Midwife to a Soul

birth_seed_sprout

July 1st would have been Esther’s 75th birthday. This post is in honor of her.

The night I moved into the house on Grandview Avenue in El Paso, I questioned myself. Again.

What am I doing here, in this little bedroom? In yet another new place amidst strange surroundings? What can I bring to this situation at the border? What difference can I possibly make in the lives of these migrant families fleeing their desperate lives of violence and poverty?

It was December 14. Both Gaudete Sunday — the third Sunday of Advent marked by joy in the midst of darkness — and the beginning of Las Posadas — the reenactment of Joseph and a pregnant Mary seeking shelter the night her baby was to be born. Earlier I’d joined Esther and the Latino community in downtown El Paso, going door to door, asking the same question that was on my heart: “Do you have room? Is there a place for me here?”

The irony of the situation didn’t elude me.

But it wasn’t like I didn’t have a place to stay. Granted, it wasn’t “home,” but Esther had agreed to take me in, after all. All she knew was that I wanted to serve the migrants and refugees. She took a chance. She agreed to support me.

I looked out from my bedroom window — a high-paned glass that ran the entire length of the wall. Thousands of yellow flickering lights spread across Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, reaching toward the mountains. How many people out there are suffering tonight, I wondered? How many face a future desperately more uncertain than mine? How many are unsafe? In that moment, my life, my concerns, felt small by comparison.

And in that moment I realized, this isn’t about me. My being here in El Paso. It’s not about me striving to make something happen. To succeed at whatever it is I think my purpose is. No. This is about being willing and open. Willing to allow Spirit to use me. Open to whatever wants to be born in this situation. Open to allowing things to be as they are. I simply need to take my small self out of the equation.

Later that night I sat down on my bedroom floor and wrote this poem:

The Midwife of God
Emmanuel
God with us
Within me
Grasping my hands
As the hot pains of labor
Sharp and prolonged
Cry for relief
Searching my eyes
For the answer to one vital question:
Am I willing
To take on this labor
As midwife,
To be present to all that comes?
Am I willing
To support the life
Struggling to be born?
Day and night
The pain continues
Sweaty brow, clammy hands,
a raw dryness in my throat
Still I stand alongside
the moaning laborer
Rooted in solidarity
Committed to the cause
Until what emerges
Elicits a glorious light
Erasing the memory
And exuding hope
In the familiar darkness.

midwife_John-ODonohue-quote

Months later, questions remain. And I remember to look for signs of the Source of life in the uncertainty. Signs like Esther, who stood by as midwife to the seed planted in me in El Paso. Signs like the words of encouragement and praise from friends who’ve been inspired by my journey. Possibly inspired to give birth to their own seeds of longing sprouting within.

Signs like the light that came to earth so many years ago, that shone in the darkness of an otherwise ordinary night in the desert.

Choosing to Come Home

BlueRidge mountains
Scenic Blue Ridge Mountains taken on my drive home

Last week I drove nearly 1,900 miles from El Paso across Texas — more than a day’s drive in itself and, for me, a reaffirmation of why I wouldn’t want to live in Texas — all the way to Virginia. When I crossed the VA state line I let out a hoot. Everything was so beautiful! And colorful! The lush green hillsides. The grazing black and brown cattle. The white dogwoods. The purple and pink blossoms. Even the bright green layer of pollen everywhere. No more desert sands and rocky landscapes. I was so happy to be home.

Still, it was hard to leave El Paso.

But I made a conscious choice to return to Virginia. Mainly, I wanted to give Davis the option of coming home this summer. He’s been so supportive of me ever since I decided to go on this “mission.” It’s been a lot for a young person to take on — having his mom go off on an adventure so far from home. Yet he never once complained. Now I want to be there for him.

And there were other reasons on the list, too. The fact that I need to make a decent income again certainly was up there. So, it was time to come home.

But leaving El Paso — no, that wasn’t easy. Part of me is still there.

It’s not easy to adjust to life in the mainstream again either.

Like yesterday, for instance, I bought two different kinds of cereal. Both were healthy choices and they were on sale. It seemed like a good decision. But this morning when I opened my cupboard and saw those boxes sitting on the shelf, I almost cried.

It’s been a while since I’ve had choices.

In fact, having even one box of cereal I like is a special treat. To be able to choose from two felt a bit overwhelming.

Maybe that’s hard for you to understand, but for the past nine months I’ve not had much control over my life. Not much choice about what I was going to eat. Or buy. Or who I was going to eat with. Or live with. Sometimes it was a lot more challenging than I’d imagined.

But each time I’ve thought, “This is too hard,” grace stepped in and reminded me that anything I was experiencing was only a taste of what the people I was serving have experienced from day 1.

The thing is, if you’re poor, you don’t have choices.

Unlike me, many people I’ve met on this journey are not free to go home whenever they want. Those forced out of their homes by violence and hunger do not have choices. Not if they want to live.

I suspect that most people coming to the Nazareth Hospitality Center didn’t want to leave home. Given a choice, I’m sure they wouldn’t have stepped out their door into the unknown, leaving everything familiar behind — their country, their language, their customs and values, their relatives and neighbors — to risk traveling thousands of miles to the U.S.-Mexico border where they hoped something better awaited them. Some talked of returning home someday. When things are different.

One woman who came to Nazareth with her two teenaged sons confided that she was scared. Her oldest son had already been killed in their native El Salvador. She feared her other two sons would suffer the same fate if she didn’t leave. But, she worried, how would this new country affect her sons? How would they adjust to this culture, so different than her own? Would it change them?

They were headed to her brother’s in Los Angeles — a city she knew would expose her sons to many things and many choices. She worried about what they’d be facing and how they’d handle it. But she feared even more the risk of losing them altogether if she’d stayed home. What choice did she have?

Her story is only one of so many I’ve heard.

Right now I don’t have the words to explain what it means to me to have the choices I do. To have the life I have. In the beautiful place I call home. And the gift of being able to choose to come back home.

my cabin in the woods
my cabin in the woods

Simple Joys

joy-image

Recently two little girls from Guatemala arrived at our door wearing something I’d never seen on a child. Men’s sweatpants.

Admittedly, the girls and their mother appeared a little more disheveled and a little wearier than most of the migrants that show up at Nazareth. Their massively tangled black hair encircled brown faces streaked with dirt so ingrained, their skin appeared to hold various shades of darkness and light. Permanently.

It wasn’t until Mary Beth bent down to help the children remove their worn-out sneakers that she noticed their clothing. With no laces, broken soles, the tongues flapping and tattered, the shoes were what first caught her attention. worn-out-shoes

But just above the tongues of the sneakers hung gray, baggy pants rolled up at the ankles, spreading out 100 times wider than the width of these thin girls, and then rolled several times over and cinched at the waist. Startled, Mary Beth motioned to me.

“They’re wearing men’s sweat pants,” she nearly whispered.

I had to take a look for myself.

She was right.

If they’d wanted, the girls could have ducked down under the waistband and swum around. I couldn’t imagine them trekking all the way from Guatemala through Mexico wearing these oversized pants.

Yet they had. And neither the girls nor their mother seemed bothered in the least by this. They simply smiled at our attention.
worn out sandals

While Mary Beth helped the family find appropriate clothing, I went off to get bath towels and toiletries for their showers. As I laid out the clean towels on the cots in the their room, I couldn’t help notice what they’d brought with them. Two brown paper sacks sat like fat, wrinkled cabbages on their cots. Twisted at the neck, the bags bulged and split from the weight of the belongings stuffed into them. It was everything they had.

Later, when I escorted the three of them to the showers, I realized the girls had already donned their newfound clothing. One wore a pastel top and jeans, the other, a white dress printed with colorful flowers.

“A dress!” I said to her in Spanish. Her response — nothing but teeth as she smiled up at me, her expression revealing everything. For a moment, I felt as happy as she did. All because of a second-hand dress.

They were still in the shower when it was time for me to leave. Since I wouldn’t be back for a few days, I knew I wouldn’t see this little family again. They’d be gone by tomorrow.

I wanted to do something more. So, I went to the storage room and got a couple of gift bags with crayons and notepads and little TY stuffed animals and placed them on the girls’ cots. It was fun to imagine the joy on their faces when they’d return to their rooms and find them.

But here’s something I’ve noticed.

In the process of doing whatever it is I think I am doing for the people here, something wonderful happens. Each time I learn a little more from their simple faith. Their trust. Their joy. Something about what it really means to live with uncertainty. To trust the journey to something beyond oneself. And to be happy in the midst of it all.

choose-joy

Who Owns the Sky?

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Yet another inspiring, heroic woman has crossed my path.

On Thursdays I travel to Juarez, Mexico, with Sr. Fran to visit the women’s sewing cooperative. But this morning, when Sr. Carol says that heavy 50-lb sacks of beans are being delivered to the house and that she, with her bad back, and another senior sister are alone to unload them, I offer to stay behind to help.

I have no idea who is delivering these beans or where they are coming from. Around 10:00 a white pickup truck with New Mexico license plates backs up to the house, and I venture outside with the sisters. A woman about my age jumps down from the driver’s seat, her blonde curls tucked behind her ears, wearing blue jeans and a hooded, dark brown gauze-type frock with a large wooden cross dangling down her chest. She has the face of a cherub, with soft cheeks and eyes lost in some inner joy I’m immediately attracted to.

 Her name is Victoria Tester, and she left her home in New Mexico before dawn this morning, driving all the way to El Paso to deliver these beans to the sisters so they can distribute them to the poor through their mission house in Mexico. Although Victoria receives limited donations, the sisters are at the top of her list of recipients.

After we unload the beans, Victoria and I go for a walk so she can stretch her legs before getting back on the road for the long trek home. Bit by bit her amazing story unfolds.

Victoria is a postulant in the lay order of the Franciscans, which means she prays, studies, and follows the way of the Franciscans, but without having to take their vows and live as a religious sister. Thus explains her brown frock and large cross, and her inner joy—a quality she says she has encountered with every Franciscan she meets. A poet, writer, and photographer, Victoria has been creatively recording her journey into the poorest sections of Mexico, places like Anapra and Palomas, where many people do not eat for days.

Victoria’s journey began not unlike my own. As they reached middle age, she and her husband wondered what more they could do to be of service. Both realized that they had everything they needed and more than they wanted. So, for Christmas one year, instead of gifts, they decided to spend their money on groceries for poor families living in Palomas, right over the New Mexico border. What Victoria encountered when she delivered those bags of groceries changed her life. She describes how the people were so malnourished, she’d never seen human beings so emaciated, even in pictures of starving people. The children especially broke her heart. She vowed she would return.

Desperate to help, Victoria approached a farmer at the New Mexico border, poured out her heart-wrenching story, and on the spot this stranger ordered his farmhands to fill up her truck with produce and staples from his farm. With this man’s help, Victoria’s donations have grown to include many other farmers and businesses — all willing to regularly donate food to people who normally would have nothing or very little to eat.

That in itself is amazing. But there’s another piece to Victoria’s story. Words that cause my own heart to swell and my eyes to soften.

Victoria shares that she has Lyme disease—something I am surprised to discover is out this far west. She says the disease affects her neurological system. Even though she caught it early and is treating herself, she has episodes when her mind forgets things, her eyesight is altered, and she slurs her words like a drunken youth. She thinks she got this disease while making her daily trips over the border into one of the poorest areas of Mexico where she was visiting the children and delivering food.

The words she utters next confound me.

“It was all worth it,” she says of contracting Lyme disease. Her eyes shine. I know she genuinely feels this. She describes how, during those trips, she would gather the children of the town around her and read to them. Although they had nothing, the children gave her their love, one of those intangible gifts that feels like a warm breeze settling on the skin. In return, Victoria gave them her love and attention, and one very special gift.

One day a little girl, nestled in Victoria’s lap, asked, “Who owns the sky?”

Taken aback, Victoria realized that everything in the world of these children was owned by someone else — the land they lived on and the trees that grew on it, the shacks in which they lived, the clothing passed on to them.

“God owns the sky,” she responded carefully, “and He created it just for you because He loves you so much.”

Days later the children were delighted when a rainbow appeared in the sky.

“That’s your rainbow,” Victoria told them.

Now the children know. They have something freely given. And it’s just for them. They only need look up at the sky. And remember.