Spiritually Fed

Sevenoaks Sanctuary
The “little sanctuary” at Sevenoaks in Madison, Virginia

I’ve recently returned from a week-long visit back east. My Virginia friends will probably wonder why I didn’t tell them I was coming. But this trip was solely for a reunion at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison.

At least that’s what I thought when I started planning it. However, God had other plans.

Before long nearly 100 middle schoolers had entered the picture.  But more on that in a moment.

First, I need to express how spiritually nourished I felt being back at Sevenoaks. The minute I stepped on that 130-acre wooded property again, I began to remember the many graces I’d received throughout my years there.

Sevenoaks is a special place where I and these now very close friends had first met and gathered more than 10 years ago, to begin some deep work together. It was a journey towards healing and transformation.  With lots of pain, and pleasure, too, along the way.  The opportunity came at a time when I was ready, and in need of taking that journey. I started this program only months before David died.

Sometimes, because I lived only minutes away, I would come over just to spend time on the land. To be alone in the sacredness of nature. And to listen to God speak to my inner being. And it was there in the silence of nature and in the depth of that program that I had begun to understand that God had placed a new calling on my heart.

And now here I was again surrounded and held by Mother Earth, the forests, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rich, red earth. Whether standing amidst a grove of cedars, meditatively walking the labyrinth under a canopy of trees, or praying in the little sanctuary in the woods, all of it filled my heart and soul with gratitude.

Sevenoaks Cedar Circle
Entrance to my favorite path at Sevenoaks

I thought I was spiritually filled up.

And then I headed to Raleigh.

My plan had been that, on the tail end of my trip, I would drive down with my friend Rob and spend the remainder of my time with him and his wife before flying out of Raleigh the next day. It was unusual for me to book an afternoon flight when traveling back to El Paso from the East Coast. Especially with the 2-hour time difference. But at the time I didn’t think much about why I hadn’t scheduled a morning flight.

Not until weeks later when the “coincidence” surfaced.

Rob discovered that Lucy, a family friend and teacher of World History and Language Arts at a private middle school in the Raleigh area, was offering her 7th graders a long-term program focusing on the various issues of immigration and refugees. When Rob told her where I lived and what I did, she wanted to know if I’d come speak to her classes about El Paso and my experiences at our border.

I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

What has been so difficult for those of us living in El Paso these days is not being able to do much in the face of the alarming and false anti-immigrant narrative and policies that are sending asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Juarez. Most Americans have no understanding of the border reality. I had been praying and asking God, what can I do now in the service of love? Making PB&J sandwiches didn’t seem to be enough. I had turned back to writing more.

And then I received Lucy’s invitation.

If I was willing, she wanted me to give presentations to all four classes, back to back, enabling me to reach all 7th graders. That meant I would have to be there the entire morning.

Now I understood why I had delayed my flight. I could say yes to Lucy. And yes to what I clearly felt was Spirit’s response to my prayer.

After standing before students for 3 ½ hours, my mouth dry, my mind feeling like mush, I realized I had never spoken so long in my life. And never so effortlessly and smoothly. Never had I taken follow-up questions so easily. Clearly I had gotten myself out of the way and let Spirit take over. Clearly it wasn’t “me” doing the talking.

I had simply asked to be a voice, an instrument, through which Spirit could reach the hearts of these youths.

And the best part was I could tell they were listening. They were engaged. By their surprised expressions and concerned questions, I knew that they were learning about something they had had no clear understanding of beforehand.

Afterwards, Lucy and her colleague Matt were so appreciative of my willingness to do this. But they have no idea how thankful I am for them. How grateful I am to know there are teachers like this who want to educate youth about all sides of such an important issue, help them think for themselves, and learn empathy along the way.

Certainly they have no clue how I was spiritually fed that morning. How they allowed me to be a voice for those God has clearly put on my heart. And to have had it be part of my journey back to Sevenoaks seems especially mystical.

El Paso star
The journey of following the star led from Sevenoaks to El Paso

 

Freedom and Solidarity

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Sea lions lounge together on rocks in Kenai Peninsula

Alaska.  What a spectacular, breathtaking vacation!

But I wasn’t two days into it when I realized something.

Just how much I needed this break.

How much I needed to relax.  Have fun. Do whatever the heck I wanted. And, most particularly, I needed to get away from the border.

Yes, I did say that.

It had become more of a weight than I realized. This daily barrage of disheartening news, of mistreatment of other human beings, of lack of due process and other human rights abuses.

I needed a break from the weight of our border reality.

And I didn’t know just how much until I had left it all behind.

My phone went silent. No more daily text messages about how many families were being sent to which shelters. How many volunteers were needed where.

No more disturbing news about what was happening — unless I chose to look at it on my phone.

And every day I got to choose.

Choose how I was going to spend the day. Where I was going to go. How long I’d stay. What and when I was going to eat. Whether or not I wanted to splurge on some unanticipated treat.

Plane view
My biggest treat – the view from this 4-seater plane

Adventure was my companion. Spontaneity became my best friend.

I felt special, spoiled, so grateful, and so free.

As I reflected at the end of each day, I saw how privileged I was to have such freedom. I also noticed how easy it is to to get lost in a bubble – that kind of enclosed space in which only what affects me, and those I care about, is all that matters.

It’s true I had to put El Paso aside for awhile. To not think about the border. Yet, despite the need for self-care, I found I could not take the people out of my heart. I know this because I readily and easily talked about the border situation whenever anyone asked me where I was from or what I did.

One stranger who sat down next to me at the Seattle airport in between connections genuinely thanked me afterwards for informing her about this side of the immigration story.

Being a voice of truth in solidarity with those who are hurting is a responsibility that I believe comes with this unbelievable freedom.

Tomorrow is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its abolition. This is another area in which I am coming to better understand my privileged freedom. And the need for solidarity.

Recently I heard from a presenter at our gathering in Albuquerque that as a result of our Living School experience, we are more aware of the pain in the world. Certainly the Living School has brought more awareness to the plight of people of color and of the marginalized.

I think that what is also true is that as a result of my experiences at the border and my exposure to the driving factors of migration, I am more aware of the pain in the world.

And in my awareness of this pain lies my awareness of my responsibility to be in solidarity with a hurting world.

No matter where I find myself. Whether doling out donations to migrants or gliding over gorgeous glaciers in Denali.

Ann Voskamp Quotes_Creator

 

She Knocks

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I have a little girl inside of me who’s afraid of the dark. She still believes there are monsters under the bed. She fears the face of the boogieman on the social media screens.

Lately she has been knocking on the door of my heart a lot. Asking me to let her in and comfort her.

She wants to cry. To crawl into my lap, put her face down and sob.

Such sadness she is feeling. The world seems so scary.

As the wise, experienced, adult mother who has raised my own little boy – a child who also needed comfort and reassurance when afraid – I should know how to do this, right?

And often I do. I can sit quietly and let my little one have my full attention as I cradle her tears in the cup of my heart.

But sometimes – like recently, with what I’ve heard and witnessed about our migrant families, especially the children – I get this feeling in the pit of my stomach. While the little girl in me is anxious and scared about the treatment of the children, about what is happening to those who are no longer able to come to our hospitality center, the wise mother in me is concerned about their safety. And deeply saddened by their treatment at our hands.

Puppets
Finger puppets I would give to the migrant children who stayed with us.

Distressed and sorrowful, I feel like I’m failing my own little one when she knocks on my door seeking comfort.

And I know need a little help.

Sometimes I must pray and ask the Divine Mother, my Higher Self, my Source, my Beloved – whatever name I need to use to better connect me with God in the moment – to soothe my own adult sorrow.

God always assures me that although He/She cannot take the pain away, I am never alone in it. My Beloved assures both me and my little one that feeling this sadness is not frightening. It’s a good thing.

It means we care. It means we love. It means we will act with justice and mercy.

And in turn, feeling these feelings means I can also fully feel joy, love, and beauty.

Sometimes I read children’s books to my little girl to soothe her. I let the preciousness of these stories wash over me. It feels good to do that for her.

And sometimes my Beloved gifts me with inspiring stories that soothe my adult self.

One of those gifts is Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbrook, written in 1942-1943. I’ve been turning to her beautiful words lately, this young Jewish woman who despite knowing she would die in the Nazi camps, had attained that “peace which surpasses all understanding.”

Beds at Westerbrook
Three-tiered bunkbeds in Etty’s camp at Westerbrook where Jews were crammed together. Children in Clint had no beds.

Etty recognized God’s graces all around her in the hellish camp where she was assigned. She recognized beauty in the patch of blue sky, the field of lupins, the quiet moments to herself. And she did this in the midst of what she described as “a misery beyond all bounds of reality.”

In one of her last letters, Etty prophetically writes:

 “And I also believe, childishly perhaps but stubbornly, that the earth will become more habitable again only through the love that the Jew Paul described to the citizens of Corinth in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter.”

We all know that chapter in the New Testament. We’ve heard it recited at many a Catholic wedding.

But do we remember how it starts out: “Now I will show you the way which surpasses all the others.”

When my little one knocks, I remind both her and myself that we know the way that surpasses all others.

We know, despite any evidence to the contrary, that “Love never fails.” And the One who knocks waits patiently for us to let Love in.

#Voices

whispering children

Sometimes the voices can be so clear.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to live the gift that has been given to me. At a deeper level there has always been a deeper truth that this is what I am supposed to be and to do. We all want that sense of meaning and purpose in our lives….Don’t let your life go by without hearing what God is asking of you. Make sure you listen.”

This voice is Ruben Garcia’s.

He spoke these words five years ago. I had been interviewing him by phone for an article on his faith journey. And although he hadn’t been offering this advice to me personally, the voice was clearly speaking to me.

I got off the phone and cried. Spirit had accessed my heart.

At the time I had recently returned to Virginia after volunteering in El Paso. I was trying to settle into a daily routine while discerning what was next. Feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. I wanted to know what God was asking of me. I wanted to have Ruben’s certitude.

For that to happen, I knew I needed to be still and listen.

I began to pay attention.

Las Cruces cloud formation
Coming upon an unusual cloud formation above Organ Mountains

 

If you’re a regular reader, you know by now that listening more deeply is what inspired me to make this grand move to El Paso.

But what keeps me here? After all, it hasn’t been a once-and-for-all kind of message.

There are moments of doubt, moments in which I’ve wondered where this is all going, what it is I think I am doing. In those challenging moments, I’ve tried to listen more deeply. Tried to pay more attention to my Higher Self and give less credence to the distrustful, worrisome voices.

And sometimes that still, small voice accesses my heart through the voices of others. Like it did that day through Ruben.

Like it does through my border community and fellow volunteers.

The voices of Joe and Linda, for example. They leave their home in California periodically throughout the year, to come to El Paso for several weeks at a time to volunteer with us.

When Joe says, “This is church – this community. It’s lifegiving,” his words resonate in my core. Yes, Joe, I truly get that.

When Linda says, “We all know that this horrible immigration system is broken, and until something is done to change that, this is what I can do,” I know this is why I am here, too. To do something positive to counter all the ill and hate being heaped onto immigrants.

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Linda accompanying mother and child at airport

And when Janet, an El Pasoan who has been with us since the early days of Loretto Nazareth, says” “This has been my most powerful experience of God in others,” I hear the truth of that. Because it has been for me, too.

I’ve experienced it in the simple gratitude of the migrant women. Voices that humble me and remind me again that something greater is holding all of this: “Muy amable, gracias.  You have been so kind. You have given us back our dignity.”

Sometimes the voices pose questions. Questions that don’t require an answer, yet cause me to go deeper.

 “What are our souls longing for, that we would do this work for the immigrants?”

Sr. Missy asked me this more in amazement than anything. She’d opened her congregation’s house on Grandview Avenue to board the countless volunteers who came from out of town to help at our hospitality sites over the years. She wondered aloud about the dedication of so many.

Her question stayed with me.

In listening, I discovered that what my soul longs for – the God I long for – is right here, hidden in my encounters at the border. It is here that God continues to access my heart.

But do you realize how few people listen to that voice, much less follow it?”

This question is Peter’s, my spiritual companion. His voice carries Spirit’s desire for me to acknowledge and honor my faithfulness. And I pause, and take that in.

This Saturday, many more voices will access my heart as I attend the Voice of the Voiceless, Annunciation House’s annual fundraising dinner. It’s an opportunity to honor those who speak for the least among us. But this year’s dinner is unusual in that Ruben is honoring those who don’t normally have a voice – refugee children.

Many of us have heard these children’s voices. We’ve heard their cries for their “mami” and “papi” (mommy and daddy). We’ve heard the tapes after their separation and witnessed their pain close up. These are clearly the most challenging voices of all to hear. And they are still crying out.

Will we let God access our heart through these voices?

Annunciation VOV

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Cause No Suffering

Casa del Refugiado cots
Rows of donated cots at Casa del Refugiado

For nearly four hours I sat on a metal folding chair doing intake for the steady stream of people coming before me. I was at our newest hospitality site, Casa del Refugiado, and it’s a requirement at all our sites. Take down all the asylum seeker’s information from their ICE documents. But it can take a while when you’ve just received 150 families

I tried to write quickly, yet it seemed every time I looked up, more tired, worn, brown-skinned faces looked back at me, sitting in rows of white folding chairs, awaiting their turn. The children, who surely must have been hungry, were incredibly well-behaved.

Each time a parent and child came to my table, I smiled and introduced myself, trying to reassure them, especially the children, that this is a safe place. I was limited to brief encounters and kind smiles. Until a young woman, with a strong presence, sat down at my table. Her 24-year-old husband and 4-year-old son stood beside her. The boy had a shock of gray hair above his left ear, like a little man aging prematurely. Mixed in with his dark mane, it stood out, begging for me to ask a question. But I didn’t.

The expressionless mother answered my questions matter-of-factly, about birthdates, country of origin, which relative was sponsoring them in the U.S., until we got to the question about health. We’re required to ask is if they have any health issues, anything we need to know about. Turns out her little boy has vertigo. She explained that he takes medication, which the family had brought with them, but CBP had taken away.

“Why?” I asked.

She didn’t know.  “He just took it,” she said, and she flung her arm across the air, sweeping away the now invisible medicine, in imitation of the agent’s action.

I had heard of this happening from other volunteers – how some agents have taken both children’s and adult’s medication (including epileptics), for no given reason. Thrown it away. But this was the first time it had happened to someone I was interviewing.

I got curious. Had she been exposed to other maltreatment I’d heard about?

“When you were with el migra (their name for immigration agents) did you sleep on the ground or on a cot?”

Migrant families in US custody are sleeping on the ground under a bridge in El Paso
Asylum seekers held under the Paso del Norte Bridge in El Paso, March 2019 (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

En la tierra,” she said. Her face visibly changed as she told me this. Her eyes softened. Her voice almost caught in her throat. “Hacίa frίo.” (It was cold.)

I paused and looked at her.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I reached out and touched her arm on the table before me. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

Maybe it was my tender gesture. Maybe she felt safe enough to release her feelings, even if only just a little bit. But finally she let the tears come. As this now very vulnerable woman sat before me, I wanted to cry, too.

Not just for her, but for all the others like her. Those who’d had children’s sweaters taken away, baby blankets and extra layers of clothing removed. Those who’d slept on the ground, huddled with their children against their chests, with maybe a thin Mylar covering. Those who’d gone without basic necessities.

Like the mother who came to us with a baby who’d been in the same diaper for four days. A fellow volunteer told me about the child’s terrible rash.

They come to us hungry.  Some say they eat only once a day with el migra.

For months now I have been hearing about harsh circumstances some asylum seekers undergo once they turn themselves over to Border Patrol.

Some are held in cramped holding cells and sleep on the floor. Others are placed in makeshift tents and sleep on the ground. I understand that it can be difficult to accommodate the increasing numbers. Yet our churches and other nonprofits continue to step up to meet basic humanitarian needs. We provide cots and blankets. Three meals a day. Baby formula and diapers.

Casa del Refugiado Esperanza
A message of hope inside Casa del Refugiado

And, even if provisions are not possible, it is one thing to be unable to alleviate another person’s suffering. It is quite another to cause it.

What excuse is there for kicking someone sleeping on the ground? Screaming at frightened children? Knocking someone in the head because he is indigenous and doesn’t understand your instructions given in Spanish? Threatening a mother with words like “your children will die for abandoning your country” after her husband was murdered?

Yet, this is what some asylum seekers have reported. One man described his experience with el migra as “seven days in hell.”

Granted, not all Border agents are like this. Some are kind and compassionate. Some have even brought us donations.

But for those who harbor harsh anti-immigrant feelings or carry unprocessed anger and stress, it is much too easy to abuse those under your care. Without oversight of makeshift shelters, and with increasing public maligning of immigrants, I fear more, and worse, is happening.suffering servant

No matter where you stand on this issue, what happens to other human beings under our care matters.

 

And if I claim to follow Jesus, a suffering servant himself, I will do what I can to relieve suffering.

And more than that.

Because I have experienced the unconditional compassion and mercy of God and I am created in that image, if I do not offer the same to others, then I am a fraud.  I am no lover of God.

Janet McKenzie_Jesus
“Jesus at Gethsemani” painting by Janet McKenzie

The Humanity Before Us

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The young mother was still breastfeeding when they took her from her baby. She was only 16, giving Immigration the right to put her in a detention facility for minors.

It didn’t seem to matter – what that meant, removing her from her husband and 5-month-old daughter with whom she was traveling. She was considered an “illegal.” She had no rights. The action taken didn’t have to make sense.

But I’m afraid this post isn’t about recounting a story from last summer, when ICE was separating parents from their children. Nope. It happened just four days ago.

Santiago, her 21-year-old husband, showed up at our shelter, carrying their fussing baby and a heaviness we couldn’t help him shake.

The volunteer doing intake held her emotions intact as he sputtered the details of his story. But the child, free to express herself, howled and squirmed in her father’s arms.

Santiago attempted to keep his voice level. But he could barely hold it together. How was he going to feed this child, he wanted to know? What would she eat without her mother’s milk and nourishment? Would she survive?

He peppered questions at Sr. Lil, my friend who was shift coordinator at Nazareth that day.

As his sad tale spread, the other mothers crowded around him. The women took turns holding the little girl close to their chest, snuggling against her neck, cooing sweetly in Spanish. A few offered to coax the little one to suckle the nipple of a plastic baby bottle we happened to have on hand. Someone filled it with bottled water and Nido powdered formula – a popular brand with our Central American families. Another one showed Santiago how to hold the baby as she was nursing so she’d feel secure.

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Sample stock photo; not our “real” baby

But who would help him feel secure, I wondered?

Luckily, a doctor who occasionally volunteers her time at Nazareth happened to show up that day. She checked the baby and reassured Santiago that not only was his daughter in good health, but she would adjust to the formula. She would survive. No need for him to worry about that.

Yes, she would survive. Children often do. No matter what they’ve experienced. Surviving and thriving are two different things, however.

And what about the baby’s mother? I think about her in a facility with other teenagers. I wonder if her nipples are leaking. If that heaviness she’s feeling in her breasts and in her heart closes in on her at night when she longs for her child. I wonder if she attempts to hide her breasts and her despair in her aloneness. Or if she’s found a friend in whom to confide.

annunciation house detention
What it’s like for our young mother in detention

I’ve never met this mom. I didn’t meet Santiago either, or his little girl. Lil told me about them the day after it happened, her voice unable to hide the distress still lurking in her heart.

I wish I could tell you I’ve gotten used to these stories. That my heart doesn’t feel for this young family, especially the mother.

But then again, I’m glad I haven’t “gotten used to it,” that I haven’t numbed myself to what hurting people feel. That I can remember what it was like to be a mother to a little one, to hold my nursing baby in my arms, in awe of this wordless bond we’d created.

I don’t apologize for citing the preciousness of such a bond. Nor for calling out the cruelty of separating a mother and her breastfeeding baby.

I wonder, if God loves as a mother, how can we ignore the divinity in the human love of a mother for her child? And be the one to cause such suffering?

Yes, I hear about the numbers coming. I know it’s challenging for us. We’re doing the best we can here in El Paso. And that’s the question I ask of myself, and of all of us – Are we doing the best we can to address the humanity before us? To consider that maybe there are more positive solutions to what we’re calling a “humanitarian crisis”? And to ensure we do not have a hand in causing the suffering.

Hard to Love

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I am weary.

Lately I feel overwhelmed. Like I’m trying to manage the unmanageable.

That’s understandable when I’ve got 140 people, or more, at the Nazareth center and only two volunteers to help me.

Rarely do I feel in control of what’s going on around me. I veer from one hot priority to another.

Before, my fellow volunteers and I called it “organized chaos.” Now, I organize nothing. I’m never able to successfully complete a task before being pulled away to something else and then often forgetting what I’d put aside. We have so many needs, I’m always neglecting something.

The reason?

Over the past several weeks, the number of immigrant families requesting asylum at the El Paso border has spiked. These days ICE processes and releases anywhere from 500-700 people a day to our community’s hospitality shelters!

And it doesn’t appear that will slow down. Nothing positive’s being done to address the root causes. Money is not being spent in these countries to counter the lies smugglers are spreading.

Yet, what’s amazing to me is that our community has continued to step up. Every time I marvel at the number we’ve assisted, we’re asked to do more.

And we do.

Somehow another church opens its space. The bishop makes an appeal and more volunteers show up. A local grocer makes another delivery of fresh fruit. fruit apples

Someone drops off more bottled water or packages of new underwear.

But it’s a drop in the bucket.

Still, we keep going. Even when it’s hard.

As Kim, my friend who volunteers at two of the hotels that receive families daily, reminds me, “I do it because I know, this is not about me.”

We all know there’s a bigger picture here.

And we keep responding because, for us, the alternative is unacceptable.

To drop these very vulnerable people onto the streets with no resources, no money, no food, no idea of how to get to where they’re going – that’s not something we can or want to do.

Yet, this “work” challenges me. It challenges me to love even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I’m exhausted. And even when, in my limited mind, I deem someone “not worthy.”

There are those who will tear at your heart. And those who will try your patience.

Even worse, there are many who prey on immigrants. Like the smugglers in their countries who are egging them on, charging $7,000 to $8,000 per family now, with fake promises of visas and work once they get here. And like some folks in our country who are making money and taking advantage of the situation.

Greed has a way of showing up in the most vulnerable of places.

Wiped out and weary, I’ve turned to Dorothy Day. Her writings help me. It certainly wasn’t easy for her to serve the desperately poor and homeless, day in and day out. Live in squalor conditions with them. At times endure their ungratefulness or attempts to take advantage.

Dorothy struggled too. The work was endless. At the end of the day, much was left undone. Especially difficult was that she daily recognized the enormity of the suffering around her.

But Dorothy was grounded in God and in her spiritual practices.  Her connection to the love of Christ sustained her.

She writes:

“It is no use saying that we are born 2,000 years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts….And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.” (“A Room for Christ,” December 1945)

Dorothy not only believed this, she lived it. She challenges me to love, even when I don’t feel like it. Even when I feel inadequate.

And to remember why I’m asked to do so.

In a 1964 issue of The Catholic Worker, she asked herself, “What are we accomplishing for them anyway, or for the world or for the common good?”

What is it I think I am doing anyway, giving my energy and time to these immigrants, most of whom will be deported, the majority of whom will not be relieved of their suffering in this lifetime?

dorothy day AZ quotes

She wrote in her essay To Love Is to Suffer, “If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction.”

There’s my answer. My fellow volunteers and I are doing the small things we can do.

We are giving these people back their dignity. At least for a while.

We are keeping vulnerable people from being deposited onto the streets.

We are offering kindness and compassion. Even when we’re exhausted. Even when it’s hard.

“If we could only learn that the only important thing is to love…to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not….It is a hard, hard doctrine.”

I hear you, Dorothy. It’s a hard, hard practice. Only by grounding myself in God can this make any sense.

 

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.

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.”

quotes_creator_walking each other

Ignite Your Divine Spark

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Sometimes your fire can be rekindled instantly. Your inner spark ignited. For me, it happened recently by a most unlikely source.  A 12-year-old Girl Scout.

And it’s been illuminated since!

It started over two weeks ago when we received news that our former hospitality site at the Loretto Nazareth Living Center was reopening! The new owners of the building had decided to give Annunciation House use of their unused wing again as a temporary shelter for the migrants and refugees processed by ICE.

Its two long hallways, dozens of hospital-type rooms with individual bathrooms, large kitchen and dining area meant we could receive more “guests.” Employ more volunteers. Offer better care.

We were “back in business.”

Just entering the familiar space that morning made me happy. Remembering the special memories, the many graced encounters we’d experienced during the previous 2 ½ years we’d occupied this place…it’s hard to explain.

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Drawings and colored pages of children who have passed through our doors

But there was lots to do. The place had been closed for over a year. All our supplies, donations, and volunteers had moved on. It meant everything would have to be replenished.

Then the El Paso Girl Scouts, Troop #883, showed up.

I had been told they’d be bringing donations and that Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, was coming to personally thank them. I just didn’t know the magnitude of their efforts until, assisted by somebody’s mom, the girls carried in armload after armload of their collections.

Soon nearly our entire office floor was awash in a sea of colorful tote bags. Bright yellows, blues, purples, greens, oranges, whites, and reds brimming with snacks and toiletries stuffed in individual Ziploc baggies.

“We have more in my garage when you’re ready for them,” the mom said.

My curiosity won out.

“Whose idea was this?” I asked. “How’d you get all these donations?”

That’s when Natalie spoke up.

She said she’d attended the protest in Tornillo when the news first came out that children separated from their parents would be housed in a tent there. That’s where she learned about Annunciation House and decided to help with supplies for the traveling families. She posted something on her Facebook page and soon financial donations poured in. Not only nationwide but from people as far as away as the UK and Australia.

Natalie said she was “heartened” by the response.

So was I.

Honestly, I had been feeling weary from all that’s been happening at our border. And elsewhere in the country. All the cruelty, the lack of decency and civility to one another, the suffering we’re causing.

Finley suffering world

I have to admit that I’d been struggling not to let the state of my own mind and heart be affected by what was happening around me.

 

And then Natalie and Girl Scout Troop #883 reminded me of something.

The divine spark within. It’s there in all of us.

In some cases, it’s covered over by lots of layers. Layers of hurt and pain and fear. We’re seeing evidence of that in many ways these days.

But I want to tell you that it’s alive and well in El Paso. I witness it every time I step over the threshold at Nazareth.

This week we began receiving some of the reunified families. And if this week is any indication, it’s going to be crazy, chaotic, exhausting.

And amazing.

“Such joy!” is how Lisa, a friend and volunteer, expressed her feelings at witnessing these families back together.

Now that Annunciation House has been “in the news” as one of four places in the country to which ICE will deliver the thousands of parents and children they are reuniting, volunteers are coming out of the woodwork.

This week Natalie’s mom came to Nazareth with other moms to make breakfast for our families. Calling themselves “the angry mothers group,” they donned tee shirts that expressed their support of the families. Those moms who didn’t know Spanish smiled a lot at our guests. They made our families feel like they were human beings. And let them know that somebody – although a “stranger” – cared.

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Tee shirt worn by “angry moms”

People from all walks of life, all faith denominations, all skin colors and cultures – they are all showing up at our door wanting to help.

And they are on fire too!

Not only because they want to do something positive in the face of such abominable treatment to our fellow human beings, but because they too are recognizing what I and my fellow volunteers have been recognizing in the faces of these migrants and refugees since day 1.

The face of Christ. The divine spark.

And that spark is igniting their own spark.

Dorothy Day says:

“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up….If we love each other enough, we are going to light the fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.”

Maybe your spark will be ignited too. Wherever you are.

Maybe we all will someday recognize that this divine spark, this love has been there all along. Waiting for us to wake up. To remove our blindness. To catch on fire with the awareness of who we truly are.

Every single one of us.

Borders can be quilts