Warm, soft, vulnerable and alive, this sleeping One in my lap. I caress the tiny forearm, touch the curled, unsure hands. I can’t stop kissing his fast-beating heart, listening to his unpracticed, uneven breath. I touch his soft, dark, baby hair, nuzzling the top of his head with my nose. His little feet, slightly cold- so tiny and perfect- have never yet touched the ground. I hold them in my hands to warm them. I kiss their satiny soles. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” my heart in wonder repeats, repeats. I press him to me, this Lord of mine, with a profound, peaceful, joyful gratitude and love, a protective love. He opens his eyes, still that deep slate gray of the newly arrived human. They hold the newborn’s sage, open gaze; mildly curious, seeming to drink in the powerful love pouring out of the…
This Advent, I have asked the Friars, Priests and Sisters what they do for Christmas in their communities. I called a cloistered Carmelite convent and asked what the nuns do for Christmas. I read accounts in articles and on web sites of Christmas at monasteries.
I was surprised by some of the responses I got to my question, especially by the fact that there is sometimes loneliness or emotional distance in religious communities at Christmas.
I heard about Christmas nights with everyone exhausted from ministry work.
Some Christmas Days are spent, anti-climactically, with each member in his own room after all the masses are over.
Some Christmases are difficult or disappointing, just as some of ours are.
I don’t know what I expected to hear. Of course they have problems, too.
Some described happy Christmases among brothers as the norm.
Other accounts had a gentle simplicity and sense of the sacred we could work harder to imitate or be more in touch with if we wanted to.
Advent can be a quiet but intense time. The days are getting shorter and darker. It is a period in which nature and the liturgy can harmonize in a way that naturally draws a monk or nun more into a reflective and prayerful mood. When the great day of the Lord’s birth arrives, it is as if a great light had burst on the scene. The dramatic turning point is Midnight Mass, something Trappists do in a very distinctive way. The liturgy is simple but majestic. We are often joined by dozens or as many as a hundred of our friends and neighbors with their children.
On Christmas day, we are allowed to sleep in a little longer. Breakfast will often feature delicious pastries made by a Trappist brother or sister or one of our neighbors. We do not exchange gifts, but we receive many cards and goodies from people far and wide who appreciate our silent witness as contemplatives. We are permitted to call our families and catch up on news from home. All of these are means for really enjoying and celebrating Christmas. But, perhaps, what a Trappist monk or nun most cherishes about Christmas day are the free periods given us to spend time in the chapel or walk in nature and enter into the mystery of Christmas in silence and solitude.
This response from my friend, Sister Lynn, was particularly joyful:
“ We have a special Vespers service on Christmas Eve where we sing the portions of Isaiah that speak of the Emmanuel. We usually sing Christmas carols in Chapel before Mass as people are arriving. Since we are located in a very rural area we don’t usually have a lot of guests at Mass; perhaps a dozen or so on Sundays. But Christmas Eve is the one Mass where we get a huge turnout of people – usually around 100. After Mass we visit with our guests a bit as they leave.
Christmas morning we have Morning Prayer. We have Christmas Day Mass with our elder sisters in the infirmary. Then the sister cooks get to work preparing our Christmas dinner. Easter and Christmas we splurge … this year we are having steak! Different sisters sign up to do parts of the meal – I am on for vegetarian main dish (we’re having specially seasoned Boca burgers and cauliflower steaks) and also salad.
In the afternoon we have some rest time. The evening is my favorite part of the day – we have our community Christmas party. We have fun finger foods, open gifts that have been given to the community – usually there is a small gift for each sister (something like an Amazon gift card or gift of an extra retreat day). It’s only community – no guests, we put on our jammies and just have fun being together.
~ Sr. Lynn, O.S.B.
My friend, Fr. John, S.J., said most of the other Jesuits go home to their families of origin for the holidays during the break at the University where he teaches, though those that remain behind have a special mass and dinner. He thought I should write about something else. My life sounds more entertaining to him.
The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.
On Christmas Eve morning we pray Lauds and then chant (Gregorian) the hour of Prime, in which the Martyrology is also formally chanted by one of the Sisters. On Christmas Eve we are announcing and proclaiming the Birth of our Savior, so the chant is very solemn and beautiful. We have copied it here below for you to read what is sung in Latin. When the Sister pronounces the words that speak of God becoming Incarnate for us, we all kneel and then prostrate with our faces to the floor in adoration. It is a moving and inspiring moment…
In the 1599th year from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth. The 2957th year after the flood. The 2015th year from the birth of Abraham. The 1510th year from Moses and the going forth from Egypt of the people of Israel. In the 1032nd year from the anointing of King David. The 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the 194th Olympiad. The 752nd year from the foundation of the City of Rome. In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavius Augustus, all the world being at peace, Jesus Christ the Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, nine months after his conception was born in Bethlehem of Judah made man of the Virgin Mary. – Sisters of Carmel
My friend, Fr. Gregory, OCD, said his community is very busy at Christmas with the parish and the staff. Though they spend a lot of time in prayer, it sounded to me that their obligations are almost as heavy as those of lay people at that time of year. They did have a lovely Christmas together this year, though, even with the stress of their current building project.
“In this house all must be friends, all must be loved,
all must be held dear,
all must be helped.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila
It sounded as if religious communities are just a different type of family, with similar joys and difficulties. Sometimes Christmas makes things that are going wrong stand out more to us, and the longing for a better unity is drawn out in every heart as we ache for Jesus to come among us, to be born in our midst again. Our families feel that deeply at times, and so do theirs. I wonder if our lay families can find more ways to support those in consecrated life, especially since they give so very much to us?
After hearing some of the difficulties they had, a friend of mine paid for a dinner so a small community of Friars could have a special meal together Christmas Eve. I sent a book of poetry by Hafiz to another religious priest I care about. Who can be lonely with great poetry?
Let’s remember and bless these human beings who have given themselves to God for the good of the Church and the world. We can pray for them, thank them, be grateful for them, but we could also learn more about them, deepen our appreciation of their contributions, get to know some of them, let them inspire our own family lives, and find out how we can support them as they support us.
Special thanks to the priests and religious who let me hear about their family Christmases.
Here are some links of interest to learn more about our friends in Consecrated Life
To begin, make the sign of the cross and pray the Sh’ma, a prayer the little Mary would have grown up reciting every day with her Jewish family and community:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
HolyChild Mary, gentle and humble of heart, you are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you are the fairest honor of our people!” (see Judith 15:9)
When I was a kid, I loved looking at pictures of my mom from when she was little. Not only could I see hints of who she would become–those eyes, that smile…those knees…. That spunk! I could also more easily see the ways I looked like her. I could compare pictures of…
After some packing and chores people were milling around downstairs. Most of our group was flying back to Milwaukee. My brother-in-law, Frank and Sister Ann Catherine and I were driving.
Chris had never gotten to his plan of taking us to a scenic overlook he wanted us to see. I really wanted to go and several of us did, piling into the van one last time.
What a lovely place; situated on a mountainside with a view of Juarez and El Paso stretching out before us.
The border wall was invisible.
I thought that this must be how God sees this place.
El Paso del Norte, once one city, now divided like East and West Germany were by the Berlin wall. Frank had been stationed in Germany while he was in the Army and this situation we had experienced in El Paso reminded him very much of the Berlin wall. Only in Berlin people were heroes for making it across to freedom. In America it is quite the opposite. We treat such people as criminals. There is no welcome. Our one policy is deterrence – seemingly by any means.
There were historical markers and memorials to read and take note of.
Apparently the scenic overview is a place for lovers as well as historical markers. Padlocks covered the hand rails. Chris said sometimes they had to be cut off.
I can see why the spot is inspirational to people in love. Love is transcendent, eternally bonding, an experience of unity that verges on the mystical. Mountains give the human spirit that feeling too. All is one from up high.
Back at Casa Vides Alex and Father Jose were laughing with the kids that came in last night. We showed the kids and one another pictures of our families.
Tim had bought some cat food for the stray cats. We chuckled as he gave it to the sisters.
Eventually it was time to go. We hugged one another and wished each other well. The sisters came and hugged me. Sister Bea had said she saw my goodness and that it shone out from me. That must have made an impression on me because I still remember it. She had taken notice of qualities she saw in each of us. She gave these as gifts to each one of us in parting.
I told Sister Caroline I had a feeling I would be back. I was surprised that she had such a big response to that. “Praise God!” she said, her blue eyes wide.
I have little idea of what I can ever do to help out, not speaking Spanish and not being that good at much. However it is true. I can’t imagine not going back.
Chris told me to keep in touch and everyone said to send them a copy of my book. (I am working on one though what happens with it I don’t yet know- but it is great that they believe in me.)
The guests came and hugged me, smiling.
Then we hopped in Franks’ car with our suit cases.
Once we were out of town I turned on the stereo. I had put on a mix CD that was labeled “Indigo Girls.”
As the first song played I remarked that it was the perfect song to end this experience at Annunciation House with. And it was. It seemed to sum up how we felt, what we had received and what we longed to give.
I come to you with strange fire
I make an offering of love
The incense of my soul is burned
By the fire in my blood
I come with a softer answer
To the questions that lie in your path
I want to harbor you from the anger
Find a refuge from the wrath
This is a message, a message of love
Love that moves from the inside out
Love that never grows tired
I come to you with strange fire, fire…
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Today everyone else went into Juarez after breakfast to attend mass, meet with the priest Fr. Bill afterward, have a look at the shelters in Juarez and meet with Fr, Peter, a Carmelite Priest and Sister Betty at the Catholic Worker House there.
I took a writing day since I did not get my passport in time for this trip.
Sister Anne gave me some bubbles. She heard I love bubbles. So far I have written for a while, had conversations with two of the sisters at the house. They wanted to know how I was doing. They asked about my life. Sister Caroline is a Franciscan Sister. Sister Bea is a Holy Spirit Sister. Both are from Ireland originally. You can really tell with Sister Bea. Her accent is strong.
I sat on the couch near some women guests and did some writing there. We watched ice skating together, making signs to each other about it now and then. One of the women helped the one with the broken ankles from her wheelchair to the couch. I got her some water.
I wrote some more.
Later I walked to Sacred Heart Church. It is an historic and grand, gorgeous church, a bit worn but friendly. Mass was in Spanish. However I knew exactly what was going on and I said the responses to myself in English. I liked how the congregation claps during the songs. There was so much enthusiasm and joy in their liturgy, so much love for Jesus in the Eucharist.
I got some lunch at a little cafe. Afterward I walked to this coffee shop (The Coffee Box) where I am now.
I hope Frank remembers to ask the Carmelite priest in Juarez my question about service from a Carmelite perspective. I also gave my email address for him in case he wouldn’t mind emailing with me a little bit.
My hands have been shaking all the time. I love all the people but I am such an introvert it is hard for me to be around everybody nonstop. I am still a little shaky even with them away.
I have noticed signs of the spirit of friendship between the two cities. On the side of a building painted in Spanish it says, “Love for Juarez.”
There is a famous sister cities mural as well. There are murals all over this city. There is a mural tour people go on. One of them is of the children who died in detention.
At the art museum a lot of the art deals with the borderland, it’s cultures and its issues.
The situation does seem strange: it appears to be one city divided by big steel fence and six places where you can cross over- showing your passport or your work visa.
It used to be one city named El Paso del Norte.
In the 1970’s there was just a chain link fence at the border. Just before NAFTA was implemented, the people of El Paso can tell you, the 18 foot steel fence we see now went up. This is generally taken to mean that the politicians knew that mass migration would result from the policies of NAFTA.
Eventually the group made it back to Casa Vides.
Our next stop was Casa Refugiado. It is a huge warehouse Annunciation House rented with the help of a local Evangelical church who donated the money for three months’ rent.
The first thing we all noticed was the efforts that had gone into this to make it beautiful and hospitable for the refugees. The local art community donated beautiful art prints and photography. Best of all were the giant murals in every area.
The Red Cross loaned what seemed like countless cots. There was a room that was a chapel filled with holy pictures. There were tables of Bibles in Spanish, holy cards and rosaries. Sometimes local priests come to say mass, the guests often hold their own prayer meetings as well.
There was a tiny clinic room where local doctors donate their time as needed.
There was some play equipment that we saw children playing on. Other small children ran through one big room, their mothers looking on.
We learned that right now the numbers were in ebb at the shelters but at some points that were taking in about 1000 people a day. Now that people are automatically detained the numbers have dropped for now. But the volunteers don’t know from one day to the next what will happen. Policies are constantly changing.
The plumbing had a lot of problems and the landlord didn’t want to fix them so Annunciation House needed to have port-a-potties put in outside and a huge mobile shower unit truck waited.
I thought about the detained children who didn’t get showers or the opportunity to brush their teeth. They could have easily done this. There was no reason but cruelty to not let those children have access to showers and to brush their teeth. If Annunciation House can do all this with donations how much could our government do- especially when they are paying so much per person for private companies to keep them in miserable conditions?
Back at Casa Vides there was a donated meal of burgers from the Presbyterian church. So dinner was easy.
A woman who has won a human rights award for her work with migrants in detention came to talk to us. Her main goal is to help return agency to these people. She helps them organize with one another, helps with bailing people out when appropriate, though she thinks it is more important that the unjust situation does not continue. She doesn’t want to bail people out and then have the system adjust itself for her doing that, which had started to happen. She can help them with their commissary accounts, phone calls, support, connections and help once they are free to stay that way. She felt like she didn’t want the award. She wanted this to not happen to people. She told us there was denial of due process going on, abuse, torture and punitive conditions for people who were waiting for their asylum cases. They can be there for years in prison conditions and worse when they have committed no crime. She also talked to us about the criminalization of migrants and our national tendency to criminalize mental illness, addiction and poverty. It is not effective and causes untold suffering and a waste of potential.
She also talked about the Indian men who were force fed when they were on hunger strike. She had been present with them for that. It had been cruel. I asked what she meant by abuse and torture. She said force feeding in the way they did, especially, is defined as torture. She said beatings, humiliations, laughing at people who are suffering, this is abusive. She answered our questions well.
Then we had reflection with Fr Jose. We shuffled off to bed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.