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.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Confronting my Privilege

I can’t get their faces out of my mind. The children we teach in Mexico are so happy, so joyful, so eager. I see their happy, smiling faces in spite of all they lack and I wonder, how?

Despite needing work, the cheerful color of the one-room schoolhouse greets us each week.

I grew up in a warm home with plenty of toys at my disposal. I never wanted for food or wondered where my next meal would come from. I had easy access to clean water for drinking and bathing and I always had new clothes. I had the opportunity for a top notch education, which satiated my eagerness to learn. I had parents who encouraged me and always wanted the best for me. And I knew I was loved. I had a happy childhood. Because my childhood included both love and material wealth, I have a hard time separating my happiness as a child from either of these things. That is a part of my privilege.

During my time here on the border, I have the privilege of teaching English to some children in Mexico. These children are all extended family and live in a colonia. A colonia, a Spanish word meaning neighborhood, is established on land outside of the boundaries of the city and may or may not have water or sewage, since the city is not required to provide them. The owners of this land sell small plots to families who then build whatever they can afford. Sometimes, it is a proper house, others it is a trailer, and other times the dwelling is only a shack. The children I teach live in one-room cinderblock dwellings with tin roofs. They run around in the dirt road and play with their grandparents’ chickens. Their parents have to buy 5 gallon jugs of water because the water at the colonia is not safe to drink. And, the children know they are loved. Their parents sacrifice for them, even taking time out of their day to teach them so they do not have to go so far to the government school. These children have a happy childhood.

Setting up the classroom so we can teach two different sets of children. The classroom walls are bright and full of learning tools, the alphabet, numbers, and behavior charts.

Somehow I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that these children lack so much that I had, some that I even deem as essentials, and yet, they are still so happy. “They don’t know any better.” is a phrase I often hear and say about children like this. But after seeing their joy I think, do they even need to know better? Actually, is all that I had as a child better than what these children have?

My initial reaction was one that you probably had after reading about the lives of these children, pity. I wanted to fix everything. I thought they should have everything I did, toys, candy, cookies, formal education, new clothes, running water, houses with doors and air conditioning, in order to be happy. If I had these things and was happy, then they must be necessary, right? After my initial reaction, I took the time to really observe the children and their families. They are … happy. Despite all their poverty, despite the challenges, they are happy. So, there has to be something wrong with my preconception a happy childhood. They know better than I do what they need. I NEED to listen to them. What really stands out to me is, these children are loved. And they know it! Their parents want the best for them, and which is why we were asked to teach English.


Confronting poverty head-on in Texas and Mexico has had an unintended consequence of confronting my privilege. I have the privilege of being born a US Citizen. I have the privilege of a good education. I have the privilege of being born into an upper-middle class family who loves me and cares for me. My idea of a good childhood looks very different than the reality of the majority of childhoods in the world. My preconception of poverty is that it is bad. While it is important to make sure all people have what they need to live, maybe there is some wisdom in poverty. A wisdom of simplicity, a wisdom of love. And we, as people privileged to walk alongside the poor, need to listen to this wisdom.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Community of Divisions

I was bubbling with anticipation as we pulled up to the Humanitarian Respite Center. I had heard so much about it and was waiting to experience their ministry to immigrants just released from the detention center. I expected to see a bustling place, filled with life and love. But as we walked up to the door, the tents outside were empty and once inside, only a handful of volunteers populated the place. I was puzzled. What happened to the hundreds of immigrants I saw in pictures and videos of the Humanitarian Respite Center? They were gone.

Empty tents at the Humanitarian Respite Center.

Life here in “the valley” has truly been affected by the various executive orders signed by our president in the past month. What was once hundreds of immigrants being released from detention each day, is now no more than 30 each day. If a wall is built, it will be harder for companies who employ people on both sides of the border to do business. There will be fewer jobs and legal immigrants will not be able to see family as often. In addition to less new immigrants, the threat of deportation is always looming for families in the valley, but the people still have an immense amount of hope. The threat is real, and deportation is pulling families apart. One woman was just deported a few weeks before her daughter, a US citizen, was to get married. Now she is stranded in a Mexican city she does not know, and a country she has not lived in for at least three decades. And, she will not be able to witness the marriage of her daughter. But still, the people have hope. I wonder, where does this hope come from? Christianity is a part of their Latino culture, and that gives them hope. For many, they have experienced much harder realities, and since God saw them though those tough times, why would God abandon them now? God never abandons us.

With Sr. Maxine and a volunteer from the Humanitarian Respite Center. After having been born in the US, but living in Mexico most of his childhood he said, "We have something in common. We both left our countries fleeing violence." He hopes that his experience with immigration helps him to relate with and show compassion to those we serve.

As lent began this week, I have been using Lenten reflections on connectedness from Judy Cannato's book "Quantum Grace". Two lines have stuck with me all week, "We are called to bare our hearts, to stand naked and vulnerable before God. This is the prerequisite for restoring unity." I can't help but think that what our country needs, what our border needs, is a healthy dose of vulnerability. There are visible divisions here and around our country. How can we, as Christians called to "rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God" (Joel 2:3) show our vulnerability and work toward unity with our brothers and sisters - no matter where they are or who they are.

We are indeed all connected by the very dust that we came from and return to. We all certainly house the divine and are made to bring that image to each other. How can I be more aware of others' vulnerabilities this lent? How can I make myself vulnerable before God and before my fellow humans? How can my actions work toward unity and not toward division?

Join me as I try to make myself more vulnerable before those I encounter and play one small part in healing divisions in our country and on our border.

Ok, one last story. Last week, Sr. Maxine and I convened a group of people in the parish who would be interested in a grief support group. Because Sr. Maxine cannot speak spanish, the group was to be in english only. When we arrived at the meeting, it became apparent that people of all language abilities were interested. How could we turn them away? So here we were, some who speak only english, others only spanish, others bilingual, and everything in between. But there was no problem. Everyone made sure everyone else could understand. As the meeting went on, because everything was being translated by multiple people, it was as if the community were speaking rather than individuals. Communication is a community event. In order for a community to speak, the members must be vulnerable with each other. Unity in the midst of things that should divide us. I am learning a lot about community from my brothers and sisters on the border.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Flexibility

Eating Texas-shaped waffles at our hotel in northern Texas.
As we got closer to our destination, my excitement intensified. The pines of northern Texas gave way to scrub, cactus, and eventually, palm trees. The temperature on the car thermometer steadily climbed from 57 degrees to 100 degrees. We were getting closer.

Here in “the valley” flexibility is the rule of life. Very little is certain here, except that your plans will certainly be interrupted and changed. That was the case for me as soon as I arrived. I thought I would have a few days to settle in and begin ministry on Monday. Well, I had to be flexible and start right away. Because the valley is by nature bilingual, there is a patience among the people. No one rushes me when I struggle to communicate or find the right word to use. No one brushes me off as being incompetent because I do not know Spanish well. And everyone has welcomed me with open arms.

Just one night’s rest after arriving in Weslaco, I accompanied Sr. Constance to teach English. This was new territory. I was afraid of not knowing enough Spanish. I was afraid of not being able to teach well. But the women welcomed me with open arms and big smiles. As we learned language about family (mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister), I realized that I have something in common with the people of the valley. We have all left our families behind to pursue a life. The “winter Texans” (like snowbirds, but in Texas) leave families behind for a warm retirement. The immigrants of the valley left family behind, sometimes not seeing them for years, to pursue a better life for their children. And I left my family behind to follow God’s call for me.

With all of these transplanted families in the valley, a new extended family is created between parishioners, neighbors, and friends. I have found common ground with the people of the valley. We all stand on common, holy ground.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Day One to Texas: Spring in Fast-Forward

Amazingly, I was wide awake this morning when we began our journey to Texas at 6am. So I drove the early morning shift. The quiet was tangible, and as the city lights faded behind us, they were replaced by pillowy clouds of fog cradled in the Kentucky valleys, wrapped in a blanket of night. The scenery invited a peaceful contemplation.

As we ventured further south, little signs of spring began to pop out at me. Trees were flowing and small new-green buds populated branches on the side of the road. (Pictures 1-2)

As we crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas, the scenery moved from hilly to as flat as a pancake. 

Coming from Connecticut originally and having lived in Kentucky for the past year and a half, the flat terrain is jarring to me. Below is a picture of the Tennessee scenery and then the Arkansas scenery. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

A New Adventure

I have a bit of news to tell you...In approximately 1 week, 4 days, 14 hours, 33 minutes, and 48 seconds from the time this was posted, I will be starting the 21 hour drive to Weslaco, TX where I will spend the next 3 months. I will be making an effort to document my journey on this blog, including the prep time remaining and the road trip down. This adventure brings so many firsts for me: my first time living outside the eastern time-zone, my first time driving across the plains of the mid-west, my first time in Texas, my first visit to Mexico, my first time working with immigrants, you get the picture.

While I am a healthy dose of nervous (who wouldn't be with that much change?), I am also very excited and joy-filled. God had a big part to play in the fact that I am even going to Texas. I never thought I would be asking to minister on the border. But back in October when I was discerning about possible placements for my second year of novitiate, I reflected on some of Pope Francis' words, urging us to discern where the margins are in our world today and to go there. At the time, as there still is today, there was much hateful rhetoric about immigrants. And I thought, where else are the margins in our country today if not at the physical border? I felt this spirit pulling me to the border in a very real way.

But where was this feeling coming from? I was never the one to harp around immigration issues. Sure I agreed with those who did, but it just wasn't my passion. But here I am feeling pulled, called, to the Rio Grande Valley to stand at the margins with my immigrant brothers and sisters. As I went to my novice director and described this call I was feeling to her, I soon found out that she had felt the very same call for me and had already started investigating how I might spend some time on the US-Mexico border. How good God is to work in that way!

Teaching migrant children last summer opened my eyes to the hardship of an immigrant's life and the joy they bring to the world.

As I sit here, reflecting on my last year and a half in Kentucky, I am struck by how much the people I have met here mean to me. When I moved here, I quickly realized that I need to be rooted in my community, involved in city events, and making friends in all walks of life. And I have done that. I knew that I would have to say goodbye eventually, and most likely sooner rather than later. But what I didn't anticipate was how much my leaving would affect them.

I'm used to leaving, picking up the roots I so carefully laid out and transplanting them in another place. It doesn't make it any easier each time, but at least I know what to expect. But the people I have met here are not always used to my itinerant lifestyle. Sometimes wires can get crossed and misunderstandings happen. It can feel like a rejection.

But I am not rejecting Kentucky. I am not rejecting Cincinnati. And I am not rejecting the people I have met and so lovingly formed relationships with. In fact, it is just the opposite. I am taking each person with me. I have learned a unique lesson from each relationship and these lessons will help me in my next adventure.