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.
Have you ever been surprised by joy? Felt it come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake you? Yet you can’t fully explain it?
That’s been happening to me since returning to this desert border town. I’ve been experiencing a mysterious joy.
Despite not knowing for sure what I’m doing here. Not knowing where I’ll settle. Still trying to sell a house in Virginia. Looking for a paying job. Aware that my temporary living arrangement will soon expire.
So many unknowns. Enough to send anyone into a panic. Or at least an anxious spin.
But surprisingly I feel peaceful. And happy.
Maybe it’s because I’ve done this so many times now. Uprooted myself. Leapt off into the unknown. Taken risks. And come out the other side, assured once again that I have everything I need as I listen and trust my inner guidance.
But I know it’s more than that.
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who wrote The Divine Milieu.
God has been showing up a lot lately.
Just two days after arriving in El Paso, I returned to volunteer at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center where I’d served over a year ago. As soon as I walked through the door, took in the familiar surroundings, saw the people, I felt this inexplicable happiness spread inside of me.
Nothing had precipitated it. Other than being in this place.
It was the presence of joy.
A Presence letting me know that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Then last Sunday, I attended a Spanish Mass. A joyous celebration, the walls reverberating with lively music and handclapping. Pews packed with Hispanics. Many others standing along the side and back walls. And this was only one of six masses held every Sunday!
I went because I love being among the people. Saying the prayers in Spanish along with them. Celebrating the combination of their rich spirituality and connection to the earth. Seeing their faith in action both delights and humbles me. I can’t explain it, but they possess something special.
I was standing there, silently taking everything in, when suddenly I recognized something. I recognized the Presence of what it is they possess. And it filled me. This unnamed Presence.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Joyful tears.
And I knew. This is God. This is the Presence of God.
In these people. In these tears I’m shedding.
In this overwhelming joy that has taken me by surprise.
In this awareness that I am standing in the midst of grace.
In the knowledge that every leap I’ve taken — even when it didn’t feel “right” at the time — has been a perfect piece of the process of my life. Taking me where I needed to go. Helping me to heal.
In that moment of recognition, a Scripture verse came back to me:
“Count it all joy when you are involved in every sort of trial.” (James 1:2)
Two years ago I was struggling in San Antonio. Trying to make a go of a promise I’d made to serve there. Feeling very alone and uncertain, I’d written a blog post about the “life in abundance” God wanted for me. The promise of joy. Knowing it was possible, but feeling a million miles from anything close to joy.
Now I understand.
My heart knows why I am here.
“That my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”
La alegrίa. That’s Spanish for joy. Now I understand. A joy no one can take from you.
That would be me.
For six weeks in Bolivia. I was a stranger at someone else’s table. Living with a family I didn’t know. In a country where I could barely speak the language. In the midst of a different culture. Where everything looked, smelled, and tasted different.
It didn’t take long to realize, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Or Virginia.
Or anywhere that even resembled the home I knew. Everything felt different. And I felt so alone.
True, that was months ago. But the memory of those feelings has stayed with me.
I actually think the mother of the house where I was living in Bolivia had a preconceived image of me as an American. And maybe she had a little attitude too.
Now the tables are switched.
I’m the one with a little attitude toward foreigners.
You might find that surprising. After all, why would I travel so far from home to return to the U.S.-Mexico border to serve migrants and refugees if I had an attitude?
Truthfully, I’m happy to be back serving at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. It feels right to be here.
I knew it the first day I walked through the door and was among “the people” again. I found myself smiling for no particular reason throughout the day.
Even though I never stopped moving from the moment I stepped inside the place. And was exhausted by the time I left.
The thing is, so many people are coming. More than I’d ever seen when I was serving here last year.
It’s not so easy to spot those in desperate need this time. It’s not black and white. If it ever was.
Immigration is such a complex issue.
What got me was I was noticing some conflicting feelings arising. A judging, critical side.
I mean I’m aware that I have this side of me, but I didn’t like the fact that it was coming up here, in relation to the migrants whom I’ve felt such compassion for. In a place where I’m serving alongside some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. The people of El Paso. People who still, after more than two years, continue to fully operate this center through their donations and volunteer hours.
So, the other night I went to bed with these questions on my heart.
“How do I keep my heart open and let go of trying to be judge and jury? How does love respond to this situation? What do you ask of me?”
On the verge of sleep, an image of Jesus in his passion came to me. The pain and suffering he endured. The terrible loneliness.
Then I “heard” his question: “Did I do this only for those who deserve it?”
Such a powerful and humbling response! The truth of it hit me hard.
Because I knew. I certainly don’t “deserve” this gift. In fact, I often take it for granted. And I doubt I fully appreciate it.
In that moment, I understood.
Love has nothing to do with fairness or with who deserves it.
Love invites everyone to the table. No one is excluded. And preconceived images are left at the door.
Granted, it’s challenging to love as Christ loved.
I don’t know if I can do it. But this is my practice.
This is why I am here.
It’s the early morning hours. The day before the memorial service for the Dallas police officers.
I awaken in a hotel room just outside the city. Photos of the five officers and two African-American young men who were killed appear in my mind. And tear at my heart.
I think of their families. The ones who’ve loved them and are left behind to grieve.
My heart breaks for the pain we cause each other, for the violence we resort to so easily to resolve our differences, to make our voices heard.
There is another choice.
But it’s harder. Because it involves letting go of our own agenda.
It means putting aside our pride and our judgments. And our preconceived notions about who is “right” and who is “wrong.”
It means being willing to see and listen to the other person.
And letting Christ’s love guide our steps.
That option seems so far away. Especially in the midst of the ongoing onslaught of hate-filled insults, of angry words and demeaning lies raging over social media and throughout this political campaign.
So I do the only thing I can do. I offer prayer. And ask where God is in this.
A familiar question pops up.
“Have you been with me all this time and still do not know me?”
It’s a question Jesus asked of his disciples along their journey together.
And this is the response that comes.
I am African-American. I am Mexican American. I am Native American. I am Muslim. I am Christian. I am Buddhist.
I am the police officer who risks his life every time he protects yours.
I am the youth calling for peaceful protests after his father is killed.
I am the man with knotted hair standing at the stoplight with his cardboard sign asking for help.
I am the undocumented little Guatemalan girl languishing with her mother in a Texas family detention center.
I am the young mother in Bolivia who abandoned her baby because she could not feed yet another child.
I am the 10-year-old boy stolen from his family and forced to become a soldier.
I am the Syrian who fled his home with his young son after their lives were threatened.
I am the family in sub-Saharan Africa unable to eat tonight because there is no food.
I am in you. I am in the neighbor next to you. And in the neighbor across the ocean whom you have yet to meet.
All lives matter to me. Because I am all life.
I am compassion. I am understanding. I am love without borders.
I am peace in a world that does not know peace because it does not know me.
I wait for you in the stillness. In the silence. There you will see me.
And know me for the first time.