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.