It happened to me again. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
When the subject came up, I felt a familiar passion rising in me, seemingly out of nowhere.
And it wasn’t like I had instigated it.
The incident happened last weekend.
I was at a gathering of people from my church community when a woman I hadn’t seen in about two years came up to me. She wanted to know how my “mission” at the border had turned out.
Wow. The border. After just having spent several weeks in Bolivia and being back home in Virginia for a year, that experience seemed so far away. And yet it didn’t. Because as soon as I started to talk about the border, I was right there again.
I didn’t know where to begin. How to tell her everything I had witnessed. How to share the stories of the people. How to explain the misinformation and downright lies that have been spreading across this country about immigrants.
But her friend cut in. “I don’t have anything against immigrants, as long as they come here legally.”
And I could tell by looking at her face that this woman had no interest in what I had to say on the subject.
Our mutual friend — the woman who’d engaged me in this conversation — looked sympathetic. But then she admitted that she agreed with her friend.
I felt myself reacting to such a blanket statement that puts the problem in a neat little box. “If they want to come here, they should follow the rules.”
I started to argue that, yes, we need rules and regulations but do you know what it takes to get here legally? And how impossible it is for many people who are desperate? That what we really need is immigration reform to fix our broken system. But I’d lost her, too.
So, I stopped talking.
But inside, I felt the fire again. I experienced again the injustices of what’s happening.
And how ignorant we are of our role and responsibility.
And how American companies — privately-run detention facilities are just one example — benefit off the backs of immigrants.
And how the migrant poor, who have clearly suffered a lot, have more faith and generosity than I’ve ever had. I remembered their stories and their faces.
And I remembered again why I say that I can’t be at peace with a completely comfortable lifestyle anymore.
And why I can never not listen to my heart again. I’ve experienced too much to go back.
Recently, when I was on the plane heading from Bolivia to Miami, I discovered one of the Maryknoll priests I knew from Cochabamba was on the same flight. We chatted for a while about Bolivia, the people, the culture, the poverty.
“You will never be the same,” he said.
Little did he know. God had already awakened my heart. Three years ago. In the border town of El Paso.
I haven’t been the same since.
A new baby arrived last week at the orphanage. When I got there on Wednesday, I found her sleeping in a crib — a tiny dark-haired bundle wrapped in a yellow blanket. She was less than one week old.
Her name was printed in black magic marker on the placard above her crib. The women who work at the Salomon Klein orphanage named her. Abandoned, she came with nothing. No first or last name. No birth date. They think she was born on Easter Sunday.
When I changed Adriana’s diaper, I noticed the brown remains of her umbilical cord. What a way for this precious new life to begin.
But the sad truth is, Adriana’s situation is not unusual. During the four weeks I volunteered, three new babies appeared. Either they’d been abandoned or removed from an unsafe home. Now their home is a room lined with cribs filled with babies and toddlers under 2. There aren’t enough arms to cradle these children. Not enough voices to coo their names and let them believe, even for a little while, that the world revolves around them.
That’s what I normally try to do. But, for whatever reason, this day was different.
I changed more diapers than usual. Rubbed ointment onto red, raw bottoms and wondered how many more little ones lay in their cribs or sat in the play yard with wet, coarse cloth wrapped around their behinds waiting for someone to discover their need. But I couldn’t keep up while tending to tears and keeping toddlers from crawling on top of each other.
The mood was anything but tranquilo.
Babies who normally lay quietly in their cribs cried uncontrollably. I picked them up, one after another, cooing, cradling, calling their names, but the crying didn’t stop. My friend and fellow volunteer noticed the reason first.
“Look at the time,” she said. “They’re hungry.”
It was nearly 5:30 p.m. Well past the time for their second bottle. We mentioned it to one of the staff and she said the bottles were coming. But not soon enough.
During the next 15 to 20 minutes, my friend and I tried to console inconsolable babies. We carried them around the room, rocked them, sang to them. Feeling helpless all the while. We both remarked that this must be what it’s like for migrant and refugee mothers who can’t feed their hungry children. The experience was short-lived, but very vivid. It has stayed with me.
And, it brought another insight. Something even more powerful.
As I held little Pablo, his tiny mouth quivered, he was crying so hard. He couldn’t hear my voice calling his name so sweetly. With his eyelids squeezed shut, his face tight with the pangs of hunger, he couldn’t possibly take in the love I was offering him. His hunger and pain were too great.
Now I understand.
This is how it must be for a loving God who is trying to get through to me when I am hurting. Because I was hurting and crying out in Cochabamba. I’d experienced some painful challenges, and I felt abandoned and alone. But like these children, my hunger and pain kept me from recognizing the presence of the love that’s been holding me through all of it. I couldn’t see it with my eyes squeezed shut.
And like I did for these children, the One who longs for me simply held me in my spiritual blindness.
This love is so patient. It is kind and compassionate. It is willing to wait with me. Until I finally take in what I need. What it’s been offering all along.
Nearly a dozen orphaned babies. Another 14 or so toddlers less than 2-years old. Put them together with my desire to be una abuela (grandma) and you have the perfect scenario at the Solomon Klein orphanage where I volunteer two afternoons a week.
With only two women working full time to care for 25 or so little ones, it’s easy to imagine that diapers don’t always get changed immediately, tears don’t get dried, and hugs and loving arms tend to be in short supply. From what I’ve witnessed, the staff does a super job. But they can’t possibly manage all of the children’s physical and emotional needs.
Here’s where I come in.
Along with a few other Maryknoll volunteers and one tireless nun in her 70’s who shows up Monday through Friday afternoons, I help feed, hold, play with and care for these children, many of whom have been abandoned at a very early age. One little angel was only a week old when he arrived at the orphanage after being discovered on the street. Unfortunately, his story isn’t unique.
And if it’s not a case of being abandoned, most likely the child was removed from a home where he or she was being abused. Apparently it happens a lot. About 150 children live in this one orphanage alone.
It’s a sad and difficult situation. But when I’m there, I don’t think about that. My only focus — who needs to be cared for in this moment? Whose nose needs to be wiped? Which baby can I cradle in my arms while she drinks from a bottle that is usually propped up against her mouth with her blanket because it is impossible for two women to hold and feed 11 babies while managing all their other responsibilities? Which toddler most needs to know that his cries for attention will be answered by a soft caress to his wet cheeks?
Actually I have learned how to tend to multiple pequeño niños while simultaneously soothing a baby in one arm. I’m amazed at what I can do with only two hands, two arms, one voice, and one heart.
And there’s something else I’ve learned. I’m here for another reason besides giving much-needed love and attention to these children. I’m here for myself. Because every once in a while when I look into the eyes of a baby I’m holding or stroke a toddler’s face and hair, I get it. The gift of Love I’m giving to these children is trying to get through to me, too. To the vulnerable, young one who needs to remember. It’s as if God is saying, “Do you see, this is what I long to offer you?”
Just as tenderly as I hold them, Loving Presence desires to hold me.
Sometimes I have a hard time fully taking that in. But this Love never gives up on me. Even when I’m so active or self-absorbed that I barely take time to be still and know.
Am I physically tired after spending 3 1/2 hours rocking, singing, cooing, caressing, playing, and listening to wailing children? For sure. But for the gift of healing, and the love of a child, it’s more than worth it.
Another beautiful day in Cochabamba.
Beginning my third week here, where the sun has shown every day, with brief showers passing through. The climate is ideal. Fruit is plentiful and sweet. Green mountains tower over rooftops in all directions. And I stumble across parks on my daily walks, no matter which direction, or how far, I go. An abundance of colors, odors, plants, and people confront me everywhere I turn. This city is fully alive with the richness of life — and all its contrasts. And I love it.
With so much to share and not much time to write — at least not in English — the best I can do for now is offer brief descriptions. Some of these really merit their own separate story, like my first experience using the public bathroom at La Concha — a huge, open-air market that stretches for miles and sells everything that you might want or need, from fresh produce to electronics. Let’s just say the public toilet there involves being very aware and open-minded.
Here’s a taste of my first two weeks:
The absolute beauty of the parks and the grounds of the Maryknoll language school. Both are your frequent hang outs. There’s something about being in the midst of such an abundance of flowers and trees.
Three things you can always find at those lovely parks: stray dogs, young lovers, and basura (trash).
The campesinos — poor indigenous who come from the countryside. Every day they’re out on the streets working, from morning until night, washing other people’s laundry and cars in the canal, selling their fruit or papas (potatoes) and carne (meat) from their stands, spreading their bright blankets on the sidewalk to display their wares, often with little children in tow.
Homeless dogs roaming the streets. One even walked up and down the aisles at church this morning. Guess he was hoping some good soul would have pity on him. I have no idea where these dogs find food and water.
Chicken at almost every meal — except breakfast. Meals usually consist of potatoes and rice, carne (meat), tomatoes and onions (which my host family considers to be vegetables). Whatever we don’t eat for almuerzo (the big meal at lunch time), is served again for la cena (dinner).
No salads. For health reasons, we’ve been told not to eat the lettuce here. For someone like me who’s accustomed to eating salads every day…let’s just say my body’s in rebellion mode right now.
Helado (homemade ice cream made from real fruit) sold throughout the city. It makes up for not being able to have salad. Sort of.
No hot water, except in the shower. But I am so grateful to have it there. If I can only have hot water in one place, that would be it.
Quechua women with black braids wearing white sombreros, their brightly striped shawls draped across their backs carrying babies hidden from view.
The Afro-Bolivian dancers we watched at a special celebration. I didn’t even know theses people existed.
Vendors driving slowly through the neighborhoods on Saturday mornings, calling out the fresh fruits they’re selling from the backs of their trucks: grapes, papayas, bananas, mangos. The mangos taste sweeter than any dessert.
More to come…if I can get the Internet connection to cooperate.
This is not my room in Cochabamba. But, it is basically all I have: a window with a desk lamp, a desk, and, of course, a bed. I wish I could say the view was this spectacular — and it certainly is from the street – but not from my bedroom. My room overlooks a walled-in area of housetops that allow me to spy down through curtainless windows into the imagined lives of my neighbors. If I step out onto the tiny balcony off my room, I can see the sky. But only if I look up.
Many times over these past two years all I’ve had to call my own is one room — that, and the familiar touchstones I’d brought along with me. You’d think it would get easier. But each time, I have to find my grounding, get centered in remembering who I am underneath any doubts, insecurities, or concerns that arise. And remember to trust what brought me here.
This time I’m adjusting not only to living in a stranger’s house, but to a different culture and country that speaks a language I know barely enough to get by. It feels huge.
And it also feels right.
The Bolivian culture is beautiful, alive, spiritual; the people warm and friendly. My host family lives in a middle-class neighborhood that boasts several parks with flowering plants, huge trees, and lush lawns. Yet I also witness much poverty around me as I walk to the Maryknoll language school every day.
All that I am witnessing reminds me that I have so much back home. Many more choices for a healthy diet. Much more space — and gorgeous space at that — to move around in than just one small and simple room. Yet each time I leave my home, I become more aware of how much I need to let go of that physical space in order to be free to fully live this calling on my heart.
Do I know what I’m doing? Not really. Or where I’m going? Heck no.
Do I trust what I’m doing, and where I’m going? Yes!
Let the adventure unfold.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If mothers ruled the world…
It’s a thought I’ve been mulling over this week. Especially after visiting Christina and the mothers of Anapra.
Because I’m realizing what I actually witnessed in that bleak barrio.
I recognized it in the mothers’ faces as they encouraged their children. In their laughter as they prepared a meal together, each one bringing what little food they had to contribute. In Christina’s inestimable patience as she methodically strove to teach letters and their pronunciations to the young girl limited to guttural sounds and eye movements.
I’d almost forgotten, until a few days ago, Christina’s words to me that morning. How at one point she stared straight into me, her eyes bright and alive, stopping everything she was doing, as if to stress the importance of what she was about to say.
“el Reino de Dios está aqui,” she said in her native Spanish. “The kingdom of God is here.”
She actually beamed.
But I didn’t respond. I simply brushed off her words.
Something inside me recoiled against the idea that this place of pain and poverty could possibly be the kingdom of God. In my small mind the kingdom of God doesn’t have any children with disabilities, children who will never be able to feed themselves or urinate without help. Children who live in such abject poverty, nobody knows for sure whether there’ll be something to eat tomorrow.
My child’s faith wants a God who makes it all better. A God who makes the bad stuff go away.
But these women offered me something much more real. They reminded me of what is possible when God shows up in the compassionate, courageous vulnerability of a mother’s heart.
Hope comes alive.
Children are accepted and loved not based on what they can or can’t do. They’re simply loved for who they are.
And meager portions of beans and rice and potatoes are turned into a delectable feast.
What if the world were ruled by a mother? I suspect there wouldn’t be a need for so many people to migrate to escape unrestrained violence, to find work to simply survive. All girls and women would be educated and treated fairly and respectfully for the treasured beings they are. The Earth would be revered. And children wouldn’t be deported back to a country where their safety is at risk.
Now there’s a kingdom I’d jump in line to be part of.
But, as Christina pointed out, that kingdom already does exist. We can find it in one another.
As I was mulling all of this over yesterday, I came across a prayer called “Human Mothers — Thinking of God as Divine Mother.”
From Prayers to She Who Is, by William Cleary, a book of prayers based on the theological writing of Elizabeth Johnson, author of She Who Is, it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Here’s a copy:
Whenever I consider God as Divine Mother, the image softens, nurtures, and cradles me wherever I am. Sometimes it’s obvious how much I still need a mother. How much the world does, too.
I’m sharing this post from Fr. Bill, a Columban priest from our mission in El Paso who is now visiting El Salvador, where he witnesses daily the very situations that are forcing people to leave their homes. This particular post describes the disheartening situation of people being deported back to the very life-threatening situations they risked fleeing.