The man sitting on his cot, head bowed, eyes closed, catches my eye as I pass his room. His toddler son, wriggling on his back beside him, gleefully plays with some imaginary toy held high in the air. But the child doesn’t disturb his father. The man prays silently, deeply entrenched in a place far beyond this room.
I pause in the hallway. Quietly take in what I have just witnessed.
Granted, pausing is unusual when I’m working at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. Most days I barely have time to gobble down a spoonful of yogurt or finish an apple.
But, I sense the beauty and preciousness of this scene. It’s worth taking a moment.
And in that sacred, tender moment, a door opens. A door through which I catch a glimpse into the life of another. A door that further opens my heart.
And I understand why I do this work.
A job that no one in her right mind would ever accept from an employer. The pay is lousy (non-existent!). No company perks. You don’t get a half-hour lunch break. In fact, you have to force yourself to remember to sit down and eat. No 15-minute coffee breaks or gathering in the company kitchen to choose a K-cup of your favorite coffee. No time for checking emails or text messaging. Not even time for friendly banter with your coworkers.
But the reward is priceless.
A connection that takes me far beyond my self-preoccupation. Beyond my judgments of how I “think” things should be.
This act of witnessing, and being with, the migrants and refugees who come through our doors – makes me forget my petty concerns.
Every time I hear one of our “guests” tell me he hasn’t eaten much for days and is thankful for the meals we’ve offered him.
Every time a mom says how happy she is to be able to finally take a shower.
Every time a child’s face lights up when she’s given a used pair of shoes.
Every time someone says I’m kind — “muy amable, gracias,” — when I hand them a jacket or a bag of food for the journey ahead.
Every time I put myself in their shoes, I forget about my own unknown future.
But I am remembering something much more important.
Last April, at a James Finley retreat on Meister Eckhart, I wrote down these words. They struck me, because I knew this was how I desired to live my life:
“Find that person, that community, that act, that when you give yourself over to it with your whole heart, unravels your petty preoccupation with your self-absorbed self and strangely brings you home to yourself.”
That’s what I’ve found. That’s what this “work” is giving me.
The opportunity to come home to my Self.
Richard Rohr writes: “Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain only to be helpful; he called us to be in solidarity with the real and for own transformation. It is often only after the fact we realize that they helped us in ways we never knew we needed. This is sometimes called ‘reverse mission.’
“Only near the poor, close to ‘the tears of things’ as the Roman poet Virgil puts it, in solidarity with suffering, can we understand ourselves, love one another well, imitate Jesus, and live his full Gospel.”
In truth, I can’t really walk in their shoes. But I can pause. Be present. Keep my heart open. As I walk in solidarity alongside them.
The anxious young mother from Guatemala asks me for the third time how long I think it will take to get to New York. By bus. From El Paso.
I’ve tried to explain. Depends on a lot of things.
She asks how many hours. I tell her it’ll be two days. Her facial expression pleads for a different answer.
In reality I think it’ll be three. But I don’t tell her that.
She and her adorable 6-year-old daughter Alison will be spending tonight in the Greyhound station. Their relative back in NY bought tickets for a bus leaving at 4 a.m. Getting them a ride to the station at 2:30 a.m. would be impossible. Our volunteer drivers are great, but everyone has their limits. The best we can do is get them to the station tonight.
And pack them sufficient food and liquids for the long journey. That’s my job. And I take it seriously.
Used to be that the migrants and refugees who came to our center could access cash from Moneygrams wired by relatives in other states. At least that’d give them a little money to buy food on these long bus rides.
But not anymore. The local Moneygram has changed its policy. They now want a “legit” ID. Like a driver’s license.
We all know that’s not possible. Which means we often send our people off with nothing more than an extra set of clothing and a small bag of food. And blessings for the journey.
“Vaya con Dios,” I say. “Bendiciones para su viaje.”
“Que Dios te bendiga,” they respond. God bless you. Like I’m the one that should be getting the blessings.
Alison and her mom aren’t unusual. In fact, another mother and her two children are leaving tomorrow by bus. For North Carolina.
So, when I search through the donations of tote bags, I try to find two sturdy ones to hold enough food for these moms and their kids.
Pickings are slim tonight. Only a few large bags left that could possibly hold everything I want to pack. But I know we’ll soon have more donations. We always do.
I pull some “care packages”—each filled with peanut butter crackers, granola bars, chips, a bottle of water, and juice box. All the snacks, and even the Ziploc bags, donated by local residents.
Then off to the kitchen with the walk-in fridge. I grab apples, burritos, fried chicken, anything I can stuff into the tote bags to sustain five people for a 3-day journey.
Every Monday a local restaurant delivers grocery bags filled with dozens of homemade bean burritos. Wrapped in sturdy foil and ready to go. Another vendor donates apples and oranges. Who knows where the fried chicken came from? Sometimes it’s pizza I find on the shelves. Or baloney sandwiches.
All this food – donated. Anything and everything we need. Just when I notice something starting to get low, next day – or soon thereafter – the supply is replenished.
It’s kind of like the loaves and fishes story. Only it’s not Jesus sending down the blessing. It’s folks like you and me. Blessing the snacks, the clothing, the toys, the toothpaste – everything they donate – with their attitude. Their generosity. Their grace.
Later that night, I think about Alison and her mom. They’re headed to the bus station right about now. I think about the food I packed for them.
I worry it’s not enough.
Then I remember the burritos. The commitment of that restaurant owner. The endless supply offered.
And I send out a prayer. May these families meet others on their journey. Others who will be that kind of blessing.
That would be me.
For six weeks in Bolivia. I was a stranger at someone else’s table. Living with a family I didn’t know. In a country where I could barely speak the language. In the midst of a different culture. Where everything looked, smelled, and tasted different.
It didn’t take long to realize, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Or Virginia.
Or anywhere that even resembled the home I knew. Everything felt different. And I felt so alone.
True, that was months ago. But the memory of those feelings has stayed with me.
I actually think the mother of the house where I was living in Bolivia had a preconceived image of me as an American. And maybe she had a little attitude too.
Now the tables are switched.
I’m the one with a little attitude toward foreigners.
You might find that surprising. After all, why would I travel so far from home to return to the U.S.-Mexico border to serve migrants and refugees if I had an attitude?
Truthfully, I’m happy to be back serving at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. It feels right to be here.
I knew it the first day I walked through the door and was among “the people” again. I found myself smiling for no particular reason throughout the day.
Even though I never stopped moving from the moment I stepped inside the place. And was exhausted by the time I left.
The thing is, so many people are coming. More than I’d ever seen when I was serving here last year.
It’s not so easy to spot those in desperate need this time. It’s not black and white. If it ever was.
Immigration is such a complex issue.
What got me was I was noticing some conflicting feelings arising. A judging, critical side.
I mean I’m aware that I have this side of me, but I didn’t like the fact that it was coming up here, in relation to the migrants whom I’ve felt such compassion for. In a place where I’m serving alongside some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. The people of El Paso. People who still, after more than two years, continue to fully operate this center through their donations and volunteer hours.
So, the other night I went to bed with these questions on my heart.
“How do I keep my heart open and let go of trying to be judge and jury? How does love respond to this situation? What do you ask of me?”
On the verge of sleep, an image of Jesus in his passion came to me. The pain and suffering he endured. The terrible loneliness.
Then I “heard” his question: “Did I do this only for those who deserve it?”
Such a powerful and humbling response! The truth of it hit me hard.
Because I knew. I certainly don’t “deserve” this gift. In fact, I often take it for granted. And I doubt I fully appreciate it.
In that moment, I understood.
Love has nothing to do with fairness or with who deserves it.
Love invites everyone to the table. No one is excluded. And preconceived images are left at the door.
Granted, it’s challenging to love as Christ loved.
I don’t know if I can do it. But this is my practice.
This is why I am here.
I’m helping Sr. Mary Beth, another volunteer at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, clean the rooms our guests have vacated. Guests, as in the immigrant families who have passed through our doors, staying for one night, maybe two, before heading to relatives elsewhere in the states.
As I heave the wet mop across the linoleum, I feel some resistance. Cleaning bathrooms is not my favorite way to be of service. So, why am I doing this? Why am I cleaning up after these strangers? People I will never see again. People who might not even be grateful for what I’m doing. And, some might be quick to add, haven’t played by the rules.
I remember the angry faces in the news last summer protesting all the families and kids streaming over the border. And, more recently, the disheartening comments I read online with messages like, “Send them back!” How appalled they’d be if they knew what I was doing here. “Why?!!” they’d surely ask.
I ask myself that question, too, as I carry a trash bag of shitty-smelling diapers out to the dumpster.
But then ICE calls, promising 20 new guests this afternoon. And I’m too busy to think about my answer.
The government van pulls up around lunch time and deposits some families at our door. A father with his little girl, wisps of her pigtails loosening from their crooked elastics. A couple carrying a baby and shepherding in a daughter about 5 years old. Another young couple with three little girls under 6 in tow.
Dirty faces, tangled hair, smelly clothes. All of them.
After doing the intake and settling the families into their rooms, I ask the mom with the three little girls, “Necesita ropa limpia?” Do you need clean clothes?
An obvious question, but the mother hesitates, then nods apprehensively. We search the clothing room for shoes and warm sweaters, tops and pants. Plenty of selections for the adults, but it’s slim pickings for the girls.
Next I help the father with his little girl. She’s wearing lavender crocks with no socks. Her feet are darker than the rest of her. She needs socks and a pair of pants. They’re headed to Delaware. But I can’t find any girl’s jeans. Or any pants at all to fit her. Her little legs are bare beneath her skirt and I think of the long, cold bus ride ahead and the freezing temps up north. I suddenly have this urge to run out and buy several pairs of girls’ size 5-6 jeans, but I can’t leave the center at the moment.
We’re out of girls’ jackets and sweaters, too. There’s not much I can offer in the way of clothing. But there is something I can offer. Something fun.
We’ve got these precious gift bags that were prepared and donated to the center by schoolchildren last summer. The kids made tons of them, and we still have some in storage. Simple Ziploc bags, they’re loaded with crayons, a pair of socks, a soft huggable toy or doll, a few quarters, blank notepad with colored pencils, and a handwritten note saying “welcome, friend, to my country.”
I go to the storage room to grab a few bags for the pantless, sweaterless girls. But I’m in for a surprise.
The bags are stored in their original mailing box, so, out of curiosity I check out the return address. Brewster, Massachusetts! So the bags weren’t prepared by local schoolchildren after all, as I had thought. They actually come from the children of First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church.
This warms my heart — not only because Massachusetts is my native state — but because it’s so far away from the border! The children of Brewster remind me it’s not only the people in El Paso who care about these migrant families.
And they also remind me of why I care. It’s not about what anybody else thinks of what I’m doing. And I’m not doing it for the thanks. I’m doing it because they are human beings. And they matter. They matter to me.
When I hand two of these gift bags to the sweet little sisters from Guatemala, they squeal their thank you’s. I give their younger sister’s bag to the mother. Mom looks it over and points to the children’s hand-printed message alongside their picture.
“Yes,” I say. “It’s a gift from these children.”
A gift to all of us.
To belong to a community is to begin to be about more than myself…No work is enough to satisfy the human soul. Only the satisfaction of having touched another life and been touched by one ourselves can possibly suffice. Whatever we do, however noble, however small, must be done for the sake of the other. Otherwise, we ourselves have no claim on the human race.
~ from LISTEN WITH THE HEART by Joan Chittister