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Next Stop, Bolivia

cochabamba

Mission. The word won’t leave me. It keeps showing up in unexpected ways.

Like through an invitation from a special friend. She asked me recently to consider joining her on a pilgrimage to Amistad, “the Friendship Mission,” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where more than half the population live below the national poverty line.

I decided to check out their website (see http://www.amistadmission.org/).

As soon as I saw the children’s faces, the Andes mountains, the indigenous women donning wide-brimmed hats and colorful scarves, tears sprang to my eyes.

I had to say yes. With no clear indication why. I simply felt a pull on my heart. A pull to be with the poor of Latin America.

Who can explain such things?

I’ve no idea what I’ll discover there. It’s only for a week. But I know I’ll come back with much more than I could possibly give. Just like what happened with the migrants in El Paso.

Last week Richard Rohr used the word “reverse mission” in one of his daily reflections. His words say exactly what I’m trying to say.

“An overly protected life—a life focused on thinking more than experiencing—does not know deeply or broadly. 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 our 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.’ The ones we think we are ‘saving’ end up saving us, and in the process, redefine the very meaning of salvation!”

Here’s where I’ve experienced “the real” while on mission:

  • In the sound of children’s joyous shrieks as we play a simple game of Uno at the health center in Anapra, home to Mexico’s poorest of the poor.
  • In the migrant woman, who after being paid a meager $15 for a day’s labor of housecleaning, gave $5 to someone “less fortunate.”
  • In the mud-caked, sole-flapping shoes of the little Guatemalan girls who showed up at our hospitality center with their mom.
  • In the airplane drawing of a six-year-old “undocumented” boy assigned to a Texas detention center who sees God as that plane, ready to whisk him up and reunite him with his mother.

Wherever this mission is taking me, it sure is a slow process. But that’s OK.

I’m learning that each slow step is a piece of the puzzle. And everything is fitting together nicely, just as it needs to, in order to fulfill my unique purpose, my heart’s calling. All I have to do is listen. And not let myself get too comfortable. Something I doubt will happen in Cochabamba.

Truthfully, I don’t really know why I’m going to Bolivia. But I do know what I hear in my heart: “If you want to live a truly fulfilling life, you must follow me.”

As John O’ Donohue writes:

Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment.

These pics were taken from the Amistad website

Amistad_mother_child_s

Picture of mother and child taken from Amistad Mission website

Amistad sisters

aramasi_family2_s

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The Urgency that Calls You

wake-up-and-live

“Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent. You are loath to let compromise or the threat of danger hold you back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment.”
― John O’DonohueAnam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

What urgency calls you into wakefulness?

What longing waits within you unfulfilled?

Waking up alone in my quiet household, it’s easy to feel a sense of urgency. To remember where I’ve been and to fear becoming complacent and comfortable. But I feel anything but comfortable.

I miss El Paso. I miss the richness and vitality of life at the border. I miss the people and their stories. Stories of tremendous challenges, deep faith, and generous hearts. Mostly I miss the children.

But I’m not meant to go back just yet.

For now, the urgency I feel is to write their stories. Especially as the fear frenzy and racist comments towards Hispanic immigrants swells.

And it’s time for me, as a writer, to stop holding back. To put myself out there. Words from my favorite David Whyte poem, What to Remember When Waking,  speak to my heart more than ever.

To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others.

The truth is, I have been hiding out. Not fully claiming and embracing my gift. Not fully trusting that if I allow myself to be intimate and vulnerable on the page, it doesn’t matter whether I “fail” or what the outcome is.

what urgency
calls you to your
one love?  What shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?

My one love is to write. And I want to write about the people’s pain. About their sweat and their struggle, their joy and their innocence. And how their lives are so very intertwined with ours.

My friend Rob is familiar with this place of holding back, too. I know Rob as a writer and poet. But, like me, he hesitates to fully own the gift. He writes:

What other gifts or passions have I kept hidden from family, from friends, from the world? If, as I believe, much of our task in this life is to lay claim to, and develop, our talents so as to share them with others – not in a self-centered way, but as proof of the joy in ongoing creation – then what had I been doing? I had put a variety of skills on display for decades, but had I been sufficiently brave or vulnerable to risk putting my gifts out for all to see? “

image

That’s what the urgency is really all about for me now. Putting my gifts out for all to see. To come out of hiding and fulfill my personal calling. To simply trust enough in the gift and the One who bestowed it. And to be willing to continue to live with the “not knowing.” I’ve done it for so long now, you’d think I’d be an expert.

Despite my doubts, I long to embrace this gift. To listen to the urgency that calls me to use it. To do it for Love.

And to let go of the outcome.

How about you? What longing within waits to be fulfilled? What urgency calls you to fully use your gifts?

Here’s the full version of the David Whyte poem:

What to Remember When Waking

what to remember upon waking

In that first
hardly noticed
moment
to which you wake,
coming back
to this life
from the other
more secret,
moveable
and frighteningly
honest
world
where everything
began,
there is a small
opening
into the new day
which closes
the moment
you begin
your plans.

What you can plan
is too small
for you to live.

What you can live
wholeheartedly
will make plans
enough
for the vitality
hidden in your sleep.

To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others.

To remember
the other world
in this world
is to live in your
true inheritance.

You are not
a troubled guest
on this earth,
you are not
an accident
amidst other accidents
you were invited
from another and greater
night
than the one
from which
you have just emerged.

Now, looking through
the slanting light
of the morning
window toward
the mountain
presence
of everything
that can be,
what urgency
calls you to your
one love?  What shape
waits in the seed
of you to grow
and spread
its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting
in the fertile sea?
In the trees
beyond the house?
In the life
you can imagine
for yourself?
In the open
and lovely
white page
on the waiting desk?

~ David Whyte ~

(The House of Belonging)

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Letting It Go

 

My Texas welcoming committee

That song from the Disney movie Frozen keeps popping into my head. You know the one every man, woman, and child has been singing since the movie came out: “Let it go, let it go…”

It’s not easy letting go of my entire life as I have known it for the past 28+ years in Virginia. It’s definitely a process. I hit the road nearly a week ago, leaving behind my house and most of my possessions, all my wonderful friends, my precious dog Cody (that was really tough), my beautiful state of Virginia where I’ve now lived more than half my life, and, most importantly, my son (which I’ve written about in previous posts).

Letting go of all this is definitely a spiritual practice for me. I realized the magnitude of my decision as soon as I drove over the Texas border and started to cry. It happened when I saw the “Welcome to Texas” sign. Or maybe it was the “Ammo to Go” sign that did it. But it happened suddenly and spontaneously. With no advance warning like you usually get when you know the tears are coming. The irony of this trip had suddenly hit me. The last time I drove through Texas was 1986 when my husband and I were relocating from South Texas to Virginia. A move we desperately wanted to make. Nothing against Texas, but the year and a half we had spent there was not pleasant. We were ready to move on. I remember feeling excited and full of anticipation, happy to be returning to the East Coast and beginning a new life in a new state.

At the time I never thought I’d return to Texas. Certainly not to live here again. That’s how I know this decision is not coming from me. Nor is it of me. But choosing to live in Texas to work with homeless women and their children for at least a year feels right. The decision is a good one for me.

Still, I fluctuate between feeling the sadness of all I’ve left behind, along with the anxiety of my inner child who thinks I’m a little crazy, to feeling the joy and anticipation of following my heart’s calling. I’ve been staying with my dear cousin Joyce in Austin to visit and relax a little before beginning my year-long lay missionary service. She and her husband live on a golf course where deer come to feed throughout the day. It’s been a much-needed respite. But one of her two little dogs, Cupper, reminds me of my personality. One minute he loves me, wags his tail and is fully receptive of my affection. The next he backs away from me, growling as if he wants nothing to do with me. Joyce jokes and says he’s bipolar. I don’t know much about that, but I do sort of relate to his personality these days.

Not to say that I want to change my mind in any way, shape, or form. It’s just that so many questions pop up about my home in Virginia. Did I remember to do this or that before I left? Did I remember to take everything I needed? Should I have left that behind? And on and on until that refrain “Let it go” sails through my mind again.

It’s a good song really. And a good reminder that following a calling involves trust. It’s a choice I choose to make. I choose to trust the Loving Presence that brought me here. I choose to trust that I’ll be given what I need every step of the way as I follow the guidance of a higher self. Not that small, fear-based ego self that wonders if I turned off the stove.

IMG_20140724_091014_541I’ll finally arrive at my new temporary home in San Antonio later today. And I’m sure there will be lots more practice at letting go as the days and weeks unfold. Stay tuned.

Voices in the Desert

Me with some of  my students in front of Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza

Me with some of my students in front of Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza

The desert has spoken to my heart. In so many ways. Through so many people.

As I prepare to return to Virginia tomorrow, I’m finding it hard to convey the richness of my experiences, the warmth and generosity of the people, and the many powerful ways that they and this place have touched my heart during these two months.

I came with so many questions, doubts, uncertainty as to why my heart was calling me here and what I would do exactly. My Spanish was limited. My goals unclear. My future uncertain. I only knew I was following a fire in my heart. But I kept asking God why? Why have you put this on my heart? Answers evaded me.

Some time ago I realized I had stopped asking the questions.

I finally understood, deep within myself, that this is exactly where I was meant to be. Everyone and everything I encountered has been speaking to me. All have been teaching me, molding me, preparing me for the next step, whatever that may be. I still don’t know.

But this I do know.

I know that I cannot be silent. I will use my voice to speak of what I have witnessed here, to be a voice for others who can’t speak for themselves.

I know that I will not return to the same life I had before. It’s not possible. Something within me has changed.

I know I will carry in my heart the people I have met. People like the wonderful women to whom I taught English at Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza — a center where Hispanic women come to learn new skills and to share their stories. We have joked and laughed together, and they would greet me with hugs and kisses on the cheek. Their final goodbye involved a homemade chocolate cake layered with strawberries—my favorite—and gifts, and, of course, more food. They told me they will miss me. I already miss them.

Me in front of Las Americas

Me in front of Las Americas

People like Katie, the director of Las Americas, and her staff who work tirelessly to represent immigrants in their cases for asylum and other human rights issues. People like Victoria, “the bean lady”; Pat Cane, the founder of Capacitar; Sylvia, who shared her faith story with me and drove me around El Paso; and all the women I met at the detention center, at the Centro Santa Catalina sewing cooperative, and in the colonias. I’m especially thinking of one of the women I helped to study for her citizenship exam. A very bright young woman, who knew all 100 answers the very first time I quizzed her. Yet her anxiety as the exam date drew near caused her to begin making mistakes. Inspired by Capacitar, I taught her a spiritual practice to help ground and relax her. The morning of her exam, I prayed and anxiously awaited her phone call. But she never called. Instead she drove over to share the news with me in person. She had passed! We squealed like excited children. Before we parted, she told me she thanked God for putting me on her path. And she cried.

Then there are the people I met in Juarez. Zeferina, extremely poor and blind from diabetes, yet she teaches catechism every Sunday with the help of her young daughter who serves as her eyes. This woman’s deep peace and trust of God was so evident in her face, her stance, her composure, and her kindness. Esperenza, a poor widow who cares for a disabled man in her home because his family threw him out. And, of course, the sisters who live and work in Juarez, serving the poorest of the poor and standing up for human rights.

Lastly, there’s the School Sisters of St. Francis with whom I’ve been staying in El Paso.

Sr. Elsa, Sr. Kathy, and Sr. Fran on a fun trip to Mesilla, N.M.

Sr. Elsa, Sr. Kathy, and Sr. Fran on a fun trip to Mesilla, N.M.

Sunday night they surprised me with a despedida. That’s a Spanish farewell party. Except it wasn’t a party at all, but rather a ceremony to bless, honor, and affirm me. The sisters invited me to sit down at their computer. Then Sr. Fran lit a candle and turned up the volume as she played two songs on YouTube she’d chosen especially for me: “Just to Be” and “Sarah’s Song.” Sitting in the dimly lit room, surrounded by these three sisters, a candle flame flickering beside me, I listened to the sweet voice of Colleen Fulmer — a voice I’d never heard before — sing these beautiful lyrics:“Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy…Be still and know I am God. In quiet and trust lies your healing.” (lyrics from “Just to Be”)

“The whole of the earth will be blessed by you; In God you have made your home. The stars will dance as they call out your name. Your heart always laughing with joy…
As you have shared with us the sowing of seeds,
So too all you’ve planted will bear fruit…” (lyrics from “Sarah’s Song”)

Then each of the sisters expressed what they have seen and appreciated in me. What an unexpected and humbling gift! In that moment, I felt and heard God speaking to me. As it turns out, the sisters’ gift was the most powerful voice of all. A reminder of how loved I am, how loved we all are.

I remember a Scripture verse I came across years ago. It spoke to me then, but it speaks to me even more clearly now:

“I will lure her into the desert where I will speak to her heart.”

God has definitely spoken to my heart here. And I now know how important it is to listen and follow.

(source: wikipedia.com)

(source: wikipedia.com)

Taking the Risk

Since posting my inaugural blog about journeying to El Paso, friends with whom I’d recently lost touch have been checking in. Many have been wishing me well on my move. Some have been surprised. Others have been asking me what the hell I’m doing. OK, I can see why you’d be confused. Rereading  my post I realize I wasn’t clear that heading to El Paso is only a temporary, first step into following my heart. No, I am not selling my house, getting rid of my dog, or leaving Virginia permanently. At least not now. I am simply volunteering for a few months—the max that I can manage at the moment—and opening to where this might lead.

That’s exactly why this is both exciting and scary. I can’t see what’s on the other side of this threshold. I don’t know what’s next for me. But here’s what I do know.

I know that this experience will change how I live my life. It already has. What I witnessed and experienced in El Paso back in February—how our screwed-up immigration policy is impacting families, children, and the hard-working poor who are trying to survive—has remained on my heart.  I know that the call to serve the poor and oppressed in a community setting is too strong to ignore. I know that I have much more to offer in this stage of my journey. And, most especially, I know that the poor have much to teach me.

I still see before me the many faces I encountered on my “border immersion” trip. Not just the smiling children in detention facilities trusting they will be reunited with their families, or the Latina women with hopeful plans of furthering their education or finding employment to support their children, but the compassionate eyes and passion-filled voices of those who serve the immigrants. During this seven-day trip I met some of the most inspiring people I have ever come across face to face—the immigrants as well as those who work tirelessly, selflessly, and passionately to help them.

People like the nuns who singlehandedly have begun various ministries and cross the border into Juarez, Mexico, to serve however they can. Sr. Rene is a great example. She started a women’s coop—Centro Santa Catalina—in Juarez, to help impoverished women support their families. Even in the height of the drug cartels’ out-of-control violence, she crossed the border daily.

Then there’s 80-year-old Sr. Beatrice, a former chaplain in the adult detention facilities who bent the rules to serve people with kindness and compassion. She often witnessed very dehumanizing and demeaning practices, including the use of chains on the deportees. Many are being detained for months or years on end at tremendous cost to the U.S. taxpayer. Their sole reason for being stuck in these facilities separated from their loved ones — they crossed the border illegally.

Carlos Marentes also used the word “dehumanizing” in describing the work of the migrants who come to pick U.S. produce—a billion-dollar industry for which they are paid, on average, $6,000 per year. In 1983, Carlos and his wife Alicia founded Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, a nonprofit located in southside El Paso, to support migrant and seasonal farm workers and their families. His life and his passion are to change Americans’ relationship with food and the natural world – another interesting story I hope to share.

In everyone I met I witnessed so much hope, faith, and trust in God despite what seems to be an overwhelmingly problematic and complex situation. But of all the stories I  heard, there’s one that Ruben Garcia shared with us when we visited Annunciation House that affected me the most.

He told us of a woman who’d crossed the border with her young daughter and found her way to his “house of hospitality” ill and in need of care. Once she was well enough, the woman wanted to find work. So, she accepted the offer of a stranger who called Annunciation House seeking a housekeeper for the day.  It was not unusual for people looking for day laborers to call Ruben’s house asking if any residents were interested in a job. Ruben would pass on the information, but never got involved in settling the rate of pay. So the woman went off to clean house for this stranger without knowing what she would be paid. She was gone for the entire day. When she returned, she had been paid a mere $15.

Her reaction? She gave Ruben $10 to save for her. Then she handed him the other $5 and told him to give it to someone worse off than she was. This woman who had been treated so poorly herself willingly gave one-third of her pay to help a stranger! She didn’t know when she would next be paid. She had no idea what her future would hold. But she had faith.

That’s the story that got me crying. Maybe my heart had been opening a little more each day with everything I’d been witnessing. Maybe I was simply too raw and vulnerable. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that was the particular moment I knew why I had come on this trip.

Some time ago I set the intention to listen to my inner being. To be able to discern the path forward. And to have the courage to follow. I truly believe it’s time to take the risk.

So, thank you, all my friends and people I don’t yet know who are supporting me on this journey. Thank you for your prayers. Prayer is what got me here. Prayer is what brought me peace whenever I started to fret over the unknowns. Unknowns like how would I support myself? Who would care for my devoted dog Cody in my absence? Prayer brought just the right person to care for Cody. And prayer will keep me going forward.

This quote from Rumi might explain it better:

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”