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.

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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.”

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Virginia Is for Lovers

Virginia Jennifers home June 2018
View from my friends Jennifer & Rob’s yard

I love Virginia. I was so thrilled to be back visiting my former home that I pretty much wandered around with a continuous smile.

First there was the effects of all that spring rain. Virginia’s mountains and hillsides glowed with a vibrant green carpet. Trees and vegetation along the roadsides were so full, they seemed to reach out to embrace me.

I treasured hikes and gatherings with dear friends. Enjoyed surprise encounters with old friends at a special wedding. Spent time with Davis – always a treat – and got to see the wonderful adults some of his high school friends have become.

Virginia has given me so many precious memories and such special heart connections, who wouldn’t smile?

Even crossing the state line and seeing the familiar “Virginia is for lovers” slogan got me.

Virginia is for lovers

But I can’t say my entire trip was filled with goodness and happy thoughts.

Back home at the border things were heating up. Even before I left El Paso, we were seeing cases of asylum seekers being jailed and their children taken from them. In the week that followed my departure, a difficult and painful situation had deteriorated from bad to worse.

Not that I was watching TV news. But between emails from friends and contacts back home, along with snippets of Internet news, I couldn’t ignore what was happening.

Soon, along with the joy of being back in Virginia, I was carrying a heaviness on my heart. It accompanied me into bed at night and awoke with me every morning.

Seeing faces in the news similar to those of the families I accompany, knowing the pain and distortion they were being subjected to, I couldn’t rest easily. After all, I’ve listened to their stories, played with their shy children, prepared and eaten plate after plate of reheated rice and beans with them.

Maybe right about now you’re asking, how does this relate to the title of your blog post?

I admit that finding words to express all I’ve been experiencing these days is challenging.

But I’ll try.

Sunday while hiking in the Gila National Forest, I met a Navy veteran who’d lived in Virginia. When he discovered Virginia had been my home for 30 years, he shared his not-so-positive opinions about the commonwealth.

Far from the “Virginia is for lovers” motto, he saw Virginians as racists still living in the pre-Civil War era, honoring the Confederacy, stuck in time. (I should note he was Caucasian.)

Clearly, his “reality” differed greatly from mine.

Not that there aren’t people who act this way, but this is not the Virginia nor the Virginians I know.

This guy’s stereotype was not indicative of the special place where we raised our son.

Davis learned about love in Virginia. He learned compassion, not judgment. Acceptance, not racial profiling. He learned to meet people where they are and be generous with what he has.

My heart connection with Virginians has created a different reality.

It’s those heart connections – both in Virginia and on the border – that prevent me from lumping people into derogatory categories. Or labeling them “racists,” “animals,” “criminals” who are “infesting” us.

I could not malign and dismiss the people of Virginia any more than I could the families of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who come to our hospitality houses.

Why? Because living on the cusp of what’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve experienced a different “reality.” Thankfully, a reality many of my Virginia friends wanted to hear about. And I’m so grateful for their listening open, loving hearts.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.” 
― Corrie ten BoomThe Hiding Place: The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom

I agree that love IS the strongest force in the world. Love can turn things – and people – around.

And something else about love.

Love is strong and fierce in defense of those it loves. Love is not cowardly. It takes risks. Lovers do not sit quietly by while those they love are maligned.

My Guatemalan Muse
Painting of a Guatemalan mother and child by Diego Sisay that hangs above my writing desk

I don’t intend to be silent in support of people I have come to love.

I make no apologies for the pain and anger I feel in my heart when I see a video of a Guatemalan mother, reunited with her 5-year-old son at the airport, sobbing into him as she tells him in Spanish that she loves him.

The pain that we have been inflicting on these children is a violent act. It is anything but love. It goes against the grain of what love is.

It goes against who I am.

This is not a time for silence or inertia. It’s a time for lovers – lovers in the true sense of the word – to speak up.

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

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“Five members of my family were killed.”

He tells me this several times during our conversation. He even holds one hand in the air, spreading his fingers apart. “Five,” he says, to be sure I understand.

“They shot my brother in the face,” he adds.

But I can’t fully understand what Hector has told me.

How could I? I’ve never even witnessed this kind of violence, let alone have it happen to five members of my family.

I met Hector recently at the Loretto-Nazareth migrant hospitality center when my shift coordinator asked me to help him. “He’s very anxious,” she told me. “Could you make him a cup of tea?”

Besides losing five family members to violence, Hector has risked traveling more than 2,000 miles with his 13-year-old daughter to escape the violence in Guatemala, left his wife and two other children behind without knowing their fate, and endured several days in a holding cell after presenting himself to Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico bridge to seek asylum. Soon, he and his daughter will get on a bus to travel to his sister living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know what he will encounter along the way or whether he will be deported once he arrives.

No wonder he’s anxious.

Stories of extortion, death threats, disappearances, and worse are common among our refugees, who mostly originate from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere.

I do more than make Hector a cup of tea. I teach him some deep breathing and emotional energy release exercises. As I watch this man, eyes closed, his body relaxing with each breath, what strikes me is the gentleness of his face. Traces of a lost innocence.

As Hector shares more of his story, I realize that he is only one of millions who have lost that innocence. Millions whose fate is now being determined at the political level. With no thought to the human lives involved. Or the loss.

According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent. Many of them are children.

This troubling fact has been cast aside so easily.

Under the illusion of fear.

“Not my problem.” “We can’t open the doors to everyone.” Typical arguments I’ve heard that justify not getting involved. Remaining silent.

Meanwhile, the innocent are dying.

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Maybe it’s this loss of innocence and senseless death that brought to mind the novel-turned-movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it’s the integrity and sense of morality and justice that Atticus Finch portrays. His willingness to “walk around in another man’s shoes.”

Qualities we so badly need right now.

I find myself wondering, have we lost our integrity? Our willingness to allow a stranger into our hearts? To recognize that what we do, or don’t do, to help these refugees does matter?

“The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said recently.

After visiting the ruins of Aleppo earlier this month, Grandi, shocked by the devastation, said, “These ruins speak for themselves. When you see children’s clothes hanging out of windows, kitchens cut in half by shells and rockets, the real lives of people interrupted by war as it was happening, I think this will weigh very heavily on the conscience of the world for generations.”

Will it?

I think it will. Because when we allow innocents to suffer and die, we pay the price.

We lose the music of our soul.

 

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The Call Within

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Her name was Irlanda. I’d never known anyone by that name and I would know her for less than 24 hours.

Months later I’m barely able to conjure up her face. But Irlanda’s words to me — they left a deep impression. One that reminds me why I left home.

Just weeks into my service at the Nazareth Hospitality Center in El Paso, Irlanda and her scrawny, eight-year-old son with the impossibly innocent smile show up at our door. I’m still struggling through Spanish phrases and trying to understand people’s questions. Still learning how to make these strangers feel welcomed, what questions not to ask, and how to listen with my eyes since my ears aren’t doing me much good.

Always there’s lots to be done at Nazareth. Rooms to be cleaned. Intake records to be entered into the system. Volunteer drivers to be called for rides to the bus station. Clothing to be sorted and folded on the tables in the donation room where the next arrival of women will soon dig through the neatly stacked piles seeking a pair of jeans to fit their short, lean figures.

But that day I take time to accompany Irlanda and her son to the moneygram office so they can obtain the cash a relative has sent for their 3-day bus trip. Located just around the corner and a few blocks down on Montana Avenue, the place isn’t hard to get to. But for a young woman from a village in Guatemala, walking along streets loaded with cars, stores, and stoplights could be an overwhelming adventure.

I offer to go with her. As we walk, I fumble through conversing in Spanish.

Suddenly Irlanda stops and points her son’s face toward the sky. “Mira!” she tells him.

A jet plane soars overhead.

Mother and son stand close together, smiles spreading across their faces.

I can only imagine what it must be like to see an airplane for the first time.

And then I’m imagining all the firsts they’ll be experiencing on this journey. At bus depots. Transfer stations. Places where she tries to buy food.

She admits to me that she’s scared. Scared of what she’ll find in this country. This woman who has traveled thousands of miles across dangerous Mexico with her young son. I’m praying people will be kind.

Later in the day, it’s time for the driver to come take Irlanda and her son to the bus station. We hug goodbye. She asks God to bless me and surprises me by saying she thanks God for me. Her eyes reveal the impact I have made. Then she says something that really humbles me. How I am following what the Bible teaches by loving my neighbor and welcoming the stranger.

All I did was show her some kindness. She has given me much more.

That night, back in my room, I write in my journal:
“This is why I am here. This is what I want to do. Be present to these people and share special, intimate moments between human beings on the journey. We’ve shared each other’s lives for a moment. Our paths will never cross again. But meeting Irlanda has left a mark that touches my soul.”

Irlanda reminded me of the call within. A call I experienced long before I met her.

These days I feel worlds away from the border of El Paso. But I haven’t forgotten.

Can you risk opening your heart to the call within? Maybe you’ll discover why you are here.

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Simple Joys

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Recently two little girls from Guatemala arrived at our door wearing something I’d never seen on a child. Men’s sweatpants.

Admittedly, the girls and their mother appeared a little more disheveled and a little wearier than most of the migrants that show up at Nazareth. Their massively tangled black hair encircled brown faces streaked with dirt so ingrained, their skin appeared to hold various shades of darkness and light. Permanently.

It wasn’t until Mary Beth bent down to help the children remove their worn-out sneakers that she noticed their clothing. With no laces, broken soles, the tongues flapping and tattered, the shoes were what first caught her attention. worn-out-shoes

But just above the tongues of the sneakers hung gray, baggy pants rolled up at the ankles, spreading out 100 times wider than the width of these thin girls, and then rolled several times over and cinched at the waist. Startled, Mary Beth motioned to me.

“They’re wearing men’s sweat pants,” she nearly whispered.

I had to take a look for myself.

She was right.

If they’d wanted, the girls could have ducked down under the waistband and swum around. I couldn’t imagine them trekking all the way from Guatemala through Mexico wearing these oversized pants.

Yet they had. And neither the girls nor their mother seemed bothered in the least by this. They simply smiled at our attention.
worn out sandals

While Mary Beth helped the family find appropriate clothing, I went off to get bath towels and toiletries for their showers. As I laid out the clean towels on the cots in the their room, I couldn’t help notice what they’d brought with them. Two brown paper sacks sat like fat, wrinkled cabbages on their cots. Twisted at the neck, the bags bulged and split from the weight of the belongings stuffed into them. It was everything they had.

Later, when I escorted the three of them to the showers, I realized the girls had already donned their newfound clothing. One wore a pastel top and jeans, the other, a white dress printed with colorful flowers.

“A dress!” I said to her in Spanish. Her response — nothing but teeth as she smiled up at me, her expression revealing everything. For a moment, I felt as happy as she did. All because of a second-hand dress.

They were still in the shower when it was time for me to leave. Since I wouldn’t be back for a few days, I knew I wouldn’t see this little family again. They’d be gone by tomorrow.

I wanted to do something more. So, I went to the storage room and got a couple of gift bags with crayons and notepads and little TY stuffed animals and placed them on the girls’ cots. It was fun to imagine the joy on their faces when they’d return to their rooms and find them.

But here’s something I’ve noticed.

In the process of doing whatever it is I think I am doing for the people here, something wonderful happens. Each time I learn a little more from their simple faith. Their trust. Their joy. Something about what it really means to live with uncertainty. To trust the journey to something beyond oneself. And to be happy in the midst of it all.

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