The Gift in El Paso



Call me crazy but I drove to El Paso this past weekend. 550 miles one way. A straight line right through the desert along I-10. And a speed limit of 80 mph all the way. Not that I drove that fast!

My reason for going? To begin the first of four weekend trainings in Capacitar — a multicultural wellness program that I wrote about in an earlier blog. Ever since I was exposed to Capacitar during my first visit to El Paso, I’ve been attracted to it and inspired by its founder Pat Cane. Capacitar — a Spanish word meaning “to empower, bring forth”— integrates body-mind-spirit practices to bring healing to people all over the world who have experienced trauma, violence, and emotional and physical stress. (You can read more about it at

Now I’ve been given an amazing opportunity to receive training and certification in this program, with the idea that I will bring it to others who need healing. Not only did I receive the assistance I needed to do this, but the sisters here in San Antonio allowed me to extend my weekend in order to take advantage of the program. I was pretty excited about how this all came together. My hope is that I can teach some of these practices to the women at our little learning center, La Casita.

But even more than feeling extremely grateful to be participating in the Capacitar training, I recognized the excitement growing in me as I drove closer and closer to El Paso.

As soon as I exited off I-10 onto Lee Trevino and headed to North Loop, I felt like I’d come home. The familiar roads. The bus route I’d taken, along with all my Hispanic neighbors. Even the Whataburger on the corner. I’d treated myself to a great chocolate shake there. I was smiling from ear to ear.

When I called my cousin in Austin to let her know I’d arrived safely, I couldn’t contain the feelings.

“I’m so happy to be here!” I blurted.

I heard her chuckle. “Nobody’s happy to be in El Paso.”

“Well, I am. My heart is happy here. It’s like being home.”

I’m sure I must have left a piece of my heart in El Paso when I left back in March. Certainly the sisters welcomed me as if I were home.

I talked to them nonstop through dinner, pouring out every detail of my journey to San Antonio. Where I am and what I’m doing. The questions and concerns that still remain.

They listened to all of it. Then one of them suggested something that struck a chord.

“Sounds to me like you’re in liminal space, Pauline.”

Hmm. Liminal space. I’d heard that term before.

Having read many books and reflections by Richard Rohr — a Franciscan and contemporary spiritual writer — I knew that liminal space meant that inbetween place where you feel like you’re teetering on the edge of a threshold, about to cross over into something yet unknown and unforeseen.

When I got back to San Antonio on Monday, I looked up Richard Rohr’s explanation of liminal space:

…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 

I’ve certainly lived through stages like that in my life. But this one feels different. It challenges me from a tougher place. Something in me knows that I will experience deeper spiritual growth and maturity. That is, if I can hang out long enough with the discomfort and the questions, not to mention my aversion to finding myself in this position. To be honest, I don’t like this version of living in liminal space.

To help me manage living here for a while, I’ve set some goals for myself:

  • Focus on the healing work of Capacitar
  • Learn Spanish while hanging out
  • Be open to the surprises, to whatever comes
  • Trust that God is with me in this
  • Look for the little graces every day —

Graces like this opportunity to participate in Capacitar. And the gift of being able to return to El Paso — at least every now and then.



Voices in the Desert

Me with some of  my students in front of Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza
Me with some of my students in front of Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza

The desert has spoken to my heart. In so many ways. Through so many people.

As I prepare to return to Virginia tomorrow, I’m finding it hard to convey the richness of my experiences, the warmth and generosity of the people, and the many powerful ways that they and this place have touched my heart during these two months.

I came with so many questions, doubts, uncertainty as to why my heart was calling me here and what I would do exactly. My Spanish was limited. My goals unclear. My future uncertain. I only knew I was following a fire in my heart. But I kept asking God why? Why have you put this on my heart? Answers evaded me.

Some time ago I realized I had stopped asking the questions.

I finally understood, deep within myself, that this is exactly where I was meant to be. Everyone and everything I encountered has been speaking to me. All have been teaching me, molding me, preparing me for the next step, whatever that may be. I still don’t know.

But this I do know.

I know that I cannot be silent. I will use my voice to speak of what I have witnessed here, to be a voice for others who can’t speak for themselves.

I know that I will not return to the same life I had before. It’s not possible. Something within me has changed.

I know I will carry in my heart the people I have met. People like the wonderful women to whom I taught English at Centro Mujeres de la Esperanza — a center where Hispanic women come to learn new skills and to share their stories. We have joked and laughed together, and they would greet me with hugs and kisses on the cheek. Their final goodbye involved a homemade chocolate cake layered with strawberries—my favorite—and gifts, and, of course, more food. They told me they will miss me. I already miss them.

Me in front of Las Americas
Me in front of Las Americas

People like Katie, the director of Las Americas, and her staff who work tirelessly to represent immigrants in their cases for asylum and other human rights issues. People like Victoria, “the bean lady”; Pat Cane, the founder of Capacitar; Sylvia, who shared her faith story with me and drove me around El Paso; and all the women I met at the detention center, at the Centro Santa Catalina sewing cooperative, and in the colonias. I’m especially thinking of one of the women I helped to study for her citizenship exam. A very bright young woman, who knew all 100 answers the very first time I quizzed her. Yet her anxiety as the exam date drew near caused her to begin making mistakes. Inspired by Capacitar, I taught her a spiritual practice to help ground and relax her. The morning of her exam, I prayed and anxiously awaited her phone call. But she never called. Instead she drove over to share the news with me in person. She had passed! We squealed like excited children. Before we parted, she told me she thanked God for putting me on her path. And she cried.

Then there are the people I met in Juarez. Zeferina, extremely poor and blind from diabetes, yet she teaches catechism every Sunday with the help of her young daughter who serves as her eyes. This woman’s deep peace and trust of God was so evident in her face, her stance, her composure, and her kindness. Esperenza, a poor widow who cares for a disabled man in her home because his family threw him out. And, of course, the sisters who live and work in Juarez, serving the poorest of the poor and standing up for human rights.

Lastly, there’s the School Sisters of St. Francis with whom I’ve been staying in El Paso.

Sr. Elsa, Sr. Kathy, and Sr. Fran on a fun trip to Mesilla, N.M.
Sr. Elsa, Sr. Kathy, and Sr. Fran on a fun trip to Mesilla, N.M.

Sunday night they surprised me with a despedida. That’s a Spanish farewell party. Except it wasn’t a party at all, but rather a ceremony to bless, honor, and affirm me. The sisters invited me to sit down at their computer. Then Sr. Fran lit a candle and turned up the volume as she played two songs on YouTube she’d chosen especially for me: “Just to Be” and “Sarah’s Song.” Sitting in the dimly lit room, surrounded by these three sisters, a candle flame flickering beside me, I listened to the sweet voice of Colleen Fulmer — a voice I’d never heard before — sing these beautiful lyrics:“Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy…Be still and know I am God. In quiet and trust lies your healing.” (lyrics from “Just to Be”)

“The whole of the earth will be blessed by you; In God you have made your home. The stars will dance as they call out your name. Your heart always laughing with joy…
As you have shared with us the sowing of seeds,
So too all you’ve planted will bear fruit…” (lyrics from “Sarah’s Song”)

Then each of the sisters expressed what they have seen and appreciated in me. What an unexpected and humbling gift! In that moment, I felt and heard God speaking to me. As it turns out, the sisters’ gift was the most powerful voice of all. A reminder of how loved I am, how loved we all are.

I remember a Scripture verse I came across years ago. It spoke to me then, but it speaks to me even more clearly now:

“I will lure her into the desert where I will speak to her heart.”

God has definitely spoken to my heart here. And I now know how important it is to listen and follow.