behind.
As if that were easy to do.
It reminds me of when I longed to have a child.
For six years I tried unsuccessfully, thinking there must be something more I could do – some other method David and I could try.
During that time, I simultaneously stumbled upon a path that led me on a deeper spiritual journey. One that taught me the meaning of detachment, of detaching from a specific outcome. Of surrendering to a God who is nothing but Love.
Still, when my 36th birthday came along and I was still childless, it was hard not to feel emotional. My mind told me “time was running out.”
I didn’t give up on my desire to have a child. But over the course of a painful journey of being attached to the outcome, I had learned to entrust the desires of my heart to God.
Whatever the result, I could trust the One who had placed the seed of that desire in me. I could trust the truth that “all things work together for good….”
In other words, I had set the intention and learned to let go of my demand for a certain outcome.
Months later I found myself pregnant, and before my 37th birthday, I had a child in my arms.
Now, again I find myself facing a desire to manifest a deeply held dream. One I’m passionate about that involves my writing.
It feels like my desire has been taking a long time to be realized. And yet again, I find myself relearning the lessons of patience and faith as I surrender control.
Because I know that whenever I am clinging to a particular outcome, my ego is still in control. Whenever I am attached to the way “I” think things should turn out, I’m not free. I’m not in the flow.
What are the deepest desires of your heart?
Do your dreams seem like stars out of your reach? Or are you clinging to them, unable to let go?
Here’s what I’d suggest:
Set your sights on the stars. Plant and nurture the seed of your deepest desires. Set your intentions.
Then relinquish the outcome. Open to the flow of creative possibilities.
Entrust the results to your co-Creator.
And watch the stars appear.
I’ve been missing Virginia’s spring. Luckily, I’m about to experience it once again when I drive back to Virginia next week to attend my niece’s graduation from George Mason University. Soon my senses will be filled with sweet-smelling blossoms, blasted with the color of azaleas, irises, dogwoods, and lilacs. And, of course, stuffed with pollen.
I imagine Davis is missing it, too. Up there in Nome where the earth is just beginning to thaw and show sprigs of green.
Like him, I’ve been having a different kind of spring.
As in Nome, spring’s arrival in the desert is slow and subtle. You have to really look for it.
So lately I’d been paying attention to the stirrings of the earth. Seeking changes in the landscape. Looking and listening. Trying to find what I thought I was missing.
Turns out, I found something. Something within myself.
One day I ventured out to a park located not far from my apartment. So close, I’d wondered why I hadn’t been there before. Sinking my feet into the grass – real grass – I strolled across the lawn and finally settled down under a tree. A wide-trunked tree. Placed my back up against it and took in the energy of one of my favorite forms of life. Right away I started missing the greenery of Virginia. The red cardinals and indigo buntings. Even the squirrels.
Suddenly a slight breeze stirred the leaves above me, as if to say, “Hey, we’re here. Can’t you see us?”
And then – I’m not kidding – a squirrel scampered across the hillside. The first I’ve seen since arriving in El Paso. He was quickly followed by another chasing after him. All along I’d thought squirrels didn’t exist here!
In the silence I sensed God saying, “Everything you need is here.”
I smiled as I was shown once again that I have everything I need. That “everything is everywhere” – to use a title of a lovely Carrie Newcomer song I recently came across. That I am never separated from my Source.
And I remembered why I am here.
In this desert, at the border, I am finding my heart, my compassion, my voice. What was planted in me is thriving. And I’m discovering that the changes I seek in the landscape are happening within me.
Just as Davis discovered something stirring within himself in the dark of winter. Something that called him to remain in Alaska and be a voice for the people there.
It’s part of the sacred pattern of life. This rhythm to the cycle of the seasons. A sacred rhythm that’s playing out within us, too. If we can only have patience to allow it to unfold.
Whether it’s under the deep, dark, frozen earth or the dusty, dry landscape, life is stirring within. Seeds have been planted. Seeds that will miraculously burst forth at the appropriate time.
It’s all part of the cycle. A cycle you can trust.
And you can trust the Source that’s fulfilling what has been planted within you.
Whether you’re at the Bering Sea, the Arabian Sea, or a place like El Paso that’s never seen the sea.
Because, as Carrie sings, “Miracles are everywhere. Love is love; it’s here and there. Everything is everywhere.” (from “Everything Is Everywhere”)
It’s a message we need to remember. No matter what season we’re in.
To listen to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer, find it at
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/
The man sitting on his cot, head bowed, eyes closed, catches my eye as I pass his room. His toddler son, wriggling on his back beside him, gleefully plays with some imaginary toy held high in the air. But the child doesn’t disturb his father. The man prays silently, deeply entrenched in a place far beyond this room.
I pause in the hallway. Quietly take in what I have just witnessed.
Granted, pausing is unusual when I’m working at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. Most days I barely have time to gobble down a spoonful of yogurt or finish an apple.
But, I sense the beauty and preciousness of this scene. It’s worth taking a moment.
And in that sacred, tender moment, a door opens. A door through which I catch a glimpse into the life of another. A door that further opens my heart.
And I understand why I do this work.
A job that no one in her right mind would ever accept from an employer. The pay is lousy (non-existent!). No company perks. You don’t get a half-hour lunch break. In fact, you have to force yourself to remember to sit down and eat. No 15-minute coffee breaks or gathering in the company kitchen to choose a K-cup of your favorite coffee. No time for checking emails or text messaging. Not even time for friendly banter with your coworkers.
But the reward is priceless.
A connection that takes me far beyond my self-preoccupation. Beyond my judgments of how I “think” things should be.
This act of witnessing, and being with, the migrants and refugees who come through our doors – makes me forget my petty concerns.
Every time I hear one of our “guests” tell me he hasn’t eaten much for days and is thankful for the meals we’ve offered him.
Every time a mom says how happy she is to be able to finally take a shower.
Every time a child’s face lights up when she’s given a used pair of shoes.
Every time someone says I’m kind — “muy amable, gracias,” — when I hand them a jacket or a bag of food for the journey ahead.
Every time I put myself in their shoes, I forget about my own unknown future.
But I am remembering something much more important.
Last April, at a James Finley retreat on Meister Eckhart, I wrote down these words. They struck me, because I knew this was how I desired to live my life:
“Find that person, that community, that act, that when you give yourself over to it with your whole heart, unravels your petty preoccupation with your self-absorbed self and strangely brings you home to yourself.”
That’s what I’ve found. That’s what this “work” is giving me.
The opportunity to come home to my Self.
Richard Rohr writes: “Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain only to be helpful; he called us to be in solidarity with the real and for own transformation. It is often only after the fact we realize that they helped us in ways we never knew we needed. This is sometimes called ‘reverse mission.’
“Only near the poor, close to ‘the tears of things’ as the Roman poet Virgil puts it, in solidarity with suffering, can we understand ourselves, love one another well, imitate Jesus, and live his full Gospel.”
In truth, I can’t really walk in their shoes. But I can pause. Be present. Keep my heart open. As I walk in solidarity alongside them.
Three-year-old Ana smacks a kiss on my mouth. I’ve just handed her a baby doll, complete with pacifier. Something to keep her company on her days-long bus ride to Florida.
Whatever pleasure I got out of finding that doll in our used toy bin at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center just got magnified a hundredfold.
Juana is 13. Too old for a doll.
Or so I thought.
But her eyes widen when she sees the one I’ve given Ana.
“Do you like dolls?” I ask in Spanish.
“Si.” She smiles. Off I go to locate another.
I have the perfect one in mind. Eyes as big as half dollars. Strawberry-colored plastic hair. The kind you can’t comb. But her face is more mature. Just right for a girl who’s probably never owned a doll in her life.
Why do I love packing a toy in these children’s travel bags? Why do I take pleasure in seeing their delight?
The answer, I think, lies somewhere in understanding the gift of pleasure.
If you’re a parent, you know the absolute pleasure of seeing your child delight in receiving a longed-for gift or special surprise.
I believe that the One who loved us into being takes that kind of pleasure in us.
And that God longs for us to take pleasure in the abundance of life. A life gifted to us. Created for us to enjoy. As fully alive beings.
Sometimes, in between running around getting care packages ready for the migrants, answering their needs, calling for volunteer drivers, I have to step outside to get food in the walk-in fridge next door. And sometimes I pause and stand there in the sunlight. Look up into that constantly blue sky.
And give thanks. Aware of the pleasure I am receiving as well as giving.
Whether it’s in giving a special gift to a child. Preparing a meal for someone who’s hungry.
Receiving expressions of affection.
Or taking in the beauty of a golden full moon on a Friday night. Like I did tonight.
An abundance of opportunities to experience the pleasures of an abundant life.
But I have to say, I’m not always aware of them.
As Jesus said, it is God’s good pleasure “to give you the kingdom.” That kingdom is already alive in you. Alive in me.
Can I keep giving myself over to it? Can I fully accept this gift?
The anxious young mother from Guatemala asks me for the third time how long I think it will take to get to New York. By bus. From El Paso.
I’ve tried to explain. Depends on a lot of things.
She asks how many hours. I tell her it’ll be two days. Her facial expression pleads for a different answer.
In reality I think it’ll be three. But I don’t tell her that.
She and her adorable 6-year-old daughter Alison will be spending tonight in the Greyhound station. Their relative back in NY bought tickets for a bus leaving at 4 a.m. Getting them a ride to the station at 2:30 a.m. would be impossible. Our volunteer drivers are great, but everyone has their limits. The best we can do is get them to the station tonight.
And pack them sufficient food and liquids for the long journey. That’s my job. And I take it seriously.
Used to be that the migrants and refugees who came to our center could access cash from Moneygrams wired by relatives in other states. At least that’d give them a little money to buy food on these long bus rides.
But not anymore. The local Moneygram has changed its policy. They now want a “legit” ID. Like a driver’s license.
We all know that’s not possible. Which means we often send our people off with nothing more than an extra set of clothing and a small bag of food. And blessings for the journey.
“Vaya con Dios,” I say. “Bendiciones para su viaje.”
“Que Dios te bendiga,” they respond. God bless you. Like I’m the one that should be getting the blessings.
Alison and her mom aren’t unusual. In fact, another mother and her two children are leaving tomorrow by bus. For North Carolina.
So, when I search through the donations of tote bags, I try to find two sturdy ones to hold enough food for these moms and their kids.
Pickings are slim tonight. Only a few large bags left that could possibly hold everything I want to pack. But I know we’ll soon have more donations. We always do.
I pull some “care packages”—each filled with peanut butter crackers, granola bars, chips, a bottle of water, and juice box. All the snacks, and even the Ziploc bags, donated by local residents.
Then off to the kitchen with the walk-in fridge. I grab apples, burritos, fried chicken, anything I can stuff into the tote bags to sustain five people for a 3-day journey.
Every Monday a local restaurant delivers grocery bags filled with dozens of homemade bean burritos. Wrapped in sturdy foil and ready to go. Another vendor donates apples and oranges. Who knows where the fried chicken came from? Sometimes it’s pizza I find on the shelves. Or baloney sandwiches.
All this food – donated. Anything and everything we need. Just when I notice something starting to get low, next day – or soon thereafter – the supply is replenished.
It’s kind of like the loaves and fishes story. Only it’s not Jesus sending down the blessing. It’s folks like you and me. Blessing the snacks, the clothing, the toys, the toothpaste – everything they donate – with their attitude. Their generosity. Their grace.
Later that night, I think about Alison and her mom. They’re headed to the bus station right about now. I think about the food I packed for them.
I worry it’s not enough.
Then I remember the burritos. The commitment of that restaurant owner. The endless supply offered.
And I send out a prayer. May these families meet others on their journey. Others who will be that kind of blessing.