In Their Shoes

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Used children’s shoes  waiting for their new owners to find them at Nazareth Migrant Center

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.

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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.

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Images on the Journey

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Images that have inspired. Words that have settled into my soul. People who have humbled, and reminded, me why I am here.

Always, when I look, I see something more. When I listen, I hear what I missed before.

As I prepare to leave El Paso in a little more than one week — God, I can’t believe I’m saying that — I am looking and listening as deeply and as intently as I ever have. The way forward is still not clear. The lesson of dependence on God, ongoing. If I have shown courage along the way, it’s come from a deeper place that remains a mystery.

But what is clear are the images along the way. And the impressions they have made — indelible on my heart.

Here are some I’d like to share. Images from my nearly 2-mike walk to the Columban Mission Center where I work three days a week, from the Nazareth Hospitality Center, from the house on Grandview, which sits atop a hill offering an impressive view of downtown El Paso and spreading out across Juarez, Mexico. Images from simply paying attention.

In the segundo barrio — the poorest section of El Paso, where homeless men loiter in the mornings and early evenings waiting for the Opportunity Center to open its doors for coffee and a meal, where fast food containers and crushed beer cans collect in gutters, where barred windows and bail bond shops proliferate — the people paint their fences lavender and robin’s egg blue and plant rose bushes and gardens on their tiny plots producing an amazing array of yellows and reds and purples that rise up in defiance of anyone who would call this place poor.

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neighborhood fence
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Early morning view of the mountains into Mexico
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flower garden in the barrio
students on spring break serving families at Nazareth
students on spring break serving families at Nazareth
Migrant Way of the Cross at Mt. Cristo Rey
Migrant Way of the Cross at Mt. Cristo Rey
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local church celebrates national migrant week
child's drawing at Nazareth Hospitality Center
child’s drawing at Nazareth Hospitality Center

Blinded…or How One Boy Challenges Response to National Prayer Breakfast Speech

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Once again a child  has revealed an important lesson.

As I stood on our steep hillside shaking out a rug, a mom and her three children waiting at the bus stop caught my attention. The eldest, a boy of about 7, had gathered pebbles from the rocky mound beside them and, as I watched, he whipped them at his little brother. One at a time. The younger boy turned his body away from the force of the stones. Their mother, preoccupied with removing their little sister from her stroller to prepare for the bus, either didn’t notice or chose to ignore them. The boy continued without reprimand. I stopped beating the rug, wanting to yell down at him from my perch on the hill. Suddenly he stopped and turned his attention to his sister. The toddler now stood beside him while their mother folded up her stroller. Instantly he changed from a relentless rock thrower to a tender caregiver as he enfolded his arms around his sister and pulled her against his waist, as if protecting her from an oncoming storm. His sweet actions, in stark opposition to what I had just witnessed a moment ago with his brother, rather than surprise me, resonated within me.

Maybe that’s because when I was about his age, I picked up a metal toy shovel and threw it full force at my sister’s head. She’d pissed me off, after all. That was my natural reaction.

But the boy’s actions created something stronger than that memory — a recognition of the capabilities within myself.

I am this living paradox.
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And I’m not the only one. Within each of us lies this propensity for both darkness and light — a false self and true self, lower self and higher self — whatever you choose to name them.

This recognition is particularly meaningful to me in light of the overblown negative reactions I’ve been reading in response to President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. To tell the truth, I don’t think it matters what the president would have said at that prayer breakfast. The pundits would have pounced.

But in his remarks, the president noted that religious groups have distorted and twisted faith or used it as a weapon to justify violent acts. He warned us that these actions are “not unique to one group or one religion.”

Honestly, I think he was trying to get us to pause and look within ourselves. At our own negativity and intolerance.

But some people, most of whom I imagine are Christians or politicians — or both — took offense. They didn’t like being included in this “club.”

A former governor of my home state of Virginia, Jim Gilmore (R), even went so far as to say, “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Well, I consider myself a Christian, and I’m not offended.

Because even though I strive to follow the teachings of Jesus, I readily admit that I fail — every day. Following what Jesus taught, and how he lived is just downright difficult! And it requires humility — something I didn’t see at all in any of the negative comments I read about Obama’s remarks.

I did, however, find the word in the president’s remarks:

 “…we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards [God], and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.”

The truth is, still today, and in this country, people say and do terrible things, justified by their version of God, or justice. And some of these people call themselves Christian.

Somehow I can’t see Jesus condoning religious intolerance, the death penalty, and torture — all of which have occurred in or by our country. Recently.

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Our president asked a legitimate question: “How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities?” Realities of the darkness and light that exist in the world.

I think the trick is to look within ourselves first.

I’m remembering these wise words: “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own?” (Matthew 7:3)

If we continue to point to evil and darkness as being “out there,” we will never reconcile these realities. We will completely miss that log lodged right in our own eye. I almost did. Thanks to a little boy at a bus stop. Just being himself.

To read the full script of the president’s remarks, go to:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/05/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast