Angels in Anapra

anapra mexico

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.
anapra Andrea (1)
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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The Risk of Juarez

Late afternoon on Friday, I’m spending my last day in February in one of the poorest sections of Juarez, Mexico. I have come to stay with three Franciscan sisters who live and work here so that I could learn more about them, their ministry, and why they would choose to live in such a place. They invited me, so I said yes, answering the call of both my inquisitive writer and compassionate heart. I know that this section of Mexico is not the safest –(I can hear the snorting and huge exhalation of carbon dioxide from some people reading this)–but many people live their lives in this kind of environment, the sisters among them.

Sisters Josefina and Carol have lived here five years, arriving in 2009, at the height of the drug cartel violence. Thousands of innocent people were being killed, victims of random shootings or mistaken identity (although this still happens but not to the degree it once did). While many people fled Mexico at that time, transporting their belongings across the bridge into El Paso, the sisters headed in the opposite direction carting furniture and other possessions to their new home. People were shocked. Why were the sisters moving into such a dangerous place? To understand, you’d have to know who these women are.

street outside the sisters’ door

They took up residence in a parish house in the second poorest colonia in all of Juarez. The neighborhood’s dirt roads are rocky and full of potholes. Many homes are crumbling stone facades. Graffiti plasters walls and storefronts and even the church building next door to where the sisters live. Signs of the gangs who live here.

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I asked Sr. Carol if she had any fears about coming here. She did. But she knew this was where she was called to be. The sisters have established a presence here. They walk the dusty streets visiting homes, bringing Eucharist, support, and God’s love. Through generous donations of people back in the United States, the sisters distribute food to 60 of the neediest of the needy families every month: portions of beans, rice, sugar, and oil. They march in demonstrations for justice and peace, in solidarity with the families who have lost their sons and daughters to the violence of the drug cartels.

Sr. Arlene, the third sister who lives here, works at the human rights center associated with the parish. Initially started as social outreach 12 years ago, as the violence escalated, along with the torture, it was clear the center needed to focus on human rights abuses. Since the police are the ones doing the torturing, acquiring forced confessions on fabricated charges, working theses cases can be tricky, to say the least. In 2011 the federal police raided the center, busting doors and removing files. They claimed they were chasing drug dealers.

When I first arrived here last night, Sr. Carol handed me a scrapbook she’d put together of photos and newspaper articles of their years here. The first page I turned to displayed a newspaper photo of a young man lying on the street, his face and chest splattered with blood — the sisters’ introduction to Juarez. I read the numbers of those who have been executed, the thousands of “forced disappearances.” So many innocent people tortured, killed, gone. From university students at a party at the wrong place and the wrong time, to mothers shot down in front of government buildings while protesting the wrongful and violent deaths of their sons. In 2012, 60,000 deaths were attributed to drug-related violence in Mexico.

It’s hard to fathom the intense grief of this country of mourning parents. As I read these cases, I feel my own mother’s heart. And yet I don’t let myself feel it too much. At least not in this moment here in the sisters’ house, sitting in their bright pink kitchen. But their statue of St. Francis greeting me at the doorway tells me that I will allow myself to feel this. He reminds me that only in taking the risk of opening my heart to feel will I truly connect with life. And with the God within.

St. Francis greets everyone entering the sisters' home
St. Francis greets everyone entering the sisters’ home

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Who Owns the Sky?

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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.