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A Radical Revolution

radical-compassion

Tara Brach and Pope Francis have something in common. They both support a “revolution of tenderness” based on “radical compassion.”

I’m thinking it couldn’t be a more appropriate time for this radical revolution to begin. It’s definitely needed. Wouldn’t you agree?

But I don’t mean this based simply on what we’re seeing in the news.

Last week I was asked to start helping accompany refugees again. And what I witnessed is what got to me. Got me looking for an answer to the pain we’re inflicting on one another.

So I scrolled talks from Tara Brach – my favorite Buddhist insight meditation teacher, and found one on “A revolution of tenderness.” I recognized this term Pope Francis had coined in a recent surprise TED talk he’d given by the same name.

revolution of tenderness

In listening to Tara, it struck me how both she and Pope Francis call for us to connect with our capacity to be tender. And to identify with “the other.”

Long a promoter of “radical compassion,” Tara teaches that compassion begins with our capacity to be tender – towards our own heart. To see and feel our own violated self, our suffering inside ourselves. And then we can open the door to feeling the suffering of the other.

I’ve been practicing that, more or less, since my Pathwork days. But it was her next comment that I needed to hear.

“This quality of heart is our potential,” Tara said. “It’s cultivated by our opening to suffering and remembering the goodness and the beauty.”

Opening to both. That’s the key.

I needed to remind myself of the goodness and the beauty. Because I was getting stuck in the suffering. My heart was hurting for a mother in pain. Just one of many mothers I’d come to know.

When I was at this hospitality house, waiting to do intake after a handful of refugees had arrived, I noticed one woman with a little boy less than 2 years old. She was bent forward on the sofa, keeping her head down as we gave our usual welcome talk. Even when her child came over, seeking her attention, she brushed him off, putting her head in her hands, clearly distraught. My thought was, she must have had a very disturbing journey.

Because she only spoke Portuguese, it took us a while to find out the problem.

Turns out her husband had been traveling with their 4-year-old daughter and had arrived at the border a few days earlier. But the agent that admitted them had separated the child from her father – detaining the dad and sending the 4-year-old to a foster care-type detention center. This child who only spoke Portuguese, couldn’t communicate with anyone, was now in a strange country surrounded by strangers without her mom or dad.

I couldn’t comprehend this decision. And I couldn’t shake the thought of this frightened child. Alone.

Maybe the agent was having a bad day. Maybe he wanted to send a message, to deter others from coming.

Maybe he had simply closed off his heart long ago.

We numb ourselves in order to not feel the pain we are inflicting. We separate ourselves by identifying with dualistic thinking – “they’re wrong and we’re right; they’re bad and we’re good.”

Identifying with a separate egoic self keeps us from recognizing the truth. We belong to something larger. Larger than our small, fearful selves.

“Each and every one’s existence is tied to the other,” Pope Francis says. “The other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face….Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other.”

If this is true – and I believe it is – then what we are doing to hurt others will and is affecting us.

The future of humankind is in the hands of those who “recognize the other as a ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us,’” as Pope Francis claims. It’s in the hearts of those who have the quality of compassionate presence that Tara promotes.

“Tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women,” Francis says. “Tenderness is NOT weakness. It is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.”

Yes, it takes courage and humility to remain open to the “other.” To not close down or numb out when you see someone in pain.

Simone Weil Humility

How courageous are you? Are you willing to be part of a revolution of tenderness?

I am. And I hope you are, too.

As Pope Francis says, “It only takes one person, a ‘you,’ to bring hope into the world. And a ‘you’ becomes an ‘us.’”

And that is how a revolution begins.

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Living at Ground Zero

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Ground Zero. “The front lines.” The “beachhead.”

This is how U.S. Attorney General Sessions described El Paso on his recent visit. Apparently, I’m living in the middle of a war zone.

“This is where we are making our stand,” Sessions added.

A stand in the battle to stop the drug cartels and gangs from coming into our country. Even though, in reality, El Paso is one of the safest cities in the U.S.  If Sessions is looking for gangs, he might want to search a little deeper in his territory up in Washington.

He’s also taking a strong stand against those who are trying to enter the country illegally. Sessions’ message for migrants and refugees was, “…you should do what over 1 million other immigrants do each year, wait your turn and come lawfully.”

That statement said it all to me. Either he is vastly misinformed, or he just doesn’t care that what he is saying is not possible.

Wait your turn and come lawfully?

First, no one who is fleeing for their lives or those of their children can “wait their turn.” Secondly, most people needing to migrate are not able to obtain “legal” entry, no matter how much paperwork they complete, how many hoops they jump through, and how long they are willing to wait.

Translated, I take his message to mean nobody’s going to be allowed in, we’re at war with immigrants, and El Paso is the beach of Normandy.

God help us.

Will all this hardline rhetoric and militaristic nationalism coming out of Washington protect us? Not likely.

But what it will do – and already has done – is put people at further risk. Further jeopardize people whose lives are in danger. Put us at war with other countries, whether figuratively or literally. And put us at war with each other. The latter is already happening on Twitter and other forms of social media, on college campuses, and on the streets among protesters.

Frankly, I’m tired of all the negative rhetoric. The divisive words. The messages of hate and separation. Especially when they’re applied to the border, to Mexicans, and to immigrants.

So, I’m turning the rhetoric around and recognizing El Paso for what it is.

Ground Zero for compassion. For hope.

Because the people of El Paso are some of the kindest, most generous, most compassionate, faith-filled people I know. Whether they are here “with papers” or not.

Imagine that. Compassion and hope.

Right here at the beachhead.

At Ground Zero I’ve learned a lot about what it means to serve others. To live my faith and follow the corporal works of mercy. If you’re not familiar with them, in Catholic teaching the corporal works of mercy are seven ways we can extend God’s compassion and mercy on earth – feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, visit the sick, and bury the dead.

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The volunteers I work with in El Paso do this in innumerable ways.

 

Every day. Right here. From Ground Zero.

Imagine that.

 “Each time someone stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others…he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”  Robert Kennedy

I want to send forth this ripple. Live as a light of compassion. Rather than a voice of animosity and fear.

Imagine what that would be like. Imagine the possibilities.

“Hope looks at all things the way a mother looks at her child, with a passion for the possible.”     Br. David Steindl-Rast

Imagine.

This YouTube video of Pentatonix is a good place to start. You might call it ground zero.

 

 

 

We Are All Grieving

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View from my apartment looking out across Mexico

We are grieving our loss. My fellow volunteers and I – the women and men who worked alongside me at the Nazareth hospitality center.

We know we’ve lost something special.

Several weeks ago, our center for migrants and refugees closed. We were told it was due to staff transitions in the main health center that owns the wing we were using. We thought it was temporary. So far, it hasn’t reopened.

But even before the center closed, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had been bringing us fewer and fewer refugees. In mid-January, our daily numbers began dropping to single digits.

The interesting thing is, all of this happened soon after I’d closed on my house, packed up all my belongings and moved here – lock, stock, and barrel. Suddenly, what I loved doing most and fed me spiritually had disappeared.

You gotta wonder what the Universe has planned.

Still, I know without a doubt this is where I am meant to be. Living close to the border. Living, as I call it, “close to the bone.”

I’m not questioning my heart’s guidance.

But I am grieving. And I’m not the only one.

I realized this last week when I unexpectedly ran into several of my fellow volunteers at a Taize service.

Volunteers like Martha. Every Tuesday, she and her friend Cuki would come to Nazareth to prepare breakfast and lunch for our “guests.” When our daily numbers jumped to well over 100, they enlisted other friends to help.  They spent their entire day there, every Tuesday.

And they’ve been doing this for nearly three years.

Martha and I were so happy to see each other that night. With moist eyes, we shared how much we missed Nazareth and “the people.”grief-loss-therapy

Without really having words to express why, we both knew the fullness of this experience had touched our lives.

Other volunteers joined our conversation. And that’s when I realized, we all were grieving.

Grieving because we missed interacting with the people who had clearly given us a gift by their presence.

Grieving because we know the tragic and violent situations that existed in these people’s lives – the reasons they fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have not changed. They’re still subjected to death threats, extortion, and gang violence. But where are they are fleeing to, we wondered?

Grieving because we know that human rights abuses are increasing – at detention facilities, at ports of entry, and elsewhere. And we don’t expect it to get better soon.

Some Customs and Border Patrol agents are turning away asylum seekers without consideration of their claims. Cases have been documented of people with credible fear being turned away at the border, like the mother who fled Guatemala after gang members killed her two sons and threatened her life. Turned away, even though those who are fleeing violence have a legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.

Or, in some cases, ICE is locking up asylum seekers. Sticking them in detention for the duration of their case, even though they pose no threat to our society. Even though they have passed their “credible fear” interview. Causing them more pain, more harm, more trauma to their children.

Here’s a recent example. Martín Méndez Pineda, a 25-year-old journalist from Acapulco, Guerrero, was detained and denied parole after seeking asylum here in El Paso. Pineda had received death threats and police beatings for his critical reports of the Mexican federal police. Only a week earlier, a female journalist had been murdered in Mexico.  Rather than assist this young man, we threw him in detention like a criminal.

Yes, we are definitely grieving over the direction our country is taking towards migrants and refugees.

Because for us, this is not just a controversial issue on the 6 o’clock news.

We have come to know “the people.” We have listened to their stories. We have accompanied them and been transformed by the encounter.

And we know they are human beings. Worthy of being treated with dignity and compassion.

El Paso Columban Missions

Please, no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration and refugees, let’s remember that these are human beings. That human rights abuses should not be part of our protocol.

And it is absolutely inhumane to separate mothers from their children as a deterrent to immigration.

All that we will accomplish by such inhumane treatment is more grief. And the loss will be much more extensive and personal than we can anticipate.

For more practical and humane suggestions for curbing the flow of illegal immigration, listen to award-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s TED talk at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/sonia+navarro+ted/15ada9caf1939193?projector=1

 

Davis Gets It

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Davis’s hair is thinning.

We were sitting across from each other in a restaurant in Nome when I first noticed it. The hair draping his forehead wasn’t really covering his forehead.

“Are you losing your hair?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” he said disgustedly. “And I’m only 23, Mom!”

But Davis knew, just as I did, the sad reality. He’s inherited his dad’s hair genes.

When I met David, he was 28 and already balding. It made him appear way too serious for me. Only 21, just out of college, I wasn’t ready for someone who looked like he could have three kids, a dog, and a minivan! And it didn’t help that he smoked cigars and liked expensive wine.

But luckily, we stayed connected. It took me a while, but I finally realized what a treasure David was.

Fortunately, bad hair genes isn’t the only thing Davis has inherited from his dad. He’s also got David’s level of maturity and generosity of spirit. His compassion. His ability to thoughtfully weigh a situation before he speaks.

And, observing him in Nome, I noticed something else.

Faced with an unusual and challenging environment, Davis adapted. Very well.

Better than I would have to such a harsh, frigid climate in an isolated place that gets down to as little as 3 ½ hours of daylight in December.

I certainly admired him for that. I probably would have hibernated in my room and slunk into a depression.

But not Davis. He immersed himself in the culture and the community. Joined their indoor sports teams. Helped out at community functions. Accepted invitations for traditional outdoor activities.

And he got to know the people. To pay attention to their customs and their culture. To their traditions. Their way of living.

While interviewing me for his audio blog, he shared that what had most impacted him about Alaska wasn’t the difficulty of living in the darkness. Or living without his active social life and cable TV.

It was the people. The folks in the communities and villages he’s visited.

Many live with very limited income. In the outlying villages, many are poor. They live without even basic infrastructure. Some have difficulty finding potable water. Yet they share with him whatever they have.

Alaska's Kivalina

He says that, going forward, it’s the generosity of the people and their simple way of living that have inspired him to do something meaningful with his life. To live more simply and appreciate the little things. To recognize that consumption at the expense of others is not the answer.

Of course, Davis is my son, too. And a lot of what he described sounded like words that came out of my mouth not that long ago in describing the poor I’d met at the U.S-Mexico border.

The generosity and simplicity of people who have so little.  Their faith and joy of living.

Oftentimes they are people living in the shadows. The poor. The undocumented. Those living on the margins of society. Or in tiny villages in western Alaska.

Already, Davis knows that life isn’t just about him and his needs or wants. He has an ability to see “the other” and be open to those who are different from himself.  To open his mind and heart to understand their lives. And to want to use his gifts and talents to make a positive contribution.

What more could a mother ask for her child?

So, yes, Davis did get his dad’s genes. He’ll have to deal with the premature hair loss. But he’s gotten so much more out of the deal. I believe he’s gotten the best of both of us.

NOTE: You can catch Davis’s interview of me on his audio blog at: http://www.knom.org/wp/blog/2017/03/03/impressions-of-nome-from-a-visitor-a-majestic-place-pauline-hovey-says/

 

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

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“Five members of my family were killed.”

He tells me this several times during our conversation. He even holds one hand in the air, spreading his fingers apart. “Five,” he says, to be sure I understand.

“They shot my brother in the face,” he adds.

But I can’t fully understand what Hector has told me.

How could I? I’ve never even witnessed this kind of violence, let alone have it happen to five members of my family.

I met Hector recently at the Loretto-Nazareth migrant hospitality center when my shift coordinator asked me to help him. “He’s very anxious,” she told me. “Could you make him a cup of tea?”

Besides losing five family members to violence, Hector has risked traveling more than 2,000 miles with his 13-year-old daughter to escape the violence in Guatemala, left his wife and two other children behind without knowing their fate, and endured several days in a holding cell after presenting himself to Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico bridge to seek asylum. Soon, he and his daughter will get on a bus to travel to his sister living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know what he will encounter along the way or whether he will be deported once he arrives.

No wonder he’s anxious.

Stories of extortion, death threats, disappearances, and worse are common among our refugees, who mostly originate from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere.

I do more than make Hector a cup of tea. I teach him some deep breathing and emotional energy release exercises. As I watch this man, eyes closed, his body relaxing with each breath, what strikes me is the gentleness of his face. Traces of a lost innocence.

As Hector shares more of his story, I realize that he is only one of millions who have lost that innocence. Millions whose fate is now being determined at the political level. With no thought to the human lives involved. Or the loss.

According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent. Many of them are children.

This troubling fact has been cast aside so easily.

Under the illusion of fear.

“Not my problem.” “We can’t open the doors to everyone.” Typical arguments I’ve heard that justify not getting involved. Remaining silent.

Meanwhile, the innocent are dying.

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Maybe it’s this loss of innocence and senseless death that brought to mind the novel-turned-movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it’s the integrity and sense of morality and justice that Atticus Finch portrays. His willingness to “walk around in another man’s shoes.”

Qualities we so badly need right now.

I find myself wondering, have we lost our integrity? Our willingness to allow a stranger into our hearts? To recognize that what we do, or don’t do, to help these refugees does matter?

“The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said recently.

After visiting the ruins of Aleppo earlier this month, Grandi, shocked by the devastation, said, “These ruins speak for themselves. When you see children’s clothes hanging out of windows, kitchens cut in half by shells and rockets, the real lives of people interrupted by war as it was happening, I think this will weigh very heavily on the conscience of the world for generations.”

Will it?

I think it will. Because when we allow innocents to suffer and die, we pay the price.

We lose the music of our soul.

 

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Who Will Protect the Children?

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“You can lock people inside a burning house, you can close the front door, but they will find a way out.”

That’s how Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, explained why women and unaccompanied children are willing to risk their lives to come here. “The U.S. doesn’t want to recognize this as a refugee situation. They want Mexico to be the buffer, to stop arrivals before they get to our border.”

I’ve known for some time. We are paying Mexico, a corrupt government, to stop migrants and refugees from coming here to seek asylum. What I didn’t know was the extent to which corrupt immigration officials and police, gang members, kidnappers, and thieves are attacking, maiming, and killing those passing through Mexico. And basically, the U.S. is condoning whatever happens, so long as we don’t have to deal with them at our borders.

Award-winning journalist Sonia Nazario calls it a “ferocious crackdown” instituted by the Obama administration, to keep the migrants away. I read her excellent and extremely disturbing article in the October 10th issue of the New York Times. (see: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/11/opinion/sunday/the-refugees-at-our-door.html?ref=opinion&_r=1)

Sadly, the story Ms. Nazario tells of July Elizabeth Pérez is not new to me. July fled Honduras after her 14-year-old son was killed by gang members. Then they threatened her own life and that of her other children. Migrants at our center in El Paso had family members killed or threatened.

Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Guatemala and El Salvador have rampant violence. Yet some in our country claim these people are fleeing to the U.S. for free health care. Or to take advantage of our system. Some say we have enough to deal with and should close off our borders. Isolate ourselves by building a wall. Never mind that many children who are fleeing are refugees with legitimate cases for asylum.
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But then there are people who take great risks to help. Some put their lives on the line.

Ms. Nazario mentions Fr. Alejandro Solalinde in her article. He’s the Mexican priest I highlighted in a previous post for winning the Voice of the Voiceless award. He courageously opened and runs a migrant shelter in a dangerous section of Mexico. He publicly denounces the abuses. He has to have bodyguards to protect him. Speaking out could cost him his life.

But he won’t be silent. And he won’t stop helping these desperate, frightened people.

He’s not alone in his heroic compassion for humanity.

I think of the School Sisters of St. Francis who live in Juarez, Mexico. The Sisters I stayed with for a few days on a previous stint volunteering at the border. Sr. Arlene works at a human rights center helping the families of those who have been tortured or “disappeared.”

Here’s what she said when I asked why she takes this risk:

“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 me to be at peace with what is comfortable.”

What’s happening in Syria and Iraq is horrendous and heartbreaking. And we have a similar situation right here. At our doorstep.

Like Sr. Arlene, I can’t live with what’s comfortable anymore. I can’t live in ignorance, fear, and isolation. I choose to risk opening my heart and doing something beyond listening to the politicians.

What about you? Will you join me in choosing to live more consciously? To be aware of what’s happening outside our own backyard? Beyond our borders? Can’t we, together, do something more to support children whose government will not protect them?

We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.Pope Francis speaking on migrants and refugees here in North America and around the world in his September 24th congressional address

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Midwife to a Soul

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July 1st would have been Esther’s 75th birthday. This post is in honor of her.

The night I moved into the house on Grandview Avenue in El Paso, I questioned myself. Again.

What am I doing here, in this little bedroom? In yet another new place amidst strange surroundings? What can I bring to this situation at the border? What difference can I possibly make in the lives of these migrant families fleeing their desperate lives of violence and poverty?

It was December 14. Both Gaudete Sunday — the third Sunday of Advent marked by joy in the midst of darkness — and the beginning of Las Posadas — the reenactment of Joseph and a pregnant Mary seeking shelter the night her baby was to be born. Earlier I’d joined Esther and the Latino community in downtown El Paso, going door to door, asking the same question that was on my heart: “Do you have room? Is there a place for me here?”

The irony of the situation didn’t elude me.

But it wasn’t like I didn’t have a place to stay. Granted, it wasn’t “home,” but Esther had agreed to take me in, after all. All she knew was that I wanted to serve the migrants and refugees. She took a chance. She agreed to support me.

I looked out from my bedroom window — a high-paned glass that ran the entire length of the wall. Thousands of yellow flickering lights spread across Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, reaching toward the mountains. How many people out there are suffering tonight, I wondered? How many face a future desperately more uncertain than mine? How many are unsafe? In that moment, my life, my concerns, felt small by comparison.

And in that moment I realized, this isn’t about me. My being here in El Paso. It’s not about me striving to make something happen. To succeed at whatever it is I think my purpose is. No. This is about being willing and open. Willing to allow Spirit to use me. Open to whatever wants to be born in this situation. Open to allowing things to be as they are. I simply need to take my small self out of the equation.

Later that night I sat down on my bedroom floor and wrote this poem:

The Midwife of God
Emmanuel
God with us
Within me
Grasping my hands
As the hot pains of labor
Sharp and prolonged
Cry for relief
Searching my eyes
For the answer to one vital question:
Am I willing
To take on this labor
As midwife,
To be present to all that comes?
Am I willing
To support the life
Struggling to be born?
Day and night
The pain continues
Sweaty brow, clammy hands,
a raw dryness in my throat
Still I stand alongside
the moaning laborer
Rooted in solidarity
Committed to the cause
Until what emerges
Elicits a glorious light
Erasing the memory
And exuding hope
In the familiar darkness.

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Months later, questions remain. And I remember to look for signs of the Source of life in the uncertainty. Signs like Esther, who stood by as midwife to the seed planted in me in El Paso. Signs like the words of encouragement and praise from friends who’ve been inspired by my journey. Possibly inspired to give birth to their own seeds of longing sprouting within.

Signs like the light that came to earth so many years ago, that shone in the darkness of an otherwise ordinary night in the desert.

Drawing the Face of God

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Imagination, innocence, and trust. Qualities I love about children.

On the days I’m fortunate enough to serve at the Nazareth Hospitality Center, I get to witness these qualities. Interacting with the children is the highlight of my day.

But when the migrant children first come through our doors, their faces reveal anything but trust.  Their eyes search me, as if for a sign. Some cling to their parent’s side or try to crawl in their mother’s lap. Others sit quietly on folding chairs as I explain to their parents where they are and ask the necessary questions to fill out our paperwork. Sometimes when I bend down to tell a child my name and ask his or hers, I get no answer. The little girl glances away shyly. The little boy pulls closer in to his mother. I wonder what they’ve experienced on their journey. And I’m aware of the place they just came from—an Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility.

I ask if they are hungry. And I smile. A lot.

After a while, they respond. They begin to trust that we really do care about them here and that this place is safe. Once a child joins in my game of peek-a-boo or lets me chase him like a make-believe dragon, I feel reassured that despite whatever they’ve experienced, their imagination and innocence are still intact.

Besides, once they see the toy room, they can’t hold back. Before long, I hear the sounds of giggles traveling down the hall and plastic wheels being dragged across the linoleum. Or I’ll walk by and catch a budding artist concentrating on her picture. Later she’ll ask me for tape so she can add it to our wall collection of drawings from the hundreds of children who’ve passed through this center. Most likely her colorful drawing will include words like “blessed” and “thank you” and “God.”  Always the children are thankful. No matter what they’ve experienced.

Luis, a young man who volunteers at Nazareth, knows a lot about the migrant children. About their innocence and imagination. Their trust. And their faith. In addition to taking classes, studying, and juggling a full schedule, for the past six years Luis has volunteered with his church’s immigrant ministry. On weeknights and some weekends he visits and works with the children and youth confined to detention centers.

These children are what our government calls UACs — unaccompanied alien children. That means they’ve come to the border without a parent. Unaccompanied children under 12 are put in a foster care-type system until they’re reunited with a parent or deported. Youth 12-17 are placed in a very structured and secured detention center.

When Luis asks the children why they’ve come, the top two reasons he hears over and over are:

#1 – “To be with my parents/my mother.”  Often the child’s parent came to this country years ago to work and support the family. Some haven’t seen their mother since they were toddlers.

#2 – “To escape the violence.” Now more than ever children tell Luis of being threatened by gangs. Girls often don’t even go to school for fear of being raped. They tell him no one can protect them.

Luis has many stories about the children and youth he’s encountered. Tough stories to hear. Stories about the pain of being separated from parents for years. Stories about things children shouldn’t have to endure.

But Luis has something else, too. A very special scrapbook filled with drawings and letters from the children. They say how blessed they are to have known Luis. In their neatly printed letters, they thank him and thank God for him.

child's drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe

child’s drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe

And then there are the drawings. So precious. A seven-year-old’s version of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A young teen’s intricate painting.

But there’s one unusual drawing that Luis especially likes to explain.

One day he’d asked the little kids at the center to draw a picture of what God looks like to them. Six-year-old José presented a colorful, oblong-shaped object up at the top of his page with his name above it.

Not having a clue as to what it was and not wanting to hurt José’s feelings by trying to guess, Luis simply asked him.

“An airplane,” the little guy answered.

Confused, Luis asked, “So, José, why is God an airplane?”

“Because God is fast like an airplane. And I know that if I have God in my heart, God will be the fast plane that will take me to my mom.”

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Trauma. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Uncertainty about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

This is what these children experience. Yet they remain innocent. They still have faith and trust in a God who is present no matter what. And their imagination soars. Just like José’s airplane.

It makes me wonder. If I’d been through what these kids have, how might I draw God?

Simple Joys

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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. worn-out-shoes

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.

Yet they had. And neither the girls nor their mother seemed bothered in the least by this. They simply smiled at our attention.
worn out sandals

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.

choose-joy

Still Living the Questions

 

questions1

Spring break. College students have descended upon us from the frozen terrain of Omaha, Cleveland, and Boston! But they haven’t come to bask in the desert sun. Or drink beer while lounging poolside. Not that they’d have much luck finding a body of water in El Paso anyway.

No. They’ve come with a more selfless purpose: to learn about life at the border, to experience and better understand the issues concerning immigration, and to serve.

One group of 10 students from Emerson College in Boston has been staying at our house. It’s been fun to catch them being silly with each other, to hear their laughter and feel their high energy. Part of me hopes to capture a bit of it for myself!

But, as the week has progressed, I’ve captured something else from these young people. Or, actually, recaptured.

It’s the passion and enthusiasm I hear in their voices as they share all they’ve been experiencing. They’ve visited with the families on the colonia, prepared and served dinner for migrant farmworkers, helped us clean rooms at the Nazareth hospitality center, and played with the children. They’ve met with Border Patrol, visited a detention center for youth, and listened to legal experts who’ve explained the complexities and insensible process of our current immigration system. They’ve been filled up with the realities at the border.

Realities that have touched their hearts, made them cry, opened their eyes. And committed them to return home and “do something more.”

One young woman, a junior, told me she’s changing the focus of her career because of this experience.

“In college, we’re taught to measure success by our career and what we earn, but now I’m seeing success in a whole different way,” Katie told me. “It’s about doing something that serves others.

“I don’t know exactly what that will be yet, but it’s going to be something different than I thought. I’m going home with lots of questions.”

Her words echoed my own two years ago. Like Katie, my trip to the border was life-changing. It awakened my heart and a calling that I still carry. It also generated lots of internal questions. Questions I still wrestle with, as I wonder where all this is taking me.

Sometimes I feel no older than a 21-year-old student questioning her major. I grapple with doubts and insecurities. I get impatient. I want answers, damn it! I want to be able to figure it out. Or at least be able to see the next step in front of me.

Those darned questions.

But when I’m quiet and still, I recognize that this is only my ego’s need to know, to have some semblance of control. Once again.
livethequestions

I’m still learning how to live the questions without needing to have the answers. Still learning what it means to be faithful to a call in my heart.

Sometimes it simply means all I can do is show up every day with a prayer to let myself be used for a purpose beyond what I am able to see most of the time. Or ever figure out.

And on my good days I’m able to recognize that the gift is hidden in accepting the questions.

Early last year, a dear friend sent me an excerpt from poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I need to reflect on these words again, and to remind myself: Rather than seek the answers, live the questions. And love where they take you.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

Rainer Maria Rilke