"In heaven, will God ask for papers?"

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Immigrant Posadas

Advent here on the border means a time to celebrate Las Posadas. The Posadas commemorate divinely pregnant Mary and her escort Joseph in search of Posada, meaning "inn" or "lodging" as Mary comes due to give birth to the Christ child. The usual Posada celebration includes people dressed as the nativity characters, who search for shelter, travelling from building to building, home to home, or, in our case since it was cold outside, from one group of people to another group within the sanctuary. Through song, the humble family requests to be let in--to be given posada as the birth draws near--and we witness a back-and-forth dialogue with the holy family and the innkeeper(s). With their first three requests, they are denied:

En el nombre del cielo
os pido posada
pues no puede andar
mi esposa amada.

In the name of Heaven
I ask of you shelter,
For my beloved wife
Can go no farther.

Aquí no es mesón,
sigan adelante
Yo no debo abrir,
no sea algún tunante.

There's no inn here,
Go on with you,
I can't open up
You might be a rogue.

Venimos rendidos
desde Nazaret.
Yo soy carpintero
de nombre José.

We're weary from traveling
from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter
by the name of Joseph.

No me importa el nombre,
déjenme dormir,
pues que yo les digo
que nos hemos de abrir.

I don't care who you are,
Let me sleep.
I already told you
we're not going to open.

Posada te pide,
amado casero,
por sólo una noche
la Reina del Cielo.

I ask you for lodging
dear man of the house.
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.

Pues si es una reina
quien lo solicita,
¿cómo es que de noche
anda tan solita?

Well, if it's a queen
who's asking us for it,
why does she travel all alone
and in the night?

The holy travelers go unrecognized, and are a burden to the innkeeper, who doubts that they are more than just a begging humbug family, undeserving of shelter. But at the last stop, the innkeeper has sort of an epiphany, and the pilgrims are welcomed in. And the Christmas story continues.

Mi esposa es María,
es Reina del Cielo
y madre va a ser
del Divino Verbo.
My wife is Mary
She's the Queen of Heaven
who is going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.

¿Eres tú José?
¿Tu esposa es María?
Entren, peregrinos,
no los conocía.

Are you Joseph?
Your wife is Mary?
Enter, pilgrims;
I did not recognize you.

Entren, Santos Peregrinos, Peregrinos,
reciban este rincón.
No de esta pobre morada
Sino de mi corazón.
Enter, Holy Pilgrims
Receive this corner
Not of this poor dwelling,
but of my heart.

A couple days ago, I attended a Posada celebration that took a more modern spin to the traditional story: one entitled "Posada del Barrio," given the English name of "Immigrant Posada." After being a part of this particular Posada re-enactment, there is no doubt in my mind that the biblically-based Posada celebration is relevant to this border community. As one of the speakers at the service shared, we often think of the Mary and Joseph's journey as a 2000-year-old story, and oftentimes neglect to remember its relevance still today - its aliveness still today. The intensity and reality of the words of the refined Immigrant Posada lyrics speared into me in a way that will never allow me to forget the relevance of the holy family's journey to our community today. Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus take the form of a foreign traveling family with no proper documentation. The Posada song begins with the innkeeper taking the form of an already-migrated US citizen, responding the requests of a border-crossing migrant:

En nombre de la justicia
Pido apoyo solidario
Cruce la línea de noche
Vengo de indocumentado
In the name of justice
I ask for support and solidarity
I crossed the border at night
I came without papers

No vengas con tu miseria
Ni vengas a molestar
Te voy a echar la migra
Pa que te mande a volar 

Don’t come with your misery
And don’t come to bother us
I’m going to report you to immigration
So they can send you packing
Paisano soy de tu tierra
Como tu vine a buscar
Con mi familia un trabajo
Mira mi necesidad
Countryman, I’m from your land
Like you I came with my family
In search of work
Look at my need

No me interesa quien sea
Deja ya de mendigar
Yo ya soy ciudadano
Y te voy a reportar

I’m not interested in who you are
Forget about begging
I’m already a citizen
And I’m going to report you

Ya va a nacer mi criatura
No tengo a donde llegar
Al brincar la muralla
Mi esposa quedo muy mal 

My child is about to be born
I have nowhere to stay
When we crossed over the wall
My wife got very hurt

Si me sigues molestando
La migra te voy a echar
Vete mojado a tu tierra
Aqui no tienes lugar

If you keep bothering me
I’m going to call immigration
Go back home, Wetback
There’s no place for you here.

Harshly realistic. Uncomfortable. Depressing. Comparable to the innkeeper of the Christmas story.

Then, similarly to the innkeeper's epiphany at the end of the traditional song, the US citizen has a change of heart. The community that had been rejecting the migrant, now undergoes a sort of conversion, and their rejection turns into a different response:

Peregrinos de mi tierra
Venga a la comunidad
Aqui nos organizamos
Por justicia y dignidad
Pilgrims of my land
Come join our community
Here we organize
For justice and dignity

Gracias les damos hermanos
Dios en ustedes esta
Gracia por darnos posada
Mil bendiciones tendrán

We give you thanks, brothers and sisters
May God be with you
Thank you for giving us a place to stay
You will receive a thousand blessings

Vamos juntos como Pueblo, como hermanos, 
como hermanas a sembrar
La justicia que en el barrio, que en el barrio, 
como estrella brillara 
Let us go together as a people, like brothers, 
like sisters to plant
The seed of justice that will shine like a bright star
in our community

For me the most amazing thing about the traditional Posada song is the innkeeper's transformation. After being annoyed and doubtful for three stanzas, the man's eyes are opened: This is the family he had heard about! The mother of Emmanuel - the Most High evolving within her. No way would he turn away the one carrying the promised Holy One. When his eyes recognized their holy identity, when his heart was open to the Divine, then he opened his arms and his home.

I don't think the Immigrant Posada is much different. Although we get less of a transition into the converted community who welcomes the migrant family, I can't help but to wonder if the transformation of attitude could occur because of a recognition of the Divine within the migrant.

When our eyes recognize God within our migrant brothers and sisters, will we be more motivated to open our arms and our home to them?

When our hearts are open to the Divine - when we are genuinely convicted of God's omnipresence, which includes humanity beyond our borders - will our attitude towards the migrant change?

Will we leave bitterness in the dust, and demonstrate compassion? Will we give traveling families hospitality instead of fear or separation?

Like the innkeeper's recognition of Mary, will we recognize the Holy One living within our migrant brothers and sisters?

The migrant shepherd, remembrance cross and water jug in hand.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lessons in what Giving means

I never thought that holding a family Christmas store at our outreach would lead me into a roller-coaster-of-emotions type of day, constantly being humbled, then forceful; frustrated, then joyful. Or reveal how much I truly care about the families with whom we work.

Meet Family #1. Mom has been one of the few moms I've really had the opportunity to connect well with, which might be because she speaks English fluently and uses texting to communicate frequently...but anyway, she's also very involved in her kids' lives and seems super smart. I've never really had a conversation with Dad, but he has been around at some events, and seems to be supportive of his wife and his kids, even though he is very quiet. Their son is one of my favorites in our program - always willing to have a conversation, asking questions, behaving well, and interested in many things. I would say he is one of the middle schoolers I connect with the best, and I truly enjoy working with him. He's got two younger sisters, so he is the older brother, the other "man of the house," etc. He's a super bright kid with tons of potential, and his sisters are the sweetest.

Anyway, I've never suspected this family to have too many issues, at least when it comes to familial disputes, money, legal papers, etc. Given I don't know them all that well, yet Mom seemed to be working pretty consistently, and always willing and ready to commit money or time to her kids' involvement in our programs, and always offering us feedback and genuine understanding. 

This afternoon the family walked in to our store, and once we got the kids into the "kids' room," the mom pulled me aside, and before I could even figure out that she wasn't interested in talking about the store, she was in tears. "They shut off our electricity this afternoon. My son got home before me and when I got back from work he said, 'the lights aren't working.'" She wasn't too interested in buying gifts this afternoon; she just wanted to be able to light her house and pay for rent for these days leading up to Christmas, and leading up to her next paycheck.

Meet Family #2. 

Mom and Dad had approached one of our staff members a couple of months ago, saying that both parents were out of work and having a hard time paying bills. Both of their kids are involved in our programs and have been for awhile. On top of dealing with money and work issues, both parents were also trying to sort out issues with their visas, spending weeks in Mexico at a time, unsure of exactly what would come of the trip, or when they would return. We never knew exactly who would be picking up the kids from program each day.

But recently, things have smoothed out for this family. Both parents can be in El Paso all the time, and each day we usually end up seeing both parents at least once. Mom was able to find a job connected with our programs, so she gets to be even more involved in her kids' activities and the operation of our outreach. Dad also just recently got a stable job, and seems happy with it.

They were one of the last ones to come to our store today. I was doing front door duty, and my coworker was serving as cashier. She came over to me and asked if we were still enforcing limits on how many gifts one family could buy, since it was the end of the night, and we still had many items leftover. I told her it was fine, especially since this family is super involved and because the mom in her new position has been helping us out so much. A minute or two later, I walked over to the check-out counter, just to make sure it all worked out. As the parents approached me, and before I gave them a chance to say anything, I said, "It's fine, it's fine. I'm okay with you buying whichever gifts you want." But they weren't interested in talking about gifts; at least not gifts for their kids.

After waving off my comments and asking if I'd prefer to converse in English or Spanish, Mom explained, "We are very grateful for all that we have right now - to both be working and be able to provide for our family. And it means so much that our kids can come to your programs. We want to make a donation to Ciudad Nueva. It is a small gift, but con mucho corazon (with a lot of heart)."

I was astounded. I guess I have just never really seen a family want to give back so much to our outreach, or a parent recognize the importance of something like our youth programs for their kids, or appreciate so much a connection that led to a job.

And the donation was hefty. Expecting maybe $20, $40, we pulled out $100 from a crisp white envelope, labeled to our organization, from the family. $100 was probably three times what they had just spent on Christmas gifts, and probably a pretty big portion of their Christmas bonus. $100 that held much thought, conversation, and appreciation, I am sure.

I think it is always interesting to do things where people that we would normally think of as "poor" need to contribute something - especially money - in order to receive something, in this case, to purchase Christmas gifts. It is all part of of the community transformation strategy we are trying to implement, but I guess you always run risks of excluding some people, charging prices beyond families' abilities, etc. And it's definitely not an easy thing to do. It's not easy to talk to a mom about options of paying for her kids' Christmas gifts - work in the store an hour, putting some items back, prioritizing finances, etc. It's not easy to reconcile misunderstandings from donors about why we believe holding a "store" is a better idea than simple Christmas giving or just doing "charity" with hand-outs. It's not easy to decide what price to put on a normally-$40 crock pot or $20 Barbie in a "highly reduced cost" store. It's not easy to deal with such a variety of families, who each bring a different amount of money in their pockets, who all bring different attitudes from pride to humility...and whom we love so much.

I definitely think that as I leave this day, I am left with an "I'm so grateful for what I have" type of attitude, similar to what people obtain after mission trips, working in soup kitchens, etc; but I think, more importantly, I'm left with simply an "I'm so grateful" attitude. I'm so grateful for having had the time with families that I did today, to breach some vulnerabilities on both sides of the table, and learn many a skill in financial empowerment.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Giving the same joy

(As a follow-up to my last post...)

This video explains why we are holding a Christmas store rather than just giving out gifts this Christmas. It is a different kind of giving that does not rob one's dignity. Empowerment rather than dependency is what we're about. We want to be able to give the gift-givers a gift, too. A gift that means more than a someone on the other side of town adding an extra $15 to buy a soccer ball on their already-$150 purchase, or a random person "adopting" a family because they can't purchase gifts themselves. How would you feel if you knew someone had purchased your family for Christmas? And taken over your privilege as a parent to give your children Christmas gifts?

"We were robbing mom and dad of their dignity. We were coming into their homes and saying, 'look, since you can't take care of yourself, we have to do it for you.'"

"It was like their impotence was being exposed in front of their family."

"And on Christmas morning, parents in the city will have the same joy that parents in the suburbs have of seeing their kids open the gifts that they have selected for them, earned through the efforts of their own hands. And there will be dignity in the process of giving."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A different way of thinking; a different kind of giving

Perhaps the most frustrating, and yet enlightening, moments in my life are when I realize that not everyone in the world thinks the same as I do.

Not all Christians think about theology the way I do; not all of my family members think about global connections like I do; not every "educated" young adult thinks about money the way I do; not every volunteer at Ciudad Nueva thinks about community development in the way that I have been trained to think.

But in this season of giving, never have I felt all the things that I have been exploring about social justice, community outreach, development, and empowerment, come to such a fore front.

This year, our outreach is holding a "Christmas store" in which we are seeking donations of items to serve as gifts-for-purchase for the parents and caretakers of our neighborhood. To me, and to most of our staff, this effort makes sense. We strive to get away from the "giving to the poor" mentality that oftentimes belittles and dehumanizes the recipients of the "gifts" of money, or Christmas gifts. Through our Christmas store (and our youth stores throughout the year), we hope to give families an opportunity to take their own steps in making Christmas giving happen in their household. Rather than simply giving out donated items at Christmastime to our families, we want to give the families - especially parents - a chance to pick out gifts for their loved ones, use their own money to purchase them at highly reduced cost, and give gifts that allow them to take ownership over how and what they give at Christmas.

However, not everyone is thinking this way about Christmas giving. I've encountered many people who are just flat out confused about the idea of a Christmas store: But why don't we just give these families gifts? Why trouble the families with selling gifts where they actually have to do something to be a part of receiving the gifts?

Our hope for the stores is to give the youth and families that we work with an opportunity to feel empowered, to take ownership, to feel capable.

There are many frustrations in hosting a store rather than just giving out gifts, including donors' disagreement; but in the long run, I believe taking those extra steps to go beyond hand-outs and to some sort of ownership--even $2 worth of ownership--will be beneficial and a small step towards the transformation of our community. And perhaps our single moms and tired dads will be able to feel a bit of that "good feeling" many "better-off" folks get when they send a check in the mail or give a basketball to the "needy" kid downtown. Except our moms and dads will actually know the recipients of the gifts pretty darn well, and perhaps that "good feeling" will have so much more meaning.

Now don't get me wrong - I highly appreciate those who do, in fact, send a monthly donation to charities of their choice, drop their change in the giving boxes at the check-out counter, or ship off a shoe box-ful of gifts to kids overseas. I recognize the need for charity and at times for "hand-outs." But I think our broken world is revealing that there is so much more yet to do.

My prayer and hope is that I myself can be patient and understanding with those who don't think like me - who have a desire to give, and want the youth and families of our neighborhood to receive Christmas gifts at no cost. I'm trying to remember the generosity and kindness in the hearts of those givers, while at the same time hoping for a transformation of their minds and hearts that can find a deeper balance between hand-outs and empowerment.

I cannot say that I have the "right way" of thinking, but I only know from my experiences and my learning that this is a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Deportation and Cheetos: What ought to be the prime election issues according to 8th graders

I don't know how it started, but the 15 minutes I spent hanging out with our middle school cooking class this afternoon became almost entirely a conversation about politics (well, I'm not so sure if it was a conversation, or just a sporadic rant about politics...).

Actually, I think it began with an innocent, "Miss, who are you voting for?" But before I could get any response out - which, would not have been revealing who I was voting for... I just don't think I was in the position to be sharing that with our 8th graders just yet - I was interjected with another girl's comment, that went something like this...

"Oh! Is it Romney? Because if it is then you hate Mexicans."

And before I had time to even think to myself, "Wait... wha...?" another girl interjected with their expertise opinion about Obama's sin of approving of same-sex marriage and another girl with her fact of Romney's hatred of poor people.

When I finally was able to follow up with the comment, the girl continued, "Yeah, if Romney is president he is going to send all of the Mexicans back to Mexico and they won't be able to come back. Miss, my family is Mexican and they can't go back and leave me!"

What a bold, inaccurate (well, hopefully), yet honest statement of concern. These girls, at 13 years old, are already finding the relevance of the election to their own lives... and that makes me proud a little. This connection even made me uncomfortably chuckle when another girl said, "Yeah, Miss, don't vote for Romney - he's going to take away food stamps and then how am I gonna get my Cheetos?!"

One girl was concerned about her family, another about her Cheetos... well, at least they see the pertinence of the issues to their own lives.

I was moved by their small, yet substantial, and still highly biased and naive opinions; yet frustrated with and confused about their 13-year-old selves jumping to conclusions not only about the candidates but also about my choice in candidate Which, by the way, I never revealed to them...but by the end of the "conversation," they had their minds made up about who I voted for, even though it was inaccurate.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A post that began about seminary and ended up as a push for the DREAM Act

There's been a lot of talk about higher education lately.

Last week in Minnesota, I visited Luther Seminary. Then later in the week attended a public class on popular education.

This morning in church, the lay pastor gave his testimony about his recent calls to ministry, including many months of studying to be a diaconal minister and hopefully attending seminary in the near future.

Just tonight, my roommates (also full-time volunteers) and I again shared confusion (and much nasty language) in regards to student loans.

And as always, there are thoughts about the future of El Paso's youth - daily homework time with the middle schoolers, hopeful high school graduates, young adults applying to community college with hope that their legal status won't affect their eligibility.

I'm not exactly sure what I want to say in regards to all this, except that the feelings I'm getting the most out of all this talk are: gratitude and frustration.

I am so grateful to have had post-high school education at a wonderful school that today I greatly appreciate, and to have been able to get a degree in something that absolutely fascinates me. I would not trade my experience for next-to-anything.

But then tonight, I was asked by two eighth grade girls, "Miss, what did you study at college?"

"Religion and Spanish."

"But no, like...what career is that?"

...oh the joys of a liberal arts education. And the joys of explaining my academic experience with middle schoolers who, honestly, don't see any other purpose for college than to get a job. (Maybe I have some things to learn from them.)

Now, as I consider plans for next year, I have been seriously considering applying to the seminary, similar to my lay pastor friend who gave his testimony this morning. But, unlike him, I am not too afraid that my applications for seminary or for candidacy would be rejected or that I would have to consider the possibility of being rejected due to my English language abilities like he was. I also have many options of continuing education online or moving to live near or on-campus somewhere, and I'm not forced to look into other options to continue my education, including having to take a bus 14 hours EVERY weekend to take diaconal ministry classes in LA... like my friend did for months.

See, this is why I am grateful.

But yet, I am so very frustrated. Frustrated because how do I encourage 15-year-olds who are super bright and super eager to go to college to apply to schools in eastern Texas and beyond, when we don't know when or if the outcome of their legal processes will allow them to travel outside of the border checkpoints by that point? Frustrated because we can limit a man with extremely great pastoral skills from actually achieving his lifetime goal of being an ordained minister. Frustrated because the main thing keeping me from applying to seminary is my fear of being more in debt...which yes, is legitimate, I think... but does not compare to the fear of being caught "without papers" at any time like some of the bright, young students with whom I work...those who in the future will hopefully be able to apply to college anywhere they want.

Education has always been a weird thing for me... not because I don't see the value in it, but maybe because I feel like I've had exceptional experiences within it, and that my experiences weren't necessarily as "traditional" as my peers. I'm not sure. But within the realm of being a college student, I first really found who I was, and today continue exploring just who that is. I cannot understand how we can be so limiting on who can and cannot have potentially exceptional experiences, and who can and cannot have those doors opened unto them - doors that will lead to an entirely new world, in which they can finally find themselves and be free.

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Someday we'll paint the first house in rainbow colors..."

An Alien's Prayer

I wear the mark of your disapproval
and your often unspoken words
pierce straight to my soul,
“Why didn’t you stay where you belong?”
I feel the icy stare that says,
“Keep your distance, you foreigner,
with your different-colored skin
and your strange-sounding speech,
with your culture, food, religion, and clothing
that are inferior to my own.”
I’m an immigrant, a wetback, an alien,
an outsider operating a sweatshop sewing machine;
cheap labor, unwanted or dirty jobs
are mine for the taking;
I’m one of the countless invisible ones
who puts fresh vegetables on your plate
or stitches the fashion dresses and shirts
that you buy in your stylish stores.
As Moses of old once said,
“Remember, you were once aliens
in the land of Egypt,”
remember that your grandfathers and grandmothers
were immigrant unwanteds,
were exploited cheap labor,
second-class citizens,
uneducated and poor,
used and abused,
ignored or looked down upon
for their foreign religion, speech, and food.
The White House
first house of this great land,
says it well:
White is this land of promise;
no room for other colors or creeds.
Someday we’ll paint the first house
in rainbow colors—
someday, not long from now.

(I found this at Annunciation House's website, but I believe it's from the "Welcoming the Stranger Parish Guide")

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


This morning I went to an information session about Obama's executive order released in June. The order would allow for young immigrants without legal residency or citizenship to potentially obtain deferred action status (meaning they would not automatically get put in deportation proceedings...this does not give them permanent residence or citizenship) and work permits.

As I sat in the back of the room with my coworker (who is also a huera...it appeared that we were the only two non-Hispanic folk in the room, besides the presenter), I looked around and thought how strange for me to be there. I went to learn about the action because of who it is that I work with...but I realized that this issue was much more personal for most of the attendees, especially when questions started being asked.

I witnessed mothers hopeful for their babies. Teenagers and young adults hopeful for their future.

But I also witnessed mothers scared of deportation if "too much" information is shared. Teenagers scared that their dropping out of high school may have cost them their qualifications. Young adults scared of what could happen after November's presidential election.

The room was full of optimism and skepticism. Anything like this is has to be too good to be true, and has to have its many, many risks. If I were eligible for this action, if I did not possess legal papers, if I were an immigrant... I'm not sure if the benefits would outweigh the risks.

But. I am not any of those. I can apply for any job, I can pass by authorities with no fear, I can travel around the world, I do not fear deportation or separation.

Yes, in that room, I felt out of place. But I couldn't help but feel some sort of empathy...well, perhaps it was just sympathy...for others in the room. I guess this is what solidarity feels like? Except that I still feel the weight of what some call "privilege" on my shoulders.

May we take steps forward into Hope so that we can continue Dreaming.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Powered Up!

"Powered Up!" is the summer theme at Fort Lone Tree this year, and I have never seen our group of eleven inner-city El Paso 11-13 year olds so powered up as much as I did in accompanying them this past week at camp.

Five days of jumping through puddles, racing down the waterslide, hanging by ropes, hiding in bushes, riding horses, listening to honest stories, singing worship songs, and throwing dodgeballs revealed just how empowered pre-teens can be, especially those that are often labeled the "bad kids," "troubled," or "at-risk."

One of our kids refused to do the zipline...and the high ropes course...and the giant swing. He refused to try out the rather tall waterslide the first time our group was assigned it. But when he came to the bottom of the slide after he finally decided to give it a try the second time we were assigned the slide, he was all smiles and ran back to the top. Conquered his fears and had fun. He was sure about trying rappelling and horse-back riding...until he stood next to his assigned horse. He got up onto the saddle, and the first thing out of his mouth was, "Miss, I want to get down." I, being somewhat pushy and stubborn, refused to help him down. He eyed the ground and his stirrup, looking for the best way to get himself down, but let the height of the animal decided for him that the trip down was scarier than where he found himself up top. I saw the riders off, following on foot with our cameras, and then rejoined them after their 20-minute trail ride, only to see him with a smile. And when asked if it was fun, getting an energetic head nod.

One night at dinner some of the camp leaders announced that they would be having a sign up for campers to sign up to get involved in that nights mud rodeo, either in teams of five or individually. One of our girls came up to me and said, "I want to do the rodeo." So I asked her if the other four girls would like to sign up with her, but she was quick to respond that she already asked them and none of them wanted to. "I still want to sign up." It might not seem like a big deal, but with the girls' very self-conscious and need-to-be-with-my-friends-all-the-time attitudes, I was super proud of one of them standing up and signing up for the mud obstacle course all by herself. And not to mention, she dominated the course and wasn't scared to get rather muddy. And the other four girls had a great time cheering her on. :)

These are just two examples of the many many times I witnessed our kids stepping up the plate, trying something new, risking looking foolish, and having fun in the meantime. 

I am constantly amazed at how the simplicity and silliness of a summer camp can bring kids to their knees or encourage them to climb to the top of the platform. It was so great to be able to accompany these great kids as their confidence was boosted, their courage was discovered, and their lives were given a break from their normal routines. 

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Beautiful Reunion

Today I got a glimpse of a family reuniting after being separated for a month because of legal immigration reasons.

A mom of one of our 6th grade girls came into homework time today. I saw her and was taken aback a bit because this was one of the moms who we usually saw around the center all the time, but hasn't been for the last couple of months. I quickly thought, "oh, I haven't seen her in awhile," and was super happy to see her again. It wasn't until her daughter ran up to her with a huge smile on her face that I realized this was also the first time she had seen her mom in awhile.

They shared an embrace. Full of joy. Reunited. Together.

The mom has been spending some time in Juarez to renew her visa. She told me that she was given one day to cross the border and chose to pick up her daughter (and probably her son, too) to spend time with her, even if just for a day.

Even though some families are separated for years rather than only a month because of legal requirements, this reunion moved me. It was the first time I had actually seen families come together in a moment of bliss after being separated by the border. It was beautiful, joyful, and sad, all at the same time.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ironic School Projects

Maybe it's the potential loss of their innocence that makes me uncomfortable with the fact that my 6th graders have been researching the Holocaust during homework time all this week.

Maybe it's the fact that I've seen similar photos that have popped up on their Google images searches in pieces about the violence in Juarez right across the border. Bodies that no longer breathe life but that echo the death of not only of the Holocaust, but also of the modern genocides happening all over the world.

Maybe it's just the fact that the Holocaust was so... horrible.

I asked the girls today, "So why are you researching the Holocaust?"

"It's for our English class, Miss. We have to do a project on the Holocaust. We've been reading about it."

Another girl responds, "I think they want us to learn about it so it never happens again."

Gas chambers, swastikas...and peace signs. Those were our most popular photos that the girls printed off today for their project display boards.

Even though it's gruesome to think about and the pictures disgust me, these girls (or maybe their English teacher) are reminding me of the importance of remembrance. Painful remembrance, yes. Necessary,  I think so, too.

However gruesome it is, I still find some hope in the girls' comments and how much they get disgusted with their research.

"The Nazis were such bad people. How could anyone do that?"

I wonder if some day we will look back at the violence in Mexico, the war in the Middle East, the millions dying of starvation, and think, "How could anyone do that? Let's make sure that never happens again."

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Our mom says we can't go to camp."

These past few weeks at work have been full of preparing for the summer and figuring out which kids to choose to fill our 40-ish spots for out-of-town middle school camps. Because we're limited in spots, we try to give the opportunity to the kids that have attended our program the longest and most consistently. But two of those kids won't be going to camp this year. Two kids who come to our program everyday. Two kids that never get to leave El Paso. Two kids who won't experience "the best week of my lifetime!" because they don't have "proper papers."

In the meantime, my friend who is from Iowa, but now attending school in California, is trying to figure out if she should apply for camp staff in North Dakota or South Dakota.

Once again, legal status stands in the way of an amazing opportunity for our kids. While for my friend, even though transportation might be tough, she still doesn't have to think twice about working at a camp halfway across the nation because of her (lack of) citizenship status.

Another kid might not be able to go to camp because her parents are not happy with the way she's been behaving at home--being rude and mean. She is mean and disrespectful at our program some days, but I still think a week at camp would be great for her. How do I tell her somewhat close-minded parents about her bad behavior when all she wants to do is get away from home (and I want her out of that potentially destructive place)?

The simplicity of applying and preparing for camp has gotten complicated...for me making phone calls, double-checking forms, and organizing fundraisers. But also for our beloved kids, who are facing obstacles that they shouldn't have to face. Gosh, world, just let them be kids and go to summer camp.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Jesus' Triumphal Entry and Migrants' Journeys

This day after Palm Sunday is affecting me differently than usual. Rather than the excitement and optimism I usually feel on this day as we celebrate Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, I am finding myself caught in the despair and pessimism of thinking about where this king that was just being praised and "Hosanna!"-ed is headed to next.

Yesterday my roommates and I attended mass at a Catholic church here in El Paso. The service began in the courtyard, with a few folks dressed up in the typical colorful robes to appear to be from Jesus' time, and even included a live donkey to escort Jesus! Before entering the sanctuary, we processed around the church on the sidewalk until about two blocks later, we returned to the courtyard and entered the sanctuary. I was super excited about following Jesus, his friends, and his donkey--finding myself processing all giddy on my tip-toes, trying to get a peek at the star of the show and waving my palm branch. But at some point on the procession, a thought occurred to me--a thought I don't typically have on Palm Sunday.

"In a few days, he is going to die."

In that moment, it was as though the life, the exhilaration of shouting Hosannas, the joy of following Jesus...all seemed to poof out of me. All the pain, despair, and anguish of Lent seemed to fall upon me. Instead of feeling like I was standing on a cloud, I felt as though Jesus' donkey had been set on my shoulders.

Today as I was reflecting on that moment, I also thought: I wonder if migrants ever have similar moments...

Moments in the voyage: when a hopeful journey to el Norte becomes a painful trip full of abuse, thirst, hunger, rape, and hiding out; when you realize there is absolutely no option of turning back. Moments in the promised land: when the hope of attaining a "better life" disappears as your dream of the North becomes one of discrimination, confusion, and loneliness; when you realize the American Dream is more like a nightmare; when every authority figure is a threat to your security.

I wonder what the US looks like to those south of the border who are waiting to head north. What is their picture of this Jerusalem? I think of some friends in El Salvador who once told me that, when I asked them if they'd like to visit the US someday, replied with a "yes, of course," because everybody is rich and you can have a job, a family, a nice home, and be happy. They want to come for the American Dream of prosperity.

But many folks' dreams are shattered when after they cross the border, they cannot find work, they don't understand the language, and they do not hold the proper documentation to make a sustainable life.

With the passing of NAFTA, the US set itself up to have so many more migrants attempting to cross. In a way, the US was saying, "Here, let's make it impossible for you to find work and feed your family, and then put up a wall so you can't come running to us and you have to stay in your shitty situation of unemployment and starvation." It makes me think of those welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem and then turning around some time later to hang him on a cross. Perhaps it was Jesus' confusing stories, his insulting the pharisees, his taking his angst out on a fig tree, or his making a mess of the temple they oh-so loved and then threatening to destroy it...that led folks to despise him, that made their "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" become an echoing "Crucify him!"

But what has the immigrant done to deserve having to live in constant fear of returning to the place that they had to leave--the place that, even though life is hard here in the US, they still are convinced is worse than where they are now. I remember one El Paso migrant woman telling us once in response to the question, "was it all (your difficult journey and since then difficult life) worth it?" with, yes, in fact, it was still worth it. Living on this side of the border, for her, is the lesser of two evils.

Jesus had a triumphal entry before being led to his death. But instead of a warm welcome, migrants are met with figuring out ways to get around the fence and not get caught doing it, as well as having to survive in the process.

May we see Jesus in our migrant brothers and sisters, and may we walk alongside them to make the Hope of the resurrection just as real as, or even more real than, the Cross that they bear.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Preferential Option for the Poor... including YOU.

Today I got to listen to a presentation about liberation theology, and as I took notes on things known as well as new ideas, I re-lived my days in El Salvador when I first learned about this subject that has stolen my heart, my thoughts, and my Google Reader feed.

In the class I'm taking with Ciudad Nueva, we are currently exploring Poverty. As we read Ruby Payne's, Framework for Understanding Poverty, we are learning about characteristics within a culture of poverty and having many "aha!" moments while comparing what we're reading with the families that we work with here on the border.

Many of our families struggle with levels of income unimaginable to some. The median annual income for our neighborhood tends to be anywhere from $15,000 to $18,000. But one thing I am learning from our studies is that money is not the only active factor in a culture of poverty. There are so many characteristics that go beyond a lack of financial resources; a lack of emotional, spiritual, physical resources and support systems fill a culture of poverty as well.

The families in our neighborhood need to be liberated from hunger, from bad immigration law, from abusive relationships, from a lack of money to pay the gas bills, from racism, from being told their stories are not legitimate, from corrupt schools...from economic, political, and social systems that continually oppress them.

But the families and youth I work with are not the only ones that need to be liberated. We all--"rich" and "poor"--need to be liberated...

...from greed.

...from selfishness.

...from ignorance.

...from despair.

...from judgement.

...from ourselves.

I love liberation theology because it forces us to first examine oppression that is actually happening; it forces us to listen to stories, to build relationships, and to fully experience reality. Solidarity is not just something we experience once and move on; as we walk in solidarity with those who are suffering--from poverty, depression, violence, etc.--we are called into a journey where oppression and brokenness might reign for now, but liberation and redemption are our Hope.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Borders and Slinkies

Wednesday night I gave a reflection about how life on the border for a middle schooler is like a slinky. The kids with whom I work are constantly going back and forth...

...moving between childhood and adulthood: that awkward time known as adolescence. Struggling with peers, school, family demands, and hormones.

...constantly switching between Spanish and English. English at school, Spanish at home, and a mixture of the two at our program. We encourage our bilingual staff and volunteers to speak English with the kids to get them more comfortable using it in conversation. We have many exchanges with me speaking English, the kid speaking Spanish, back and forth. The kids struggle with homework sometimes, and parents often cannot help with homework, because it is all in English.

...literally moving from here and there--across the border and back. All of our kids have some connection to Juarez, most have family living there. A couple of our kids actually live in Juarez and make the daily trip across the border to go to school. Other kids cannot make the trip across, even though family members can, and even though, for example, their grandpa's funeral is in Juarez. Some only get to go on special occasions. Some don't go at all anymore because of the violence.

...within their cultural identity: am I Mexican? Am I American? Do I conform to the standards of U.S. culture, or maintain the traditions of my family?

At Ciudad Nueva, we serve to build bridges--bridges between the things listed above, things happening within our kids; as well as bridges between the kids and others in the community. Between Mexican-immigrant children and white, 50-year-old, native El Pasoans; between donors who give thousands of dollars and the families making $15,000 per year; between those holding PhD's and those who are struggling to graduate high school; between the rest of the world and the border region.

My year has been full of constant back-and-forth motions from hopelessness to joy. A slinky that rarely stops moving, but that I can only hope is moving in a direction of hope and redemption rather than down the flight of stairs.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Los Nadies

by Eduardo Galeano

Sueñan las pulgas con comprarse un perro y sueñan los nadies con salir de pobres, que algún mágico día llueva de pronto la buena suerte, que llueva a cántaros la buena suerte; pero la buena suerte no llueve ayer, ni hoy, ni mañana, ni nunca, ni en lloviznita cae del cielo la buena suerte, por mucho que los nadies la llamen y aunque les pique la mano izquierda, o se levanten con el pie derecho, o empiecen el año cambiando de escoba. 
Los nadies: los hijos de nadie, los dueños de nada. 
Los nadies: los ningunos, los ninguneados, corriendo la liebre, muriendo la vida, jodidos, rejodidos: 
Que no son, aunque sean. 
Que no hablan idiomas, sino dialectos. 
Que no profesan religiones, sino supersticiones. 
Que no hacen arte, sino artesanía. 
Que no practican cultura, sino folklore. 
Que no son seres humanos, sino recursos humanos. 
Que no tienen cara, sino brazos. 
Que no tienen nombre, sino número. 
Que no figuran en la historia universal, sino en la crónica roja de la prensa local. 
Los nadies, que cuestan menos que la bala que los mata.

The Nobodies

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that, one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them - will rain down in buckets.
But good luck doesn't rain down, yesterday, today, tomorrow or ever.
Good luck doesn't even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day on their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody's children, owners of nothing.
The nobodies: the no-ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.
Who are not, but could be.
Who don't speak languages, but dialects.
Who don't have religions, but superstitions.
Who don't create art, but handicrafts.
Who don't have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
Who do not have names, but numbers.
Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper.
The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Peace be yours.

We've lost five kids these past few weeks. Five kids who no longer come to our after-school program. One left the country to live with his father who recently got deported. Another is being punished for not writing "long enough" letters to her mom in jail. Another three who left the shelter in which they were living without notice.

For the healing of the nations, we pray to you, oh Lord.

One of my best friends is a missionary in Nigeria. Last week a suicide bomb shook her town.

For the healing of the nations, we pray to you, oh Lord.

My friend's husband is deployed in Afghanistan. He had to use his weapon for the first time in combat last week.

For the healing of the nations, we pray to you, oh Lord.

With a tally of 80 murders in February, Juarez had the lowest homicide count since 2009.

For the healing of the nations, we pray to you, oh Lord.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A new batch of sponsors emerged tonight.

As the lead singer from MercyMe was giving his pitch between sets for child sponsorship at the Rock and Worship Roadshow tonight, one of my 7th grade girls leaned over and started asking me questions.

"So you have to pay $30?"

"Yep, every month."

"But Miss, I only have $3. And it's taken me...*counts on fingers*...three months to get that much."

Now, this girl has a place to live, a loving mother who takes good care of her, a place to go to school, and a rockin' after-school program she attends (wink). I'm sure she's "better off" than most of the kids whose photos are on those packets that they hand out at concerts. But it was humbling to hear her honest response at the fact that:  one, she doesn't have the resources to sponsor a child even though I think the thought did cross her mind; and two, that she only averages $1 a month from her mom's pocket change while other children are receiving $30 from total strangers.

I was a child sponsor for a couple of years in college, and I think child sponsorship is a fascinating and cool idea. There are some really great organizations out there that do really awesome things for their sponsored communities. But I continue to wonder why we cling to the idea of helping out a child from a faraway place with whom we correspond through letters, when there are so many children in need next door who we might see everyday. I still wonder what my motivation was when I sponsored a child. We often fail to recognize the struggles of our coworkers, our neighbors, our family members when it is so much easier to feel bad for the "cute little Latino children"--who, in my current situation, are my immediate neighbors in need. I think detachment from a situation makes it easier on ourselves. If we are detached from a problem, but can still give our money to help resolve it, we will take advantage of the opportunity to give with a limited burden on ourselves by simply giving money. And that's ok.

But I don't see the kids in our community as those whom I give charity to; they ARE my community and I care deeply about them. I don't give them my money; I give them my time, my energy, and my love. I hope everyone who takes steps to donate their money also take steps to grow relationships with those right next to them in their immediate community as well.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Quick Trips

I drove to Las Cruces, New Mexico, twice today.

Our program encompasses the two cities of Las Cruces and El Paso, and we volunteers make the trip north to Las Cruces a couple times every month for different events. This weekend we had guests from the Urban Servant Corps experiencing the border region in both El Paso and Las Cruces, and I became a supplemental driver for myself and other volunteers. The trip is relatively short--about a 45 minute drive. For those of you in northwest Iowa, it's comparable to a trip to Sioux Falls from Rock Rapids. I remember throughout growing up taking trips to Sioux Falls on special occasions, either to shop, to eat out, or to attend a Girl Scout event. In high school the trips became more frequent, first with the hospitalization of my grandma. For over four months, my dad drove up to Sioux Falls almost everyday to visit her in the hospital. Then as I got involved in TEC (weekend high school retreats), I made a bunch of friends in Sioux Falls and would frequently travel to hang out with them. Then I ended up at Augustana for college and made many a trip to Rock Rapids for breaks, but also just when I needed something from home or for other events. Many people commute to Sioux Falls everyday for work or school. Overall, traveling to and from Sioux Falls was no big deal, just as traveling to and from Las Cruces has become not such a big deal for us El Paso volunteers this year.

Last weekend, I took a couple of young men who are involved in our community outreach to Las Cruces to earn some extra cash. (They walked around Walmart dressed as Chester the Cheeto's cheetah for four hours.) On our drive up they mentioned to me that this was their second and third time going to Las Cruces. These guys have lived in El Paso for years, and when I was their age (17-19), I was traveling in my own car (well, my parents' car that they let me use for myself) back and forth from Sioux Falls all the time. These teenage guys rarely have the opportunity to travel outside El Paso; nevertheless, visit other parts of El Paso, too. They don't have cars, they don't have driver's licenses...things that are sometimes assumed that a person has in this country (especially in smaller communities where there is no such thing as public transportation). In a community where papers, poverty, and accessibility are always an issue, one would think I would expect that teenagers aren't driving their own cars all over town or aren't in line at the DMV a few hours into their 16th birthday. But it wasn't until I reflected on my own teenage experience that I thought even more about how different life is for a teenager living in this area of El Paso.

Friday, January 20, 2012

7th Grade Theologians

I have had the most interesting conversations about church with my middle schoolers lately.

The first conversation made me wonder about the "Catholic" identity here on the border. Given that most Mexicans would label themselves as "Roman Catholic," I expected to hear more testaments to the Catholic faith than what I have heard. In fact, at our monthly meetings that include most of the Christian churches and organizations in the downtown El Paso region, perhaps the smallest represented denomination present is Catholic.

While at a store in the mall with some of our middle school girls after an afternoon of bowling, a rack of necklaces caught the eye of one of the 7th graders. She was holding a cross necklace that very much resembled a rosary--it was pretty much the teenage hip version of a string of rosary beads. I commented on how pretty it was (it was a very appealing shade of turquoise), after which she responded, "Yeah it is, Miss, but I could never wear it. I'm a Christian." I made some sort of confused comment like, "Ok...but it's a cross...?" Only for her to look at me like, duh, this is for Catholics...not Christians.

Even today after a meeting with a woman who directs a center where many migrant women can take classes such as English, parenting, etc., she was explaining how yes, encouraging the women to become Christian is important, and Bible studies are even required, but that the organization's focus is not religious. But she did make a comment about how "only 20% of our women are Christian...cus the majority of them are Catholic."

Since when was Catholicism not a part of Christianity? I don't understand. It is such a fascinating understanding...or misunderstanding...of the Catholic faith.

Another conversation I had with some other middle school girls was more humbling than confusing. Recently I have been involved in organizing community members to give input in a recently presented community development bond. We invited many mothers to a meeting where they could give input on what they hope to see in their community. A couple 6th graders asked me about this meeting that their moms were going to go to after program that day, and after hearing me explain the bond, they lost interest very quickly, haha. Jokingly and slightly interested to see if I could regain their interest in the bond issue, I asked the girls, "Well, what would you like to see in your community?" After a few expected answers like more pools, bigger zoos, fewer school days, etc., one of them said "We need less churches...there are too many around here." and commented how on every street there seemed to be a church building. "They should all just go to one church."

What a revolutionary idea! This comment led to a discussion among us about denominational differences and how I don't think everyone would be willing or happy to go to just one same church altogether. The girls couldn't understand why. Church is church, right?

Differences in belief, tradition, and practice, and having a variety of faith communities in one region is a beautiful thing. Especially in a place like El Paso where I have seen wonderful ways folks of different traditions can work together to bring about change. But oh how wonderful it would be to have an innocent faith that just cannot grasp the idea of the necessity of having so many churches. And oh how much we can learn from such a faith.