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
“Five members of my family were killed.”
He tells me this several times during our conversation. He even holds one hand in the air, spreading his fingers apart. “Five,” he says, to be sure I understand.
“They shot my brother in the face,” he adds.
But I can’t fully understand what Hector has told me.
How could I? I’ve never even witnessed this kind of violence, let alone have it happen to five members of my family.
I met Hector recently at the Loretto-Nazareth migrant hospitality center when my shift coordinator asked me to help him. “He’s very anxious,” she told me. “Could you make him a cup of tea?”
Besides losing five family members to violence, Hector has risked traveling more than 2,000 miles with his 13-year-old daughter to escape the violence in Guatemala, left his wife and two other children behind without knowing their fate, and endured several days in a holding cell after presenting himself to Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico bridge to seek asylum. Soon, he and his daughter will get on a bus to travel to his sister living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know what he will encounter along the way or whether he will be deported once he arrives.
No wonder he’s anxious.
Stories of extortion, death threats, disappearances, and worse are common among our refugees, who mostly originate from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere.
I do more than make Hector a cup of tea. I teach him some deep breathing and emotional energy release exercises. As I watch this man, eyes closed, his body relaxing with each breath, what strikes me is the gentleness of his face. Traces of a lost innocence.
As Hector shares more of his story, I realize that he is only one of millions who have lost that innocence. Millions whose fate is now being determined at the political level. With no thought to the human lives involved. Or the loss.
According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent. Many of them are children.
This troubling fact has been cast aside so easily.
Under the illusion of fear.
“Not my problem.” “We can’t open the doors to everyone.” Typical arguments I’ve heard that justify not getting involved. Remaining silent.
Meanwhile, the innocent are dying.
Maybe it’s this loss of innocence and senseless death that brought to mind the novel-turned-movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it’s the integrity and sense of morality and justice that Atticus Finch portrays. His willingness to “walk around in another man’s shoes.”
Qualities we so badly need right now.
I find myself wondering, have we lost our integrity? Our willingness to allow a stranger into our hearts? To recognize that what we do, or don’t do, to help these refugees does matter?
“The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said recently.
After visiting the ruins of Aleppo earlier this month, Grandi, shocked by the devastation, said, “These ruins speak for themselves. When you see children’s clothes hanging out of windows, kitchens cut in half by shells and rockets, the real lives of people interrupted by war as it was happening, I think this will weigh very heavily on the conscience of the world for generations.”
I think it will. Because when we allow innocents to suffer and die, we pay the price.
We lose the music of our soul.
I have never felt so close to the truth of these words.
They have never been as powerful for me as they are now.
Sure, I’ve volunteered before. Served dinner to homeless men. Worked in an after-school program with juveniles in a housing project. Visited strangers in nursing homes. Manned a phone at a survival crisis hotline. Mentored single moms and their kids. Even volunteered at an orphanage in Bolivia.
Each of these have been rewarding in themselves.
But nothing like what I experienced on Thursday.
I’ll try to explain.
The morning started out busier than usual.
The moment I walk through the door at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center, I’m bombarded with requests. A couple of moms stand at the doorway of the hygiene room waiting for Pampers. Someone needs Tylenol. Someone else wants cough medicine for her child. Families are lined up ready to head out and pile into a van waiting to take them to the airport. One mom hugs her bare arms, looking cold in a pink tee shirt. Some of the children don’t have coats.
“Where are you going? What state?” I ask Nanci, the mom of one of the coatless children.
“Maryland,” she tells me.
“Oh, necesita un abrigo,” I say and run off to the clothing closet to retrieve whatever coats I can find before they’re herded out the door.
With only a few volunteers working in the office, it can feel impossible to try to handle the needs of 100-150 people. Because that’s what we’ve been seeing the past several weeks as the number of migrants and refugees arriving daily has been doubling and tripling.
We do the best we can. Sometimes we make decisions by the seat or our pants.
My first priority is to get these travelers coats for their journey. Then I dole out the appropriate-sized Pampers and am about to head to the medicine room when Adolfo, our center coordinator, asks me to accompany the van driver to the airport. It’s his first time driving solo and he doesn’t know what to do.
So off I go. Me. The driver. Four moms. And eight kids.
Although we’re not required to accompany them all the way to their gates, it’s something I like to do. After all, none of these women have ever flown before. They don’t know the language. They don’t know what they’re doing. Their fear and anxiety are palpable.
So, I ask the airline agent for a special pass to accompany the moms and their children through security and to their gates. And I ask her to please have someone help the women who will be making connections in overwhelming Dallas. I’ll walk each of them to their gates, show them the letter and number matching the one on their ticket. Review several times the flight number, the boarding time, the time the plane actually leaves, the difference between their two boarding passes if they have a connecting flight.
At security, I wait while each of the adults are patted down thoroughly, their belongings picked through, their papers scrutinized. It takes a while.
Passersby look at us. We must be a sight. The women in their ankle monitors like criminals wear. The white trash bags we’ve given them to store their few articles of clothing. They stand out like refugees, but I know they’ve already been through much worse.
The last mom is nearly finished when Nanci comes over, looks right at me, and begins showering blessings over me. Blessings for my health, for my life, and I don’t know what all else, but she goes on and on. I’m not getting everything she’s saying and I tell her I don’t understand.
“You’re an angel from God,” she repeats slowly.
“Yes, you’re an angel from God,” Estrella, another mom, pipes in.
I feel my eyes moisten.
This is not just a clichéd expression. These women sincerely appreciate my kindness. A kindness that probably no one has ever shown them before.
I want to protest that “I’m no angel.”
But I simply say, “It is my pleasure.”
Because it is.
And in this moment, I recognize something. It’s there in Nanci’s eyes.
Christ is right here in front of me.
Reflected in this woman. A woman who had been a stranger. And who now is a reflection of the heart of Christ.
In this moment, I understand, more fully than I have before. How these people who live on the margins are close to Christ.
“What you do to me.”
And I know exactly why I am doing this.
Even more clearly than when I made the initial decision to come to El Paso.
And I know why I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
I’ve left the shore behind.
Leaving Atlantic Beach wasn’t easy. After all, I grew up near the ocean on the East Coast. And nowadays, ensconced in the El Paso desert, I’m lucky when I spot an occasional raindrop.
But even more challenging – within one week of returning to El Paso from my reunion/vacation in North Carolina, I found myself packing. I needed to move. Again.
I knew before I left for NC that I’d to have to find another place to live. My three months of room and board at the house for volunteers were coming to an end.
Truthfully, I’d expected my house in Virginia to sell quickly. And I’d be settling into a new home by now.
But my plan didn’t materialize. So, instead, I had to move into another temporary living situation. Another place that’s not my own.
And, yes, that’s challenging.
But it’s also a gift. A spiritual practice that’s continually teaching me about letting go. About my real “home.” And about the abundance of the Universe.
No sooner had I started wondering where I would go next and what I could afford when an idea came to me. Call Anita. As it turns out, this woman, who hardly knows me, was happy to rent out her extra bedroom. At an unbelievably reasonable rate.
Once again I was given what I needed.
So I began my vacation grateful that I had a place to go once I returned.
And I was open. Receptive to how the Spirit might speak to me at the ocean.
What struck me at every turn? The abundance of the Universe.
I recognized it in my morning walks along the shore as the rising sun cast multi-colored hues of pink and peach across an infinite sky. In the endless waves rolling onto the beach in a constant, humbling roar. In the calm waters that glittered and stretched majestically beyond the horizon. In the sandpipers and pelicans fed from the ocean.
It’s easy to see how Nature exemplifies the abundance of God. With her ever-present giving and receiving, she demonstrates what it means to be “in the flow” of life.
But I wonder. What if we, as human beings, could trust in an abundant Universe? What would our lives look like if we could abide in this flow of giving and receiving? Trusting that we will be given what we need? In every moment? Just as Nature does?
I think I know. The migrants have shown me.
The poor I’ve met live with a concept of the abundance of God more fully and completely than anyone else I know. They’ve tapped into this truth. God provides. You can trust in the flow of the give and take of life.
Here’s a recent example.
We’ve been crazy busy at the Nazareth migrant center. And last week, in our rush to get a mom to the bus station, we neglected to give her a “care package” of food that I’d prepared for her long journey.
A little while later, Linda, a fellow volunteer, showed up at the bus station with other migrants heading out of state. Linda was amazed when the fellow travelers, realizing this woman didn’t have a care package, started pulling food from their own bags to give her. One woman, who said she was “only going as far as Los Angeles,” gave this mom her entire tote bag of goodies. She figured this woman needed it more.
Giving from their need. This is unheard of.
Or is it?
Believing that more is given to the one who gives. That giving is receiving. And in the receiving is the giving.
It’s a message I’ve heard from the Gospel. And a spiritual law that I recently came across in a Pathwork Guide Lecture. This line from that lecture says it all for me:
“I will let God give through me in sincerity, in strength, in truth, in wisdom, in beauty.” (PGL #233, pg. 8)
Isn’t that what Nature does? Isn’t that what these migrants did for that mom?
To live life fully we need to move beyond our fear of not having enough. We need to leave the comfort of the shore behind. To trust in the abundance that is given to us and through us.
Whether I stand, sure-footed, on the shore of a North Carolina beach or move like a nomad from place to place in the El Paso desert, I want to learn this lesson. Nature is teaching me. And so are the poor.
Three-year-old Ana smacks a kiss on my mouth. I’ve just handed her a baby doll, complete with pacifier. Something to keep her company on her days-long bus ride to Florida.
Whatever pleasure I got out of finding that doll in our used toy bin at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center just got magnified a hundredfold.
Juana is 13. Too old for a doll.
Or so I thought.
But her eyes widen when she sees the one I’ve given Ana.
“Do you like dolls?” I ask in Spanish.
“Si.” She smiles. Off I go to locate another.
I have the perfect one in mind. Eyes as big as half dollars. Strawberry-colored plastic hair. The kind you can’t comb. But her face is more mature. Just right for a girl who’s probably never owned a doll in her life.
Why do I love packing a toy in these children’s travel bags? Why do I take pleasure in seeing their delight?
The answer, I think, lies somewhere in understanding the gift of pleasure.
If you’re a parent, you know the absolute pleasure of seeing your child delight in receiving a longed-for gift or special surprise.
I believe that the One who loved us into being takes that kind of pleasure in us.
And that God longs for us to take pleasure in the abundance of life. A life gifted to us. Created for us to enjoy. As fully alive beings.
Sometimes, in between running around getting care packages ready for the migrants, answering their needs, calling for volunteer drivers, I have to step outside to get food in the walk-in fridge next door. And sometimes I pause and stand there in the sunlight. Look up into that constantly blue sky.
And give thanks. Aware of the pleasure I am receiving as well as giving.
Whether it’s in giving a special gift to a child. Preparing a meal for someone who’s hungry.
Receiving expressions of affection.
Or taking in the beauty of a golden full moon on a Friday night. Like I did tonight.
An abundance of opportunities to experience the pleasures of an abundant life.
But I have to say, I’m not always aware of them.
As Jesus said, it is God’s good pleasure “to give you the kingdom.” That kingdom is already alive in you. Alive in me.
Can I keep giving myself over to it? Can I fully accept this gift?
Have you ever been surprised by joy? Felt it come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake you? Yet you can’t fully explain it?
That’s been happening to me since returning to this desert border town. I’ve been experiencing a mysterious joy.
Despite not knowing for sure what I’m doing here. Not knowing where I’ll settle. Still trying to sell a house in Virginia. Looking for a paying job. Aware that my temporary living arrangement will soon expire.
So many unknowns. Enough to send anyone into a panic. Or at least an anxious spin.
But surprisingly I feel peaceful. And happy.
Maybe it’s because I’ve done this so many times now. Uprooted myself. Leapt off into the unknown. Taken risks. And come out the other side, assured once again that I have everything I need as I listen and trust my inner guidance.
But I know it’s more than that.
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who wrote The Divine Milieu.
God has been showing up a lot lately.
Just two days after arriving in El Paso, I returned to volunteer at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center where I’d served over a year ago. As soon as I walked through the door, took in the familiar surroundings, saw the people, I felt this inexplicable happiness spread inside of me.
Nothing had precipitated it. Other than being in this place.
It was the presence of joy.
A Presence letting me know that I was exactly where I needed to be.
Then last Sunday, I attended a Spanish Mass. A joyous celebration, the walls reverberating with lively music and handclapping. Pews packed with Hispanics. Many others standing along the side and back walls. And this was only one of six masses held every Sunday!
I went because I love being among the people. Saying the prayers in Spanish along with them. Celebrating the combination of their rich spirituality and connection to the earth. Seeing their faith in action both delights and humbles me. I can’t explain it, but they possess something special.
I was standing there, silently taking everything in, when suddenly I recognized something. I recognized the Presence of what it is they possess. And it filled me. This unnamed Presence.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Joyful tears.
And I knew. This is God. This is the Presence of God.
In these people. In these tears I’m shedding.
In this overwhelming joy that has taken me by surprise.
In this awareness that I am standing in the midst of grace.
In the knowledge that every leap I’ve taken — even when it didn’t feel “right” at the time — has been a perfect piece of the process of my life. Taking me where I needed to go. Helping me to heal.
In that moment of recognition, a Scripture verse came back to me:
“Count it all joy when you are involved in every sort of trial.” (James 1:2)
Two years ago I was struggling in San Antonio. Trying to make a go of a promise I’d made to serve there. Feeling very alone and uncertain, I’d written a blog post about the “life in abundance” God wanted for me. The promise of joy. Knowing it was possible, but feeling a million miles from anything close to joy.
Now I understand.
My heart knows why I am here.
“That my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”
La alegrίa. That’s Spanish for joy. Now I understand. A joy no one can take from you.