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Emptied Out

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I was a little over an hour away from Dallas, where I’d planned to stop for the night, when three warning lights popped up on my dash.

Panic. I’m on an interstate surrounded by nothing but ranchland. I still had about another 10 hours of driving to get back to El Paso. Plus, it’s Friday night of Memorial Day weekend.

After pulling over to peruse my manual and check my engine, I offer a prayer to get somewhere safely. Then I decide to calm down. I decide to trust that whatever happens, it’ll be OK. And I let go of any expectation to make it back to El Paso tomorrow.

This is not a typical response for me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been getting a lot of practice in learning to trust over these past several years.

Maybe it’s the effects of listening to CDs on Meister Eckhart and the art of letting go while taking this incredibly long roundtrip drive from El Paso to Virginia.

Maybe it’s because, from the beginning, this journey has been about ridding myself of what is unnecessary. Of letting go of attachments and outcomes. Of learning to say yes to what is in front of me.

And there’s no doubt it’s because of what I’ve seen and experienced along the way.

Days earlier I had emptied out the extra bedroom at a friend’s house where I’d stored boxes I couldn’t get to before leaving Virginia last January. Sorting through years of family photos and other memorabilia filled me with gratitude for the blessed life I’d had.
A life I couldn’t return to. No matter how appealing it seemed.

And appealing it was. Visiting friends who were settling into a simpler life with their husbands, their kids now grown and out of college, yet still living close enough for family get-togethers in the beautiful rural countryside of central Virginia – I’ll admit, it was attractive.

This physical emptying out, I realized, was a metaphor for the internal releasing and emptying that has been going on. An emptying of attitudes as well as possessions, of the way I would like life to show up. The way I would like things to be.

Like not having car issues on the interstate, for example. Or not having my husband die so young. Or living so far away from my son who’s remaining in Alaska for at least another year.

Yet I also saw how, the more I “empty myself out,” the more I have room for God. And for “the other.” Room for true listening. For opening to the grace that’s right here.

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The next day, as I sat in the customer service area at the Dallas Sewell Subaru, waiting to get the news about my car, I pulled out a letter I’d received from Martin, a 27-year-old Mexican journalist who’d come here seeking asylum because his life had been threatened. He was stuck in the El Paso detention facility, awaiting the results of his case.

I’d begun writing to Martin, hoping to encourage and visit him soon. I was considering my response to his letter when I received a text from a friend in El Paso saying that Martin had been denied asylum for the second time! Losing hope, he’d decided to give up his case rather than appeal and remain in our prison-like system. That means he’ll be returning to Mexico where at least half a dozen journalists have been killed in recent months. His young life is surely in danger.

Suddenly my minor inconvenience is irrelevant. My calling to follow my heart clearer than ever.

It may be that every time I step out in faithfulness, I’m taking a risk. But my risks are insignificant compared to the risks taken by those I’ve accompanied, my brothers and sisters running for their lives. People who live in constant fear and danger.

Living with an open-hearted stance is not easy. I feel the pain of the other as I grow in awareness that my life is not about me.

But this is what I choose. And I need grace to succeed.

“Grace leads us to the state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaningless in which we ask, ‘What is it all for? What does it all mean?’ All we can do is try to keep our hands cupped and open. And it is even grace to do that.”       Richard Rohr

I hope that I am being “emptied out” so that I can be filled with the very fullness of that grace.

Davis Gets It

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Davis’s hair is thinning.

We were sitting across from each other in a restaurant in Nome when I first noticed it. The hair draping his forehead wasn’t really covering his forehead.

“Are you losing your hair?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” he said disgustedly. “And I’m only 23, Mom!”

But Davis knew, just as I did, the sad reality. He’s inherited his dad’s hair genes.

When I met David, he was 28 and already balding. It made him appear way too serious for me. Only 21, just out of college, I wasn’t ready for someone who looked like he could have three kids, a dog, and a minivan! And it didn’t help that he smoked cigars and liked expensive wine.

But luckily, we stayed connected. It took me a while, but I finally realized what a treasure David was.

Fortunately, bad hair genes isn’t the only thing Davis has inherited from his dad. He’s also got David’s level of maturity and generosity of spirit. His compassion. His ability to thoughtfully weigh a situation before he speaks.

And, observing him in Nome, I noticed something else.

Faced with an unusual and challenging environment, Davis adapted. Very well.

Better than I would have to such a harsh, frigid climate in an isolated place that gets down to as little as 3 ½ hours of daylight in December.

I certainly admired him for that. I probably would have hibernated in my room and slunk into a depression.

But not Davis. He immersed himself in the culture and the community. Joined their indoor sports teams. Helped out at community functions. Accepted invitations for traditional outdoor activities.

And he got to know the people. To pay attention to their customs and their culture. To their traditions. Their way of living.

While interviewing me for his audio blog, he shared that what had most impacted him about Alaska wasn’t the difficulty of living in the darkness. Or living without his active social life and cable TV.

It was the people. The folks in the communities and villages he’s visited.

Many live with very limited income. In the outlying villages, many are poor. They live without even basic infrastructure. Some have difficulty finding potable water. Yet they share with him whatever they have.

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He says that, going forward, it’s the generosity of the people and their simple way of living that have inspired him to do something meaningful with his life. To live more simply and appreciate the little things. To recognize that consumption at the expense of others is not the answer.

Of course, Davis is my son, too. And a lot of what he described sounded like words that came out of my mouth not that long ago in describing the poor I’d met at the U.S-Mexico border.

The generosity and simplicity of people who have so little.  Their faith and joy of living.

Oftentimes they are people living in the shadows. The poor. The undocumented. Those living on the margins of society. Or in tiny villages in western Alaska.

Already, Davis knows that life isn’t just about him and his needs or wants. He has an ability to see “the other” and be open to those who are different from himself.  To open his mind and heart to understand their lives. And to want to use his gifts and talents to make a positive contribution.

What more could a mother ask for her child?

So, yes, Davis did get his dad’s genes. He’ll have to deal with the premature hair loss. But he’s gotten so much more out of the deal. I believe he’s gotten the best of both of us.

NOTE: You can catch Davis’s interview of me on his audio blog at: http://www.knom.org/wp/blog/2017/03/03/impressions-of-nome-from-a-visitor-a-majestic-place-pauline-hovey-says/

 

The Gift of Esther

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I can’t believe I’m writing this. Esther died today.

Less than three weeks ago she came into my room at Grandview house and said she had some news. Esther never even ventured into my room, so when she pulled out a chair and sat down, right away I knew this was serious. She told me she had cancer and it had spread throughout her body. I was in shock. We all were.

Esther was the Sister of St. Joseph with whom I’d been living since I arrived in El Paso in early December. Over the past few months she’d been losing weight. I thought it was due to the stress of managing this big house by herself. Although I was helping as much as I could, having volunteers coming and going every two weeks or more, trying to feed them all, keep the house clean, and manage the bills, all seemed like a huge responsibility to me. And I wasn’t 70+ years old.

Then Esther had developed this unrelenting back pain on top of the weight loss. Still I didn’t attribute it to anything serious. Esther was just too spunky and vibrant. A former phys ed teacher, she’d often break into song. Remembering a show tune or classic that somehow related to the situation at the moment, she’d simply start singing. Not the least self-conscious at all. Even though she rarely got through the first line or verse before forgetting the rest.

I found this endearing.

So was her addiction to doing the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. Whenever I came down to breakfast, I knew if I sat down with her, I could expect to be drilled.

“How many letters?” I’d ask.

But she’d already have moved on to belting out the next clue. It was too much for my mind that early in the morning. Sometimes I’d eat my cereal in my room.

The thing is, I love Esther. But at first, I wasn’t even sure I liked her.

When I came to live at Grandview house, she questioned me. She didn’t understand why I had left everything behind. What was I looking for? More than once she told me she could never do what I was doing. And she wasn’t too keen on the idea that I was writing three days a week instead of working every day with the immigrant families at the hospitality center where all the other volunteers at Grandview spent their time. So, I offered to give her one full day a week of chores to help towards my room and board.

Still, I don’t think she trusted me. Or my ability to live like a missionary and adjust to the situation. Our relationship didn’t exactly start out on stable ground.

But as she saw how I adapted to making meals with whatever lay stored in the cupboard, how I rarely asked for anything, how I was available whenever she needed me, she eased up. And I grew less resentful. Prayer helped. So did my commitment to being there.

And then, very subtly, Spirit slipped in and taught me how to open my heart to this woman. Showed me how to see her more clearly. Like the night Esther shared her faith story with me. How she’d been a teacher for years, focusing on herself, before she experienced a grace-filled moment that changed her life and caused her to join a religious congregation.

The day Esther handed me a large sum of cash to manage groceries because she had to be away from the house for several days, I thought I’d cry. It was more than the fact that she trusted me. Without saying a word about it, I knew we’d grown fond of each other.

By the time my birthday came around at the end of March, she was asking me what I’d choose if I could have my favorite meal. And then she went and bought fresh tuna steaks and told me to invite a friend to dinner. This from a woman who had worried aloud more than once about what the grocery bill was running.

As Esther grew weaker, I felt especially blessed to be at Grandview. I actually enjoyed lugging the trash cans up and down the steep driveway every week. And pulling the weeds popping up out of the pavement and along the hillside. It would have been easy to stay there longer.

The morning I’d packed up my car and was ready to head out of El Paso, Esther and the other Sisters at the house gathered round to bless me on my way. The beauty of this gift — Esther had prepared the blessing. When I looked into her eyes to say goodbye, I recognized my own heart.

Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March

Esther surrounded by Emerson College students visiting the border in March

I’m treasuring Esther’s gift tonight.

The Risk of Being a Family

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Michoacan panorama

 

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.

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A street in the center of Michoacan

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.

Repulsive image, but a common occurrence in Michoacan

Repulsive image of a pregnant woman and others hung from a welcome sign, but a common occurrence in Michoacan

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?

Logo from the nonprofit One Family

Logo from the nonprofit One Family

Angels in Anapra

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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.

a hillside road outside the therapy center

a hillside road outside the therapy center

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.
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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.

Sr. Mary Beth plays with our new friends

Sr. Mary Beth plays with our new friends

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.

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My life has been full of hellos and goodbyes. Especially over the last five years. Some goodbyes more traumatic than others. I’ve noticed that the more I open my heart, the more emotions I feel when it’s time to say goodbye.

Like now.

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Today was my last full day in Mexico City. I have come to care for the people I have met here. No matter that it’s only been two weeks. Our little group of four missionaries and Tere, our director, have become close. And here I am saying goodbye again and feeling the sadness of separation. Yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Last night Sr. Carmelita, my spiritual companion while I’ve been here and a sweet and compassionate soul, shared photos from her three years serving in Mongu in Zambia. The dark faces of the children, eyes shining with wonder and joy, captured me. When Sr. Carmelita expressed how sad she felt to leave them, I understood.

How could she feel otherwise? She had opened her heart and loved them. But now she was needed somewhere else.

And that’s the life of a missionary, too. You open your heart and let them all in. And then after a while, you move on.

So you learn to make your heart your home. A good friend told me recently that that’s what I am learning to do. I hope I am. And I hope that, like Sr. Carmelita, my internal home will be overflowing with all the people I have taken in. With tears and joy and everything in between.

So, as I say goodbye, I’d like to share some photos of my temporary physical home with the sisters here in San Angel, Mexico City, with love:

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Above photos are some scenes on the convent grounds.and below, around town.

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