What You Do to Me

matthew-25

I have never felt so close to the truth of these words.

They have never been as powerful for me as they are now.

Sure, I’ve volunteered before.  Served dinner to homeless men. Worked in an after-school program with juveniles in a housing project. Visited strangers in nursing homes. Manned a phone at a survival crisis hotline. Mentored single moms and their kids. Even volunteered at an orphanage in Bolivia.

Each of these have been rewarding in themselves.

But nothing like what I experienced on Thursday.

I’ll try to explain.

The morning started out busier than usual.

The moment I walk through the door at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center, I’m bombarded with requests. A couple of moms stand at the doorway of the hygiene room waiting for Pampers. Someone needs Tylenol. Someone else wants cough medicine for her child. Families are lined up ready to head out and pile into a van waiting to take them to the airport. One mom hugs her bare arms, looking cold in a pink tee shirt. Some of the children don’t have coats.

“Where are you going? What state?” I ask Nanci, the mom of one of the coatless children.

“Maryland,” she tells me.

“Oh, necesita un abrigo,” I say and run off to the clothing closet to retrieve whatever coats I can find before they’re herded out the door.

With only a few volunteers working in the office, it can feel impossible to try to handle the needs of 100-150 people. Because that’s what we’ve been seeing the past several weeks as the number of migrants and refugees arriving daily has been doubling and tripling.

We do the best we can. Sometimes we make decisions by the seat or our pants.

Like now.

My first priority is to get these travelers coats for their journey. Then I dole out the appropriate-sized Pampers and am about to head to the medicine room when Adolfo, our center coordinator, asks me to accompany the van driver to the airport. It’s his first time driving solo and he doesn’t know what to do.

So off I go. Me. The driver. Four moms. And eight kids.

Although we’re not required to accompany them all the way to their gates, it’s something I like to do. After all, none of these women have ever flown before. They don’t know the language. They don’t know what they’re doing. Their fear and anxiety are palpable.

So, I ask the airline agent for a special pass to accompany the moms and their children through security and to their gates. And I ask her to please have someone help the women who will be making connections in overwhelming Dallas. I’ll walk each of them to their gates, show them the letter and number matching the one on their ticket. Review several times the flight number, the boarding time, the time the plane actually leaves, the difference between their two boarding passes if they have a connecting flight.

At security, I wait while each of the adults are patted down thoroughly, their belongings picked through, their papers scrutinized. It takes a while.

Passersby look at us. We must be a sight. The women in their ankle monitors like criminals wear. The white trash bags we’ve given them to store their few articles of clothing. They stand out like refugees, but I know they’ve already been through much worse.

The last mom is nearly finished when Nanci comes over, looks right at me, and begins showering blessings over me. Blessings for my health, for my life, and I don’t know what all else, but she goes on and on. I’m not getting everything she’s saying and I tell her I don’t understand.

“You’re an angel from God,” she repeats slowly.

“Yes, you’re an angel from God,” Estrella, another mom, pipes in.

I feel my eyes moisten.

This is not just a clichéd expression. These women sincerely appreciate my kindness. A kindness that probably no one has ever shown them before.

I want to protest that “I’m no angel.”

But I simply say, “It is my pleasure.”

Because it is.

And in this moment, I recognize something. It’s there in Nanci’s eyes.

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Christ is right here in front of me.

Reflected in this woman. A woman who had been a stranger. And who now is a reflection of the heart of Christ.

In this moment, I understand, more fully than I have before. How these people who live on the margins are close to Christ.

“What you do to me.”

And I know exactly why I am doing this.

Even more clearly than when I made the initial decision to come to El Paso.

And I know why I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.what-you-do-to-me

 

 

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The Journey to El Paso

I do not want to be a bystander in life. I want to fully live, and that means being still enough to pay attention, be fully present to myself and others as much as possible, and take action when needed. It means listening to, and following, my heart more and being willing to jump in even when I don’t know where I’ll land. This is one way of explaining why I’ve decided to volunteer with the School Sisters of St. Francis on the U.S./Mexico border to serve the immigrant population. I have no idea where this will lead. I only know that I am responding to an inner calling.

It started back in February when I traveled to El Paso, Texas, with four women from my church to learn firsthand about immigration. Kristen, our justice and charity outreach coordinator, organized the weeklong “border immersion” trip in response to our church’s growing Hispanic population and the separation she had observed between our Anglo and Latino parishioners. She hoped to bridge that gap by exposing us to the issues of immigration as experienced by those living on the U.S./Mexico border. Something attracted me about this trip as soon as Kristen mentioned it. My first thought: I can write about this. As a freelance writer I was attracted to the opportunity to learn firsthand about immigration, hear personal stories, and get the facts from those who live and work with the immigrant population. I also knew that this experience would affect me somehow. But what I didn’t count on was how it would awaken and inspire me, tugging at my longing to serve so strongly that the experience would continue to pull me weeks and even months later.

From the moment we climbed into Sr. Fran’s van to begin our immersion experience, I heard disturbing stories and facts about the plight of those crossing the U.S./Mexico border. Sr. Fran has been running these border immersion trips since 2006, hoping to eliminate the myths and misinformation many Americans have about immigrants. She had us going from 7 a.m. until dinner time, meeting with Border Patrol, the founder of a migrant farm workers’ union, a physician who offers health care to the poor, and directors and administrators of various programs, shelters, and detention facilities, all of whom inspired me in the work they do and the stories they told.  The immigrants themselves, because of their deep trust, respect, and love for Sr. Fran, welcomed us into their homes on the “colonias” — stark settlements in the desert where migrants buy a plot of land and set up a trailer.

I felt my heart opening more and more each day until one afternoon I met Ruben Garcia. Ruben is the director and cofounder of Annunciation House—a “house of hospitality” for refugees and the homeless in downtown El Paso. He and his young friends opened Annunciation House 35 years ago in their response to studying Scripture and recognizing how God “first and foremost identifies with the poor.” His stories of the people who have come through his house—some, victims of torture; others, simply trying to survive—cracked through the last of that invisible shield over my heart. Suddenly,  I started to cry. And in that moment, I knew why I had come on this trip. I knew God was calling me to something more.

That’s when I first felt the pull.

The night before we left El Paso we had dinner with the Sisters—all three of them—at Casa Alexia, their mission house. Sr. Kathy shared her work with trauma victims. Eighty-year-old Sr. Nancy brought up the issue of human trafficking, so prevalent on the border, and how she wants to attack it. Then they pitched their need for help, whether through signing up for their volunteer program or joining their order. In that moment, it wasn’t just Sr. Kathy or Sr. Nancy inviting me. I experienced a stronger invitation, coming from someplace deep within me.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain this to anyone, it’s impossible. My mind can’t make sense of it. Why do I have to go all the way to El Paso to serve? There are so many needs here. And Virginia is my home. Why would I leave this beautiful countryside of green-leaved  trees and rolling hills and ever-changing mountains for dry, flat, hot west Texas?

But truthfully, I am no longer comfortable in this place, in conducting “business as usual.” Something deeper is calling me. Something that defies weather and terrain and logical understanding. I couldn’t care less about the surroundings. It’s the people I can’t get out of my heart. And this pull to “something more.”

I have learned that matters of the Spirit can’t be explained. Yet when I listen and follow these “insights,” amazing and powerful things happen. So, a few months later, despite  anxious feelings about how I would manage to do this, I applied to volunteer with the Sisters at the border in early 2014. My application was accepted, and now here I am stepping out into the unknown with nothing more than the desire to listen to and follow my heart. In the process, I hope to serve something greater than my small self.

That’s what this blog is about: sharing my experiences and the stories of those I have met and will meet—stories that are as varied as the issue of immigration reform is complex. I hope along the way I will dispel some of the misinformation out there about immigration. And I will discover my heart’s true calling.