Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Tree is Weeping


 Last weekend I had the opportunity to travel back to the US-Mexico border with a group from Xavier University and Bellarmine Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio. When the immersion trip presented itself I was excited to revisit the space that was so special to me and instrumental to my growth in the past year. This time however I visited the other end of the border - the one between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. We were only there for three days, but I experienced and learned more about the immigration crisis in three days than I thought possible.

But those stories are for another time. Today I want to tell you about a tree I encountered in the desert. On Sunday our group took a hike on some migrant trails. We were walking in the footsteps of those who are fleeing to freedom in the US. These migrant bands are often led by a guide from the Mexican Mafia. Our guide was Fr. Pete, who had spent the last 9 years exploring these paths and seeking to understand the migrant journey. Our group of 8 struggled to keep up with him as we passed through thorny bushes, overgrown grasses, and sandy riverbeds.

We finally arrived at a space that looked like it was once an overnight camp for a band of migrants. There were backpacks, sweaters, tin cans, and other debris all around us. As we took in the scene, we imagined what could have happened here and who could have been here. What were their stories? Why were they crossing? Did they make it? I noticed a little girl's pink sweater by the tree and thought, someone brought their daughter. The rusty cans told us they ate here, and the black bottles were a sign they had water with them. But why did they leave their things here? Did they get caught? Did they need to lighten their load to continue the journey? How would I decide what to leave and what to take with me?

As I played these scenarios in my mind and continued to take it all in, Fr. Pete also commented on what could have happened in this space. "We will never know what really happened here, but I do know that this was an overnight camp because when I first found this place there were women's panties and bras hanging on that tree." I looked where he pointed and found a tall-for-the-desert tree, about twice my height. It was gnarled and had some low hanging branches parallel to the ground. Its bark was dark and textured and all of the leaves were gone from its branches. Fr. Pete continued, "that is probably what we call a rape tree." The name "rape tree" tore through the sacredness of the space and I closed my eyes to brace myself for the next words. I guessed what would come next, but I didn't want it to be true. "The guides lead bands through, and when they stop, they rape the women and put their undergarments on a tree as a kind of trophy."

The "rape tree"
A wash of sadness, anger, and horror overtook my being and I couldn't listen anymore. I wanted to cry, to scream, to curl up in a ball. How could I live in a world where this happens, where I let this happen? When given time for reflection I started walking toward the tree. I had to get closer. As the trunk came into view I noticed a patch running up and down the tree that was darker than the rest. It glistened in the sun as if it were wet. Was it sap? Water? Char from a fire?

The tree is weeping.
I had no way of knowing, but what I do know is: the tree is weeping. Weeping for the violation it witnessed, weeping for the women who had no choice but to submit themselves, weeping for the guide's need to exert power over another. The tree is weeping, and I wept with the tree.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Ok, so of course I wasn't going to miss the solar eclipse! And I had a pretty neat reflection afterwards.Watch below as I reflect on my experience witnessing the solar eclipse on Monday.



This is the dance I reference in my reflection. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Eyes to Listen and Hearts to Respond

The activity I did the most while in Texas was listen. This may seem odd, since I didn't know much Spanish when I arrived and most of what I listened to was in Spanish.  But I learned other ways to listen. When words don't make sense, when there is a language barrier, a deeper sort of listening sets in. I learned to listen with my eyes.

The showers at the respite center.
About 3 weeks before I left Texas we went back to the Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center for the last time (not sure what that is? Click here to see my blog post on it). I was helping with the showers when a woman emerged and sat down to put on her shoes. I don't know what prompted her, but she launched into her story immediately after sitting down. I couldn't understand most of what she said, but I could understand her gestures, her emotions, and the pain in her eyes. She had a heavy burden she needed to unload, and she chose me. I didn't need to know what her words meant to know what she said, what she was feeling, and what she needed. And even though I couldn't say much more than a few sentences to her, she didn't need me to give her a lecture or to babble on. She needed me to listen intently with my eyes trained on hers, touch her arm gently, and reassure her of her safety. And that much I could do without knowing much Spanish. We are a part of the human family and we have a universal language of love.

That same night, I met a brother and sister who crossed a river in their journey to arrive to the US. Their clothes were still wet and they wanted desperately to take a shower. They couldn't stay apart from each other very long because the boy couldn't hear or speak and his sister communicated with him using gestures in some kind of home-grown sign language. She said he never went to school and just learned this at home. Despite all of this hardship, he had a constant smile on his face. And even though we could not communicate with words, or even gestures, his eyes spoke. He could not stop looking at me. And I didn't want to look away because he made me uncomfortable. I didn't want him to feel shame. So I looked back, with love. His eyes spoke of curiosity, of kindness, and of loneliness. I hope that my eyes spoke too, and that they spoke of love.

Maria's son tried to take a picture of us on my last day in Texas.
L to R: Sr. Nicole, Sr. Marla, Sr. Maxine
Listening was also an important part of visiting the Colonias (neighborhoods in Spanish). One of the women we accompanied was Maria (click here for another story about Maria). Maria has internalized much of what her abusive husband has told her over the years. Each time we met, we listened to Maria and her needs, her fears, her evident love for her children. We comforted her in her sorrow and pain and we laughed with her in her joys. On the last day I visited her, she told us about each of her children and what they are like. Light danced in her eyes as she thought about each one and how she loved them. She described with great detail how each child is with her, how they care for each other, and what their passions are. I could see a reflection of God's unconditional love in her as she thought about her most precious possessions, her children. Listening to her was not about the stories she told, it was about being present to her, taking an interest in her life, and showing her the unconditional love she showed her children. Since she doesn't get much in the way of unconditional love from her husband, she is unable to visit her parents, and limited in who she can talk with, we were her only source of friendship and love. Upon parting and reassuring her that we would always be with each other, I told her that I loved her. She paused and said, "Te quiero mucho porque me quieres sin conocerme." or in English, "I love you very much because you loved me without knowing me."

Her pain, her fear, her inadequacies were evident in that one sentence. And the power of God's love allowed me to be a conduit and show Maria what is possible with God. Unconditional love has not been a part of her reality and I am humbled to have been able to show her a first glimpse of it. I could not have done that without listening to Maria and slowly building a relationship with her over time.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Saying Goodbye

I have now been in Texas for almost three months and will be leaving this adventure for another in the next few days. I just felt like I have hit my stride. I am comfortable with where I am and what I do. I’ve figured out my living situation and who my friends are. And now, I have to say goodbye. Leaving is never easy, but after moving around job and living locations a few times, I’ve learned some things that make it easier.

Remember Ritual
Ritual is a way for me and those I am leaving to get closure to the relationship. Realistically, I am not able to keep in touch with each person I leave. For many, this will be the last time we see or talk to each other. For others, the nature of the relationship will change. I find that without some ritual of goodbye, a card, a dinner, or a personal conversation, feelings can be hurt and people can feel cast aside. The nature of being a sister means I will move around a lot. Moving for me does not mean I am unhappy with where I am, like it does for most people. Moving for me just means going to the next thing. I will always keep those I have met in my heart, and they need to know that.

A simple ritual of goodbye can be giving cards or a meaningful trinket. The children I teach in Mexico will each get a handmade friendship bracelet and I will tell them how much they mean to me. I will remember them by a matching bracelet. We will continue to be connected. With my adult students and friends we might go out to dinner to celebrate and exchange phone numbers. Regardless of the specific ritual, the important part is that they will know what impact their life had on mine.

Share My Experiences
Sharing my experiences not only helps others to learn what I am doing and possibly find a replacement, but also helps me to put words to my experience. Finding words to describe my love of a place and for a people helps me to remember and let go. Part of this letting go happens here in my articles and my ability to share my experiences with you. Other times it is in conversations with family and friends.

Teresa and I enjoying ministry in Texas.
But sharing my experiences in person with others who might take my place is the most life-giving for me. I love sharing my joy with others. I love introducing others to the people and places who mean so much to me. I love seeing the light in their eyes when they experience something for the first time. I love seeing the wheels turning when something new comes along. This week I have had the privilege to share my experiences with a young woman named Teresa. It has been a joy to get to know her and I enjoy hearing her reflections on things that I experienced for the first time only a couple months ago. Sharing my experience with her has been a wonderful way for me to say goodbye to all that I treasure here.

My Lenten reflection based on my experiences here in Texas.
Another important outlet for sharing my experiences is in journaling and painting. I keep a journal so I can remember what I experienced. I can go back to it and remember how I felt in this new place and how I felt leaving. My paintings express my feelings in a more visual way and allow me to process my experience beyond words.

Planning for the Next
I know it can be dangerous to plan ahead before it is time, but I find that planning for the goodbye, psyching myself up for it, makes the goodbye much easier. Instead of just leaving, I think about how I want to leave. So how do I want to leave the Rio Grande Valley? I would love to be able to leave promising a return, but I cannot. So I have to say goodbye like it is the last time. I want to leave the valley with love. I want the people I have met to know that “because I knew you I have been changed for good” as a song from the musical Wicked says. I want to leave blessing the land and promising my prayers. I want to leave with all the lessons I have learned intact and engraved on my heart.

And after leaving, there is always a new beginning. So how do I want to begin at my next location? It’s never fun to be one place physically and another place mentally. People don’t want to hear you pining for where you wish you could be, but want to hear your stories. Being mentally absent will only hurt me. I want to be fully present where I am, but still remembering how I have changed through the lessons I have learned in the valley. I want to remember where I was and integrate this experience into who I am, but still enter fully into where I will be. Will this be hard? Yes. But with the help of God and my friends, I hope to make it a reality.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Meaning of Ritual

Being a religious sister, ritual is very important in my life. And, I would suspect, that ritual is important in many lives. I don’t only mean religious ritual, but also the ritual of what I do each day, the self-care rituals I engage in, and the social rituals that keep me grounded. I have learned that having certain rituals enhance my experience of life and keep me sane. This year, Holy Week and Easter were full of new (and old) experiences of ritual.

I have always enjoyed learning about and experiencing other cultures. My parents raised me on tum yum goon, Indian curry, and tabbouleh – none of which are a part of my heritage. They enjoy trying new things and teaching my sisters and me to do the same. Of course we love our Italian comfort food too, but the value of respectfully learning from other cultures was instilled in me from a young age. My father taught me how to observe before participating and my mother taught me how to throw my whole self into the experience. So you can imagine how thrilled I am to be immersed in the sub-culture of the Rio Grande Valley.

Walking the viacrucis on our pilgrimage to the church.
The highlight for me was Santa Viernes, Good Friday. I have always loved the somber atmosphere of Good Friday which gives me a chance to reflect on God’s love for me. This year, a new ritual allowed me to walk with Jesus in a whole new way. At 2pm, a small crowd gathered at a park near the church. Leading the pack was a wooden cross carried by a teenage boy dressed as Jesus. A girl dressed as veronica, complete with a veil bearing the face of Jesus, walked beside him. We processed through the streets, singing and praying el viacrucis, the Way of the Cross. I felt like the women of Jerusalem, following Jesus in the streets as he showed us how much he would suffer in the name of the justice he stood for. As we arrived at the church we prayed the last station and entered the church in silence. The culture here is an expressive culture, and I appreciated the ability to express my sorrow for the suffering of the world and to physically see God’s love for us in his actions.

Later that day, after the passion play put on by the children of the parish, I participated in yet another new-to-me ritual. We gave our condolences to Mary. The idea is to give condolences to Mary on the occasion of her son’s death, just as you would with a friend. We said a special rosary that led us to meditate on times Mary had to let go of her son and watch him do God’s work. It was touching to watch mothers, who have to let go of their own children, meditate on what it must have been like for Mary to do the same.

We were greeted with this beautiful altar as we prayed our condolences to Mary.
About a week after Easter, I had the opportunity to participate in a Mayan cleansing ritual called a temazcal. Unlike the other rituals, this one did not have a familiar basis for me. I had no idea what to expect and I was not given much description ahead of time. The ritual cleanses body and spirit, inside and out. One participant described it as going into the womb of the earth. The whole ritual reverences nature and thanks the elements and mother earth for the gifts of healing. Before the ritual, a small hut with a tiny door flap is built and a fire is lit to heat the stones at the bottom of the wood. I loved the reverent preparation. Each person was blessed with a type of incense before entering and I was asked to pray “for my relationships” with my forehead to the earth at the entrance of the temazcal. Once all were inside, “hombre fuego” dug some rocks out of the fire and delivered them to a hole in the ground at the center of the hut. We welcomed each rock with “Bienvenido abuelita!” (welcome grandma in English). Once the door was closed, water with different herbs were poured on the rocks to create steam and an incredibly hot room. The door was opened four times and each time, more rocks were added and a different herb was infused in the water. The first two doors felt like being enveloped by a car on a hot day. The heat was comforting and cleansing. The third door was so hot that I had to lay down. I left with the fourth door because I had reached my limit. After the ritual I was doused by cold hose water to close my pores and shock me back to normal.

After the ritual I felt energized and at peace. Inside I was disoriented, but once I emerged and was doused with water, I was somehow more present. Even though I hardly knew the names of most of the 19 people participating in the temazcal, I somehow felt bonded to them after our mutual experience. There is wisdom to rituals, no matter what tradition they come from. And opening myself to these new experiences has been invaluable.

Happy toes in the Gulf of Mexico.
The final ritual I engaged in this Easter is one I am quite familiar with. I have a ritual of taking a quiet day once a week if possible. This time I spent the day at a local retreat center near the Gulf of Mexico. A blanket of quiet covered the place as I encountered wildlife and the tangible presence of peace. At the end of the day I drove the five miles out to the retreat center’s private beach on the gulf. How exhilarating it was to be consumed by water!


No matter what ritual it was, each one helped me to live in the present moment and get a taste of this new-to-me culture. What a blessing to be able to learn from others!

*Note* I apologize for the long absence of posts this last month. I have a back-log of stories, so you should be getting one a week for a while!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Courageous in the Face of Fear

Fear is powerful.
Perhaps that is why people in power capitalize on fear to get what they want. Any president in power during a war used fear to manipulate peace. And traffickers and abusers use fear to control their captives. Fear of the "other" was a strong theme during our election season. Candidates capitalized on fear to get what they wanted, election. And our current president is using fear of deportation to maintain the facade of order. But what most do not know is that fear of deportation and hyper-militarization has been a reality on the border for decades. Presidents with immigration policies on both sides of the aisle militarized the border and has "kept peace" on the border using fear.
I would say that fear does anything but bring peace.

As a result of the tangible culture of fear in the Rio Grande Valley, the people are strong. They may still be scared, but they have to continue living through the fear. And many have learned that they have their own kind of power. It is not the power of the oppressor, but the power of the oppressed.

Many of "the oppressed" who have found their power are women. Oppression has not crushed women, oppression has made them subtly stronger so they can help create stronger future generations of women. Women keep the culture going. Women teach, women learn, women immigrate, women advocate, and women make change. These women have plenty to fear: abusive husbands, deportation, and border patrol. But these women have the courage to stand up to their husbands who just arrived home from the bar and protect their children. Women have the courage to face our government and demand change. Women have the courage to do what has never been done before. They may put their own lives on the line, but it is worth helping others and creating a more just world. As an African proverb wisely states, "If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a nation." I am finding this to be true. Empowered women create empowered children and bring about an empowered generation. I want to introduce you to three of these inspiring women. All names have been changed for privacy.

Maria:
Maria is a woman in her mid-thirties. She is your average woman and often pulls back her dark curls into a pony tail. Maria has seven children, ranging in age from 1 year to about 14. Maria’s husband is verbally abusive and spends most of the day with other men who have drug and gang affiliations. Maria spends the day in a tiny pop-up trailer cooking, cleaning, and finding work where she can. She lives for her children and will do anything to protect them. She brings them all to mass on Sunday without their father. She recently expressed her fear of her husband and what he might do to her and her children. When we brought her some information on domestic violence abuse she bravely stated, if it gets any worse I am telling my husband that I will leave him and I will call this number. I can’t imagine what strength it will take for her to leave and start new, but her children are too precious.

Ramona and I after an inspirational week with ARISE.

Ramona:
Ramona is a community leader. Her goal is to empower other women to make change. She lives by the motto “we do not do for the people what the people can do for themselves.” The organization Ramona works for, ARISE, is led by all women. She believes that if we invest in women, teach them to read and speak English, use herbal medicines and other valuable information, then we will create a chain reaction. The women will teach their children what they have learned, and the community becomes a better place. Ramona is making these courageous women into leaders. But she is not doing it alone, what wisdom!

Members of South Tower Power speaking to City of Alamo officials.

Lisa and Carmen:
Lisa and Carmen are 18 and 16 years old respectively. They work with Ramona at ARISE. They are a part of the organization’s youth advocacy program. These women, immigrants who live in a poor colonia, are lobbying the government for change to the environmental racism they are experiencing. The water treatment plant for a city north of their community has been filling their streets with a foul sewage smell for over 50 years. The smell can create health problems and often gives headaches to the residents because of its strength. It is only in the past two years that anyone has been able to make a difference. This effort is entirely led by the youth and they have succeeded in the city promising to build an up-to-date water treatment plant which will solve the smell. Lisa and Carmen speak eloquently and passionately about the issue saying that they learned the invaluable skill of leadership through their involvement. To read more about their effort you can check out #southtowerpower and #stopthesmell on social media or read this article

Each of these courageous women inspire me. They make me want to be courageous too. But the most inspiring part? They don’t realize they are being brave. They just keep living and doing what is in their heart. Their lives may be full of fear. They may fear their husband. They may fear leaving the house because of the increased presence of border patrol. They may fear being deported and separated from their family and lifeline. They may fear the conditions in which they are forced to live. But they continue to live. What other choice do they have?

This year as holy week begins, I find myself reflecting on the fears present in the scriptures. We hear often from Jesus, "do not be afraid." There must have been a lot of fear if he had to say it so often. Now that I think of it, it seems as if fear is a human quality. Fear arises when the illusion of control is dismantled in our lives. Ironically, our fear often ends up controlling us.

I am fearful when I move or change jobs. Jesus was fearful in the garden of Gethsemane before his capture. The scribes and pharisees feared Jesus because he brought into question all that controlled their lives. Peter feared being mocked which led him to deny knowing Jesus. The women of Jerusalem feared what might become of their children. For this holy week, why not reflect on what I fear? What do I fear most? Why am I scared? What can and do I do to continue living in the face of my fear? What consolation does Jesus have for my fears? How do I hear his "be not afraid"?

We need to not let our fear control us. We need to be courageous like Maria, Ramona, Lisa, and Carmen. What other choice do we have? Being constantly fearful is no way to live. Causing constant fear is no way to live.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

God is Funny

God is funny.
God never works in the way you expect. But He gets it done. God is funny.
God spoke to me this week in impeccable timing. Just when I give up, something happens. Just when I least expect it, God is there.

Beauty in the desert.
"We are being asked to give less than we are prepared to give, and that will require more of us than we expect."

This week, spring is alive in the Rio Grande Valley. While there have been flowers here ever since I arrived, what seemed dormant now teems with life! Most of the time, cacti look dormant, uninviting, and dangerous. Their needles threaten the herbivore, and their thick skin looks dead or dormant at best. But something has begun to happen. Buds of light green flesh appeared on top of the old cacti lobes, and pretty soon flecks of yellow peeked out. Now, the flowers are in full bloom! Who knew a plant that looks so menacing could be so beautiful! Out of the dry desert and the menacing cacti, come the beauty of God’s creation.

Transition has never been my favorite thing. Even as a child, I did not like change. But, because I live the itinerant life and I have chosen to follow God’s call into the desert, I have learned to deal with constant transition. So this time, when I arrived in Texas and had a smooth first two weeks, I thought hey! I’ve got this transition thing down! This is a piece of cake! What I did not anticipate is a belated transition.

When I am in a transition I doubt everything I know to be true.
God is always with me. But is he really? I don’t feel him…
I can do all things God places before me. But I’ve never done this before. How can I possibly succeed?
I am called to be a Sister of Notre Dame. But how can I be a sister when I can’t handle even moving to a new place?

Over time, I have learned to cling to my spiritual practices as a lifeline. During this transition to Texas, even the practices that used to fill me with joy and love, left me empty and unfulfilled. My prayers just feel like motions, my reflections feel superficial, and I feel fake. How can I be a sister if I’m just faking it? But the most extraordinary thing happened this week. God is funny.

My dry desert of a spiritual life and menacing cacti of transition, bloomed. What was dead has come to life again! Big, beautiful, cheerful blossoms of yellow greeted me in the form of a woman and a conversation. Just as I was asking God, why aren’t you here? Why don’t I feel you? And where should I go? He answered me in the flesh, the flesh of a woman with seven children, who is feeling alone. God is funny.

After a long week of ministry after ministry being cancelled, we decided to bring some information to a woman we had met several weeks ago. We hesitated going alone because she does not speak English. But we had the time, and she needed the information. So I wrote down a few sentences I would need, made sure my phone was charged with google translate at the ready, and headed out to her trailer with Sr. Maxine.

I expected an awkward, halting conversation between people who do not speak or understand each other’s language. What we got was a graced moment, a visit where our hearts met. Even though we do not speak the same words, we have a common language of love. God is funny. If we had gone another time, or visited another family, or focused more on traditional teaching ministry, we would not have had this graced moment. A new relationship has been formed and a new purpose has been discovered. God is funny. As Sr. Pam says, “We are being asked to give far less than we are prepared to give, and that will require far more of us than we expect.”


Here in the valley, we are being led to receive rather than to give, to be rather than to do, and to form relationships rather than to accomplish something. But that is just it, Jesus always entered into relationship before healing, before teaching, and before giving his life. Maybe, we will only be present in the valley for the “before” phase and will never see the after. God is funny like that.