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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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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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.

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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.

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Virginia Is for Lovers

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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.

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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.

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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.

Tearing Down My Wall

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I had two encounters with a wall on Saturday night. Literally and figuratively.

One was the tall steel monstrosity that Trump has erected at the Santa Teresa, NM port of entry – the beginnings of his “big, beautiful wall.” The other is the one I discovered in me.

It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected to encounter – this growing self-awareness of ways I put up walls. But there it was. Right in front of me.

And impossible to ignore.

Not unlike the not-yet-but-soon-to-be 18-ft wall of ugliness planted at my feet in the desert.

Even at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was hot and strong, bearing down on me and a few hundred “friends” gathered at the fence line between Mexico and New Mexico.

Sponsored by the Southwest Environmental Center and other environmental and humanitarian groups, this Border Wall Protest was to draw attention to the negative repercussions of constructing this wall and to present a tangible resistance.

I’ll say right off that I’ve grown tired of protests. I want to take positive action. And I often look for ways to do that.

But I came in solidarity, and with curiosity. I wanted to see what this wall looked like. After all, $72 million (so far) of our tax dollars have been appropriated to its construction. And this is the spot where it all begins.

Let me tell you, it’s ugly. It’s invasive. Much more so than any human being.

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The first installment of the new U.S.-Mexico border wall

And, for those of us who live in the Borderlands – the area from El Paso to Las Cruces – it’s right in our backyard.

We locals know this wall will not stop the flow of drugs across the border. The demand is high in the U.S., and the smugglers find ways to transport drugs through the ports of entry and through tunnels. Nor will it stop desperate people from seeking asylum at the ports of entry. But it will stop the natural flow of wildlife across borders and countries, something I learned about in Costa Rica, which is an international bridge for the flow of North American wildlife. It will also prevent animals close to home from finding necessary water and sustenance.

So, this wall will accomplish nothing positive and it will cost billions.

Costly and unnecessary.

I pondered that as I walked.

And as I gazed beyond the narrow steel columns into the expanse of desert, a sadness came over me. The sadness of so much pain in our country these days. The name calling – on both sides – the harsh pigeonholing of immigrants, the refusal to take responsibility for the negative outcome of our actions. And, most especially, the cruel SOP of separating young children from their parents at the border.

This is a hard reality. And it was hard to hold.

Border wall up close

As Franciscan Richard Rohr says, “We hold the hardness of reality and the suffering of the world until it transforms us.”

But holding it means not being reactionary. As I thought about this, I recognized my own reactionary stance. How sometimes I erect my own costly and unnecessary walls.

When someone expresses an opinion different than mine and digs their heels in the ground refusing to even hear what I am saying, a wall goes up.

When someone dismisses what I feel most passionately about, a wall goes up.

When someone hurts others, oblivious to the pain they’re causing, or supports a policy that hurts others, a wall goes up.

I realize it’s a risk, to take down these walls. I could get hurt.

Yet I know they too are an unnecessary monstrosity that stops the natural flow of life and love.

Border wall closeup

If my purpose here truly is to learn to love better, how can I come from a different stance? Not condoning or ignoring the harm another is doing, but also not being reactionary?

What will lead me closer to the Divine heart of God? Dualistic, negative thoughts that prevent me from really connecting with others? Or an open mind and heart that seeks a new way to respond? One that lets down walls and goes beyond comfortable borders?

So, I’ve been reflecting on these questions. Maybe you’ll find considering them helpful, too.

What boundaries am I being asked to cross?   Border wall rose

What walls do I need to tear down?

Merton on Men, Animals, and God’s Will

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I struggle with how to respond to words and actions that strike at the heart.

“They’re animals.”

“They’re criminals. They don’t deserve consideration and compassion.”

“We have lost our soul.” These last words from Ruben Garcia at the recent Voice of the Voiceless fundraising dinner for Annunciation House, with the theme “If the World Knew,” especially struck my heart. “Our country has lost its soul,” he told us.

Is it true?

I don’t know how to respond.

I wonder how do I convey, through my words, the haunting wails of a child separated from his mother? Or the pain expressed by a woman whose husband – her sole supporter – is forcibly taken from her without her being able to say goodbye? What words exemplify the distress I have been feeling that these “deeds” are done in our name?

What could I possibly write? And how is God asking me to respond?

Part of my assignment with the Living School of Contemplation and Action is to read mystics like Thomas Merton. This morning, I spontaneously opened his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, and discovered the words I was searching for.

Close up of dirt with small sprouting green buds

So I will let him write this post for me.

Just as a forewarning, having written this in 1961, Merton uses a lot of male pronouns and nouns. I have occasionally added “woman” to this excerpt, and I have italicized and boldened some text that especially speaks to me, but his message shines through nonetheless.

“If you want to know what is meant by ‘God’s will’ in man’s life, this is one way to get a good idea of it. ‘God’s will’ is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. You can call this, if you like, the basic tenet of the Natural Law, which is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to one another what we would not want another to do to us. In other words, the natural law is simply that we should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves. The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other [men and women] as if they were [men/women]. Not to act as if I alone were a man, and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.

“Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other [man/woman] effectively as a human being, ‘is willed for me by God under the natural law.’ Whether or not I find the formula satisfactory, it is obvious that I cannot live a truly human life if I consistently disobey this fundamental principle.

“But I cannot treat other men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.

“…Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting [men/women] to one another in His own Life and unity. ‘I in them, and Thou, Father in Me, that they may be made perfect in One…And the glory which Thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be One as we also are One.’” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76-77)

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A Good Place to Land

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Aerial view of Las Cruces, New Mexico

Today is the 9th anniversary of David’s passing, and I’m marveling at where I’ve landed. Only last week, I moved again.

No, I didn’t stray very far from El Paso. Just over the border in New Mexico. But it’s a good move. I’ve bought my own place in a great community, and it means I’m putting down roots. Settling in. Ready to really sink my teeth into my life here.

Back in 2009 I could not have envisioned this life. A life without him. A life far from dear friends and a community that fully supported and surrounded me and Davis through our grief.

A life outside my beautiful Virginia.

Now I can’t imagine going back. Not being able to accompany and support the asylum seekers who arrive at our door. I can’t imagine not being able to witness firsthand and speak up about the realities of the Borderlands – the name for our area, from El Paso to Las Cruces, NM.

Las Cruces Organ view
A view from my morning walk

Because the reality is so much different from what you hear in the news or from the mouths of political pundits on TV. Or on Twitter.

I’ve learned so much through the people I’ve met. About perseverance and faith against all odds. About the challenges of living with tremendous uncertainty. The kind that’s life-threatening and beyond heartbreaking.

And, most especially, about the nature of our true home. The home within.

Still it feels good to have landed in my new physical home. A place with a different kind of beauty, where I still have my circle of friends and a community committed to social justice and caring for “the other.”

 

Las Cruces fields
Outside my new neighborhood

 

A safe place.

Yes, El Paso and the Borderlands are safe. In fact, El Paso continues to be counted as one of the safest U.S. cities for its size. I have always felt safe here. I teach English to adults at a church that’s within walking distance of the border. The little hospitality house where I volunteer is downtown, also close to the border. Mexican shoppers cross over daily and support our economy.

This is why what we hear in the media about the border is so disturbing. Like the idea of the president sending the National Guard. It’s ridiculous to us. We believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money and our resources. The truth is, apprehensions at the border have decreased significantly. The numbers are way down.

We also know the truth about the caravan of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico and how that story, in the hands of this president, exploded into some far-fetched, fear-based fantasy. Not to mention that many of these asylum seekers are from Honduras, a country whose recent election was considered a fraud, except by our president. He supported the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández – an authoritarian leader in one of the most violent nations in the world. We continue to send military aid to Honduras while their military police abuse and kill grassroots activists and the poor and marginalized. With rampant crime and human rights abuses, it’s no wonder Hondurans are fleeing.

Honduran election protests

One young woman whom ICE delivered to us shared how the people are desperately poor. Desperate people do desperate things. She and her roommate were both raped in their apartment, and everything they had was stolen. They had nothing left. They were not safe. And they had no recourse. The police could not or would not help them. She fled, not knowing this rape would result in a pregnancy until months later.

Yet she shows no resentment. She even smiles when she speaks about this baby. She seems to be in a good place mentally and spiritually. I wonder if I could land with such grace.

But then again, after David died, I didn’t think I’d ever land someplace gracefully and securely again. At least not without that bottomless well of pain accompanying me.

I’ve discovered that’s not true.

And moving to Las Cruces, with its tree-lined streets, and a little cooler temperatures and a lot more greenery – all within a short drive to El Paso and still within my border community – well, it’s like landing in the best of both worlds.

With so many blessings, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the world around me and not give back. I know David would approve.

Me&David

The Best I Can Do

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It was such a precious thing.

To have a little 4-year-old, previously a stranger to me, trust me with her knotted tresses. Trust me enough to allow me to secure her between my knees as I sat down and attempted to untangle her long, wavy locks.

Lint and other particles from her weeks-long journey from Honduras had nested in Yoselin’s curls and refused to disentangle themselves.

It felt like a nearly impossible task. Especially with only a thin comb as my tool.

She never made a sound. Never winced. Yoselin stood quietly, patiently, while her 7-year-old sister and her appreciative father watched.

I finally threw my hands up.comb

“It’s the best I can do. Es la mejor que puedo hacer.

I gave a pleading look to her dad and twisted a hair band around her tresses, securing any loose ends. Even after I pulled her hair back into a ponytail, Yoselin didn’t budge. She remained perched between my legs, unmovable. I gave her a little nudge.

“I need to get up,” I gently said. Necesito levantarme.

Reluctantly she moved away and I went off to prepare lunch so she and her family could eat before they boarded the bus to Tennessee in a few hours.

It felt like such a small thing. And yet very precious.

I didn’t know the next time this child would receive such a gentle, loving touch. Her innocence and complete vulnerability and trust at my hands made me want to cry.

Sometimes it’s not just children who are innocent and vulnerable and trusting in our hands.

I’ve become familiar with so many suffering people who have come here completely vulnerable and trusting in a country known as the greatest defender of human rights and democracy.

Like my guy in detention “Mathias.” He was shocked when, after explaining to U.S. Customs and Border Protection his reason for seeking international asylum, they handcuffed and confined him in a detention facility.

I’ve been visiting Mathias for months. I’ve gotten to know him and care about him. Even took the morning off to attend his court hearing, as his main support system and concerned friend. But he lost his case. It doesn’t appear he has much chance for appeal. His health has been deteriorating since he arrived at the El Paso detention facility. Yet El Paso has one of the better facilities.

If he doesn’t appeal, he will soon be transferred to another facility as he awaits deportation. And his situation could get much worse.

My fear is he’ll be transferred to a private facility in Sierra Blanca, Texas, where African immigrants, in particular, are being abused and beaten, according to a recent report by immigrant and civil rights groups. This is not surprising, based on what we hear from other volunteers and immigration attorneys.

It deeply disturbs me – what’s happening in our country. Both behind closed doors and overtly.sierra blanca detention

I’m aware that sometimes I can’t get all the knots out, no matter how hard I try. I can’t prevent the pain someone is experiencing.

Sometimes the best I can offer is to simply walk alongside them in their anxiety. Their fear. Their suffering.

And not have any answers. Not be able to explain why a country known throughout the world for supporting and defending human rights would treat others inhumanely.

It doesn’t seem like enough. What I do.

But I know that kindness does matter. A caring heart matters. And an educated, intelligent response to abusive authority matters, too.

Your response matters.

Let’s all do the best we can do. It’s the only way positive changes can happen.

caringhearts