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.
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.
Hope. Love. Commitment.
I’ve settled on these three qualities. They’re what I will be carrying with me as we go forward into the next four years. Along with a promise, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Throughout the day following the election, I felt unable to completely focus. My heart laden, my mind racing with legitimate concerns.
For the vulnerable, for the marginalized. For the migrants and refugees whom I serve and for those who will be denied a much-needed haven here. For Muslims, especially Muslim Americans. For African-Americans. For the LGBT community. For women. For Mother Earth. For those who already face lives more difficult and painful than most of us will ever experience – in this country and far beyond.
Did I leave anyone out?
I prayed to be able to say yes. To all that I was feeling. To all that I was fearing.
The only prayers I could get out were, “Help.” And “Not my will but thine be done.”
Then I found myself remembering someone else who’d surrendered with those words.
I imagined the fear and helplessness Jesus must have felt.
And I realized I was looking at this from a smaller lens. Like a child fearing the next wave while missing the grandeur and beauty of an entire ocean that could lift her up.
And I began to hope.
Not the kind of hope that wants to believe everything will turn out the way I think it should.
The kind of hope I remembered insight meditation teacher Tara Brach describing in one of her wonderful talks. The kind revealed to 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich who asked for an understanding of the suffering in this world.
There’s no mistaking. Donald Trump has brought to light the dark shadow of this country. A shadow that has been lurking under the surface all along. He did not cause it. He certainly triggered it and capitalized on it. And he seems to live unaware of its existence within himself.
But unless we bring what is hidden in darkness into the light, it cannot be healed and transformed.
I find hope in that possibility.
I also pray for its realization.
Last night I gathered with my newfound Mexican indigenous “sisters” for a “supermoon” full moon prayer ritual. We came together with a prayer intention of sending love and light to our president-elect Donald Trump, to his team, for our country, and our world. It truly was a light-filled ceremony of releasing and surrendering. Of opening to Spirit’s power and love.
That’s something we can all do going forward.
And I feel I must do more. Given the dangerous, divisive attitudes in our country and the groundswell of hate that has erupted.
So, I have made a post-election promise:
I will keep my heart and mind open.
I will be devoted and committed to self-introspection, to paying attention to my own shadow.
I will listen to those with different views and engage in nonviolent dialogue and behavior.
Yet, I will not stand idly by while someone of a different race, sexual orientation, or religion is insulted or threatened.
I will not be indifferent.
I will not be silent in the face of injustice, bigotry, or worse.
I will continue to serve those in need, to do the work I do for migrants and refugees, no matter the consequences.
I will be quiet enough to listen to God within me, and act from that wiser, contemplative place.
Most importantly, I will live by the law of love. The spiritual law of brotherhood.
Love God. Love neighbor. That will always come first. Before any law of the land.
As Richard Rohr said in his post-election message: “We who know about universal belonging and identity in God have a different form of power: Love (even of enemies) is our habitat, not the kingdoms of this world.
“Only a contemplative mind can hold our fear, confusion, vulnerability, and anger and guide us toward love. Let’s use this milestone moment to begin again with confidence and true inner freedom and to move out into the world with compassion.” (Rohr’s full article is available on the Center for Action and Contemplation website at cac.org)
I go forward with compassion, empowered in my true identity.
With hope in the One who loves us beyond our current understanding.
Committed to speak out and to stand by all my brothers and sisters.
Because we are One. And all lives matter.
Just four days. That’s all I had on my recent trip back to El Paso. Four short days in which I experienced so many emotions. And witnessed more heartbreak.
On the very first night my friend Beth asked if I wanted to go to the detention facility with her. The one for adult undocumented immigrants. She planned to visit a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala named Yennifer.
I didn’t get all the details, but somehow when Yennifer and her mom and younger sister presented themselves to Border Patrol seeking asylum, a misunderstanding ensued. And Yennifer stepped too far into an area where she shouldn’t have gone. Border Patrol arrested her. Got her to admit she had committed a felony by entering this country without documents.
Now she wears an orange jumpsuit. And waits for her fate to be determined. Her mom and sister have moved on to New York. They couldn’t stay in El Paso. After ICE processed their papers, they had to go to their designated relative where they’ll have their court date. But without Yennifer. She remains alone, confined, and scared.
Beth warned me how distraught this young woman has been. I could only imagine. I thought of myself at 19. Certainly not ready emotionally to be separated from my mom in a foreign country. Not to mention being placed in a prison.
Because a detention facility is a prison.
The night Beth and I visit we have to leave everything behind except our licenses. And we hand those over to the guard at the front desk. Then we wait for the heavy locked door to open and the guard to call our names. He escorts us down a narrow hallway lined with small cubicles until we come to the one where we’ll meet Yennifer. Soon a pretty young Latina woman appears on the other side of a glass pane. Her dark hair piled atop her head in a neat bun. She smiles as soon as she sees Beth.
Yennifer sits down and picks up the phone to talk. Just like you see in the movies. I watch her sweet face from behind the glass, so animated as she tells Beth about the spicy food that she can’t eat. (Contrary to what you might think, not all Latinos like spicy food like the Mexicans do.)
At times her expression makes her look so much like a little girl, I want to cry. I try not to think about what’s going to happen. Chances are Yennifer will be deported. Sent home without her mother and sister. I wonder how she’ll get back to Guatemala. What will happen to her while traveling alone? If I were her mother, I don’t know how I’d stand it. Not knowing what will happen to my daughter.
After we leave, Beth tells me what a complete changeover in Yennifer’s spirits we’ve just seen. How the past couple of weeks when she’s visited her,Yennifer’s cried and looked depressed. But this girl’s got faith. The night Border Patrol arrested her— pulled her away from her mother and sister—they put Yennifer in a holding cell. In isolation. Panicked and sobbing, the girl fell to her knees and prayed. Begged God to help her. Within less than an hour, the guard came to get her. Said she didn’t belong in isolation. They’d made a mistake.
Truth is, Yennifer’s situation is not unusual. I saw families separated a lot when I volunteered at the migrant hospitality center.
In fact, a recent study I read on immigration abuse reported that, in addition to experiencing physical abuse, family members that were apprehended together by Border Patrol were systematically separated from each other. Two out of three migrants surveyed who crossed into the U.S. with immediate family members were separated from at least one of those family members by the Border Patrol during the process of detention and deportation.
There’s little I can do to help Yennifer. But I can bring her situation to light. And I can hope that others will care. Care about the immigrant children and youth who are being locked up for indiscriminate amounts of time. Care enough to learn more about the reasons why people are migrating. And care about one beautiful butterfly with deep brown eyes longing to be released from her cage.
Remember the movie The Unsinkable Molly Brown? Just the other day I was thinking about that scene on the Titanic’s lifeboat where Debbie Reynolds, who plays the colorful Molly Brown, gives up her fur coat and then her dress to keep those women and children from freezing. Back in the days of the Titanic, when lives were threatened, putting women and children on lifeboats first was an “unwritten law.”
It was the humane thing to do.
Guess that image came to mind because since I’ve been home, I can’t forget them. I mean the women, especially the mothers, and children I met and heard about in Texas. And there’s something else I can’t forget. The inhumane treatment many of them experienced, either in crossing the border or after they arrived.
Like the Guatemalan woman who was kidnapped in Mexico, where she was abused and raped for months until she managed to escape. By the time she made it to San Diego she was 8 months pregnant. After ICE processed her information, an agent shackled her — chains around her wrists and ankles — and put her on a plane to El Paso. The chains encircling her ankles were so tight, they broke the skin. By the time she got off the plane, she was bleeding and in pain. The ICE agent in El Paso asked her why she hadn’t said anything to the agent on the plane.
“I did tell him it was hurting me,” she said.
I guess the threat that a woman 8-months pregnant posed was too much of a risk to loosen those chains.
And then there are the women and children who are transferred to so-called family detention centers. Texas has two of these privately run facilities, holding thousands of mothers and children, including babies. It’s basically akin to putting them in prison. Some have been incarcerated since last fall.
Sr. Pat, who volunteers at the Dilley detention facility near San Antonio, told me of a woman she’d met who had been there since August! It’s strange how even violent criminals have a right to due process in this country. But not immigrant mothers whose only “crime” is showing up at the border.
Sr. Pat says the children are losing weight. They can’t eat the food the facility serves. There’s a commissary, but if a mom wants to buy her child juice, it costs $4. She says more than one attorney who has come to speak with the women about their case has anonymously added money to their client’s commissary account.
What gets to me the most is the traumatizing affect this environment is having on innocent children. And the fact that we are basically punishing them and their mothers, many of whom have legitimate cases for asylum. This from a country that prides itself on promoting justice and defending human rights.
The New York Times had an excellent editorial on this subject last week. You can find it at http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/opinion/end-immigration-detention.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=opinion-c-col-left-region%C2%AEion=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=1&referrer
Thankfully, more people are speaking out against the inhumane practices of family detention centers. Women and children should not be treated this way. Certainly not by one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Like Molly Brown, we can be wealthy, and kind and compassionate, too. There’s room in our lifeboat for these women and children.
If mothers ruled the world…
It’s a thought I’ve been mulling over this week. Especially after visiting Christina and the mothers of Anapra.
Because I’m realizing what I actually witnessed in that bleak barrio.
I recognized it in the mothers’ faces as they encouraged their children. In their laughter as they prepared a meal together, each one bringing what little food they had to contribute. In Christina’s inestimable patience as she methodically strove to teach letters and their pronunciations to the young girl limited to guttural sounds and eye movements.
I’d almost forgotten, until a few days ago, Christina’s words to me that morning. How at one point she stared straight into me, her eyes bright and alive, stopping everything she was doing, as if to stress the importance of what she was about to say.
“el Reino de Dios está aqui,” she said in her native Spanish. “The kingdom of God is here.”
She actually beamed.
But I didn’t respond. I simply brushed off her words.
Something inside me recoiled against the idea that this place of pain and poverty could possibly be the kingdom of God. In my small mind the kingdom of God doesn’t have any children with disabilities, children who will never be able to feed themselves or urinate without help. Children who live in such abject poverty, nobody knows for sure whether there’ll be something to eat tomorrow.
My child’s faith wants a God who makes it all better. A God who makes the bad stuff go away.
But these women offered me something much more real. They reminded me of what is possible when God shows up in the compassionate, courageous vulnerability of a mother’s heart.
Hope comes alive.
Children are accepted and loved not based on what they can or can’t do. They’re simply loved for who they are.
And meager portions of beans and rice and potatoes are turned into a delectable feast.
What if the world were ruled by a mother? I suspect there wouldn’t be a need for so many people to migrate to escape unrestrained violence, to find work to simply survive. All girls and women would be educated and treated fairly and respectfully for the treasured beings they are. The Earth would be revered. And children wouldn’t be deported back to a country where their safety is at risk.
Now there’s a kingdom I’d jump in line to be part of.
But, as Christina pointed out, that kingdom already does exist. We can find it in one another.
As I was mulling all of this over yesterday, I came across a prayer called “Human Mothers — Thinking of God as Divine Mother.”
From Prayers to She Who Is, by William Cleary, a book of prayers based on the theological writing of Elizabeth Johnson, author of She Who Is, it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Here’s a copy:
Whenever I consider God as Divine Mother, the image softens, nurtures, and cradles me wherever I am. Sometimes it’s obvious how much I still need a mother. How much the world does, too.
Days after I arrived in El Paso I found myself back in Mexico. A Sister friend invited me to come experience the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in her parish. A spur of the moment invitation. I gladly said yes.
I’ve known about the Latin American Catholics’ deep dedication to Our Lady of Guadalupe but I’d never participated in the feast day celebrations. Filled with lively music, colorful traditional clothing, singing, dancing. I wanted to experience it.
But Sr. Carol Jean’s parish was not in Mexico City, the place where Mary is said to have appeared to a poor, indigenous man named Juan Diego in 1531 and the place where I’d spent two weeks last July for orientation with Incarnate Word Missionaries. Back then I roamed a middle-class neighborhood bustling with restaurants, gas stations, supermercados, and shops peddling local pottery, art, chocolate, and helado. My trip across the border this time was quite different, as I ventured into one of the poorest sections of Juarez where my friend ministers.
Here there are no tree-filled parks. In fact, hardly any trees grow at all in the dry, dusty, gray surroundings. Crumbling structures, small stone adobes, and peddlers line the unpaved streets. A stark contrast. Not only to Mexico City, but to every other place I’ve visited.
Wanting to join in, I helped the neighborhood women decorate the beaten-up white pickup truck that would transport their teenaged Lady of Guadalupe and young Juan Diego — a small boy donning a poncho and straw hat. We covered three-tiered boxes with brown paper bags to simulate a mountain, taping colored paper flowers anywhere we could.
Once the matachines (dancers) arrived in their bright red and white native dress, our caravan rumbled off. The boys banged their drums, the dancers stomped up the dust, and the rest of us processed behind singing. Walking alongside the women, some pushing strollers, some carrying images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I chanted the lyrics to “La Guadalupana.” Over and over again.
For nearly two hours we strolled the streets of Juarez.
Down the rocky, littered roads and structures scrawled with graffiti, we sang. People ventured out to watch the growing procession. Men from their mechanics shop, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters from homes that seemed incapable of holding them all. One elderly woman stood in her doorway hugging a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, her smile revealing several missing teeth. Everywhere people stopped what they were doing to watch. Participate. Offer a prayer.
Somewhere during the procession I sensed something. Something about being among the people. I realized what it was. Happiness. I felt happy to be here.
But as I took in the richness of the festivities alongside the desperate poverty, I also felt compassion. And I uttered my own silent prayers. Prayers for hope. Most of these people, I knew, would never leave this life of poverty. How could they have hope? It seemed like the best thing to pray for.
Yet my voice seemed insignificant and small.
Days later I came across Richard Rohr’s meditation on a poem by 16th century mystic John of the Cross.
“If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the holy...”
Seeking shelter in your heart. Seeking your help in giving birth. She needs us because…
“each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.”
I see an image of the women walking down the streets of Juarez. I remember my prayer for hope.
And suddenly I see that hope is birthed through me. I am the midwife of God. What a gift I’ve been given! Yet most days I don’t feel up to it. I’m like a child, tentatively taking the gift offered, as if unbelieving that she can really have it.
Hope wants to be born. But it needs a recipient, a conduit, a midwife. God can only bring hope to the world through each of us.
I wonder, what if we all chose hope?
What if we all said yes to the birth of hope within us?
Again and again and again?
Might the streets of Juarez look a little different?