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.
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.
A house filled with women in their 70’s. That’s where I’m living now. No, it’s not a retirement village or an assisted-living community. Located on the outskirts of downtown El Paso, this boarding house belongs to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, who reopened it recently to welcome volunteers coming to the border to work with the influx of immigrants. It just so happens that all the current residents are in their 70’s. Except me, of course.
I’m also the sole lay person at the moment. And the only one who has ventured here on her own, listening to a call within to write about the issues related to immigration, along with the personal stories. Stories of those who’ve made it across the border and those who serve them. There’s a lot to tell.
Heartbreaking stories for sure. But heartwarming stories, too. Stories about the goodness of people. Something I witness every day in El Paso.
Like these retired Sisters who come from all over the country, leaving their communities, and the comfortable and familiar, to spend two weeks or more volunteering at Nazareth Hall, a welcoming center for the refugees and immigrants detained at the border.
The dedication at Nazareth Hall is amazing. The place is run entirely by volunteers. And has been since June when the Loretto Sisters opened it in response to the influx of women and children from Central America.
Once Immigration and Customs Enforcement releases the immigrants from detention, an agent brings them over to Nazareth Hall. Then volunteers help reunite them with their families as they await their court date. Some might have to stay the night; some maybe two nights or more until their relatives can secure their travel arrangements. As they wait, these immigrant families — mostly young mothers and children — are given meals, a shower, and clothing. And they are treated with kindness and compassion. Maybe for the first time on their journey.
Generous El Pasoans volunteer to make and deliver meals, take home bedding and towels to wash, donate clothing and hygiene necessities, cover a night shift, and provide rides every day to the bus station or airport. But they can’t do it all.
That’s why a call went out to women religious nationwide to join this effort.
From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., these Sisters — some of them well into their late 70’s — are on their feet, other than a short break for lunch. They clean bedrooms and bathrooms, serve meals and clean up, and accompany guests to the showers and to the clothing room where a mom chooses a coat or sweater or second set of clothes from neatly organized piles of donations sorted by size and gender. No one ever takes more than they need. And they are always grateful. For everything.
This week I started volunteering at Nazareth Hall. I want to be with the people. They’ll teach me what it really means to live with uncertainty. To do what needs to be done without complaining. And to trust in the generosity of strangers to show up. Maybe just when you need it most.
Up until now I’ve had the surety of a place to lay my head. The security of room and board. That all changed when, a little over a month ago, I decided to pursue the possibility of serving a different ministry than the one I started out with here in San Antonio. Still with Incarnate Word Missionaries, but in a different capacity.
Since arriving last July, I have been discerning and questioning, why am I here? I found the ministry in transition, with only one mom and child to serve, and, for various reasons, I clearly felt it wasn’t the best use of my gifts and talents. Most importantly — my heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t experiencing joy in the sacrifices that I’d made to be here. Yet, I knew that joy was possible. I’d felt it in El Paso.
Then I discovered Women’s Global Connection. Also a ministry of Incarnate Word Missionaries, WGC supports projects empowering women in countries like Zambia and Peru. And they had a need for a writer. It seemed like a good alternative.
So, I spoke to the director of the program and the Sisters in my current ministry and we all agreed. I should move on. The Sisters gave me until the end of October to get situated in the new ministry. I thought a month was plenty of time.
Until I realized that housing would be an issue.
It seems the only “official” housing for lay missionaries here is associated with the program I’m leaving. That means other Sisters, another intentional community, or some kind person would have to be willing to take me in. The director of the program searched for housing options for me. I searched too. By the end of the month, nothing had materialized.
But that’s not a bad thing. Because as the deadline drew near, it pushed me to go deeper into my heart. And ask those tough questions. Again. Questions like, what is the best use of my gifts and talents? What do I really want? What is my purpose here?
The response pointed me back to El Paso. Where a piece of my heart remains.
Although I needed to take this risk in coming here, San Antonio is not where I’m meant to land. Another, and greater, risk is being asked of me now. I hear my heart telling me to stop holding back. To acknowledge and trust my gifts. To use them in the service of others. Especially my writing.
And I hear the voice calling me back to serve on the border. And write about the issues that need our attention. Issues that need a compassionate voice. The issues of immigration. And human trafficking. And the lives of those impacted by the decisions we make every day.
It will mean taking an even greater risk, though, because I don’t know how I’ll support myself. I don’t yet know for sure who will take me in. I have the possibility of a place to stay beginning in December. But lots of unanswered questions remain. Can I trust my inner authority? Can I trust the God who brought me here? This Loving Presence that wants me to realize the fullest expression of who I am? I’m on this adventure with God. Heading toward something I can’t reason or explain. And sometimes I do feel scared.
I wonder, isn’t this the definition of faith?
Speaking of faith…
With my other ministry ended, I started serving Women’s Global Connection, which I’ll continue doing through the month of November. The Sisters have graciously allowed me to stay in this apartment a little longer than October 31st, but I need to move by the end of the week. I couldn’t have told you for sure where I was going to be sleeping next week.
Until today. One of the staff at WGC offered me a room in her house for the month. Talk about getting what you need when you need it!
Now I have a safe place to lay my head for another month. It’s something I always used to take for granted.
But on those nights when I started feeling anxious, wondering where I’d wind up, I thought again about the children at the border — those migrating with their moms and those traveling alone. I wonder if they will be so fortunate. How many of them will have a safe place to lay their head tonight?
I have nearly completed my two-week orientation in Mexico City with Incarnate Word missionaries. Long days packed with teachings by various credentialed instructors on everything from understanding one’s identity and Liberation theology to the spiritual concepts of interior cultivation.
My knees speak to me every night, wondering when I’m going to pick up my exercise routine and yoga poses again. And my healthy, nearly vegetarian diet learned the word “adios” soon after we arrived.
But despite the changes and adaptations, and the continued uncertainty of how things will go while I’m away from home, I am happy to be here. What I feel and hear and experience resonates within me that this is where I belong. The three-day retreat we recently had at a Benedictine Monastery in Cuernavaca only reaffirmed my decision. During the silence, while wandering the beautiful grounds, I discovered yet another metaphor in yet another tree — I have a thing for trees — about the gift of not resisting, of being willing to go underground and hang out in the darkness for awhile, just as the seed does. What emerges will be completely new and surprising — like the humongous, glorious tree that stood before me.
Tomorrow is our commissioning, or sending-off, ceremony. I feel excited and joyful while still unsure of what’s ahead. What will life be like as a missionary in San Antonio? What will I encounter along the way? How will I deal with the anxiety and loneliness that’s certain to arise? These are questions I cannot answer now. Just as we have been taught this week, all I can do is be present. Present to what is here. Now. And this is exactly where God is.
A week ago Sunday I was having breakfast with my son — our last meal together for a long time. Davis chose to take me to Mother’s Cupboard, a “hole in the wall” diner popular with the locals in Syracuse. This little shack didn’t look like much on the outside, but inside the place was packed with families, loud chatter, ambiance, and memories. The latter seemed odd since I’d never stepped foot in the place before. But its familiarity struck me as soon as we entered.
In the early years of our marriage, David and I would travel regularly to his hometown of Oswego to visit his failing grandmother. Our favorite breakfast eatery was Wade’s Diner, which, other than being larger than Mother’s Cupboard, was exactly like it in every way. Right down to the toasted, freshly made raisin bread I noticed as the waitress whizzed by us, balancing plates laden with cholesterol-producing delights.
Davis and I sat at the counter behind the grill where I got a great view of the action. Two middle-aged men with tattoos running the length of their arms worked in tandem as they shoveled home fried potatoes, flipped pancakes the size of dinner plates, and poured omelets onto the sizzling black surface that stretched out before us. I sat there taking it all in and smiling inside, as if I’d just been given a priceless gift. And I had.
Davis could not have known how this place would affect me. Even now it’s hard to describe. More than a fun similarity, eating this familiar food in this very familiar place, my son beside me, gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance, as if David’s spirit was letting me know that our son was going to be OK here. No need to worry. He’s being watched over. It’s something I’ve experienced before — this spiritual awareness. And it increases my faith just a little bit each time. That faith is what has allowed me to let go of my son, again and again.
I have to say, though, it wasn’t easy leaving him behind that Sunday. Because unlike when I brought Davis up to Syracuse University to begin his freshman year, this time I was leaving him, and our home, and our life as we have known it. Closing up shop, so to speak, and taking off for another adventure of sorts, this time to serve for at least a year, and asking Davis to be okay with that, to take care of himself. See ya, son. I’m heading to Texas.
During the 8-plus-hour drive back to Virginia I struggled with lots of emotions, some guilt, a little regret over not bringing him more supplies for the house he’s sharing, and lots of sadness over the separation. I cried much of the way home. But at some point in the midst of my sobbing, I suddenly considered how my letting go of my son was nothing like the letting go that the mothers of these unaccompanied children traveling from Central America through Mexico have had to endure. As a mother, my heart opened to these women’s pain and worry, and my own sorrow lessened.
I believe that every loving mother understands that no one lets go of her child easily. Even when we know our children are going someplace safe and necessary to start their own life, our hearts ache when the time of separation has come. But what would it take to send your child out the door to travel across several countries, through dangerous situations, not knowing whether they will be abused along the way or even make it alive?
For me, the answer is simple. A mother would have to believe that the risks her child would take on this journey were worth it compared to life at home. And, just as I experienced with Davis, she must have faith that her child would be taken care of. The Hispanic women I’ve met have tremendous faith, and a strong sense of family. They would do anything for their children. Even at the cost of an indefinite, or permanent, separation.
Time and again people I spoke with in El Paso who worked with children in detention centers spoke of the violence and poverty of their young lives. Yet I’ve not seen one political leader meet with and listen to the stories of these children who are streaming over the border now. Journalists use the word “humanitarian crisis,” but our politicians are not treating it as such.
I heard one governor on the news this morning say, “I empathize with the children, but…” Really? Does he even know what the word “empathy” means? The dictionary says it’s “the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings.” How can you share in something you don’t know anything about? Before we can “empathize” with anyone, we have to listen to their story.
I hope I sound as impassioned as I feel about this issue. I have come to see just how privileged my life is. Because I can make choices every day. I can choose where I want to take my son out to eat. I can choose what I want to eat every day. I can also choose to move 1,500 miles because the responsibility of caring for others is greater than my desire for being comfortable.
This week I spoke with Sr. Arlene, one of the sisters I stayed with while in Juarez, Mexico. In her ministry, she risks her life every day. I asked her why she stays in Juarez, amid the violence, the abject poverty, and the desolate landscape. Her response moved me to tears:
“In my experience when I walk with others in compassion, I have been led to places not of my choosing. I have learned that compassion does not allow one to be at peace with the comfortable.”
And those tears, for me, are a clue. A clue that I do, in fact, have a calling to serve those who won’t ever have the choices that I do. Those who will never experience the comfort of places like Mother’s Cupboard. But they can experience the spiritual comfort of a loving God. I can at least bring them that.
Driving home from Washington Dulles airport last March after my two months of service in El Paso, I experienced an odd thought: This isn’t home anymore.
Despite those gorgeous green mountains gathering around to welcome me, the lush countryside overpowering my senses after that dry, sandy El Paso landscape, and even the thought of my dog Cody whimpering and running around in circles to greet me, Virginia no longer felt like home.
I wondered — what exactly am I coming home to?
Recently I picked up the novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, to perhaps gain some insight from my friend Bilbo Baggins with whom I’d associated when I began this adventure. I found this line towards the end of the book, after Bilbo has returned home. Gandalf, the wizard who set Bilbo off on this adventure in the first place, could have easily been speaking these words to me:
“My dear Bilbo!” Gandalf tells him. “Something is the matter with you! You are not the hobbit that you were.”
No, indeed, I am not the hobbit that I was.
My journey to El Paso has changed my life. I knew it would even before I left. The question is—and has been for some time now—what is next for me? Yet I have asked this question with anticipation, hopefulness, and a spiritual awareness that I am being invited to something more.
I heard this invitation last year when I first visited El Paso for that week-long “border immersion” trip. And I felt the pull in my heart to respond to that invitation. That’s what got me back there.
Now I’ve heard, and responded to, another invitation. This one from the Incarnate Word Missionaries. Last week they invited me to be a lay missionary with their program in San Antonio beginning this August. It involves working with mostly Hispanic single moms and their children living in a transitional housing program called Visitation House. The name of the house refers to “the visitation” of Mary, who having just said “yes” to God’s plan of giving birth to Jesus, embarks on a long journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is several months pregnant after many years of wanting a child.
This is symbolic for me on many levels, not the least of which is a dream I had while serving in El Paso. In this dream, I find myself pregnant, at my age, with a new life that I feel unprepared—and unwilling—to handle at this point. Until the baby is born and I am cradling him in my arms. Looking into this newborn’s eyes, I feel such immense love. In that moment, every fear, every doubt, every apprehension simply melts away. And I totally accept this new life.
The day before I said yes to this invitation from Incarnate Word Missionaries, I spent some time in silence, to simply listen and be present to God. I wanted to be sure, after all. I mean this is no small commitment. It involves risk. Starting someplace new. Stepping into the unknown. And opening my heart even further.
Afterwards, while sitting in that silence, I pick up one of the books in my prayer space: Ted Loder’s The Haunt of Grace, and inadvertently turn to a chapter called “New Rules of Engagement.”
When I see that the chapter is about how Joseph in the New Testament had taken a risk by marrying Mary, I almost stop reading. How does this apply to me, I wonder. But something entices me to continue. Then Loder talks about the angel in Joseph’s dream, and how we have our own angel telling us the same thing: “Do not be afraid. Listen to your deepest longing for love, for meaning, for relationships that are deep, trusting, satisfying, challenging, and joyful, for a world of justice and peace and beauty. In a haunting way, our dreams call us to engagement, to move from the outskirts to the center of our lives.”
I hear that message deep within me. Don’t be afraid to take the risks. Don’t be afraid to step into the center of your life. Don’t be afraid to follow your longing.
But then Loder quotes lines from a poem called, The Invitation, by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and I hear Spirit speak directly to my inner being:
“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive…
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silence of the full moon, ‘Yes!’
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.”
So, I said yes to this invitation. I am ready to trust my deepest longing. To love and serve something greater than myself. To stand in the center of the fire. And feel fully alive.
Last week as I read the news of Philip Seymour’s death, my own internal questions, stirring within me since I arrived in El Paso, intensified. Questions about what it means to fulfill one’s purpose, how to discern one’s calling, and then step off the edge into the unknown to bring it forth into the world with courage and perseverance. I thought of this talented actor, how he embodied his characters, gave his all to the craft of acting. No matter how we judge his death, no matter how our minds view the circumstances and try to make sense of this tragedy, there’s one thing that stands out for me: how this man gave of himself to the cause of acting, and in so doing, to fully living his life’s calling.
But when you give yourself fully to any cause: the cause of acting, the cause of writing, the cause of creating, and especially the cause of serving, you can at times feel used up. You see things not everyone sees. You feel at a deeper level. When you’re devoted to giving yourself to fully living, you come up against raw humanity.
The danger lies in not grounding ourselves in something larger than our small self. In realizing it’s not just about us. We need spiritual grounding. We need practices that take us beyond the world’s limited focus. Perhaps that’s what Mr. Seymour was missing. I don’t know.
But I do know that the people I have met working here at the U.S./Mexico border—and the religious sisters in particular—exemplify for me what it means to give your all to the cause of fully living. They define what it means to “live on the edge.” To live with passion. In the service of something greater than ourselves. They know that the work they do, the people they serve, the call they are answering, is not about them.
Like Sr. Lourdes, for example, whom I met through Border Women. A trained psychologist, she works with undocumented immigrant children who have been apprehended at the border and are sent either to detention facilities for unaccompanied youth, or if they are younger than 12, to transitional foster care centers, while their cases are being processed. Some are as young as four years old. And all are separated from their parents.
Wearing a bright blue Mexican-style dress, wisps of her dark hair detached from her ponytail and falling onto her face, Sr. Lourdes defies my image of a nun. Her eyes shine and she laughs easily. Until I ask about her work. “Some days,” she says, “I go home and cry.”
The children’s stories, their situation, their future. Day after day she’s up against that rawness. What carries her through? What keeps that fire in her eyes from dying out? Faith, prayer, and the support of her community, she tells me.
Then there’s Sr. Doris (I’m not using her real name to protect the victims whom she serves). She ministers to people who have been caught in human trafficking, both in the sex trade and forced labor. It’s hard to fathom how prevalent this is. According to statistics from the International Labor Organization, 20.9 million people become victims of human trafficking every year. As much as 1.2 million of them are children (source: End Childhood Prostitution and Slavery).
Some young people are captured during their trek to the border. Their guides, or “coyotes,” sell them. Some predators travel into Mexico luring women with the promise of work and a safe transport over the border. The women come, some of them wives and mothers seeking to support their family. Once they discover what they’ve actually been hired to do, they are threatened. The predator threatens to tell their family, to ruin their reputation, to physically hurt them. The women feel trapped. These are just some of the scenarios. There are many others.
Sometimes these women—and men—are fortunate enough to find their way out of such bondage. That’s where Sr. Doris enters in. Steeped in shame and poor self-esteem, the victims come to be with her for awhile before moving on in their newfound freedom. She listens. She soothes their pain. She reminds them of who they are — “a loved and valued child of God.”
Her gentle voice soothes my own soul as I hear her say this. I tell her what a gift her ministry is. “They are as much a gift to me,” she says. She smiles. I think I have just met an angel.
This week, Sr. Nancy is visiting us from Milwaukee. Within her first few days here, she, too, gave me a gift. I just “happened” to be sitting with her in a small gathering of women discussing the evolving face of their Franciscan order. Out of nowhere, Sr. Nancy says, “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘if you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.’”
I had to laugh. I feel as though I’ve been standing on the edge for several months now. Wanting to step off, the spark within me longing to be ignited. Apparently, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.
For Sr. Nancy, just as with all those I’ve been meeting, standing on the edge means living with passion. And at 79-years old, she still exudes that fire. Whether she’s championing for just immigration reform or helping a retired sister transition to assisted living, her passion is being present to what she is doing in the moment, in the service of God.
I see that in her. And I also see that possibility in me.
The other day we were at Mass together. During the kiss of peace, Sr. Nancy leaned into me and whispered, “Step off the edge, Pauline.”