The bond I had with Yeshi was, I felt, even more deep that one of blood. A blood father is chosen by God to be the parent of a child. As my wife said to me so often, I was chosen for Yeshi by God. The Lord gave me such a powerful attachment to this son of mine I was wild with terror at the angels’ news. I sat up, jumped to my feet, immediately on full alert. My wife was asleep next to him. I tried to wake her gently. I watched as her face hardened when she understood. Quickly she strapped the protesting baby to her back and helped me load the donkey. We had become a good team and she was nearly as strong as a man. In only a few minutes we were on the road.
We were frightened about passing the watchman. But we were both ready for anything, ready to give our lives if we had to. As we drew near I tried to walk calmly and confidently,though I was so taught with fear I ached to break into a run. I knew Mary was frightened too. I heard her trying to slow her breathing. I was conscious of the knife at my belt, praying to God I would not have to use it.
I needn’t have worried. The guy only greeted us and remarked on the fact that we were leaving in the wee hours. I managed to laugh and say that with a newborn we couldn’t sleep anyway so we thought we may as well be our way. We passed without incident.
Fortunately I had been curious about the beautiful maps the wise men had poured over before they left. For some reason I remembered a side rout to Egypt. We needed to avoid the Northern Way most people took. There had been a lot of talk about the Child around Bethlehem, certainly about our fantastical visitors on camels who had followed a star to our son, saying he was a long expected king. We knew if they got a lead Herod’s soldiers could pursue us into Egypt, also part of the Roman Empire.
I walked as fast as I could, leading the donkey with Mary and the baby on its back. We kept our voices low. I tried to squeeze Mary’s foot now and then to reassure her. She was grave and resolute whenever I looked at her. If anything she seemed angry rather than afraid most of the time.
We traveled in this way until we were sure we were well away. Hours after sunrise we hid as best we could behind a large rock and took turns sleeping and keeping watch.
Again we left in the night.
The way was treacherous. I tripped several times on rocks and brush. Finally one trip sent me flying. The pain in my ankles was bad enough I could not walk at all no matter how I tried.
Mary got down from the donkey, running to me. We still had plenty of frankincense and she spread the fragrant oil over my fast swelling ankles. My wounded leg she cleaned with water and then healing myrrh. The oil and ointment helped but not enough for me to walk, even with her help. What to do?
“We have to get you on the donkey and let me walk,” she said. I was opposed.
“Joey,” she insisted, “there is no other way!
After several painful tries, together we pushed, pulled and lifted me onto the little donkey. I felt ashamed that she had to do this. Also, “I’m a big hairy man on a donkey!” I complained. “I look ridiculous!”
She laughed. “You DO look ridiculous.”
“I’m worried about you,” I said. I was. I could feel it in the pit of my stomach.
“Take this,” I said, handing her the knife which she solemnly took. “Remember how to use it if you have to, the way I showed you before?” I asked her. She nodded.
“OK now make yourself useful,” she said, handing me the baby. I could see his eyes shining in the dark. I pressed him to me.
We went ahead bravely.
She insisted on stopping now and then to put more oil and ointment on my injuries. She tried to joke with me to make me feel better. I told her she was my warrior queen.
We were scared but we trusted God. There was nothing else to do. We tried to encourage one another. We had a saying together: “God is it.” Our lives were for God. “Everything will be OK,” we said to one another, “and even if it’s not OK, it will be OK.”
We belonged to God.
We had to stop to nurse and change the baby every few hours. Soon we would need supplies. We had gold from the wise men. We knew that a poor young couple trying to buy food with foreign gold was going to cause a stir but it couldn’t be helped.
We continued to travel by night, exhausted and afraid. Our minds started to fill with every possible thought. We talked about King Herod. How could any grown man, a king no less, be so insecure about his power, so angry, hateful and afraid, he would seek to harm a child? Why would anyone obey such a man?
The wise men had told us they were warned in a dream that Herod had become hostile about their mission, and that they must leave by another way themselves. How could anyone fear the signs of God and fight God himself instead of being joyful that God was coming to his people? What kind of person dares to fight God?
“Satan, “ Mary whispered with certainty. “He is possessed by Satan.”
At one point we were trudging along on a seemingly endless night and I began to worry about my sanity.
“Mary?” I whispered tentatively. “I see them too,” she said.
All around us we saw fellow travelers, people of all colors in various costume as if they were from far away or from another age. They carried children, belongings, what food and water they could. They too were fleeing something, trying to protect their children; frightened, determined, doing their best to trust in God. Some of them died or fell to robbers along the way. Others pressed on because they had no choice.
“Mary,” I said after an awed silence between us, “I think God is trying to tell us something.”
She nodded in understanding.
Even after the vision ended we talked about it for a long time.
We concluded that God was showing us peoples of the ages who would be refugees like ourselves.
We resolved together that in time to come, we would always be with these people in whatever way God allowed us to be. We would walk with them, ease their suffering, protect them, pray for them, be their advocates before the throne of God. We would see their children as our own.
There would always be mad kings, we knew, until the age of the Lord would come fully.
Eventually my ankles were in good enough shape I was able to relieve Mary, and take that knife back.
The night we were sure we were in Egypt their was a beautiful full moon. Mary was happy. She jumped off the donkey and danced, holding Yeshi high, singing,
“Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in war.
Lift up your heads, O gates;
rise up, you ancient portals,
that the king of glory may enter.
Who is this king of glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the king of glory!”
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.
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