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Solidarity and Love: #BlackLivesMatter

Yesterday I walked in a peaceful (though good and loud) Black Lives Matter protest in Houston in response to the murder by police of George Floyd and by the long list of black men and women who have also been killed by police.

It was a powerful experience.

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My daughter drove us so even though traffic was slow and she didn’t know where she could park, I jumped out of the car right away with my sign, my phone in my back pocket and joined the chanting throng streaming into the street from Discovery Green.

It felt so good to be able to do something, to show support at this time along with so many others of every possible race and ethnicity. I saw “Arabs for Black Lives” t-shirts. I saw Jewish men with their prayer shawls on. I saw Hispanic people, Asian people, and plenty of other white people. There were families with their children too. Mostly I saw everywhere beautiful black people standing up for themselves, and for their murdered brothers and sisters and their families, supporting one another, demanding righteous change. It was awe inspiring.

One of the chants were the last words of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe!” He also had said to please let him up and that they were killing him. And he called out for his mother. There was so much heartbreak that day at the protest that at times it seemed like a funeral. Sure enough that is partly what it was. As the leaders of the March said, “We are here to lift up his name.”

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That was another chant: “SAY HIS NAME!” And the response, “GEORGE FLOYD!” Over and over they said this and I think it is so important. We should not forget the individual people who have died in the seemingly never ending stream of police violence against people of color. They were people, individuals. We are standing up for them specifically, as well as the entire African American community.

“BLACK LIVES MATTER,” of course, was shouted throughout.

*For the “all lives matter” crowd, maybe I can be of some help as to what “Black Lives Matter” means and why it is a non starter to keep saying that.

My friend, here is what I gather about this: black people are telling us they feel their lives don’t matter to us. Can you blame them? They are not trying to tell us other people’s lives don’t matter. They are asking us to notice what’s happening when they say that. And they are reminding themselves that their lives matter in the face of all this. When people say back “all lives matter” it sounds like “you aren’t suffering from this,” “It’s all in your head,” or worse, “We don’t care.”

Suppose a fire truck arrives at your home as it is burning and begins to fight the flames; and a neighbor runs up yelling at the firemen, “all homes matter.” Think about it, or better yet, pray about it.
-Julian Mcmurrey

We marched to the courthouse where there were speeches I couldn’t hear very well. I understood that at least one woman who spoke was a mother of another black man killed by police. The drift of what a lot of the speakers were saying, though was that we should not stop here with this protest, that there is a lot of work to be done once we got back to our lives.

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Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez on Pexels.com

There were signs about different organizations and their websites so people could follow up on their commitment. I will include a couple of these at the end of this post.

It annoyed me that there were drones buzzing around close enough we could have swatted them. Helicopters flew overhead constantly. Eventually we noticed snipers on the roof of the court house and on other nearby buildings.

“See?” a woman said to me, “They don’t even care about us. We’re trying to speak out but they aren’t listening. This is how they do.” It was over kill, I thought. And so many children in the crowd too.

I texted my daughter who had her little one with her, and told her about the snipers. That was her cue to head in another direction. (By the way I also told other people coming into the area who had children with them as well.)

I stayed a while longer. Eventually, after a couple of hours, I started to head back to the car.

A couple of women from the march stopped me and wanted to take a picture of me with my sign. I said sure I would be honored. My sign was a quote from Pope Francis, “Racism is the greatest evil in our world today.” I had a bright red rosary wrapped around my wrist. Its dangling cross against my hand reminded me constantly of what I was doing there. I absolutely considered it my Christian duty to be there. I wanted to bring Jesus and Mary with me to love the people and stand with them, to try to radiate their love and solidarity. Also I was there as a Catholic. If anybody noticed my rosary maybe they would know “Catholics (some Catholics) “are with you.”
That was my idea anyway.

Volunteers were on corners handing out masks (I already had one) and water bottles. It was so hot so I took one. Im glad I did because after that my phone went dead and my daughter and I had a harrowing few hours where we couldn’t find each other.

I also couldn’t find my way back to the car although I had a general idea where it was.

I got kind of lost but then I managed to get back to the courthouse. There was a group of women on a corner there talking about prayer not being enough, and how God expects us to take action too. (I have noticed this too about God.)

“Its the Holy Spirit,” another woman said. “This is the Holy Spirit.”

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Photo by Ezekixl Akinnewu on Pexels.com

I asked if they could point me back to Discovery Green because I hadn’t paid attention to the route we all took earlier, having been too excited to do so. They laughed kindly about that and said all we had done is go straight down the street behind them. It would take me straight to Discovery Green.

They liked my sign and I told them I had carried it in the Richard Spencer protest at Texas A & M too. One lady asked if I knew my daughter’s number. No I did not. She asked if Roise was on Social Media, and eventually she found her and sent her an instagram message for me that I was headed to the car.

Expressing my gratitude I started to pick up my sign and go. An older lady said she had an assignment for me once I got safe home. I was eager to hear it. She said, “Memorize. Your daughter’s. Number!” “I know right? Thanks ya’ll, for telling my daughter her ridiculous mother is headed her way.”

They thanked me earnestly for being there that day. I hadn’t expected that and I didn’t feel I really deserved it since it was something I wanted to do. But I knew what she meant. And I said thanks for having me.

Actually my daughter and I got that all day from people, “Thank you for being here.” Silly us! We hadn’t been quite sure we would be welcome or if it was appropriate. We know this is a black lead movement and we want to support that. Sometimes it just isn’t clear to us as white allies learning on the job, what we should do. I feel like I understand a little better now.

A long, tired, hot time later, I finally found the car. Two other people let me use their phones to try to call my daughter on social media along the way. “This is mom. I’m at the car.” I also had good conversations with them.

Of course my girl had the keys. Exhausted, I climbed on top of the car with my sign and prayed the rosary. After a while though, I started to get scared. Where was she? Did she get held up? What should I do if she never came back? What if something bad happened to her or the baby? My other daughter, I reflected, was going to kill me if anything happened. She had been very upset and scared that we were coming to this, given what happened in Minneapolis. I started to get that cold feeling you get in your stomach when you are really worried.

I saw a group of police officers getting out of a car near me. One of them pulled his baton out and said, “Yeah now we’re going to have some fun.” He caught my eye and looked (appropriately) a little embarrassed. As far as I know he never got to have any “fun.” For which I am grateful. I should say though that the police I saw around yesterday were trying to be relaxed and non intrusive.

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On I waited. I checked nearby restaurants. No luck. I went back to my car.

I think I had been sitting on the car for an hour and a half before I happened to look up at the right time and see my daughter, pushing the stroller a couple blocks down. I was astonished when she didn’t turn to come down the street where the car was.

After thinking about why she would do that, I scrambled down from the car and took off running. When I got to the street she was on, she seemed hopelessly far away. So I put on the mom voice I used to call my daughters home with when they were out playing in the neighborhood as kids. “ROSAAAAAAAAAAAAY!” A man nearby resting with his sign on his lap chuckled.

To my relief she turned around and started coming toward me. I jogged toward her and was surprised to see she had been crying. She started crying when I hugged her and said she had gotten lost and her GPS was acting crazy, sending her all over the place. She had gotten overheated and collapsed and some people from the protest had helped her up, some talking brightly to her daughter as other people gave her water and stood by until she had drunk the entire bottle. They had her sit on a curb with them until she was better. Someone called her phone and helped her find it. They gave her directions to Discovery Green but she stopped to get a soda at a pub which made her sick and she promptly forgot the way. My granddaughter, Arelani, was glad to see me. She started chattering like the loquacious little being she is.

I walked them back to the car and drove us out of the city and toward home.

We were kind of in awe about the day, grateful there was at least something we could do, and so glad of all the kind people we had met, and how amazing the solidarity and unity had been. So many people, thousands of people, coming together to do a good thing, a holy thing, really. It had felt sacred to me, as well as sad and angry and hopeful too. It was motivating and we intend to do whatever we can to help out in future.

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Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez on Pexels.com

I want to say that our dearest black friends were very supportive. LeeAnne and her husband said “God bless you.” Mel told me to play Bob Marley on the way there for him. Between Mel and me this is how I keep him present at special times, like when I am making his birthday spice cake every year. He and his wife Lilly sent pictures of themselves to me too so I could carry them with me. My daughter’s best friend wept when she told her where we were going. “Why are you crying?” “I just feel thankful that y’all are doing this.” We hadn’t expected that but I think it is worth noting.

I remembered an article I had seen, and the photo in it of a big sign that said, “White people. Do Something.” Maybe it felt to them that we were responding. And that is what the black community wants from us, y’all. That’s what they want. For us to listen to what they want to say to us, to care and respond and be willing to help the way they want to be helped with this.

I’m slow but I am learning.

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In the car, my four year old granddaughter, who is half African American, started chanting “BLACK YIVES MATTER! BLACK YIVES MATTER!” And “GEORGE FYOYD! GEORGE FYOYD!” Well, she had heard those things a lot today. We took video of her doing this and sent it to her dad (who is black.) It was adorable but also touching to see her do that. This is all also about her and her future.

On the way home we got a flat tire. I had forgotten my spare had been stolen so we were in a pickle. A friend picked us up and we are home safe and incredibly tired today. But it is a “good tired.”

In spite of the trouble, we are both profoundly glad we went, honored to have been there, to have been a part of it.

*photos not taken by my daughter, Roise Manning-Pauc, have been used with permission from the photographers.

Think Twice (Before you call the police, consider these alternatives.)

What white people can do for racial justice

Racial justice organizations that you should support

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Love in a time of fear and uncertainty

My late husband, Bob Chapman, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive Brain Cancer, in February 2010 while we were still engaged and dreaming about our wedding. We married in May that year just after he finished his initial treatment, a period of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy.

He lived 2 ½ years. The course of his illness was hands down the most terrifying thing I have ever had to go through. If you know me, you know this is saying a lot.

However it was also the most beautiful time of all my life. He said the same for himself too. My daughters remember it as the happiest of times for them.

We had to make a daily decision not to live in fear and sorrow every minute. This does not mean we didn’t cry sometimes, or that we pretended not to be afraid. We were scared to death. Of course we were. But who wants to live like that? We decided to live happily as long as we could, and to “lovingly eat the bread of the will of God,” as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity expressed holy acceptance.

We thought if we did go down, we would go down swinging. We did all we could as enthusiastically as we could to fight cancer. We strove to leave the rest up to God. It was empowering.

We knew that things might not work out the way we wanted which was a horrifying prospect. We also knew that sometimes people did survive it. We ignored the statistics and tried to live in the hope; not with false expectations, but real hope. We knew that Bob would not be taken from this world without God’s permission. We decided remaining positive but without stifling our feelings when we were sad, angry or afraid seemed best. And we looked to God. As Bob said to me the week he died, “God is IT!”

We decided to love and to serve as much as we could. After a frightening MRI result we were really scared. All we could do for a while was hold one another. When he was ready to talk, he said. “Well, what do we do? We love, we walk on.”

And we did.

We learned to allow others to love and serve us. We grew in our appreciation of community.

We grew to understand that each day could be seen as an entire life -time, being born in the morning and dying in the Father’s arms at night. Getting dressed for work one morning, Bob said, “I’m alive today. That’s all anybody’s got.”

Living like this begins to bring out the beauty in all things. Life becomes more vivid. Connection with people and all living things becomes profound. The heart expands.

When we were overwhelmed we had a designated spot we pretended was our “clubhouse” where cancer could not go. We needed to take time out in that spot sometimes.

As a family we learned that almost anything is funny. Bob had speech problems that came and went for a long time. They were hilarious! One of his more famous utterances then was when he said, “What time do we eat the kids? 6:30?”

Trying to talk to someone on the phone about a bill, he explained to her, “My voice is broken but my THINK is fine!”

At M.D. Anderson, the staff seemed horrified that I kept laughing at Bob’s speech mistakes. I told one of them, “Hey we can laugh all day or we could cry all the time!” And anyway, he was laughing too! “What!?” he would say, “I speak the King’s English!”

We tried to make scary things fun. Bob took his guitar to the hospital with him and played it from his bed. The nurses loved it.

One time he went to a scary appointment with half his mustache and half his beard shaved so he had a perfect half and half face. The doctor did such a double take! It was so funny!

At chemotherapy we used to sit and blow bubbles together in the treatment room. He brought his guitar there too and played for everyone with the I.V. in his arm.

Bob was a do-er. He was always moving. One month almost to the day before his death he was mowing the lawn, pushing his crazy big mower uphill. I took a picture. Well that was Bob. He was unstoppable. Bob was into helping. Even when we went out to eat he would end up fixing the cook’s car in the parking lot or something like that. Once he saw a young woman having to put back her purchases at the grocery store so he went behind her putting the same items in his own basket. He bought them all for her and sent me to give them to her outside.

He fixed things for the elderly he saw struggling with something. He was all about service and not creating hardship or work for others. He called this his “skin religion.”

He brought me breakfast in bed on Saturdays and put on Bugs Bunny for me. He did everything he could for all of us for as long as he could.

Being able to serve was important to him as a person.

Eventually, he began to be paralized on one side. Still he dragged himself by one arm horizontally out the back door to work on a drainage project. Sometimes he got tired and had to lay down in the grass for a while.

He was a do-er and he was tenacious. We called him “The Atomic Bob.”

He was an artist but he began to lose his ability to paint. He couldn’t play guitar. He started dropping dishes so he couldn’t do them for me anymore. He got where any speaking at all was very difficult. He had trouble at work and finally took that extended sick leave he had not taken yet. He could no longer play guitar.

He was confined to his chair for a lot of the day. One afternoon he called me to him and said,
“Shawn! I can’t DO anymore.” I nodded, tears in my eyes. Then he said, “I can’t DO!” Here he put his hand on his heart, sobbing, “but I STILL LOVE!”

I knew what he meant.

He realized his love, doing or not, was valuable. He was reaching out to everyone, loving them, and that in his very inactivity, his great big heart was active and spreading love on a whole new level. “Hey,” I told him, between kisses, “you’re speaking like the great mystics of the Church now!”

We are such do-ers in this world and often this is a great thing. Through the history of our faith, though, some Christians have felt called to withdraw into holy seclusion to live a hermits’ life and to pray.

To us this looks like not helping, not doing. But as Servant of God Catherine Doherty wrote, “Look at the Man on the Cross. He is not doing anything because He is crucified.” Ah but He was doing EVERYTHING, wasn’t He?

Our family found humor and beauty, mindfulness, joy in service, acceptance, courage, tenacity, renewed faith, a closer bond, community and the spiritual gift of understanding right in our crisis. In the midst of sorrow, loss of control, uncertainty and intense fear we found the Kingdom of Heaven. When the situation was “down to the wire,” we found the true power of love.

God is with us. There are jewels in the rubble that are there for us to find and to share as we deal with Covid-19 as a community. If we seek this treasure we will find all we need and more. It is there for every one of us.

This is my husband’s painting of us praying together during his fight with Brain Cancer. He called it “Miracle.”

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* This piece originally ran as my column in The Bryan College Station Eagle

“Be the first to love” at the grocery store

Where you find no love, put love, and then you will find love.” ~ St, John of the Cross

I had a birthday cake to make on March 12. My eldest daughter, Maire was turning 27 the next day. This is her first birthday home in Texas again in years and she is so glad to be here.

I planned to make a Mexican Chocolate Cake (dense chocolate with a little kick from a pinch of hot pepper powder.)

I wanted a yellow rose (the Yellow Rose of Texas, of course) for a little cake top arrangement as well.

I had heard news of emptied out grocery stores in other places, and even a couple of local complaints. I tend to resist getting caught up in that sort of thing so I didn’t really pay attention too much.

The emotional climate in the store was distressing. People seemed angry and upset, even banging their shopping carts around. Almost everyone I saw seemed scared, furtive even. No one was making even passing eye contact.

Workers looked exhausted and rushed.

Young people in particular looked dazed, some standing and staring at the place where something they had been looking for was supposed to be.

I thought of my Focolare friend, Julia, who had been looking for ways to be useful during the Corona Virus outbreak. She and some others had some great ideas. I felt unsure of how to be useful and I still do.

The Focolare have a saying, “Be the first to love.”

“Jesus what can I do?”

The first thing I could think of was to smile at people if I did happen to catch their eyes. This was encouraging exercise because I could see some visibly relax and several smiled back. It was a Jesus smile I think because then they smiled at others too.

Some of the things I needed for the cake were hard to find. Sugar was in very short supply. I did find some raw sugar eventually. I tried to joke with a couple of people and it went well. They were ready to laugh. We laughed about how crazy it all was.

There was no salt. There were a lot of empty shelves. It made me kind of scared too, to see that. I had never seen that before.

When I saw young people staring at things and looking confused I tried to help them find what they were looking for. At first I was stupid and picked up the item when I found it and they probably thought, “No thanks since you touched it, Stranger, and that was the last one too!” Oh yeah. I did better the next time.

I saw tired children looking around wide eyed as their flustered parents negotiated the crowds. I tend to feel overstimulated and anxious in crowds myself. I told one kid, “Hey you are being really good in the store! My youngest is 22 and she isn’t as good in the store as you are!” If a child was crying I tried to give a sympathetic look.

I finally had everything I needed, thank goodness.

I went ahead and got some beans and rice which, as a vegan, I kind of have to have. They were almost completely out. I took one small bag of each. My pay day is not for a few more days so I can imagine other people having to wait until pay day too and then everything would be gone. I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. Lots of reasons not to take more than I needed.

I tried to notice when other people were attempting to reach for things I was reaching for too and let them go first. That’s hard for me since I usually don’t notice things like that. But I tried.

I had intended to pay in cash as I usually do but I didn’t because the cashiers would have to touch that.

I felt so sorry for the young women at the register. They looked exhausted; flushed, sweaty and scared. I found out one of them was from some other department but had to come help and neither of them had gotten off work hours ago when they were supposed to be off. I thanked them so much for being there and I said I was sorry for what they were going through. They seemed to appreciate it a little bit.

I told Jesus on my way out, “Those poor girls! Please protect them and give them strength.”

On the way home people drove crazy. It made me sad. But I felt lifted up just a little bit and I had a sense of peace beneath the worry. Maybe some of the people in the store did too.

That brief experience made me think that if we can try to connect even for a second in the little ways that we can, and smile a little bit sometimes, it might lift us all up just that much more. We could use that right about now.

Maybe the reason you find love when you invest love is that it isn’t really that your love comes back to you but that Jesus is there whenever we try to give love even just that little bit, in a tough situation and he multiplies the love just as he multiplied the loaves and fishes.

We are all going to need a lot of love.

Jesus walk among us and help us remember love even a little bit in the days ahead, and to see you multiply our smallest investments.

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Photo by Nita on Pexels.com

Seven ways to Practice the Presence of God

“In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees in the Chapel.”~ Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite Lay Brother (d. 1691.) He had an intense realization of “the fact of God” while looking at a dead and leafless tree. He had been a soldier, and after being wounded he became somewhat lame. He then became a footman but, as he said, was “a great clumsy fellow who broke everything.” He no doubt was feeling like a dead, leafless tree himself at that time. But God opened a way for him to find life again. He became a Lay Brother in a Carmelite monastery; cooking, (a job he disliked right away) running errands, sweeping floors and of course, praying and discovering God within at all times and sharing this way he called The Practice of the Presence of God with others.

By making active use of the teachings of The Practice of the Presence of God we can learn to be continually recollected in God, which keeps our souls most open for God’s grace and at his service at all times.

The flow of our lives then becomes a conscious flow of God’s transforming love.

The consequences of this simple practice seep into our personalities and the way we are in the world. We find we even touch inanimate objects with love. We feel affectionate and open towards people. We feel happier, more peaceful, certainly more in tune with God.

1. Morning Offering.

Many Catholics begin the day by dedicating/offering it to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a Morning Offering. If you already do this, try to do it more consciously than usual. Pay close attention to what you are saying and to Whom you are speaking. Reflect on what the words mean to you.

If you don’t do this, you could start doing this. Write a Morning Offering on a post-it note and stick it on the coffee maker. You could write your own dedication instead of the traditional one if that would be more meaningful to you.

2. Address your thoughts to God.

This may sound overwhelming to do all the time but even recalling God and restarting your conscious awareness of him whenever you remember to, during the day can have a noticeable effect that will grow.

While you are at it, try turning your grouchy thoughts into prayers of praise. No really. So many things in the course of the day are annoying to us. Figure out how to make prayers of praise or gratitude out of these irritating things. You may be surprised how amusing this can be, and how it becomes second nature after a while.

Turn your thoughts into a continual conversation with God. We all live in a river of thoughts, images, memories, plans, worries, what have you. Turn this river toward the Lord, as often as you can remember to.

I think about my daughters more times a day than I care to enumerate. So, for example, I can try to talk to Jesus about them instead of only thinking to myself or worrying or dreaming for them, as parents will.

Today my daughter is moving, My other daughter and her husband are helping while I watch the grandchildren and hope the three year olds get along and the baby isn’t too distressed by the whole thing. I can talk to the Lord about this. “Calm any fears that arise, Lord. Help us to make this a joyful day.” Or I can express my concerns to him if I want to. As Winnie the Pooh says, “It’s friendlier with two.”

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Photo by ELEVATE on Pexels.com

3.Turn your suffering into prayer

The best way is to hold your pain up to God just like you used to bring your bumps and bruises to your mom for her to kiss. Words are unnecessary here unless you want them. Let God sit with you like a loving quiet friend when you are hurting. You probably know this is harder than it sounds.Try it anyway though.

Catholics also have the habit of offering up our suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus. We call this being co-redeemers. When something bad happens to me I consider myself a treasure of grace and try to offer my suffering as prayer for everyone who needs it.

4.Purposely invite God into even the smallest things you do each day

This is at the center of Brother Lawrence’s teaching, and a big part of The “Little Way” of St. Therese as well. Instead of rushing through a task or just trying to get a thing done, it helps to slow down and concentrate on it. As Eknath Easwaran says, “Concentration is consecration.”

Offer your task as if it were an act of prayer and then it will be.

St. Therese would offer the difficult things she had to do for missionaries or for priests. Maybe you would like to offer your work for something you care about to help the world or the Church.

Your offerings can be as simple as saying, “Lord here is my little pancake for you” if you are cooking, for instance. Maybe this sounds silly to you but I recommend you try it for a while and see for yourself. Maybe you too will find God “amidst the pots and pans.”

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”~ Brother Lawrence

This habit of being aware of God in your actions takes a lot of practice but even if you only remember to do this a couple times a day God will bless it and you. You will soon notice a difference in how connected you feel to God at all times.

When you are in line somewhere or at a red light (we spend a lot of our day waiting) use some of that time to connect to and talk to God. It’s easy.

5.“Listen” for God with an open heart

No matter where you are, whether you are alone or with others, hanging out with your friends, at work, petting your dog or talking to a small child, try to maintain a sensitivity to God in all situations. You will sense a heightened awareness and connection to other people and all living things when you do this. You will notice beauty you used to miss. You will be more and more able to register signs of God’s will or voice in the events and conversations of your day. It will become a working part of you in time.

6.Presence/mindfulness

We hear a lot about these concepts lately and I think that is good. As Christians, being present in the moment and being mindful in our daily lives is going to mean conscious awareness of God in the present moment, mindfulness of God in all we do and experience.

Fr. Greg McLaughlin said to me once, “You are not on this planet! I don’t think you are even in the solar system! God is in the present moment. God is right here! And right now, right here, he is saying‘ Where are YOU?”

To be absent minded is to be absent to attentiveness to God who is here with us now. This one has been a hard one for me as I am given to day dreaming. I have learned that we don’t have to be perfect at this present mindedness. But every little bit helps.

St. Teresa of Avila’s way of thinking was that “God is within us, and we should not leave him there alone!” She thought we should imagine the Lord beside us at all times until that active mental effort becomes internalized and natural, part of consciousness.

7. Repetition of the Holy Names

Brother Lawrence doesn’t talk about this in his letters or conversations. However this can be a useful key to keep on your key ring that can help you in your quest to cultivate the constant sense of the presence of the Lord in your life during your day. It can open the door for you.

When I am doing a task that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, I repeat the names of Jesus and Mary. For me it does the trick, and brings me into conscious awareness and attentiveness to the presence of God. It is also a prayer because I am calling on them in my heart and dedicating whatever I am doing to them.

Doing this in the waiting times of our lives can bring us into focus as well, so we can fill those empty spaces with the Lord.

It is very helpful in times of stress or fear too or any time I need to re-center.

St. Rose of Lima is said to have memorized the Names of God from the Bible during a time of blankness and darkness in her prayer life, and repeated them while she did her embroidery or any task that allowed it. It was her light through that difficult time.

Before going to sleep I like to tell God what I am grateful for about the day and commend all to him, good and bad.

I also try to fall asleep with the holy names of Jesus and Mary, taking them with me into the night.

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
― Brother Lawrence

People who wrote about talking to Brother Lawrence remarked on his deep peacefulness. He was a simple Lay Brother who had had a poor and difficult life, wounded in war and witness to horrific slaughter in his own home town. Through his remarkable relationship with God, and this way he found to live always in his presence, he found deep peace and was able to help others find the same.

This way is available to all of us.

Developing these habits may sound like an arduous process. Remember that we do what we can and God will do the rest. God sees and will bless our efforts. He’s cool like that.

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Annunciation House Day 5

Casa Vides
El Paso
October 22, 2019

I woke up tired but looking forward to the day with everyone and to learning more.

Today was the day we were supposed to dress up because we were going to Federal Immigration Court. I stuck to the dress code. My friend Jocie had taken me out and bought me an outfit. She kept asking if I was sure about the shoes. Hey all they said was that the shoes had to be close toed.

Downstairs my brother-in-law, Frank was sitting alone with a cup of coffee. Seeing me he said without expression, “You’re looking very… legal. Except for the shoes.” I laughed. The shoes weren’t outrageous. Just some black vans with socks and tights with my more formal skirt and button up shirt. “Just a little touch of funky,” I had said
“Of course. Always the rebel.”
“Yeah, I guess.”

I didn’t feel like eating but I grabbed an apple since we had a full schedule again today.

People smiled at one another as we slowly assembled in he dining area. The migrant guests looked at us with mild interest. I wondered what they thought about all this.

We met a woman named Cata in front of the court house. She told us what to expect and a little about what the immigration lawyer she worked with did. I don’t remember much abut it except that it was kind of cold and that El Paso judges have a 97% denial rate on asylum cases.

What we were about to see was a plea hearing for two migrants (they didn’t know one another) who were from Brazil. There might be a bit of a wait that had something to do with an interpreter being found. (Both migrants spoke only Portuguese.)

Inside an official wanted to speak to one of us who was a Wisconsin State Senator. His name was Tim, and he functioned as our comic relief and feeder of the stray cats outside Casa Vides. After a while he came back and sat with us.

The defendants were led in in handcuffs, and bound in chains hand and foot. This surprised me. It seemed like over kill. However I hear that it is the usual thing.

One of them was as young as my youngest daughter, in her early twenties. She was very slight and small in stature with tiny features and long brown hair.

The other inmate was a middle aged man with big black eyes. Both wore prison garb.

The young woman was charged with defrauding the U.S, government because when she was caught she lied about her relationship to the young man who had been with her, and about his age. She had said he was her 17 year old step son and that was not true apparently.

The man was charged with illegal re-entry, his second.

The magistrate explained who he was, who he worked for, and what his job was. He made sure both people understood their choices, and what they were being charged with.

He said this was independent of any asylum claims. They said yes they understood everything. Both plead guilty after hearing the maximum sentence (2 years in prison for her and a big fine, 5 years in prison for him and another big fine.)

It seemed mostly to be a formality, as if everyone involved were reading a script they had studied beforehand. Maybe it was like that.

Outside we thanked Cata and talked among ourselves about what we had seen. Cata had been talking to us but she had been way at the end of our bench and I hadn’t heard much. It was sad anyway.

Most likely each of the accused would go to prison for a while and then be deported. That is all we learned about their stories. I wonder why they came? I wonder why the man tried twice to get in?

woman in maroon shirt with black chain on her body
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Next we went to a place called La Mujer Obrera. At first it looked like a museum but it was more of a community center. The woman who talked to us was obviously very strong and passionate about the work she and others here did. She talked about the beginnings of her organization which began to help women in the garment industry, and the work of building community and what community organizing was. She said they didn’t need some progressive hipsters coming in and telling them what social justice was. They didn’t want conservative politicians coming in and telling them about “progress” either, or those who assumed they needed education to “get out of this neighborhood.” What about lifting up the neighborhood? How about relying on our community’s own fund of knowledge? How about studying together and creating jobs for themselves, starting their own enterprises, asking people in the community what they wanted?

She said Pope Francis’ Laudato Si was like a handbook for them, especially the parts about building community. She said it inspired them in all they did.

I was amazed at her. I never heard of any of this stuff she was saying before.

One of their community enterprises was Cafe Mayapan which was a restaurant serving indigenous foods. She said they had had to study to learn how to run a restaurant, and learn their ancestor’s recipes.

We had lunch there. I loved my grilled cactus stuffed with mushrooms and chipotle.

Ruben Garcia, the founder and director of Annunciation House met us for lunch. They already had his guacamole salad ready.

He was gentle in manner but very solid, I thought, inside. He reminded me of Pope Francis around the eyes and the way he greeted and spoke to everyone. He seemed like a gentle and humble man but authoritative- and there was something powerful about him. This was about to become more evident. He humbly said he never really prepared for these talks. I asked if he just went with the Holy Spirit. “You could call it that,” he said. He was quiet, looking down at his guacamole salad.

Then he boomed,”YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”

We sat in stunned silence.

He went on to make the point that we weren’t needed here. “We don’t need your charity! We don’t need you to do something nice to help migrants! I want you to go back home AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS!”

He said the last two years had been “BAD” and that we had let all this happen.

I was upset but then I caught his drift and thought that if he was talking about the current administration he was as much at fault as anyone else. Then I felt better. I relaxed. What a tractor beam the guy was.

I said I come from a very conservative small town and how was I supposed to talk about all that I had learned without people at home tuning me out? “People are very pro life but also pro wall,” I said.
“When I try to talk about immigration issues or the suffering of migrant children, the response is often, “but the babies!”

He nodded thoughtfully. I don’t remember that he had any answers for me. I guess I have to rely on the Holy Spirit too.

Some of my group asked if telling the personal stores of migrants would help. Mr. Garcia said that people already know those stories. They are on the news. “At some point justice has to stand on it’s own,” he said.

I am still thinking about what that means.

He related a story about why he had been late today. A few things had happened at once. He had been driving a man today who had been perfectly happy in his home country. He had his own business. His wife had a good job. They had a home and two cars. They never wanted to come to the U.S. Then the gangs started to come after his 14 year old son. They had come for him one night after a lot of harassment and demanded the father turn over his son to them. Somehow he convinced them to let him talk to him and they could come take him in the morning. That night they fled for the U.S., the only place they knew they would be safe. They were immediately detained. They didn’t know anyone, no one who could sponsor them. While they were in detention their teen-aged daughter turned 18. She was immediately separated from her family. They were released but she was not. Apparently this happens all the time. She was sent back to Juarez. Her family had been frantically calling Mr. Garcia trying to get someone to help their daughter, young and all alone in Juarez where migrants are targeted, kidnapped raped or murdered every day. Mr. Garcia had sent someone to find the girl and take her to a shelter there. That was bad too, but better than wandering the streets for a young girl.

He was angry. “Our government is killing people! Go home and do your homework! End this!”

He left early. He never ate his guacamole salad. I didn’t know what to think.

My group began to ask Chris and Brinkly if it would help for the group to sponsor someone.

I was thinking. I got a fresh cup of coffee and got up to mill around with some of the others.

“Damn,” I said to Frank. He seemed annoyed by the whole thing, but resigned all the same. He said that when you have a hole in the boat charity is bailing the water out. Social justice is fixing the leak.

I said that it seemed that we lived in a duplex, with the only way out for our neighbors being the door to our house. We had let a dangerous animal into our neighbor’s house, slammed the door and locked it. If anyone got out, we tied him up and threw him into our bathroom. “And took his children,” someone said. “Yeah.that too.”

La Mujer Obrera of El Paso

Frank remembered that the priest at the church in Juarez had said that the first thing to do was do our interior work, and secondly, to build community.

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Back at Casa Vides I asked Chris, who was so impossibly centered, compassionate and patient, how he kept from being outraged all the time with all he sees. He just looked at me.

I told him that when I hear heartless stuff about immigration, or when people try to justify the child separations to me, I just want to rip their heads off and sometime I verbally do. “How can I be patient with people who seem heartless to me? How can I not freak out?”

He thought about this.

He told me that at one point he had to leave Annunciation House and go stay with his parents for a while to regather himself. The child separation policy was intense for them there at Casa Vides. He was seeing what happened to people, the traumatized and desperate parents, for instance.

He seemed to have secondary trauma from seeing what he was seeing. One day he felt that God helped him remember the depth of the migrants’ faith. “They were the ones actually experiencing the trauma. They had such faith. It was like I was being asked, “Where is your faith?” So he had come back to Casa Vides and continued the work. He was able to do it then.

“I like it!” I said. We went downstairs for reflection.

First we had a talk from one of the volunteers we had not met before. One of the things I remember her talking about was the messaging people in these other countries are getting. She had been in this village where there were fliers everywhere for various coyotes (human smugglers) advertising false promises. People were pouring all they had into this trip to the U.S. where they were told they would be welcomed. At one point there was a rumor that there was a date in September that if you showed up at a port of entry that day, everyone who came would be let in.

She had worked with Border Patrol, Immigration and other related posts with different presidents. She said something Obama did that she thought helped a lot was to try to get the right message out to people that no, this stuff was not true, don’t come.

She also talked about the subjects others had: the effects of NAFTA, the drug trade, and the root causes of mass migration. My group talked more about what they could do back in Milwaukee.

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We did a special reflection lead by Chris. He said this was the traditional reflection for the last night of the Border Awareness Experience.

We were to sit back and close our eyes. We did so and he talked quietly about our days there; our arrival, and what we had done each day. When he got to the end, he showed us that he had set out a bowl of water, a bowl of rose petals and a bowl of pebbles.

We were to go up one by one and take a pebble, throw it into the water, and say what we wanted to leave behind here. The we were to take a petal, drop it into the water and say what we wanted to take with us.

I remember watching the others do this and being moved by it. Several of us said something like wanting to leave the anger behind and wanting to take up the courage to do what they were supposed to do. Chris did this also and he said he wanted to leave behind any bitterness and take with him love.

I said (I remember because I wrote it down) “I want to leave behind any timidity or reluctance to speak confidently about what migrants and refugees go through, and I want to take with me the courage the people of Annunciation House and others who do this work have – to be bold as love.”

To our surprise, Chris brought a birthday cake out for one of our group, a kind lady named Suzanne who I had talked to a lot, and we all sang her happy birthday. “What?! I asked her, “You chose to be here on your birthday?! That’s love!” She smiled.

All these people here are all about love.

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Before we went to bed Ruben Garcia brought in five children who had been living under a bridge in Juarez. They were American citizens but their parents were stuck in Juarez. The family had been here in the U.S. but gone into Mexico for some reason and were not allowed back in. I remember the tents we saw along the railroad and other places, and being told by a minister who goes to help the kids under the bridge every day to see what she can do, that there are over 3000 people under the bridge because of the practice of metering. These five kids seemed very happy to be at Casa Vides. They were able to call their parents before bed. Mr. Garcia told Sister Bea she would be “Mama Bea” for now. The sisters were very happy to be able to help these kids. Each child got a shower and something to eat and a warm bed. I could hear the sisters laughing with them in the Romero room. The other guests smiled on them. So did we all. But it hurt at the same time.

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Watch: An American House: a short documentary about Annunciation House

Annunciation House Day 4

10/21/19
Casa Vides
El Paso

We met with Border Patrol this morning. People in my group asked good questions that the four Border Patrol officers seemed to appreciate.

What a bizarre situation everyone along the border is in. In a way it is an imaginary line and all involved are playing a game. The problem is this game causes incredible suffering and death, at least the way it plays out. The line is imaginary but if you think about it that wall is violent in so many ways. Toward the end of the conversation, which was good, personal and amicable, Sister Anne Catherine had been watching a group of birds who circled several times over the wall, sometimes fluttering to the ground on either side, as if they were showing us something. She nudged me and I watched too. “If only I had the wings of a bird I could fly away to safety,” as the Psalmist says. I can’t help but wonder what this wall looks like to God or if he sees it at all. However he sees it does he agree with so many of us that this wall is more important than human life and dignity? It’s always a sad, surreal feeling to see the border wall and know it’s consequences to human beings and to our own humanity. Such a cost. Such a strange and haunting place.

They talked about the infrared cameras, the anti climb, the sensors under the ground. We asked about human trafficking: they had only seen one case of that. Apparently drugs come in through the ports of entry almost entirely. They talked about how they sometimes had to save lives since people often die in the desert. Someone asked how often they saved lives they said not that often in this area but that it does happen and that helps them feel good about what they do.

There is a heavy emotional toll of doing this work and it’s hard for them to let it go when they get home. Asked what the hardest part of their job was, all four of them said it was seeing the kids. In the van again someone mentioned the suicide rate among Border Patrol being high. But I don’t remember. I was feeling depressed.

Again I had been praying at a fence. For love to win in the end.

Inside the U,S, Border Patrol Suicide Crisis

It was hot outside and the sunlight was golden and slanting in beams when we got out of the van at the Wal-Mart Memorial.

I was not prepared.

The memorial stretched into probably about three city blocks. There was an army of religious candles going on and on and on. There were stuffed animals, pictures of the dead, messages to the dead, poems, letters, prayers. There were flags from other countries, a big poster of a fused Mexican and American flag that said, “Together against all odds.” There was a letter to the president pleading for understanding and change. It was in Spanish so I asked Maria to translate for me.

I big red poster near the middle that said,

“PAIN…. but I will not let it turn to hate.”

There was a large picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, statues and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, banners with Bible verses, a message of solidarity from the city of San Antonio, more messages, more prayers, toys of the little child who was killed. A massive number of flowers and rosaries. A child’s toy train.

A young white supremacist drove 11 hours from Dallas to El Paso to “kill Mexicans.” I can only guess he chose El Paso because of the spirit of friendship and community between the sister cities. Maybe he hated what El Paso represents. Maybe he wanted to do this at the border where people from both sides shop together. I don’t know. His manifesto had talked about “an invasion” referring to migrants and refugees and Hispanics in general I suppose. I had not read it. No need. I had been seeing its’ results.

Actually I wasn’t thinking about any of these things at the time. I was overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the place. We all were. It was riveting. It was devastating.

Eventually I sat down by a bank of flowers and religious statues to pray.

A woman I thought seemed like a family member thanked us for coming. I recognized the deep pain in her eyes and that aura of grief around her shoulders like a heavy black shawl that weighed her down.

When we got back into the van some people were crying. Nobody wanted to talk.

Chris said he knew we were feeling upset but we were running a little late for our last meeting of the day at Hope Border Institute so we just had a few minutes while we drove to get ourselves regathered. So we tried.

I think seeing this place would have hurt deeply no matter what. But after what we had been learning and the migrants we had met, it hit particularly hard. As we pulled away I thought, “This is the logical outcome of such madness.”

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Next we went to a meeting with Hope Border Institute. The people who filled us in on their work and research taught us more about the history of the border and its militarization and the criminalization of migration.

They gave us a flowchart on how the asylum system works. It appears to be designed so that no one can do it.

They told us more about how NAFTA affected their region on both sides of the border, the closure of factories which relocated on the other side and the failure of the government to keep its promises of retraining workers, of family and communal lands being lost to farmers who suddenly were displaced and unable to feed their children, the way the consumption of drugs in the U.S. has corrupted institutions in countries in Central America, how migrants made to remain in Mexico, especially the Central Americans, are targeted by gangs to be kidnapped and how the corrupt police in Juarez sometimes help with the kidnapping.

One of them talked about a reason people are refugees is also climate change, particularly from Guatemala where climate change is happening in real time. Coffee farmers in Guatemala are having to move up 1000 feet every year as the sea rises.

They gave us some literature to go over about the work they do applying Catholic Social teaching to these issues.

One man on staff named Dylan gave us an extemporaneous discourse on what Our Lady of Guadalupe means to migrants. I remember him saying that she is neither Spanish nor totally Indigenous. She appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Catholic convert. She said she came to comfort her children and hear their cries. Her knee is out to show she is dancing. She is pregnant. She is praying.

After this meeting we went outside for a much needed decompression to look at the other Diocesan buildings and statuary and little gardens to walk around and to talk.

My heart hurt. I think we could all say that.

At home(Casa Vides) we got word that the woman who asked us to pray for her son was beside herself because she had been notified that her son was in solitary confinement. “Why don’t they take me instead?” she had cried. She had fled her country because another son had disappeared. When she had finally been allowed to look at his body she saw three gun shots. Then she saw he had been tortured.

She had then fled with her two other sons. On the way she had tripped on a rock and been injured so badly her toe nail had gone up int her toe. They had to keep going but by the time they made it to the border she had such a bad infection all through her body she now had a port in her arm for antibiotics. We were all so sorry she was having to go through this. I thought of our prayers and messages on the fence outside his detention center. I prayed with Our Lady of Sorrows for her son, that she could hold him again and that the Holy Spirit would strengthen him and give him hope.

Before reflection Brinkly wanted to talk to us. She was very careful about what she said but something had been bothering her. The group had gone back into Juarez earlier that day. (I had stayed home.) They went to a lunch meeting with a Mexican official. She had been shocked about how much he sugar coated the situation in Juarez. She just wanted everyone to know that. The people around me laughed. Don’t worry, they said. It had been obvious to them after their day in Juarez anyway, that the guy was full of prunes.

He had said there were planty of jobs and that migrants could easily make a life there. This is untrue. Also Juarez has ten shootings per day. They have a problem with poverty that is obvious. Nobody had thought he was telling the truth.

Our reflection that night was much needed. Fr. Jose gently led us in an unraveling of what we had seen and heard that day. Then he played us a song about the God of silence and of night. It was soothing and reminded us that we could hide our faces in Jesus’ chest and sleep in love and prayer.

I didn’t know how I was going to sleep after all that. But I did. I was exhausted.

Hope Border Institute

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The song in my head while we talked to Border Patrol

Annunciation House Day 2

Casa Vides, El Paso 10/19/19

One of the Sisters sets out coffee and bread for toast, eggs if anybody wants to cook them. One of our group, a sweet young man named Alex who is here to understand what his immigrant parents went through, took it upon himself to make eggs for everyone.

My brother-in-law, Frank was here doing his story telling when I came down. People were chatting, getting to know one another.

Eventually we got into the white van again and drove through the city to tour the border fence, an 18 foot slatted steel barrier, with an extra five feet of “anti climb” on top, numbered in sections. It was strange to see the freeway on the other side, looking very similar with the same kind of cars on it, but technically another country and separated by this forbidding fence.

Chris talked to us about border history, the effects of NAFTA on the people south of the border; how they lost family lands and were driven to work in the factories built along the border (for $2 per day) in places where there was nowhere for them to stay, nothing around, and no one they knew they could stay with, so they built these carton homes. Eventually these shanty towns formed along the border. He was taking us to one of these called Anapra.

We got out of the van a few feet from the border fence, section 357. The woman with us who is originally from Chile, Maria, wept when she saw it. Both of us went to the fence and touched the cold steel, praying.

I spent many a Wednesday afternoon praying in front of the abortion clinic in my town, even before it was built. Like other people who stood on the sidewalk with rosaries in shifts in front of the fence. The border wall too is a place of death and tragedy. People jump in desperation and die or are terribly injured here. It is a place of injustice, people driven into poverty or fleeing violence then forced back, denied relief, and in many cases, denied their lives and the lives of their children.

Similar to the abortion clinic, this place of desperation and death is somehow also sacred. It is the place of the suffering of God’s children. God cherishes all of their tears, sacred to him. We could do no less.

Some of the women were taking pictures of a baby doll lying in the dirt with its head smashed. I had purposely left my phone behind so I didn’t do that. I didn’t have to. I will never forget it.

With another glance at all the trash and the shanty town on the other side, with Mexican National guards walking in pairs along the fence on the Mexican side, we gathered to read an op-ed about various administrations’ history of border policy and what has been the catalyst for this, the point being that Trump did not start this, He is just more expressive and bold faced about it, and more extreme.

Then each of us talked about our impressions of the border. I remember that most of us felt sorrow and pain about the injustice of it, the sadness, the strange unreality of the place.

Fr. Jose talked about how he had always thought he couldn’t be racist because he himself is Hispanic but reading the Bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism, he realized that there is racism and class-ism among his own community, and how they look down on those who are lower class or darker skin.

He added that he was conscious of his sin of looking away from all this. He said his main reason for being here was to continue his process of conversion.

Frank said he had been with some of his Jewish friends to a protest about the child separation policy where the chant had been “Don’t look away.”

Chris listened thoughtfully. He is always doing that.

I talked about how this place felt similar to the abortion clinic and all the time I spent praying there. I told how in my home town the abortion clinic did finally close and the site is now the offices of Coalition for Life.

I said we can have hope that some day this wall would come down and this site became a symbol of the victory of the spirit of friendship, cooperation, acceptance and love. It could happen!

Some cannot understand the visceral reaction of many in the borderlands to the wall. It is not just a tool of national security. More than that, the wall is a symbol of exclusion, especially when allied to an overt politics of xenophobia. It is an open wound through the middle of our sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The wall deepens racially charged perceptions of how we understand the border as well as Mexicans and migrants. It extends racist talk of an ‘invasion’. It perpetuates the racist myth that the area south of the border is dangerous and foreign and that we are merely passive observers in the growth of narco-violence and the trafficking of human beings and drugs. The wall is a physical reminder of the failure of two friendly nations to resolve their internal and bi-national issues in just and peaceful way. It validates James Baldwin’s fear that Americans are addicted to innocence. It is a destructive force on the environment. The wall kills families and children. There will be a day when after this wall has come crumbling down we will look back and remember the wall as a monument to hate.

– Night Will Be No More, Pastoral Letter on Racism by Bishop Seitz of El Paso

After that we voted about what to do next. We decided to go to an art exhibit called Un-caged Hearts; art left behind by the separated children in detention at the Tornillo camp.

Some of the art was truly stunning. The symbol of the questzel figured heavily. The saying we were told, is “you can’t cage the questzel or it will die.” It is a treasured bird in Central America, no one is allowed to hunt it. It is a symbol of the soul.

Birds flying in transcendent freedom were a theme that showed up as well.

Pictures of their homeland, models of their churches at home, and pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe, were incredibly well done in great detail.

There were native costumes made from plastic wrap, and a soccer ball signed by the children that they had “kicked to freedom” over the fence. There was a note that explained this, along with the fact that art and soccer wee discontinued by the current administration. That soccer ball really got to us, especially the young man among us, Alex.

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A beautiful pencil drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to me. The child had written, “God is here.” I imagined this kid saying to himself or herself, in the midst of suffering, “God is here,” just as I have done in my darkest hours.

After this we went to a Mexican bakery and burrito shop for lunch. Some of the group, most of them from Milwaukee were unfamiliar with authentic Tex Mex food so for them so it was a real treat. I sat with Sister Anne Catherine. She asked questions about what she was eating because she had told her server to just give her whatever she thought was good. I said it looked like carne guisada to me.

We were taken to Mt. Cristo Rey, considered to be “sufficient barrier” and therefore the wall does not come near. This mountain is a convergence of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.

A trail winds around the mountain, leading to the top. Along the way are stations of the cross. At the top of this mountain of rock and brush, is a giant white crown topped by a giant white crucifix. There is also an altar for mass there.

On the way up our group prayed a migrant themed Stations of the Cross with Gospel readings and reflections and the traditional prayers. We took turns reading and leading the prayers.

The terrain around El Paso is so severe, almost all rock, with brush in some places. How in the world do people cross in this stuff without getting hurt? How do they do it carrying wiggly toddlers, or tiny babies or trying to guide exhausted little children? I don’t know. No one creates a path for them through the wilderness. And they are treated abominably when they finally reach their goal. Unwelcome, mistreated, held suspect, arrested, interrogated, stripped of dignity.

Sister A.C. and I talked about how it it would seem they deserve their feet washed, a hug, a hot meal and a soft bed after their heroic journey.

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When we finally reached the top, everyone hot and sweaty and dusty, some men were working repainting the monument. They let some of our group help a little bit and take pictures with them. They said their fathers and grandfathers had helped build it and this work was passed down and done by their descendants as family tradition. They were getting ready for the 80th anniversary celebration when the bishop of El Paso would be there and a border mass would be celebrated.

They gave us water on the way down. They showed me the crosses with the names of the 22 shooting victims from the El Paso Wal -mart mass shooting.

On the way down, we talked with each other about our lives and about our thoughts. There were little shrines along the path for saints important in the region, Chris had said. I remember St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Francis, St. Martin de Porres.

I got to talking to him too. He asked about the tattoo on my arm and I told him the story about my consecration to Mary and that my tattoo is the North Indian design for a rose. I told him about my other tattoos too. We also began talking about our lives. He didn’t talk a whole lot, mostly asking me questions and keeping his own answers fairly brief. He is a kindly young man with a listening heart. He seems to possess a lot of wisdom too.

We went to dinner at one of the other houses, Casa Romero. The sister who serves there is a Mary Knoll sister. She showed us around. Then we listened to a presentation by Brinkley, one of the volunteers, about what migrant detention is like. It basically sounded like prison. She talked about how the migrants feel about this: “I didn’t do anything wrong. I am here to claim asylum. I am trying to do it legally. Why do they punish me like a criminal? “ Or “I just need to work and feed my family!”

We learned about the hunger strikes that had been going on at the detention center next door. Some of the men had been force fed which damaged their esophagus and internal organs with the feeding tubes, inserted with larger than necessary tubing, the procedure done rather violently and without local anesthetic. One of the med had fainted and stopped breathing at one point.

Brinkley got us to write prayers and messages to those in detention next door that she likes to ritually tie to the fence even though they can’t see them. I thought Franks’ was really good. “Love wins in the end.”

I left my Immaculate Heart of Mary medal hanging there on the fence too so that a part of me will always be there. We prayed in a circle for all of these people imprisoned in the big building next door with that barbed wire along the top of it’s high fence.

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Soberly we went in for dinner: spaghetti and french bread and salad served by a retired couple who spends a month a year at this shelter. They were very kind. After dinner we all helped clean up. I was on mopping duty while others did dishes and so on. The women helping with dishes talked and laughed with a woman from our group, Maria.

One of the men staying in the shelter who had fled violence in his home country became very ill on the journey through the mountains. He now knows his kidneys shut down and he had a collapsed lung. He had lain in the desert praying that the police or border patrol or someone like that would find him and he said, “God heard me!”

Some of the women guests helping with dishes turned out to be “Social Security women.” These are widows whose husbands worked legally in the U.S. and who are entitled to their husbands’ social security. For some bizarre reason our government requires them to travel to the U.S. and remain there one month before they can claim their money. One of the women had become ill on the journey and was a day late and they wouldn’t give her her money. They said to stay yet another month. Widows of husbands who worked in our country from Europe and Canada and elsewhere in the world have their checks mailed to them.

I don’t understand the reasoning for this. It just seems unjust. The travel and one month stay is a serious hardship for these women. The travel is an expense for them, and taxing for the older ones. They have to put a hold on work, figure out what to do with the children or how to bring them along and they miss school. Sometimes the money isn’t enough to make it worth it and the government just keeps it. This seems wrong, the whole thing. One of our group said, “But that is unjust!” The women said yes it is but who can defend us. No one cares. Someone in our group sympathized about the journey. They said “God travels with us, God is with us.”

A young black man walked around listening to music. He was from Kiwa,(?) Brinkley said. She said they get refugees from all over the world, people who have been through jungles, crossed dangerous rivers, and braved danger to get here to safety.

In the chapel some of the women were praying the rosary. Father Jose went in and blessed each one. They cried. He said later he knew that it was not him doing that that caused them to cry, but what he represented to them as a priest.

One of the women asked us to pray for her sons. One of them is stuck in Juarez, and the other one was in detention next door.

We went back to Casa Vides for reflection and bed. Father Jose asked us where we encountered God that day. Everyone had a moment and we talked about that: the soccer ball, the art that seemed like a miracle in itself, the deep faith of the migrants, in the workmen on the mountain, in Chris himself. Everyone smiled at that. He is such a steady, patient, kind and wise young man.

Everyone went up to bed. Sister Anne hugged me goodnight. I remembered the blanket this time and therefore I slept much better, praying the rosary in my mind for the sons of that mother we met.

broken glass window with gray metal frame
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Night will be no more Pastoral Letter

Annunciation House Day 1

Casa Vides, El Paso 10/18/19

The first thing I saw when I came in the door of Casa Vides was a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a close up of her face, and the tips of the fingers of her praying hands. I thought to myself, “This is Mary’s House.”

There are several murals here in the dining and living room area. The largest is of the faces of several El Salvadorans who stayed here who died on their journey, except the two who were activists there and were assassinated as also was one of their sons. This house is named for them. In the middle is a green map of Central America. A banner across it bears a quote from St. Oscar Romero that says in Spanish, “If thy kill me I will be resurrected in my people.”
Throughout are flora and fauna of El Salvador and a landscape with a mountain in the back ground. In either side are two traditional figures facing the portraits.

Around the room here in a banner like swirl of peach paint that stretches all over the building and into the basement are written the names of all who have died on the journey or who were killed by agents of enforcement. If they have not yet been identified there is the word in Spanish, “Unknown.”

There is a large cross also, painted in Central American style. The rooms are named after Oscar Romero, and the activist couple who were assassinated, and their son, and, I suppose others like them. Every room has a name on or over the door.

Our group has been staying here in this shelter. We have five women in a small dorm room, three bunk beds.

The migrant guests stay in another part of the house so they have privacy and proper boundaries from our group. We see them at meals and in the common areas of the house. I don’t speak Spanish really but I can express compassion, ask if a person needs anything. Those of us who do speak Spanish can tell me the stories the guests have shared.

When we first got in we were a little early. Sister Caroline was handling a stressful phone call about one of their guests who had just left to meet family in another state but who was not allowed on the plane be cause of her two broken ankles. The three of us who drove sat down on the battered couch to wait for those of us who flew in from Milwaukee.
Eventually everyone else filtered in.

All of us were very tired. It was about 1 in the afternoon. We had lunch: spaghetti, guacamole and chips, black beans. Tea to drink. We each were invited to say what brought us here.

Everyone but me was from the Catholic Coalition for Migrants and Refugees, a group just forming in Milwaukee. I said I had felt called to do something and to come to the border for a while now. As a writer I planned to write about this since it is something I know I have to give. I wanted to be able to speak confidently about what is happening at the border, to understand the issues, and to find out of there is anything I can do to help the people affected. I wasn’t sure what else God might have for me in this. I had been invited along by my brother in law, Frank and I was glad to be here. I told about my friend, Gloria who was undocumented and who died recently of completely treatable and preventable illness because she was undocumented. I wanted to dedicate this trip to her memory.

Our director, a young volunteer who has been here for almost two years, a very centered and gentle spirited guy named Chris. took us in a van to a local museum and memorial that celebrates an historic agreement about some territory, the Chamizal, that had been disputed between the U.S. and Mexico for many years. It is near one of the six border crossings in the city of El Paso and Jaurez. We could see people crossing back and forth from school or work back home, school kids with their backpacks, walking in chatty groups toward the bridge. There was a huge line of trucks standing still waiting to cross. I hear it sometimes takes hours but you never know.

The museum was educational about the cultures of the borderland, and its’ history.

We returned for dinner. Chicken and rice and salad and beans.

After we helped clean up, we went downstairs to the basement for reflection time. The priest who is with us, Father Jose, led us in a simple reflection format. Someone read from the Gospel. The priest asked us a couple of questions: What do you live for? And, “What is God calling you to do?”

We had talked at dinner about why each of us was here and that flowed into this discussion. Most of us don’t know exactly what God is calling us to do. But we know he lead us here to this place, and we all trust that his purpose for us will unfold. To all of us, our faith, expressed in various ways, is what we live for. The way I remember saying this was that what I live for is my relationship with God.

We closed the day with an Our Father, A Hail Mary, and a Glory be. The priest blessed us, and we all went up to bed. I was so cold during the night and I had not known there were extra blankets in the room. So I woke up often. I thought a lot about what this is like for the people who come here for help. So much must be going through their minds at night in the dark.

bird s eye photography of mountain
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* The house we are staying in is Casa Vides. Annunciation House was the original shelter with volunteers who live there in community with the guests they care for. Over time they began to form a network of houses. But they are all under the auspices of Annunciation House.

Chamizal National Park and Museum

From midwifery to hospice: Andrea’s spirituality of service

Twenty-one years ago, my youngest daughter, Roise, (pronounced “Rose,”) was born at home, at sunrise. My dear friend, a nurse and midwife, Andrea, put her on my stomach. My baby looked up at me with frightened eyes, and said “Oh! Oh! Oh!”

As her dad, who was in our bed holding me, sobbed with joy, I said to my child, “It’s OK! I’m your Mama!” I nursed her for the first time, and my husband, Blaze, gave her her first bath in our kitchen sink, after my sister in law, Shawna, had cut her umbilical cord. All the women in the family were in the bedroom with us when Roise was born; my step mom, my daughter, Maire, who had run in at the right moment, and my mom, holding Maire in her arms. 

 After everything was all cleaned up and Roise Mariah was pronounced robustly healthy, everyone left with a happy glow. Maire and Blaze climbed into bed with Roise and me and we had a long family nap. It was beautiful.

person holding baby s hand
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I’m having coffee with my friend, Andrea, mid-wife and Hospice nurse. She’s talking about work and spirituality. People often ask her how she can do what she does, especially the Hospice work. But she says that, aside from being tired sometimes, and worried about her own problems when she’s on her way to work, there’s nothing negative about what she does. She forgets everything else in the presence of a laboring woman or a dying person. “It’s like a window to Heaven!”

More often than not, dying people she comes into contact with are in a state of peace as they near the end of their earthly lives, and they commonly seem to be seeing and talking to people in the room that nobody else can see, most often, people they love who have died.

My mother looked up in wonder, not having really spoken for months at the end of her illness. “What are you all doing here? Are you going to take me with you?”

The deaths Andrea has been able to be present for were powerful spiritual experiences for her. The houses of the dying are filled with God’s presence, and she prays deeply when she is working with a patient and his or her family.

She is more grounded and profoundly present than at any other time in her life, she reflects, when she is working.

Sometimes, as she goes about her own daily business, she thinks, “Wow, I really did that.”

The morning my second husband, Bob, had died, Andrea had the beautiful idea of inviting our close women friends to come and wash and anoint his body. She thought of it because in the Bible, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial with bathing, oils and spices.

Our friend, Amy, had a set of Biblical essential oils, such as frankinsence, myrrh, myrtle, spikenard, etc.

Andrea, with solemn tenderness, guided us through an improvised ritual; with Bob’s body modestly draped, we washed him reverently, and anointed him with fragrant oils.

We cried and we prayed.

She guided family and friends in prayer and asked each of us if we had anything we wanted to say as we waited for the funeral home, and for our friend, Deacon Ron Fernandes, who led us in prayer and blessing, and even singing.

“When a family is spiritual, it’s really nice for me- especially if they are Catholic. I am always glad to see icons or a crucifix or picture of Mother Mary in a house. Then I know I can openly pray the rosary. The rosary is definitely the prayer I pray the most during my work.”

“During labor or grief, my imagery/prayer is, ‘Please, Mother Mary wrap this mother, this couple, this family, me, in your mantle of grace and mercy.’ I call that image to my mind.” 

Andrea says she often senses the presence of Mary at births, especially.

“I think I identify with her because she labored to birth Jesus, she was human, and she suffered the grief of His death. This comforts and gives me strength.”

religious image statue
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I have always thought it was perfect that Andrea was born on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12.  The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is the patroness of the unborn, and in that image, she is pregnant.

“People are always so grateful. And I think, I didn’t DO anything, I was just there!”

I know why people are grateful. They are grateful because she was there. Andrea brings a sense of solid, motherly, and professional competence into a frightening situation, she gives the intimate and ultimate mysteries of birth and death back into the hands of the family. Then these events become far more personal, home and family-centered experiences because of her courage and love, her willingness to come to the family, and serve them where they are, in order to allow them to give birth, or to die, at home. This is a gift of peace.

She recognizes, nurtures and draws out the best in people when it is most needed. She makes them feel empowered in trusting the process.

Precious to me is the memory of Andrea holding my hand as I labored in the bath tub. I laughed and said I could not imagine our family doctor doing this, as good as he is. 

“There is just so much love that is there,” she says, tearing up.

She is certainly adept at finding the beauty inherent in these events, and transmitting it just where it is needed.

As we talked about her work, she cried now and then. Don’t worry, she cries easily. She also believes so much in what she is doing, she is very passionate about it. She gets frustrated trying to describe her thoughts and experiences. She thinks she is in-eloquent. But she’s not.

Andrea is very earthy, and as I thought about what she was saying, and what I learned, having watched her work, I see that her spirituality involves being very in tune with the Sacred Humanity of Christ, of the physicality of birth, suffering, and death, of what Veronica’s veil would have really looked like, smeared with the dirt, blood, sweat, snot, and tears of the very real Face of Our Lord.

ancient art black and white close up
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The blood and water from the side of Christ make sense to Andrea. She has these all over her all the time. She understands the physical as deeply spiritual. Hers is an Incarnational spirituality, true to the One who came to share our sufferings and give us life; actual life, not just an idea, Life we can touch and hold. That’s how real the Resurrection was. Jesus wasn’t just a spirit. He was and is real. His wounds were touched by His disciples. He ate with his traumatized friends. He comforted them.

Andrea experiences this truth of the Incarnation as an every day reality, and to her, it just is.

Well, not really, because she cries when you try to get her to talk about it.

“What are you looking at, Daddy?”

“The glory of God.”

“What does it look like?”

“You wouldn’t believe it!”

sky space dark galaxy
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