We are grieving our loss. My fellow volunteers and I – the women and men who worked alongside me at the Nazareth hospitality center.
We know we’ve lost something special.
Several weeks ago, our center for migrants and refugees closed. We were told it was due to staff transitions in the main health center that owns the wing we were using. We thought it was temporary. So far, it hasn’t reopened.
But even before the center closed, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had been bringing us fewer and fewer refugees. In mid-January, our daily numbers began dropping to single digits.
The interesting thing is, all of this happened soon after I’d closed on my house, packed up all my belongings and moved here – lock, stock, and barrel. Suddenly, what I loved doing most and fed me spiritually had disappeared.
You gotta wonder what the Universe has planned.
Still, I know without a doubt this is where I am meant to be. Living close to the border. Living, as I call it, “close to the bone.”
I’m not questioning my heart’s guidance.
But I am grieving. And I’m not the only one.
I realized this last week when I unexpectedly ran into several of my fellow volunteers at a Taize service.
Volunteers like Martha. Every Tuesday, she and her friend Cuki would come to Nazareth to prepare breakfast and lunch for our “guests.” When our daily numbers jumped to well over 100, they enlisted other friends to help. They spent their entire day there, every Tuesday.
And they’ve been doing this for nearly three years.
Martha and I were so happy to see each other that night. With moist eyes, we shared how much we missed Nazareth and “the people.”
Without really having words to express why, we both knew the fullness of this experience had touched our lives.
Other volunteers joined our conversation. And that’s when I realized, we all were grieving.
Grieving because we missed interacting with the people who had clearly given us a gift by their presence.
Grieving because we know the tragic and violent situations that existed in these people’s lives – the reasons they fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have not changed. They’re still subjected to death threats, extortion, and gang violence. But where are they are fleeing to, we wondered?
Grieving because we know that human rights abuses are increasing – at detention facilities, at ports of entry, and elsewhere. And we don’t expect it to get better soon.
Some Customs and Border Patrol agents are turning away asylum seekers without consideration of their claims. Cases have been documented of people with credible fear being turned away at the border, like the mother who fled Guatemala after gang members killed her two sons and threatened her life. Turned away, even though those who are fleeing violence have a legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.
Or, in some cases, ICE is locking up asylum seekers. Sticking them in detention for the duration of their case, even though they pose no threat to our society. Even though they have passed their “credible fear” interview. Causing them more pain, more harm, more trauma to their children.
Here’s a recent example. Martín Méndez Pineda, a 25-year-old journalist from Acapulco, Guerrero, was detained and denied parole after seeking asylum here in El Paso. Pineda had received death threats and police beatings for his critical reports of the Mexican federal police. Only a week earlier, a female journalist had been murdered in Mexico. Rather than assist this young man, we threw him in detention like a criminal.
Yes, we are definitely grieving over the direction our country is taking towards migrants and refugees.
Because for us, this is not just a controversial issue on the 6 o’clock news.
We have come to know “the people.” We have listened to their stories. We have accompanied them and been transformed by the encounter.
And we know they are human beings. Worthy of being treated with dignity and compassion.
Please, no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration and refugees, let’s remember that these are human beings. That human rights abuses should not be part of our protocol.
And it is absolutely inhumane to separate mothers from their children as a deterrent to immigration.
All that we will accomplish by such inhumane treatment is more grief. And the loss will be much more extensive and personal than we can anticipate.
For more practical and humane suggestions for curbing the flow of illegal immigration, listen to award-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s TED talk at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/sonia+navarro+ted/15ada9caf1939193?projector=1
Images that have inspired. Words that have settled into my soul. People who have humbled, and reminded, me why I am here.
Always, when I look, I see something more. When I listen, I hear what I missed before.
As I prepare to leave El Paso in a little more than one week — God, I can’t believe I’m saying that — I am looking and listening as deeply and as intently as I ever have. The way forward is still not clear. The lesson of dependence on God, ongoing. If I have shown courage along the way, it’s come from a deeper place that remains a mystery.
But what is clear are the images along the way. And the impressions they have made — indelible on my heart.
Here are some I’d like to share. Images from my nearly 2-mike walk to the Columban Mission Center where I work three days a week, from the Nazareth Hospitality Center, from the house on Grandview, which sits atop a hill offering an impressive view of downtown El Paso and spreading out across Juarez, Mexico. Images from simply paying attention.
In the segundo barrio — the poorest section of El Paso, where homeless men loiter in the mornings and early evenings waiting for the Opportunity Center to open its doors for coffee and a meal, where fast food containers and crushed beer cans collect in gutters, where barred windows and bail bond shops proliferate — the people paint their fences lavender and robin’s egg blue and plant rose bushes and gardens on their tiny plots producing an amazing array of yellows and reds and purples that rise up in defiance of anyone who would call this place poor.
A home on the coast of Michoacán, Mexico. Views of the ocean. Sea breezes waft through the windows as a loving family with three handsome teenaged sons gathers for dinner. This characterized the life of one of the families I met this week at the Nazareth hospitality center.
A life that no longer exists.
Threatened by the drug cartel’s out-of-control violence in the state of Michoacán, the entire family fled their idyllic life and presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking political asylum. Unfortunately, only four members of their family made it to our center. Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided to detain their husband and father.
It’s something I’ve been noticing more lately. Males 18 years and older being detained indiscriminately. Sometimes there is a reason. Maybe they tried to enter the country previously. Maybe there’s something questionable on their record. But often it seems to be a random decision, depending on the ICE agent handling their case.
Some suggest ICE is attempting to send a message back to Latin America: if you come, your family will be separated. This disturbs and infuriates me. Are we really using separation of family as a deterrent? Is there justification to cause such pain to a family that has already endured so much?
I think of this family. They did not want to come to the U.S. They told us of their beautiful home. How they hated to leave. And that they hope to return some day.
For now, that’s not possible. At least not without putting their sons in danger.
Other volunteers have heard alarming stories from those who’ve fled Michoacán. How the cartels force people off land that has been in their family for generations. How they threaten to kill or “disappear” their sons. How they instill fear in the community by hanging corpses from bridges. The people can’t trust the police. Often they’re involved themselves. Some communities have tried to set up their own vigilante groups. Others, like this family, flee.
Fortunately, all the sons in this family are under 18. Otherwise, ICE could have detained one of them as well.
That happened to another mom who showed up this week with only two of her three children. Her 18-year-old son had been detained. They’d made it all the way from Guatemala, crossing treacherous Mexico, only to be separated in the U.S.
So, what’s next for these families?
Now they must make the agonizing decision of moving on to their designated relative’s home without their brother, husband, or son, who will remain in detention and be processed separately. Possibly he will remain here a year or more. Most likely, he will be deported.
I see the anxiety in this mother’s face when she comes to the office to ask when she can see her son. One of our volunteers will drive her to the detention facility on her designated visiting night.
I feel my heart for this woman. I know the joy of giving birth to a son. And the sorrow of being separated from him.
But this is what I cannot imagine: leaving my son behind in a detention facility in a foreign country not knowing when I will see him again. If he is deported, what will he do when he arrives back in the country alone? Will he be safe?
I feel helpless in what I have to offer her. Yet I want to offer something.
Later I go retrieve blankets for our new arrivals. I pass the room of the family from Michoacán. The mom is seated on her bed facing the doorway. The boys perch on the edge of a cot, their backs to me, fully attentive to their mother. Her face is somber. But her eyes are soft with something I easily recognize — her deep love for her sons, right alongside the pain of what she has to tell them.
Tonight, they will visit their father in detention. Tomorrow they will head for their relatives on the west coast as originally planned. Without their dad.
There are more stories like this. More ways my heart has been tested. I’ve come to see that the more I open my heart to strangers, the more I risk. Because there’s a definite risk when you look into the face of another.
You see yourself.
And you realize that we truly are connected as one family. We share the same feelings. The same sorrows and joys. The same desires for ourselves and our children. The same Spirit.
I can no longer NOT care. That’s the risk of being a family. What about you? Will you join us?
On Saturday I ventured to the other side. Meaning I went back into Mexico. This time to visit a very special ministry in Anapra — where Mexico’s poorest of the poor live.
Our friend Christina had promised to meet me and Sr. Mary Beth on the other side of the bridge in Mexico to take us to the therapy center where she works with disabled children. We’d both heard a lot of good things about this place and wanted to visit.
But I’d been warned that Anapra was worse than the colonia in Juarez where I stayed with the School Sisters of St. Francis last year. It was hard for me to imagine anything could be more desolate than that. I was wrong.
Once we climbed into Christina’s old Jeep, she veered off the main road, and we traveled down one bumpy, rocky, dirt lane after another. Each lined with crumbling stone shacks, makeshift fences, and roaming dogs sniffing out anything edible.
As we drove I began to notice more tires heaped on the side of the road. More trash. More dirt. Everything around us screamed poverty. Desolateness. Hopelessness. Dust blew up from the road and settled in the air.
This was Anapra.
But in the midst of this slum lies a ray of light. A physical therapy/educational center for children who have severe disabilities. Children with autism and MS and other physical and mental challenges. Children confined to wheelchairs who can only utter sounds of acknowledgment. Children who would not get help elsewhere.
The center is run by Sr. Peggy and Sr. Janet, Daughters of Charity of Cincinnati, with the help of Fr. Bill Morton, a Columban priest who ministers along the U.S.-Mexico border. The center’s small van transports the children, along with their mothers and siblings who also take part in their therapeutic treatment. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other Saturday, Christina comes to instruct the children, to patiently teach them their letters, the seasons and colors. They receive massages and therapeutic baths to help heal their crippled bodies. And they laugh and they play.
That’s what I spent my morning doing. Playing. First a couple of rounds of Uno with the older siblings until a little girl hijacked my attention for games of hide’n’seek and make believe. One girl confined to a wheelchair joined us. Her hands crippled, her jaw crooked, she drooled uncontrollably as she tried to stick her spoon in the plate of imaginary food I gave her. Every time I lifted the tiny plastic cup to my lips to drink invisible tea, she made guttural sounds of delight.
But the hardest for me was the boy. I avoided him until after lunch. About 9 years old and slouched in a wheelchair, his gaze was often off in some unknown place only he could reach. He kept sliding down in his chair and had to be hoisted back up, the dirty cloth beneath his chin adjusted each time to catch the constant drool. I finally sat with him for awhile, but my attention was elsewhere. I felt restless and ready to leave. I’d had enough.
Or so I thought.
You see, my intention during this Lenten season is to “rend my heart” — words I found in a reflection on Ash Wednesday. I had promised myself that I would keep my heart open by continually asking, “Am I willing to be vulnerable in this moment?”
If I were being honest, the answer in that moment was “no.”
Slowly I turned my attention to the boy. I softly rubbed his dangling legs. Looked into his wandering eyes. Wondered about the life he would have. And thought of his pregnant mother. Sadness grew within me. Feelings I hadn’t wanted to claim.
Today I came across this quote from Oscar Romero, who was martyred in El Salvador for speaking up for the poor. It seemed perfect for what I’m trying to say:
“We live very much outside of ourselves. They are few who are willing to go within and that is why we have so many problems. In the heart of every person, there is something like a little, intimate cell, where God comes down to converse, alone, with each person. And it is there where one decides their own destiny, their role in the world”.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, July 10, 1977
I thought about what kind of person it takes to do this. To truly be present to these children and their mothers. Week after week. To offer them kindness, patience, compassion. It takes a willingness to go within and allow God to rend your heart open. It takes a willingness to feel.
May I be willing to keep rending my heart. It’s the only way that I will see God in the “other” and within myself. Even with all my limitations.
It’s the only way I’ll be able to recognize these angels. Right here in Anapra.
Days after I arrived in El Paso I found myself back in Mexico. A Sister friend invited me to come experience the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in her parish. A spur of the moment invitation. I gladly said yes.
I’ve known about the Latin American Catholics’ deep dedication to Our Lady of Guadalupe but I’d never participated in the feast day celebrations. Filled with lively music, colorful traditional clothing, singing, dancing. I wanted to experience it.
But Sr. Carol Jean’s parish was not in Mexico City, the place where Mary is said to have appeared to a poor, indigenous man named Juan Diego in 1531 and the place where I’d spent two weeks last July for orientation with Incarnate Word Missionaries. Back then I roamed a middle-class neighborhood bustling with restaurants, gas stations, supermercados, and shops peddling local pottery, art, chocolate, and helado. My trip across the border this time was quite different, as I ventured into one of the poorest sections of Juarez where my friend ministers.
Here there are no tree-filled parks. In fact, hardly any trees grow at all in the dry, dusty, gray surroundings. Crumbling structures, small stone adobes, and peddlers line the unpaved streets. A stark contrast. Not only to Mexico City, but to every other place I’ve visited.
Wanting to join in, I helped the neighborhood women decorate the beaten-up white pickup truck that would transport their teenaged Lady of Guadalupe and young Juan Diego — a small boy donning a poncho and straw hat. We covered three-tiered boxes with brown paper bags to simulate a mountain, taping colored paper flowers anywhere we could.
Once the matachines (dancers) arrived in their bright red and white native dress, our caravan rumbled off. The boys banged their drums, the dancers stomped up the dust, and the rest of us processed behind singing. Walking alongside the women, some pushing strollers, some carrying images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I chanted the lyrics to “La Guadalupana.” Over and over again.
For nearly two hours we strolled the streets of Juarez.
Down the rocky, littered roads and structures scrawled with graffiti, we sang. People ventured out to watch the growing procession. Men from their mechanics shop, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters from homes that seemed incapable of holding them all. One elderly woman stood in her doorway hugging a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, her smile revealing several missing teeth. Everywhere people stopped what they were doing to watch. Participate. Offer a prayer.
Somewhere during the procession I sensed something. Something about being among the people. I realized what it was. Happiness. I felt happy to be here.
But as I took in the richness of the festivities alongside the desperate poverty, I also felt compassion. And I uttered my own silent prayers. Prayers for hope. Most of these people, I knew, would never leave this life of poverty. How could they have hope? It seemed like the best thing to pray for.
Yet my voice seemed insignificant and small.
Days later I came across Richard Rohr’s meditation on a poem by 16th century mystic John of the Cross.
“If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the holy...”
Seeking shelter in your heart. Seeking your help in giving birth. She needs us because…
“each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.”
I see an image of the women walking down the streets of Juarez. I remember my prayer for hope.
And suddenly I see that hope is birthed through me. I am the midwife of God. What a gift I’ve been given! Yet most days I don’t feel up to it. I’m like a child, tentatively taking the gift offered, as if unbelieving that she can really have it.
Hope wants to be born. But it needs a recipient, a conduit, a midwife. God can only bring hope to the world through each of us.
I wonder, what if we all chose hope?
What if we all said yes to the birth of hope within us?
Again and again and again?
Might the streets of Juarez look a little different?
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.