To Live While Dying

Sr Janets memorial

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

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

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

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

That’s not just some cliché.

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

white rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Did I Get Here?

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

Some days I wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I listened. Now I’m here.