Over the weekend I spent the night in a tepee. Experienced my first coming-of-age ceremony.
And I felt incredibly honored to be included in this spiritual rite of passage for a young woman of Mexican-Indian heritage.
As I participated in this powerful and sacred ceremony, I found myself imagining the possibilities.
What if all girls greeted the threshold of womanhood supported by the kind of love, wisdom, mirroring, and honoring I witnessed these indigenous women showering upon this very blessed 13-year-old girl?
What if every girl learned that her body was something to be honored, not ashamed of?
That she is beautiful, inside and out, just as she is? Without needing to change anything.
That she does not need to fear expressing herself? Or be afraid to learn from making mistakes?
That she can listen to and trust her inner wisdom?
It has taken me years to learn these lessons. Years accompanied by much struggling and pain. And often feeling I was on my own in the process.
Yet 13-year-old Trinity already knows who she is.
Grounded in the sacredness of her people’s earth-honoring ceremonies, empowered by the love of her community, and centered in an awareness of the Creator present in all life, she is entering this stage of her life totally prepared. Her humility, maturity, and sensitivity impressed me.
Even her name impressed me.
Only weeks ago I had been a stranger to this community. Until I met Carlos, and, without hesitation, he invited me.
The abuela (grandmother) of their tribe wasn’t so sure. After all, she didn’t know this white-faced woman. But she welcomed me. As did every member of the community. They welcomed a stranger into their circle.
I couldn’t help but think that this was the Gospel message of “welcome the stranger” in action.
Later that evening, we gathered around a lantern in the tepee, setting up our cots and sleeping bags. After settling in, we told coming-of-age stories, while outside the darkness deepened.
We shared some of our most embarrassing moments, to let this young woman know that, yes, you will have these moments. You will make mistakes, too. It’s inevitable. And you will survive.
As I listened to these women share their wisdom, the moonlight poured in through the opening in the top of the tepee. The beauty of this spiritual ritual deeply touched me. And I wished I’d had such a ceremony to welcome my menses, my “moon.”
In the circle we shared our gifts for Trinity. Mine was a poem I’d written and a beautiful broken seashell—a whelk—I’d found on Atlantic Beach while vacationing with special friends. At first I hesitated to part with it.
But I knew it was the perfect gift.
And my words for Trinity are words for all girls coming of age, especially those who don’t have a circle of wise women guiding them forward, as I did not have. I share them here.
Learn to trust your inner guidance, the wisdom that resides within.
As a girl, no one told me this.
As a woman, it took years to discover the truth.
Our inner authority is the voice of God within.
You can trust it.
Don’t be afraid to be seen.
Don’t shrink under the power of others.
Be all that you are,
Empowered by your unique gifts.
Know that all that you are is gift to the world.
Be grateful always for this gift.
This broken shell I found on a beach in North Carolina
It spoke to me of my woundedness, my brokenness.
And how, even with these broken places within me, I am whole and perfect and beautiful.
This is the message I want to give to you.
Become the woman you were meant to be, fully alive
Not holding anything back, not afraid of your gifts or your power
Not afraid of your broken places.
Strengthened by the challenges, the hurts, the sufferings
Be grateful for the pain and suffering along the way.
They are your teachers.
They may take pieces of your heart,
But they will make you shine like a shell in the sea.
May we learn from the wisdom of native cultures. May we honor this gift called life as we cross each threshold. May we give thanks to the Creator for all of life.
Her name was Irlanda. I’d never known anyone by that name and I would know her for less than 24 hours.
Months later I’m barely able to conjure up her face. But Irlanda’s words to me — they left a deep impression. One that reminds me why I left home.
Just weeks into my service at the Nazareth Hospitality Center in El Paso, Irlanda and her scrawny, eight-year-old son with the impossibly innocent smile show up at our door. I’m still struggling through Spanish phrases and trying to understand people’s questions. Still learning how to make these strangers feel welcomed, what questions not to ask, and how to listen with my eyes since my ears aren’t doing me much good.
Always there’s lots to be done at Nazareth. Rooms to be cleaned. Intake records to be entered into the system. Volunteer drivers to be called for rides to the bus station. Clothing to be sorted and folded on the tables in the donation room where the next arrival of women will soon dig through the neatly stacked piles seeking a pair of jeans to fit their short, lean figures.
But that day I take time to accompany Irlanda and her son to the moneygram office so they can obtain the cash a relative has sent for their 3-day bus trip. Located just around the corner and a few blocks down on Montana Avenue, the place isn’t hard to get to. But for a young woman from a village in Guatemala, walking along streets loaded with cars, stores, and stoplights could be an overwhelming adventure.
I offer to go with her. As we walk, I fumble through conversing in Spanish.
Suddenly Irlanda stops and points her son’s face toward the sky. “Mira!” she tells him.
A jet plane soars overhead.
Mother and son stand close together, smiles spreading across their faces.
I can only imagine what it must be like to see an airplane for the first time.
And then I’m imagining all the firsts they’ll be experiencing on this journey. At bus depots. Transfer stations. Places where she tries to buy food.
She admits to me that she’s scared. Scared of what she’ll find in this country. This woman who has traveled thousands of miles across dangerous Mexico with her young son. I’m praying people will be kind.
Later in the day, it’s time for the driver to come take Irlanda and her son to the bus station. We hug goodbye. She asks God to bless me and surprises me by saying she thanks God for me. Her eyes reveal the impact I have made. Then she says something that really humbles me. How I am following what the Bible teaches by loving my neighbor and welcoming the stranger.
All I did was show her some kindness. She has given me much more.
That night, back in my room, I write in my journal:
“This is why I am here. This is what I want to do. Be present to these people and share special, intimate moments between human beings on the journey. We’ve shared each other’s lives for a moment. Our paths will never cross again. But meeting Irlanda has left a mark that touches my soul.”
Irlanda reminded me of the call within. A call I experienced long before I met her.
These days I feel worlds away from the border of El Paso. But I haven’t forgotten.
Can you risk opening your heart to the call within? Maybe you’ll discover why you are here.