Willow Wonderings


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Women Talk

As a religion major at Davidson, some of my most powerful conversations about faith and religion have taken place outside of the classroom, most recently in the Multicultural House basement. There, I have been fortunate to take part in a series of dinner dialogues called Women Talk: a circle of women joined by common questions and struggles of faith. For four weeks in the months of September and October, twelve women from seven branches of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, and secular traditions came together to talk about the intersections of gender, religion, and race. Our dinner conversations were punctuated by laughter, second helpings of curry, and poetry readings from Alice Walker’s writings on the spirit. I am so grateful to the women of Davidson who have taught me how to be faithful and fully own my identity as a woman.

I learned from these dialogues that our religious traditions are not just patriarchal means of oppression, as some on-lookers can argue. Religious and spiritual beliefs and practices can also be sources of hope, courage, and belief for us as women to re-claim our fullest dignity. It is a constant struggle to know what we believe, and why we believe, and how we live out our beliefs. Sometimes we follow a tradition we don’t agree with. At the same time, women’s experiences of faith and spirituality often go unheard and unaccounted for in the public realm, and we are working to change that. We are both alone in the journey to answer these questions and we have role models and mentors to guide us. We are making change, and we are inspired by the words and example of our ancestors and our compañeras.

This poem is a compilation of our conversations, questions, and reflection exercises. I hope you take courage from our words, and enjoy!

As women, we are taught to fulfill impossible expectations.

Women are created of an inferior nature, called to submit to the man.

We are to be homemakers, and the ones who care for the children.

Women pass on the tradition, but do not pray in front of men.

Women cover their shoulders and their heads and their hair.

Women have to be proper, modest, guard their hearts.

They don’t divert attention.

We know there’s another side of the story.

Women run the kitchen and children’s education,

prepare communion, light the candles at Shabbat,

lead their families to go to mass,

and pray to God for hope.

We are re-teaching ourselves to find role models.

We are the sisters and daughters of Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Zora Neal Hurston,

Hannah Seresh, Hagar, Alice Walker –

We also come with questions.
Is God feminine or masculine?

Are my two options in life to be Madonna or a whore?

How independent and put-together am I supposed to be?

How do I stand up against racism, sexism, economic oppression?

Why is it ok for Americans to hate my religion?

Who am I called to be?

We want to be seen for who we are.

As confident and kind
powerful and passionate
strong and capable

We want to live for what we love:

Mountains. Music. Coffee and tea. Nature. Showers, crisp air, hugs, justice, stories, laughter, hugs, rain, all kinds of love, hummus, animals, books, dreams, responsibilities, adventure, breathing.

This is who we say we are:
Poet. Friend and companion. An ethnic minority, Latina, not a race. Black. Pakistani, not Arab. Global citizen. Low-income. White majority. Listener, thinker, questioner. Believers. Complex and sensitive, powerful(less), supported, alone. Reader, athlete, musician. Mentors and our mothers’ daughters. Struggling and confused. Earth-child. Not self-made. Independent and interdependent. Movers and shakers. Subject to change. Vulnerable. Strong.

Beautiful.

The only voices we have.

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Prompt for poster above: Who are you? What wakes you up in the mornings? The poster was a bit saturated with rain, but it made it!

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Define the borderlands.

There are many ways that people have asked me to describe my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border.
What did you see? Was it hot? Did you eat lots of Mexican food? Why is there so much conflict there?
Or my personal favorite: What were the people like, you know, the Mexicans?
Many times, people want a definition of what the situation looks like currently. They want to know why the wall keeps showing up in our newspapers and why ignorant members of our xenophobic political parties want to make the border the site of next of America’s genocide, if it does not qualify as such already.
My experience in Tucson, Arizona is limited eight weeks of a summer internship in a church that has a legacy of being involved with immigration reform. My job as a ministry intern was not only to learn about the intricacies of worship liturgy and pastoral care, but also to be immersed in the justice movement of the borderlands. I am by no means qualified to give an in-depth political analysis nor can I provide an indigenous perspective. I am not one who has walked the border wall since I could crawl, let alone one who had to cross with my children clinging to me at the risk of being caught. I do not know the border except by the privilege of being able to go and to leave again, which may not be any real knowledge at all.
But if you want to know what I saw, what makes me angry and keeps me awake, then here it is. I write because there are human beings being treated as if they were animals, hunted down in their tracks by our government, while they risk their lives for the sake of their families. Those human beings, I believe, are our brothers and sisters in God’s family, and deserve more than definitions. They deserve stories, and these are just a few of them.
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1. Jornaleros: Day laborers, typically men between the ages of 17 and 55 or older working daily as they are able to support their families. The day laborers at Southside taught me everything from Spanish idioms to the importance of flexibility in lesson plans. One day, when I asked them to describe their dreams, most of them told me that they dream to return to Mexico to be with their families, to have freedom, and to love well.
At the Southside Worker’s Center, they also have self-organized to learn about their rights as laborers in the face of workplace raids, a lack of insurance, and robbed salaries. They are eager to work and ask nothing more than the opportunity to let their voices be heard.
2. Polymigra: Local police in Tucson who have worked in conjunction with national Border Patrol agents. The police, “poly,” has overstepped their bounds of authority to enforce immigration law. The “migra” refers to the 4,200 Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector who are known for targeting brown skinned people at checkpoints and anywhere 100 miles from the border. Once, I met someone was stopped on his way home from the hospital shortly after his daughter’s birth. He was arbitrarily stopped and detained for three months, unable to see his daughter’s first days of life. Whenever someone comes in contact with la policia, there is a risk of being permanently torn apart from family. With tremendous courage, the undocumented community has rallied a protection network to alert one another when someone has been pulled over so that the community can document police’s human rights abuses. They also have banded together to petition to an end of indiscriminate deportations.
3. Raspado: Paradise on a hot day; a Mexican fruit treat resembling shaved ice that makes the world a bit brighter. I personally love the mango flavor. I could talk for hours about Mexican food and the way it nourished my whole being this summer.. especially the tamales. And the fruit with chile and lemon. And the horchata. And the tortillas made right before my eyes. And everything that was natural and beautiful and put life in perspective when eaten in community, especially with my friend Josue who never failed to make me enjoy the sweetness of the present moment.
4. Dreamer: Term used by more progressive U.S. legislation to define a young person who has been in the United States over five years and entered the U.S. before the age of 16 (usually people of my generation). If the DREAM Act had passed, it would have been granted a path to citizenship and equal tuition prices to university for these students. Currently, dreamers are only afforded work permits and “deferred action,” a program which has been threatened by congress. Since President Obama proposed an expanded program along with protection for dreamers’ parents, it has been held up in the courts system, leaving millions in limbo & forced to live in the shadows.

Currently, 2.5% of undocumented students are able to attend U.S. colleges due to a lack of affordable aid and opportunity. What does it say about our education system that we deny access to millions of students for their lack of a single piece of paper?

My friend Josue prays at the border.

My friend Josue prays at the border.

There is nothing just about the way dreamers are treated unequally, and for most, forced to fight tooth and nail to fulfill their parents’ hopes and support their families. In the words of my friend Judith, “We deserve a shot at our dreams.”
5. Illegal alien: A derogatory label used by standard U.S. legislation and policy that has the effect of dehumanization against migrants, especially Mexicans and Central Americans; it associates people with criminal activity, terrorism, and foreignness to make one’s mere existence a crime. No human being is illegal — yet when we call others “aliens,” the feeling, spirit, mental capacity, and shared humanity also becomes stripped away. No human being is illegal — yet when we live in a country that puts nationality over human rights, we feel justified. The point is that this term needs to eradicated forever – especially if the US wants to continue to call itself a nation of immigrants.
6. Operation Streamline: The daily federal court process that convicts 70 migrants in an hour (and sometimes less) as guilty of the federal crime of ‘illegal entry’ or ‘illegal re-entry’ in Tucson, making these ‘crimes’ the most common federal charge today. The system of Operation Streamline condenses initial appearance, plea, and sentencing to one day, averaging as little as 25 seconds per case. The system works as part of a “zero tolerance policy” against immigration, and has made illegal re-entry the most commonly filed charge federally. In Arizona, Streamline costs an estimated $120 million in court charges annually, not counting the cost to the multi-billion dollar private detention industry.

Men awaiting sentencing at Operation Streamline. Image by Laurence Gipe.

Its purpose was deterrence. Its effects have been disastrous of permanently separating families by putting a scar on thousands of migrant’s records that are forever held against them. I saw men and women my own age be convicted, innocent of any crime except crossing the most trafficked border in the world without documents. I watched them stand before a judge and watch him give them a sentencing to a corporately-funded jail and one by one, be sent away in chains as a symbol of the modern-day slave trade.
Two years ago, in October 2013, a group of activists chained themselves to the courthouse gate and to the buses that were used to transport migrants in order to shut down Operation Streamline. You can read my friend Maryada’s statement here on the love of God that compelled her to drive a spoke into the wheels of injustice.

7. Selena:  The goddess of the borderlands, a phenomenal Mexican American singer, songwriter, philanthropist, spokeswoman, and fashion designer who is known as the queen of Tejano music. She was well known for her albums in Spanglish that captured the hearts of thousands before she was tragically murdered in 1995. Her legacy carries on as a symbol of empowerment, especially for Tejana and Chicana women. She said, “Be strong minded and always think that the impossible is possible,” a statement that embodies the courage of many people I came to know this summer.

Selena depicted as a saint of the people

8. Oak Flat: A sacred historic land site of the San Carlos Apache Tripe that is also part of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. In a piece of 11th hour legislation, Senator McCain traded 2,400 acres of Arizona, including Oak Flat, to a subsidiary of two of the world’s largest private mining companies for underground mining. The land had been protected by executProtect-The-Sacredive order up to this point, and now it is being protected by protestors who refuse to let holy land be torn from their people’s hands. They have even taken a caravan to Washington, D.C. to protest at the capitol that we cannot destroy Native temples. In the words of the Huffington Post article, “The swap is believed to be one of the first instances of federal land being given to a foreign corporation.”
9. El Muro: The wall, defined by legislation as the “US-Mexico barrier,” symbolizes the attempt of the image2U.S. government to push migrants to the farthest extreme of danger in order to deter them from crossing the desert. The wall, in some places, is now double-backed with two barriers and barbed wire, costing an average of $4.3 million per mile. The flow of goods from Mexico’s factories enters the U.S. freely, while the wall keeps out necessary laborers who are treated as transnational terrorists. Effectively, the wall has strengthened the cartel’s business by making migration so difficult that it requires a hired coyote (member of the cartel who works as a trafficking agent) to pass; in other words, “A coyote exists because a border patrol agent exists.” The wall has also made for international military conflict, such as the murder of sixteen-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez by Border Patrol agents.
Artists have made the wall into a piece of canvass for their reflection. People have played volleyball over the border and held fiestas at the wall. Even the wall cannot stop the life of Mexico from flooding over.
If you look carefully, you will see a black cord, a remnant of a person's crossing.

If you look carefully, you will see a black cord, a remnant of a person’s crossing.

I learned this week that the wall was built of the metal from the Twin Towers – a remnant of America’s fear of terrorism and its diehard clinging to “security.” And, for the worst of ironies, it was built by the hands of undocumented migrants.
Tanya Aguiñiga and Michael Schnorr. “Cuantos Mas?,” installation in Tijuana. Mexico. BAW/TAF. November 1998. Photo courtesy of Tanya Aguiñiga.

Tanya Aguiñiga and Michael Schnorr. “Cuantos Mas?,” or How many more? installation in Tijuana. Mexico. BAW/TAF. November 1998. Photo courtesy of Tanya Aguiñiga.

10. Sanctuary: Known as “The New Underground Railroad,” the Sanctuary Movement caused a heyday in the 1980s and is doing so again. The religious and civil movement from the 1980s included 150 congregations and synagogues who openly defied the U.S. government by welcoming hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violent civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala into their sacred spaces. Today, the New Sanctuary movement has brought national attention for faith and immigrant communities standing between the government and those at risk of being deported. Men and women who are threatened with deportation orders have been welcomed into a dozen churches nationwide until their cases are closed. The movement cites the 1,000 deportations that occur daily as a moral crisis tearing at the fabric of our communities and families.

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Rosa teaches me to make poblano peppers, photo courtesy of Tucson Daily Star.

Sanctuary uplifts the ethical responsibility to protect and accompany those who are fighting their deportations, offering the sacred space of church grounds as a support “for those lifting their voices to transform our damaging and unjust immigration laws.”
Rosa Robles took sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church on August 7, 2014, as a last resort to keep her family together and as a statement that she would not hide from her deportation order. She remains at Southside, awaiting a response from the U.S. government, while her two boys, Jose Emiliano and Gerardo Jr., begin a new school year. She waits each day to hear news that she will be able to go home, and until then, she prays with more fervor and faith than I could ever imagine to claim. She is one of my personal heroines.
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Image by Favianna Rodriguez

11. Indocumentalismo: An emerging socio-political ideological identity whose manifesto was written by my personal hero Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa and Daniel Carrillo. Indocumentalismo traces its roots back to the oppression, slavery, and genocide against Indigenous communities since the onset of colonization. “From the very foundation of the United States of America, Native and African people were completely excluded from freedom and citizenship,” Alcaraz and Carillo write. Indocumentalismo changes the narrative of “Mexicans aliens occupying U.S. territory” to “Europeans as the first undocumented/ ‘illegal’ group in the hemisphere.” The term is a call for a transformation and rebellion against the colonial, capitalist order to unify el pueblo and claim its sovereignty. The term reminds me of a phrase that I often heard from migrants this summer: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” Indocumentalismo defies the logic of colonialism; it is the kind of world-reversal that I think calls us to pay attention.

12. Xenophobia: The current state of American politics. I can hardly describe to you the anguish that I feel in reading comments like Donald Trump’s. I cannot handle the depth of ignorance and the brash hatred that is completely unfounded on any evidence.
Now, more than ever, we are in need of immigration reformers who have lived in the desert of Arizona who have seen and heard migrants’ stories. The most common question people ask me is, “Why do they come here illegally?” To them, I share the story of thousands who have been denied visas to the U.S. or who could not afford to pay year’s wage for the applications. I tell them that passports are a privilege unavailable to the vast majority. I tell them that the current waitlist for a visa from Mexico to the U.S. can take up to 25 years, and the current estimated wait is 20 years. In effect, there is no legal way for people to enter the United States. It is impossible.image1 (1) And so, thanks to transnational capitalism, they are left with the choice to move north to work in U.S. factories paying $4 a day, or to take the risk to cross and provide for their families back home.
When you consider the situation of a family member needing enough money to receive life-saving surgery, a loved one who has crossed the border and cannot return, or a death-dealing situation of the cartels in your neighborhood, then crossing the border – no matter the risk – becomes the most human of choices. And once we recognize migrants’ humanity, there is no excuse for the ignorant, hateful, and unwarranted remarks of our politicians.

In the words of Ricky Martin, “Xenophobia as a political strategy is the lowest you can go in search of political power.

This is an issue that unites us and we need to battle it together, not just for us but for the evolution of humanity and those to come.”

13. El pueblo: As seen above, el pueblo is more than a neighborhood or a community. It is a people of shared blood ties, shared generations of bloodshed, and shared experience of living under oppression in militarized states on both sides of the border. El pueblo is now, more than ever, awakening to the equality of all sexes and gender identities. El pueblo is mobilizing for the protection by documenting human rights abuses at the hands of law enforcement on both sides of the border. El pueblo has a colorful, indestructible, dancing, loud and revolutionary spirit that lives across generations. El pueblo is marked by multiplicity and a thousand experiences under the same sun. El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido — the people, united, will never be divided. El pueblo es el futuro, the pueblo is the future, whether the US is ready for it or not.
 Image Source: No human being is illegal, and each one has a dream.
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It became increasingly obvious to me this summer that the border, and its people, do not fit into categories. To come to know the border is relational knowledge that seeps in and is expelled in sweat and tears. It meets you at the limits of language and begs you to occupy its uncertainties, its frustrations, its deepest hopes.
There are many borders that threaten to divide us – psychological, racial, national, spiritual, linguistic, physical. These walls are based in fear of the Other. And fear, especially based upon encounter with another, is the absence of love.
We need to search inside ourselves to find the root of this fear, and terminate it. We need to be fearless to test the borders of our understanding and occupy the gaps that have been ruled impossible to fill. We need to know that our liberation is interdependent, and none of us is crossing this desert alone. So long as migrants are dying in the desert, and so long as human beings are tied in chains, none of us is free.
The borderlands are where we meet the limits of definition, the limits of autonomy, the limits of rationality, and in turn, can surrender ourselves to the real, arduous, journey of building mutual understanding. We seek a beloved community where no one race nor one creed nor one nationality has its place over another, but we sit at table together. It takes someone to cross borders to get there.
And once we begin to cross, there is no turning back. Let us begin.
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Rosary found on a migrant trail


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Cuando Dios te habla

.. la puedes reconocer?
When God speaks to you, can you recognizer Her?
Tonight, after I finished a day of canvassing and rehearsal for Sunday worship at Southside Presybterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, my friend Danielle and I set out to visit an intentional community named Cara Mariposa for their community dinner. Casa Mariposa was founded for those who had served as activists and needed a place to recuperate. Its mission is hospitality and regeneration, and since 2009, it has been taking in guests – including migrants, passers-through like myself, and people of all faith backgrounds.

We knew we had arrived to the Casa because we recognized the humanitarian signs covering the home’s yard. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we noticed a double rainbow to the east — just as the sign of God’s presence that we needed. Danielle and I came to Casa Mariposa to try and distribute signs for our campaign to keep a woman named Rosa here in Tucson with her family. Along with many other dedicated individuals, we have been distributing these signs in the past few weeks of what has been an eleven month battle to secure her documentation and keep her from being torn apart from her family. It is the kind of work that requires grit, determination, and undiluted passion. Tonight, with our energy running low, I think we were both grateful for an open meal and conversation with like-minded community members.

The house is founded on Quaker values, so in addition to holding silent worship before the meal, its walls are decorated with art and murals about non-violence. “The only solution is love,” one cloth said, beside an image of the St. Oscar Romero who preached that “We have never preached violence, except the violence of love.” As a dozen or so people gathered for dinner, we sat in a circle and all spoke in Spanish to introduce ourselves. Among those who lived in Tucson and one woman visiting from Mexico, we had two sisters from Guatemala who appeared to be in their late teens with us. They were quiet and had already eaten, so I sat back to talk with them for a few minutes before eating dinner.

When most people think of immigrants, they tend to think of 18 to 24-year-old men crossing from Mexico with drugs and criminal records. It is the image we have been fed by the media time and time again. If only I could illustrate with statistics how false this image is, how complicated the reality truly is, but unfortunately, Border Patrol does not release that kind of data. If they did, it would undermine their whole plan to end terrorism because we would see that those crossing the border are primarily those in search of work, of family, of security, of health, of life that they are determined to find on the other side. When drugs are carried, it is because most are forced into being the scapegoats of cartels. And the more we pump into militarizing the border, the stronger the cartel power becomes. It is a journey that takes unimaginable determination to make it. It is the strength that a migrant’s non-violent love propels them to cross a desert and face death to do so.

The two sisters from Guatemala who joined us, Beatriz and Ana, were prime examples of the kind of courageous person it takes to cross the border. They are 17 and 19 years old, just a year and a few months apart. When I first sat down to talk with Beatriz, the older sister, she told me that they left their small town in Guatemala because their father had sexually abused them for 8 years. She told me this openly, without flinching. They had not seen their mother for 14 years. When they had enough, they gradually saved their fathers’ money in their floorboards, and they fled.

The journey that they faced was one of the most treacherous they could ever take as young women. As Central Americans, they had very little protection in Mexico and could be kidnapped, raped, robbed, or at the least, sent back to Guatemala in any moment. Yet they knew their situation at home could not get any worse, so they left, determined to find their mother in upstate New York City.

Seven days in buses with almost no food. Walking two days in the desert heat just to arrive to the US border — where they were caught by border patrol. When asked for their information, Beatriz told them that they were going to see their mother whom they had not spoken to in 7 years, and they had not seen for 14. She had prayed that her mother’s number would be the same, so she gave it to the border patrol agent. He gave her mother the call and — thanks be to God — it was the same number. Beatriz told me that she and Ana were both crying uncontrollably when they heard their mother’s voice on the other end. I could only imagine what the border patrol officer could have felt when witnessing this reunion that their mother thought would never be possible.

The girls were kept together despite their difference in age (a miracle, only because Beatriz stood up for her sister’s experiences of trauma). They were not handcuffed (another miracle), but instead sent to the emergency room, both with severe digestive issues and dehydration. (Side note: The militarization of the border means that arrival is treacherous not only to the spirit and the mind, but also to one’s physical systems – traveling in a bus through Mexico before walking with no food or water is not the most viable for one’s well-being. Beatriz couldn’t take her medications, for instance, giving her life-threatning stomach issues.) Thankfully, they were treated well, and after a short time in detention, released and sent to a protective home for migrants in Tucson on Saturday evening.

So there they landed, next to me on a sofa — strangers from totally opposite sides of a continent, with both of them spilling out their life stories before me like we had stumbled into a most unlikely friendship. They were so open and Beatriz was so talkative that I had no desire but to listen to them. So after the group ate dinner, I was the firs to ask to join when the girls decided that they wanted to climb Tucson’s favorite mountain Tumomac.

The thought blew my mind at first. These girls had traveled the length of a continent, and they wanted to climb a mountain on their last night in the desert in 85-degree heat? I have learned to never be surprised by the resilience of the human spirit, so we went. There was a flood of people coming down off the mountain as the sunset took over the horizon. The saguaro stood against the valley of the Tucson lights, and everything in the world seemed serene. We went at our own pace, six young women chatting as we went. As we came down from the summit, I asked Beatriz what made her such a brave soul. In response, she shared this wisdom with me:

“When my father would sexually abuse me, I always knew that God was with me. I had this feeling that I was protected, this sense that I knew it would not have the power with me. And so with both me and my sister, it was like I would observe the situation and not let it get to me. I am strong because of what I have faced in my life, and it is life’s storms that have given me strength and courage. 

I give thanks to God in everything and I trust Him — in the good and the bad — because I know that no matter what happens to me, no matter what storms life presents me with, I am strong enough. I am strong with my love for my mother and my sister. In the good and the bad, I trust in God. And this faith is what carries me.

You must have faith in God, and in yourself. If you want to help other people, you must know that God gives you the strength you need, and God wants you to believe in yourself. If you do not have this, this love for yourself, you can do nothing.

All of life, there will be problems in front of me, and I know this. They will surround me. But my dream is to provide for my mother and sister, to buy a home on land so that we can always be together. I am never going to forget that God is with me, and didn’t just deliver me here in the past, but is with me through everything. This means I can face my problems because if I don’t, I can never be happy. I cannot leave them to be faced later, and the more that I confront, the stronger I become.”

As we came down off that mountain, her mother called her to plan her airport trip for tomorrow. “How will I recognize you and your sister?” her mother asked. “You will know one of us,” Beatriz said, “and if you know one, you will find the other. Plus, Grandma says I look like you,” she added at last.

I had never before thought about the difficulty of being able to recognize someone who you had given birth to, nursed, and then been forced to leave. With so many years passing, of course the girls looked completely different. Something in me told me that they will find each other without a problem because, in the words of Rilke, “Lovers do not find each other, they were within each other all along.”

If you met God, would you recognize Her standing before you? From what Beatriz has told me, I know God will have no problem recognizing us, for She has loved us since the beginning, and will continue to love us through the darkest of nights and the fullest of moons. She calls us from womb to grave to be Her beloved, and walks with us through sweat and blood to deliver us. The Spirit guides through every storm and affliction until we learn to trust and recognize Her presence working within us.

I told Beatriz tonight that sometimes I wonder why I came to Tucson. Especially in the summer. She reminded me that even if it is mysterious why I am here, that the Spirit is alive & calling me to drop everything, then point to the rainbow like it is the first and last I will ever see (“How sad would it be to have missed this!” in the words of my friend Danielle.) The Spirit calls to drop our plans and walk up the mountain with strangers until they become like family. There, in the darkness of the summit, the city lights gathered across the land like the constellations above us. In both of these moments of light breaking in and around us, the world takes on a new clarity, and we can recognize something — the reflection of the heavens’ Spirit entering within, around, and before us like we had never been able to recognize previously. And I am grateful today that two God-sent women, two migrants who have been abused and beaten down by their own father, taught me what it means to see anew and live faithfully.

I am grateful that I will never be able to explain how or why human journeys cross when they do. I will be praying for our sisters Beatriz and Ana as their camino continues tomorrow, and a tear-filled reunion ensues with their mother after fourteen long years of separation. I pray that they will be able to stay together on this side of the border, and that their love for God and one another will sustain them, no matter their financial or legal circumstances. And I pray that as they move northward, their companions and those in power will recognize the Spirit’s presence moving across borders — bringing Beatriz, Ana, and thousands of others like them to show the power of non-violent love — the same love that will finally bring us to recognize the light of God within us and within one another.

    
 


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Coming Out – Easter reflections

On Thursday night, I was rather scattered with school work and the stress of the “Davidson bubble.” My mind was running in a million directions when my friend, Rahael, invited me to join her and our friend Lydia for a Maundy Thursday service. I had never attended a service of this kind before and decided to take a risk, to go – and I am grateful for it. In the wooden pews of the Davidson Presbyterian Church sanctuary, I witnessed an exchange that has completely changed my perception of the Easter season.

The service was formed as an effort to unite two distinct Presbyterian congregations – Davidson Presybterian Church, a small and mighty African American community, that welcomed members of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, a predominately white, wealthy church. In an era of persistent divides among races in our churches and communities, Davidson provides no exception. Though the two churches live two hundred meters from one another, for most of the year, they remain separated by a segregated past, culturally disparate worship practices, and the economic divide of railroad tracks. 

Yet in one moment, one exchange, this system broke down. Kneeling on the floor, a middle-aged white man bended down to take the feet of an elderly black woman, to tenderly wash her feet and laugh with her, to hold her in a cleansing prayer before gently removing her feet to dry them again. The miracle was even greater when I saw their positions switch – if it was not humbling to go on his knees, it was even more humiliating to be touched and washed by another. I was grateful to share foot washings with Diana – a woman who was serving for the entirety of the service, and finally sat down to have her feet washed. She smiled as she prayed for me, and I felt as if we had entered unforeseen territory. 

  

There is something unmistakable and humbling about the visceral experience of holding the feet of another in one’s hands – footwashing is an experience of connection to what is most human, unpure, and thus most loved by God between us. In those moments, orchestrated by the choir singing Gospel music and the effortless flow between members of both congregations, I witnessed some power at work – a power that the Christian faith may profess as the Spirit in our midst. 

The sermon that evening, spoken by an up-and-coming, bright woman with a voice for the heavens, put the foot-washing into perspective. During her reflection, she reminded us that first and foremost, no one is beneath (or above) the love of Jesus. We were all equal – period, end of story. All of our feet are dirty and all of our hands are capable of blessing. Two, in light of the message of Holy Week and the events of the Last Supper, she asked us to examine the way that we had killed Jesus within us. The message of the resurrection cannot be preached without an understanding of Jesus’ death  as it happened then, and continues to happen by our daily indifference. 

The words pierced me through the very “peace” that I had carried with me into the sanctuary. She questioned us to examine – how have we denied Jesus’ power with our unnecessary worrying, striving, proving ourselves? How have we distanced ourselves from God by distraction? How have we give in to secrecy, failed to ask for forgiveness, held our hearts back? 

She placed a mask on her face to turn to ask us: In the light of Christ’s power, His exposure of the world’s darkness, what are we hiding behind?

There is a comfort to hiding, I believe. As a child, I very rarely wanted to be found during hide-and-seek. I enjoyed staying where no one could discover my secret location (an element of pride, perhaps) or where someone could bother me. When it comes to my daily life, I hide behind an infinite list of roles, lists, tasks, words, activities just to feel secure. I hide behind relationships. Screens. Statements of beliefs. I hide out of fear of encountering the very emptiness that lies beneath all that I cling toward for hope, safety, comfort. 

The pastor removed her mask. God sees beneath, she assured us. This statement was both terrifying and freeing – if God sees beneath, what does She see?

The question remained with me, particularly as I heard the story of Easter read this morning:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:1-2)

Mary Magdalene, like many of us, panicked when she could find the one who was her teacher. If it was not enough to lose him to death, what was she to do when he was no longer where they laid him? How could she mourn if he was no longer present?

There is no simple answer, nor solution, to loss. When we encounter death, it is most likely that we plaster new layers onto the masks that we wear – we get busier, or we hide behind new addictions. When we see our own brokenness, utter emptiness, there is a great temptation to run away.

The miracle to Easter morning, to me, was that Mary Magdelene did not run. She wept. She mourned until she saw the apparition of one asking her, Woman, why are you weeping? It was then, in her confrontation with loss, that she was able to see her Lord calling to her. A human-to-human interaction of pure encounter – not unlike the footwashing on Thursday night in Davidson. Christ, risen beyond all probability and expectation, met Mary Magdelene in the midst of her doubt and confusion – exactly where, and only there, was she prepared to receive the Good News.

What does it mean to come to Easter morning, to see the stone rollen away from the tomb? If the stone is the mask that we wear in our daily coping and assimilating, what happens when it shatters? What happens when the tomb, which we desired to hold our relics of God, becomes emptied? Where is our hope found when our idea of Jesus is nowhere to be found?

Precisely in this phrase – Jesus’ coming out. As I heard preached in DPC on Thursday night, Jesus is coming out every time we try and place him in a tomb. He refuses to be confined to death, to ideology, to our world’s assessment of him. He defies expectation and exceeds worldly standards of grace. He comes out to expose the truth – that death is no more, and through his rising, we are all called to leave the tomb with him.

What does this mean – this week of mourning, feet washing, joining at table together, remembering the death and the miraculous apparition of that man named Jesus of Nazereth? Perhaps Easter is best explained as a day of origins. We remember in Jesus’ passion and death the Source of life which resurrects us from our own deaths. We remember the original desire that God held for us to live in communion with one another. And we remember the original hollowness with which we were created – the empty place in our souls where the Risen Christ enters, and calls us to come out of hiding. He desires us to walk out of the death of the past and walk forward with him.

The Easter way of “coming out” is not a simple nor rationally-explicable way of being in this world. There are too many ways to hide from death in our society. Yet something in me compels me to believe that the force unleashed through the death and resurrection of Jesus emboldens and yearns for us to come out of ourselves – out behind our masks of separation – and join a larger reality. A reality of footwashings between strangers, of communities breaking barriers between them to worship God together, a reality of people taking off their masks together.

As my Spanish professor reminded me this week, our origins are not our beginnings. While we have many beginnings, we have one origin. The empty tomb and Risen Lord of Easter demands that we hearken to the truth of all that must we must die to this world, and all its false appearances, in order to find life. All the lies that must be unmasked to see God standing before us. And most importantly, Jesus calls us to a life that we cannot foresee – a life beyond the walls of the tomb where our old pinnacles of truth, our old ways of division, our old images of God and ourselves, have been buried. 

There, in the unimaginable path of Easter, Jesus calls us to walk daily. Risen with Him, we might return to our true origins; we may come to walk and live as our truest selves in God.  Friends, the stone has been rolled away. Our emptiness is exposed. There is no longer any place to hide. May we come out to bear the love that we have  witnessed and been given – one step, one foot, one encounter – at a time. 


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México, guardian angels, and remembering

One week ago, I stood on a rocky dirt of a soccer field in the outskirts of Reynosa, México. I decided to dust off my high school soccer skills on a team of the four gringos taking a swing at playful competition with our Mexican friends and foremen. These guys were tough – and though they had been working to pour a concrete roof all morning – they seemed to come alive with the challenge. One member of the team, Ángel, was a formidable giant. While soft on the interior, his tall stature and hefty body made me tremble whenever the ball reached him (I had seen him lay bricks and knew that our strengths were not comparable). It was a nearly tie game and we were taking ourselves rather seriously – until Ángel took us off-guard.

After one of my teammates took a (finally) well-aimed shot on goal, the mighty, big-boned Ángel got off his feet and dove into the dirt. Whole body, thrown onto the ground in an instant! He was not someone who I thought to be nimble, but in the way that he dove, I was clearly mistaken. It was nothing short of miraculous. When he realized that he had made the save, with all his muscle and bone protecting that soccer ball, a smile bigger than the goal itself lit his face. He then jumped up, light as the dirt he’d brush off his jeans, like a ballerina that just discovered he could defy gravity.

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Ángel and Carla on a work break – both leaders that carried our team through the week with their joy and friendship. Can you imagine him diving after a soccer ball?

I can’t remember the last time I laughed so vigorously than when Ángel played goalkeeper that afternoon – not just once, but over and over again did he give his whole self to the game, along with his teammates Colleen, Martin, and “Chuky” (spelling is mine). There was a lightness to that match that felt like time disappeared, as if Ángel had grown wings and brought us to laughter with him.

The week was a mixture of the hilarious, the unforeseeable and unexpected formation of a community, and the downright hard task of coming to terms with an unjust reality. For most of the week, I was taught by my Covenant teammates to re-focus on the power in forming relationships. While learning to mix and shovel concrete, I got to know my inability to lift heavy objects – and also came to know the foremen like Ángel, as well as the family with whom we built a simple, cinderblock addition. As a family of seven, their two-room home was expanding just as their circle of friends was widening. I loved every minute of coming to know three sisters, Gloria (15), Lucia (17), and Beatriz (24), as they shared their photos and lives’ testimonies with us.

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The family gathered before their existing home – right to left:  Beatriz and Viviana, Gloria, Lucia, and Remedios

The more that I came to know these young women, the more that I felt the barriers between us slowly lifted. They welcomed me in with no pretense or presuppositions. And though we only shared a few conversations, Beatriz shared with me the heart-wrenching story of her past year’s trials. As a mother of two, she has recently left an abusive marriage and lost custody of her children due to lack of a suitable living environment. One of her daughters, Katherin (age 6), was taken by her father to live across the border in Texas. Beatriz cannot cross the border with two-year-old Vivian, and does not know when she will see Katherin again. As she told me about her beloved daughter, she gave me a printed photo of Katherin – a peacefully smiling child with a red-ribbon wrapped present in the lap of Santa Claus. Her eyes look directly at the camera. I did not know how to accept such a gift except to know that I would carry it with me, along with the burden that Beatriz faces in being away from her each and every day.

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The young women also shared in the spirit of celebration – we poured over photos of Gloria’s quinceañera, her fifteenth birthday party, that was gracefully funded by their church members. Her sisters’ faces each lit with pride when remarking upon the event. And we laughed at my bad Spanish accents and when Vivian made precious faces, the way that Carla screamed of surprise when Stephen put an iguana on her shoulder (it was quite the sight). We spent time to not only accomplish the needed tasks of house-building but to celebrate the fact of our coming together, and the reality of God’s presence in our midst.

Upon returning, I have realized how much our group from Covenant in community with our Mexican brothers and sisters had, in time, become a family. We shared intimate details of our lives as well as the uncomfortable eight-hour stretch of a van ride, the feeling of concrete rubbing your skin ’till it bleeds, the dis-ease that comes with saying goodbye and hugs clinging tight before returning to “normal life.” These moments of lineal connection felt as if we had touched something eternal, something as filled with undeserved love as God’s grace. Father Gregory Boyle described it perfectly when he stated, “If kinship was our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it.”

Yet it is a battle to remember that this kinship demands a justice, especially when returning to the comfort of a world like Davidson, North Carolina. Here, it does not feel evident that 40 million Mexicans live on $1 a day. It does not feel as pressing that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children each year risk their lives to cross the border in search of income to send home. It is difficult to imagine that a pond behind my home could be filled with toxic waste from American companies’ factories.

It is difficult to imagine that a pond behind my home could be filled with toxic waste from American companies’ factories. It does not feel as pressing that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children each year risk their lives to cross the border in search of income to send home. My friend Marlene, a fellow Davidson student and all-around incredible human, taught me novels worth about the realities that immigrants (documented and undocumented) face in assimilating to a culture where the “American dream,” once long driven toward, may be nothing but a hollow illusion.

Though my clothes may now be washed and we are thousands of miles apart, the stories of our Mexican brothers and sisters still echo within me as we continue our lives on separate sides of the border. I can still feel the powerful resonance of our friend Joanna’s voice to the depths as she sang “Amazing Grace” to us at sunset. I still remember the joyful feeling of playing with four-year-old Jesus, and I still feel unsettled by the political turmoil in his neighborhood. I still remember the barriers that Lucia and Gloria face in trying to do their homework every night, and the inspiration of their dreams to work in forensic medicine and anthropology. I still remember the sound of the roosters chiming their pre-drawn chaos and the feeling of going to bed with a sore body and a heart wrestling with the many layers of a bordered reality – though it may now be out of sight, the questions this trip raised cannot be left out of mind.

As my professor Karl Plank said this week, to call memory is to <em></em>re-member<em></em>: to reform and rejoin toward a cohesive whole, to unite parts that have been broken, separated, or disjoined from one another. In remembrance, we break the barrier between the past and the present, the old and the forthcoming. We remember that our present distances and differences cannot isolate us from our essential unity. The borders cannot break us.

To remember the stories and the faces of those with whom we gathered at table and laid cement is to remember that we belong to one another, and that our stories are now inextricably connected. This kinship – this recognition of our belonging to each other and to God – is what I believe Jesus asks us to do each and every day. Just as the celebration of the Eucharist asks us to remember his sacrifice, we are also asked to remember each other, and that our broken and isolated selves are part of a larger Body. To remember, to cross the borders between us, is the way that this kinship may continue to be kindled so that we may be each the bread for each other. It is the way that Christ himself remains with us as we remember that each of us has a part in His work, and that we share both our burdens and our celebrations as a collective.

I have one last note to mention about remembering. In the past several months, I have been grateful to be remembered by my prayer partner and adopted grandfather, Jim. Jim has been supporting me from day one when I began my work at Moore Place this summer, and especially when I decided to go to Mexico. Since the day we began the Journey to Reynosa, he has been the one to remember each day to pray for our trip and to hold us in the light. Jim has been the constant thread and reminder to me that our spiritual family is a gift from God to keep us going, and to make us laugh when we most need it. And to give us a care package of brownies – just as a reminder of the times we were able to <em></em>simply be<em></em> together in communion and look forward to the next occasion.

By sharing the dirt of daily labor and the communion of tortillas at table together, the wings of kinship can lift us in ways we did not imagine to be possible. In places of great injustice, darkness, and violence, the Kingdom becomes visible when those who believe gather together. When we remember the love of Christ that dwells within us, we return to see the goodness in one another. I thank God that there are people like Ángel that defy gravity by diving into the dirt and turn concrete mixing into a communal activity. I thank God for the beauty of Katherin, and pray that she may be reunited with her family. And I thank God that are angels like Jim that come into our lives to watch over us and bring us peace.

I close with a prayer that Jim wrote, that I now share with you, dear reader, wherever you may be:

My prayer for each of you tonight is to know that you are remembered. Even though many miles separate us, our thoughts and our prayers are with you. Peace and love to teach of you.
In Jesus’ name, amen.

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The celebration of our last day of roofing being complete – the whole Covenant team! Dylan and his abundant energy, Jerry’s musical laughter, Andrew’s youthful spirit, Mary’s grounded presence, Scott’s intentionality to get to know others, Darren’s unfailing-to-be-silly sense of humor, LeAnne’s passion and unbounded compassion, Carla’s way of seeing into our hearts, Amy’s song and strength before us, Erin’s desire to share with the girls of our family, Stephen’s desire to serve and patience, Heather’s willingness to listen, Marlene’s humility, Kay’s ear for hearing God speak, and Amanda’s open spirit made for an incredible week.

And we could not have done it without Faith Ministries – especially Omar, David, Ezekiel, Lupe, Ángel and our faithful leader Colleen – to guide us! May God continue to bless their labor to do God’s will of justice in Reynosa, one family at a time.


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Marlene and Ezekiel, who will remember one another for a long time to come.


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Esperar — the Season Forgiving

Conversations with God, Christmas Eve

The house has fallen silent. The kind of silence that makes the crackings of the heating vents as noticable as the breath of exhale deflating the covers. It is cold here, and more grey than I remembered for the winter. But for the first time that I can remember, it is noiseless.

Silence is the only space in which I can enter without any justification or need to explain. The thoughts of Facebook messages, Target photos, and Christmas chocolates fade into the surrounding shadows. With the tattoo of emptiness seeping into my pourous thoughts, you ask for my presence.

The candle in the window has lasted at least a decade of Christmases. Each flicker hints to a trace of past memories, moments of surprise when opening unexpected gifts, stomach aches from too many sweets, rememberances of deaths in the family, and in some years, treasured silence on nights like this. Each family has its ghosts, and mine is no exception. The present carries with it the echoes and shadows of años y años – memory keeps alive the past complex web of emotions like ornaments hung on the branches of our legacies. Apart from the candle, all is darkness.

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Sunday marked the day of darkness in the Northern hemisphere. I waded into and out of the darkest and longest hours of the year without noticing, my daily schedule uninterrupted. But nature did not forget her ways, as she graced us a thrust into blindness to remind us of what we do not control.

The silent and the darkness both haunt our society. We enjoy brightening the world without losing hours of productivity and knowledge of what surrounds us. When my mother dimmed the lights at dinner tonight, we spoke louder out of habit to reach out to one another. With darkness comes loneliness – the fear of not seeing, and not being seen.

Now I am alone, apart from you. In the darkness, my senses are naked, with only my words as comfort.

Christmas often comes wrapped in anxiety within me, God. I worry that I have spent too much money on gifts, I am unworthy to receive the generosity of others or I have failed to meet their expectations. Or that I will gain unwanted weight out of gluttony. The web of tension sits within us all, perhaps a bit more tense and a bit more tired after running around for a month in preparation. I have failed to seek the dark, quiet waiting of Advent that requires being still and silent.

The man at Quaker meeting this past Sunday spoke merciful words out of silence. He said instead of giving gifts, we could give forgiveness to ourselves and one another. Forgiveness, as I learned through the Twelve Steps tradition, is a holy act. It is seeing the dignity and humanity of the other as well as the fault and neediness in ourselves. It is a freedom from the past, a spiritual nakedness that admits we have all come to be in the wrong and need some assistance to let the ghosts out of the closet. Forgiveness means turning the power of judgment back to God, releasing us from the illusion that we have the knowledge to condemn ourselves or others. Forgiveness is the humility to admit there is none superior because thankfully, God made us all with scars, blemishes, and shadows.

At night, the shadows reminds us that our souls contain darkness. Inside of me lives a web that is a collection of false judgments, all desperate attempts to cling to something that is mine, something to make me superior. The shadow says that to be a good Christian is to pretend to be perfect or die trying. The shadow says that those needing a psychiatrist have something wrong with them. It says that Santa Claus puts us on the naughty list for not listening to our teachers and parents feed us lies (prime example – the existence of Santa Claus). I have been told that without dieting we might die of an obese existence. It says that poor people are lazy, immigrants will steal our money, and those other religions just are cults out to deceive humanity. It tells me that to be great, I must compete. The layers of lies come packaged and infinite, all out of a desire for some form of certainty.

It is often said that faith is the ability to believe in the unseen. The candle flickers, its light is vulnerable, casting shadows as it dances.

You entered the world during a troubled time, Jesus. I think we live in dark times, too, and while I do not know if we can call them apocalyptic, we certainly are in need of forgiveness, all of us, for not knowing how to love ourselves and others and live with uncertainty in this time-crunch-capitalista-every-woman-for-herself society. We do not know how to respect the Sabbath, how to close our eyes with the setting of the sun and wake with its rising. We do not know how to admit our shortcomings. We do not know how to see the man without a home and value him like the child of the aristocracy plastered on the magazines.

I wonder what you would look like on a tabloid cover. Unplanned teenage pregnancy draws crowd in manger. Later attracts attention of the emperor. You took the side of the raw before the sheltered, the rejected before the lawful, the chaotic and dysfunctional before the artifical. And you show nothing but tenderness. Child, straw, donkeys — your birth scene was hidden, and miraculous. Nothing of it was staged or made to gather attention, but rather created greatness from nothingness.

In Spanish, to give birth is dar a luz. To deliver light to the world, as if each child is a spark of divine magnificence. Mary is our example of channeling mercy – bringing light to the world by laying down in straw to deliver God to us. To give birth is to bring the new, the unexpected, and the free into the world of shadows.

Jesus, what is forgiveness? A birth of a new relationship, a new way of being that comes as a gift of your enlightenment. When you see our shadows, you see the edges of what is coming to be illuminated. You see opportunities for transformation, of old hurts and battle scars turned to rivers of mercy. You see infidelity turned to humility. You teach us to see the light that has been hidden in ourselves and others, and therefore to have faith in the invisible — to see glimpses of reconciliation descending from the heavens, that we might be bearers of peace upon earth, perhaps, if we dare, to forgive.

Tonight, we wait. We wait for your flesh to descend upon us and form us into your body. We wait for the sound of the infant cries, the light emerging from the silence. We wait to remember that you came to us in darkness, in the silence of the night, to speak words of peace. We wait because we have esperanza – hope, and expectation – in knowing that you have come, you are coming, and your light-filled Kingdom will come in the flesh of the present. We wait to listen to you because your cries sound remarkably like our own, only disguised within the burning of the candle and the falling of the rain and the eyes of the mother needing grace.

In darkness, like silence, there is no pretending. You ask us to confront our demons, to be honest and daring. To tell the ones whom we love that we have accepted them, and to tell ourselves that we are done with the mascarades. You desire that vulnerability for us, that we might be reconciled to one another and to you, our bare wounds exposed from their fragile wrappings. And in the shadows of night, you call for the offering of our presence, that we might sit and listen. Listen to one another, to your cries, and in the silence, that we might give birth to your tenderness. You ask us to esperar, to wait, and to be patient.

Divine child, forgiveness does not happen overnight. But with the remembrance of your birth, let us also remember the urgent cries for grace this day. Give us the strength to place our most fragile shadows in your infant hands. Give us the courage to show ourselves the mercy that you thirst for us to know, make us bear your convictions wordlessly, give us the faith to see that we are not alone. Make us hopeful and expectant like the Virgin before her birth that you might be aching to change us. Make us expect deliverance from pridefulness, bear the shadows without answers, and hear your cries through the wilderness – echoing the mercy that is holy, the divine gift that is ever-giving and infinite.

This day, and this night, we wait for the surprising and unexpected cries of the infant. May our lives be an echo of that tenderness, the candle that stays lit in the darkness, the one true birth that is forgiveness.

 

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For 24 Last Hours in Latin America

On my last full day in Latin America, the morning came quickly.

It was 8:15 when my friend Shane’s iPhone sounded. The night before, a few friends from Argentina had come in around 4 in the morning after a night of salsa dancing so I had not slept very much, and my eyelids were heavier than the ideal. Quinn, who was sleeping in the bunk above me, had already risen earlier to explore the city for his last morning. We had fifteen minutes before we would leave the hostel to meet Clarise for our last breakfast together. Pressed for time, I was grateful that showers in the hostel lifestyle are optional. I was also grateful to be woken up by the lulo and papaya juice prepared freshly by our friendly hostel owner, Novia.

As we made our way to breakfast at the Colombian coffee hot-spot, Juan Valdez, the sky in Bogotá was clear and still. We laughed and laughed during our last breakfast, remembering silly moments from the past more-than-four months together. Just in our week in Bogotá, we had traveled by public transit to visit a salt cathedral, wandered through Christmas fairs, sung Novena prayers with Clarise’s family, and climbed the hill of Monserrate to see the view of the city.

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As Quinn hopped into his taxi and headed to the airport, Clarise and I went to a less touristy area of town to visit the Center for Memory, Peace, and Reconciliation (Centro de Memoria, Paz, y Reconciliacion). At first, I thought that we were lost or confused because the entrance was free yet no one was there with us. The silence of the exhibit contributed to the tone of solemn and haunting reflection upon the longest civil war in Latin American history.

The most impactful part of the exhibit, from my perspective, was a broken statue of the Virgin Mary. As a representation of the broken faith of the people, I also saw the statue as a symbol of the violation of women that occurred during the war and continually shapes reality in Latin America. Innocent mothers and children were disappeared, their bodies to be later discovered in mass graves (or not, leaving their families in continual questioning). The necessity, then and now, is the revelation of truth to give dignity to the victims and their families.

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Bodies, bodies, on the floor, not a name to be spoken
Disappeared, hung and buried, the edges of memory broken
Are you a brother or a husband, a mother, sister, known or unknown victim?
Bodies, bodies, one by thousands, not a spirit to be woken.

Leaving the center and re-entering the city, I realized that I had only carried American cash with me. Clarise kindly lent me 2,000 pesos (roughly 85 cents) to be able to take the new transmillenio transit system to travel back to the center. To enter, however, I needed a card that only locals possess. Outside the gates stood one man; his name was Alberto, and he graciously let me enter with his card in exchange for a few pesos. He said that the fare on his card came from the government; after receiving medical treatment for almost committing suicide, he had one free pass per month to go back to the hospital. He shared many of his concerns about psychiatric treatment. I could not help but continue thinking about him and the intimate, though short, interaction we shared as I boarded the bus.

While on the bus, I noted that the Centro is not the only public declaration against violence; the walls of Bogotá are open canvases for graffiti artists to speak their truths. Semillas de resistencia, one read, seeds of resistance – planted and cultivated for the hundreds of thousands of victims. My other favorite piece read – armas, + universidades, (less arms, more universities). Graffiti in Bogotá takes the forms of artists’ tags, like any other city, but also includes stunning portraits of indigenous women, murals with hidden political commentaries, and intricate geometric drawings.

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When the bus reached its terminal, I exited through a narrow passageway where two violinists played, then emerged from underground to find the center bustling with activity. For two hours, I simply wandered through corners, around markets, clutching my camera bag in one hand and the coffee and chocolate that I had purchased for friends in the other. The most impressive street was lined with fruit vendors, offering a whole sliced mango for less than a dollar. While surveying the many flavors available, a young woman offered for me to try her green mango with lemon, salt, and pepper; her generosity struck me as powerfully as the exotic flavor.

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This semester I became accustomed to entering into churches to see, as my professor Dr. Samson says, “what people are up to.” The main cathedral was almost silent as I entered. A man sat in prayer, occasionally looking at the images on the walls. I stared at a feather floating beneath the benches. The silence presented a welcome refuge; I needed to pause for a moment and breathe before I continued exploring.

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Emerging from the doors of the cathedral, a group of doves flew in synchronicity while echoes of tourists and market vendors sounded with the music of passing traffic. Everything, even the cathedral in its silence, had its place in the choreography. After a bit more wandering, I found my way to the best lunch spot in the historic center – La Puerta Falsa. I ordered a specialty house tamale and sat next to a woman at the counter to write poems, watch families come and go into the hole-in-the-wall, and savor every bite. We had come to La Puerta Falsa for our first day in Bogota, and I was glad to feel the trip coming full circle.

Wandering home, I walked into a vegetarian restaurant/yoga studio/Hindu temple that we had always wanted to visit. The woman selling books inside encouraged me to buy the Bhagavad Gita in Spanish (it was tempting, but it is hard enough to understand in English) and invited me to come to a gathering to read the sacred text that evening at six. Vienes, vienes, she kept telling me, you are coming, she insisted.

So while I was tempted to tell her that I had to pack or make up some excuse to stay in the hostel that night, I made plans to return at six. For the rest of the afternoon, I put on music, took out the million gifts I have acquired in the past four months, and started to imagine returning to the States. My packing was interrupted by pouring rain falling on the hostel roof, a soft breeze entering through the windows as the unseasonal storm continued. I turned off the music and just listened until it turned colder, the wooden floors fostering a chill in my feet.

Wandering down to the kitchen to make tea, I decided to read The Fault in Our Stars (o Bajo La Misma Estrella) while I waited for the water to boil. The family that owns the hostel was just having almuerzo when I came down, and they invited me to try fresh guanabana juice with milk. We ended up sitting and talking for an hour about everything from the situation of homelessness in Bogota, to the reality of law and justice and impunity, to the best food of the regions of the country, and the importance of both children working to earn money for their education. As two university students, we constantly saw them working to help their parents with hostel needs. Their dedication made me reflect upon the impressive work ethic and collaborative spirit that they shared with us.

Soon enough, five thirty came and, thankfully, the rain had lightened. I invited a friend from Finland who studies yoga to come with me, and while we got a bit lost on the way, came to find the temple/studio/restaurant just as the gate was closing. We were invited upstairs where the group began to recite Sanskrit prayers and chantings. We passed by a candle and placed our hand in the flame to touch the heat upon our foreheads. The chanting and reading reached a climax when we moved on to the Hare Krishna chant. Children as well as adults danced to the beat of a drum as we repeated the phrasing over and over, until it started sounding in my head as powerfully as my own heartbeat. It was a moment of true ecstasy to be singing in a completely unknown language with devotees of Krishna, to feel their sincere, passion, and to know that though we were foreigners with accents, we were encouraged to join and warmly welcomed.

The teaching and meal followed the chanting; the leader’s speech focused on the many distractions of the material world that he described as a “battle field,” a world that tries to replace the eternal love of God with the illusions of the ephemeral. His words rang most true when he spoke about the importance of constant meditation, words that Jesus also shared with his disciples. The mantra kept sounding in my mind; while it consisted of unfamiliar syllables, the power to connect with God remained universal.

As we finished our rice, vegetables, and tea and broke the circle, I realized that I needed to find a way to meet Clarise and her Colombian family to say goodbye. They had generously hosted us for lunch, shared with us Colombian Christmas treats and prayers, and blessed us with their presence. I set out to find bread to offer as a goodbye gift, and found myself in a bakery that Quinn had always wanted to visit. On the wall, some quirky lettering read (translation mine):
Human happiness generally is not achieved by grand hits of luck that can occur only in rare occasions, but with small things that occur daily.

When I was copying the phrase in my journal, I noticed a father and son enter the tiny tienda. I was afraid they might think I was strange for taking notes in the middle of a bakery but they looked friendly, so I asked the son if he knew the direction to the bus station. He responded in perfect English and so we began a lovely Spanglish conversation. I learned that his name was Santiago and his father, Carlos, thought that it was too dangerous to take the bus at that time of night. So instead, we decided to share a small carton of wine and marvel at Carlos’ art.

The two work together as a father and son by coordinating a transportation business, but in the rest of life, Carlos loves literature and drawing. Santiago is passionate about the environment, literature, engineering and imagination; his eyes came alive when he spoke of his family and his trips to the mountains. We spoke of literature, the history of the United States and Native Americans, the ins and outs of Carlos’ travels, and the current needs of humanity. Carlos gifted me one of his drawings, the Caminante (I think I almost died of happiness). On our way back to the hostel, Santiago shared the bakery bread and cookies with people we met along the streets. Carlos recited poetry verses with the swiftness of breathing, and they even recited some in unison. We said goodbye, and by one o’clock, I was tucked in bed with a smile of gratitude for blessed coincidences covering my lips.

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La Caminante, by Carlos H. Agudelo

One day in Bogota, eighteen hours, captured almost all that I desire to know in this lifetime – sharing mango and bread on the streets with strangers that became friends, witnessing to heartbreak and truth in the fight for reconciliation, listening to the rhythm of the rain and watching flocks of doves fly by a patterned, chaotic, imagination, reciting poetry and mantras, remembering that good finds come from wandering and miracles come from what seem like interruptions. Each of these moments that, as Santiago says, may be small in scale but lead to life-changing consequences.

I have received a richer experience this semester that I could put into language, or even in a fusion of tongues. But the most heartening realization has been that this graffiti-painted, polluted and unjust world is as good as the human heart at its core, and that the sacredness of life makes it is worth fighting for. And while it may be a “battle field,” sometimes to even wake up in the morning, there is always an opportunity of generosity harkening for our attention – in the hostel kitchen, the train station, the bakery, or the temple. The moments that make life vale la pena, that make the pain worthy of endurance, are as available as we are open to giving and receiving from others.

Some warned me that Bogotá was too dangerous of a city to visit. Perhaps that may have been true for past generations, but today, the violence of the past has been woven into a population that is marked by passion for human dignity. I will always remember the artistic spirit and generosity that nourished us daily during our visit, and those who helped us to take the necessary precautions. Perhaps the greatest gift of Bogotá was learning to re-member, to bear witness to the luchas of the past and to recall that the love of God  means  that we never walk alone.

Now, I am “home.” I know this because there is no plastic wrap on the books and the tap water is drinkable. But somehow, I know that the moments of the past weeks and months have been woven into a tapestry that also represents a home – a connection to God and others held together by a web of ephemeral tastes of solidarity.

May you enjoy the bread that you share today – accompanied by someone you dare to love, giving generously out of the passion that God echoes through your blood. And may you seek those daily glimpses of grace that are reflections of true life, a life that is worth fighting for, a life that is shared and therefore may be called sacred.

For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

– St. Francis

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