I had Davis to myself for nearly five days over the Christmas holiday. That has to be a first.
Usually, whenever he’s home, he has friends to catch up with, numerous social engagements to attend, and at least one overnighter at a best friend’s house. But I’m not in Virginia anymore.
Here in El Paso, he had nothing on his social calendar except visiting me.
Despite my glee, I wasn’t stingy with him. I didn’t hoard his attention. I shared him with El Paso.
After all, he was the first of my intimate circle of family and friends to visit, and I was anxious to show him around. To introduce him to life at the border and expose him to the people and places that mean so much to me. I wanted to give him the full effect.
And I hoped he would understand.
On Christmas Eve, his first day, we attended the annual Las Posadas and intimate Christmas Eve Mass and dinner at Annunciation House – a hospitality house for migrants and refugees that has been operating for 40 years in downtown El Paso. Entirely run on donations and volunteers, the building is old, but it’s filled with the precious hearts and stories of those who have passed through its doors.
This was Davis’s first Las Posadas. He didn’t seem to mind as we walked the street, knocking on doors, singing in Spanish – a language he doesn’t know. We followed a little girl posing as Mary, a lace shawl draped around her head, accompanied by her raggedy-dressed Joseph – both of them real-life refugees.
When we gathered back at Annunciation House, he didn’t seem to mind the peeling paint and cracked walls. Or that he had to stand during the service because there weren’t enough seats. He toured the house with one of the 20-something year-old volunteers who’ve made a year-long commitment to work and live here, and he asked thoughtful questions. He listened to fellow volunteers share stories about what this place means to them.
Then we ate a simple Christmas Eve meal of Posole, a traditional Mexican stew made with hominy, while sitting on a hard bench alongside refugees from the Congo, Guatemala, and Honduras. Davis even scrounged up the courage to practice his French with the African woman. Not knowing either English or Spanish, she had been silent until he engaged her in conversation.
The next morning at breakfast I asked what he thought about our unique Christmas Eve celebration.
Without hesitation, he said, “I can see God is present here.”
As he spoke of the volunteers’ commitment to the people, of all the “good” and the generosity he’d witnessed, my heart filled.
He’d seen what I’d wanted him to see. After only one day!
During the rest of his trip, in quiet moments, Davis asked questions about his dad. He wanted to remember the quirky aspects of David’s personality. Hear more about his father’s childhood and the early days of our marriage.
I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I became acutely aware of David’s presence in our conversations. I felt immense warmth and gratitude.
I never wanted Davis to suffer this loss at such a young age, in the middle of the most important stage of his relationship with his father. Yet I know he is wiser because of this experience. His life is richer, his insights deeper, his compassion more genuine.
It’s what enabled him to stand in this place at the border with me and see what I see. With an awareness and understanding that comes from the heart.
Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who’s worked with gang members in LA for 30 years and wrote the best seller Tattoos on the Heart, spoke about this in a recent interview with Krista Tippett. He says that “standing in the lowly place with the easily despised and the readily left out,” he finds more joy, kinship, mutuality. He’s discovered that “the measure of our compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship.”
Sometimes that kinship comes in the guise of wounds.
As one of Fr. Boyle’s homies, who’d been abused and beaten throughout his childhood, explained, “How can I help the wounded if I don’t welcome my own wounds?”
So, we have to welcome our wounds. These hurting places within us. And I think if we are not afraid to acknowledge them, and know that we are loved unconditionally in them, we will be better able to stand in that “lowly place” offering kinship to those whom society considers dismissible, disposable.
And we will see with different eyes. The eyes that saw what Davis saw in El Paso.
As the darkest day of the year approaches, I’m finding hope in the darkness.
My own darkness, that is.
I’ve been silent because it’s been hard to put words on a page. Hard to express what I’ve been experiencing.
A couple of months ago I entered a darkness, a place where I felt hopelessly negative and stuck. And it was painful.
Despite the pain, I recognized it as an invitation from Spirit. Draw near. Delve deeper. There’s more to discover. More that hinders you from fully realizing all that you are in Me.
So, I reached out for help.
I’ve no idea where this will take me, but I’m willing to go deeper. I’m willing because I believe my faithfulness in saying yes to this invitation will allow the manifestation of what longs to be born in me.
“The birth of the Word in the soul,” as my Living School teacher Jim Finley puts it. Through our fidelity to these yeses, to what shows up unexpectedly in our lives, Christ is incarnate in the world, he says.
But, for now, I sit in the Advent season of expectant darkness.
I sit in the silence and wait. I wait because there is nowhere else to go. I wait with hopefulness, with the courage and trust it takes to say yes. To accept what is before me. And I wait with an awareness that infinite Love is loving me in this place. And a recognition that this, too, is part of my spiritual journey.
I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. Each of us has our own moments of waiting in darkness. Sometimes it’s dealing with a chronic illness. Emotional pain. An unexpected medical diagnosis. The death of a loved one. Separation from one’s children.
Here at the border we’ve been getting more asylum seekers lately. We’re especially seeing an increase in refugees from African countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, and Cameroon, where violence has caused many to flee. I’ve begun visiting a few of these young men detained in the El Paso detention facility while they await their court date. They are not much older than my own son. Every one of them has had life-threatening experiences to get here. And every one of them has been separated from their families. If they are sent back, they will be killed.
I wonder how they remain hopeful. How they say yes to the darkness.
One young man I visit tells me his mother knows nothing about where he is. She doesn’t know if he’s safe, or even alive. I think of what that must be like for her – waiting for news. Wondering and worrying. Is she able to say yes to this darkness? To accept this part of her journey?
I think of Finley’s words: “… your ongoing yes is the incarnation.”
And then I recall a very young woman so many years ago. Her willingness to say yes with courage and trust to what presented itself in the silent darkness led to the incarnation. The birth of Christ in the world.
In the silent darkness of the night, no matter how dark, no matter how uncertain, God speaks the Word in the soul.
Like Mary, fidelity to that yes is my journey, too. It is changing my life.
Life’s water flows from darkness.
Search the darkness, don’t run from it.
Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.
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.