I have found lately that it is helpful for me to have a mantra. Mantras have been used for centuries in Hindu and Buddhist meditation practice. Mantras are words or phrases that we repeat to ourselves to maintain focus. In the Western world, we’ve taken on the practice of reciting mantras as a positive psychology tool. The mantra that has been running through my head lately is, “I am resilient.” The song linked above by Rising Appalachia is probably how this particular mantra found its way into my head.
“I am resilient
I trust the movement
I negate the chaos
Uplift the negative
I’ll show up at the table
Again and again and again
I’ll close my mouth and learn to listen”
With all that is happening in the world, I find that I have to continually come back to practices that help me remember, “I am resilient.” The practice of “showing up at the table” is one that I come back to again and again. For me this means showing up at the table of seeking collective liberation – organizing with others who are both like me and also very different from me.
Right now, I am in Las Vegas, Nevada for the Faith in Action National Faith Forum #FaithForum2020. This may seem like an unlikely place for a gathering of progressive, interfaith clergy and leaders, however, hidden behind the slot machines and blackjack tables are the workers – many people of color – who keep this place running and organize together for worker rights and dignity. Nevada, of course, is also profoundly impacted by the climate crisis and environmental challenges. It turns out it is an important site for developing a national, faith-based People’s Platform and mobilizing across faith communities in this critical election year.
Being here in Las Vegas feels like showing up at the table (not the blackjack table!). Last night, we ratified the People’s Platform and joined in saying together Our Proclamation.
These are some of the lines:
We the People of Faith in Action are prepared to fight for the dignity and well-being of every person and every family. We are ready to fight for the soul of our democracy, the soul of our faith traditions, the soul of our nation, and the soul of our world.
We will not rest until every person is able to enjoy the fullness of life in this nation, and around the world.
This work is hard, and it keeps me going.
I hope that you will also find those ways to affirm that YOU are resilient and to show up at the table again and again.
As we approach the Christmas holiday, I know many of you grapple with what this holiday really means to you and how you choose to celebrate it or not. Some of you grew up in Christian traditions where Jesus and his life were much more prominent in your religious upbringing. Some of you come from non-Christian or completely areligious backgrounds and Christmas is just an overly commercialized, secular holiday with no real spiritual depth.
I grew up Catholic as many of you know. My family’s celebration of Christmas had both deeply religious meaning and also many consumerist overtones. The way we celebrated Christmas was a truly syncretic blend of religious, cultural, and commercial traditions – the decorating and lighting of the German-based Christmas tree, attending midnight Catholic mass, eating bihongke (traditional Filipino bean thread noodle soup), and buying each other last minute gifts at the mall. Christmas meant time with family, grappling with consumer impulses that didn’t feel great, and also the celebration of a miracle shrouded in mystery.
Becoming a Unitarian Universalist, I have had to figure out what Christmas means to me now. In some ways, I feel more deeply engaged in reflecting on the significance of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The biblical nativity story that we share during our annual Christmas Pageant and during our Christmas Eve services takes on new meaning every year as I imagine the lives of Joseph and especially Mary so many centuries ago. The improbability of life thriving in those harsh conditions – during a time of despotic rule, under extreme poverty, with a baby born under questionable circumstances to a teenage girl – cast new light upon the improbability, and yet the endurance, of life now.
The “holy family” is but one family in human history that has endured hardship and also found joy amidst their struggles. Jesus was certainly an extraordinary person who demonstrated more wisdom, kindness, and prophetic acts of love than most. His birth and his life can continue to offer any of us – Christian or not – guidance for living in ways that question power and break down barriers between us.
As you consider how you might celebrate Christmas this year and what the holiday means to you, I encourage you to consider what spiritual lesson the Christmas story may hold for you.
Is there something in the story of Jesus’ birth that you find wondrous?
Is there some aspect of Jesus’ teachings that you want to remember?
Is there a “miracle” that you are waiting for in your own life?
Is there a child whose life you want to be part of nurturing?
Is there a child in your life who is teaching you something?
Claiming (or in some cases reclaiming) the meaning of Christmas can be a significant spiritual undertaking. However it is that you choose to celebrate Christmas this year (or not), may you find the joy of the unexpected and peace in your heart this season.
*You might be interested in reading this reflection to learn more about the Unitarian influence on our modern day Christmas.
**Check out our Director of Lifespan Spiritual Exploration, Liza Earle-Center’s, blog post on winter holiday traditions for some ideas of rituals and traditions you might consider for your family.
Since childhood I have been an avid reader. It seems to me now that back in those days I was able to give my attention to reading with much more abandon than is possible presently. I remember one day I was sitting in my fifth grade classroom. We had been given some free time which I devoted to diving further into the latest Cynthia Voigt book in my collection. I became so absorbed in the story that I didn’t notice for several minutes that the teacher had already begun the next lesson.
We are constantly navigating the inner and outer worlds. In our solitude, we can become absorbed in the story lines and plots introduced to us through books or engage in activities that connect us with our own creativity and imagination. We can pay more attention to our inner psyches and spirits and the inner landscape of our souls where we harbor our fears and stoke the flames of our hopes and dreams.
The outside world also calls for our attention. Often, this call is a lot louder than the call to turn our attention inward. As engaged participants in public life, we may feel called to turn our attention empathetically towards those suffering and to take actions that move the needle in the direction of justice, equity, sustainability, and peace. On a more day-to-day level, we may feel the demands on our attention from children, spouses, co-workers or supervisors. And, the many devices we are so often surrounded with also beg for our attention with the buzz and burst of notifications every few minutes.
Our attention, though, is a precious resource. I have found that spreading my attention too broadly can have detrimental consequences for myself and those around me. It is when I am able to direction my attention with intention that I find the most contentment and fulfillment.
Engaging in a daily spiritual practice has helped me to be more mindful of how I direct my attention (and when I allow my attention to go flying in many different directions). My practice includes lighting a candle, sitting for a few minutes of meditation, and allowing my attention to rest within or on my breath. I sometimes journal or engage in some body practices of yoga and stretching. It’s not too long after this that my attention is then called to the hustle and bustle of getting the day started. But, these few moments of intentional turning inward make a big difference.*
This month, may you allow yourself the space and freedom to direct your attention in the ways that bring you and those around you joy and meaning. May you treat your attention like the precious gift that it is.
*I hope you will consider joining me for an “Introduction to Spiritual Practice” session on Tuesday, November 12. Whether you are new to spiritual practice or not, this session will offer a framework for developing a practice from a Unitarian Universalist perspective and practical tools for deepening your practice.
November 2019 Spiritual Exercises: Attention
Option A: Notice With Mary Oliver
In her poem Gratitude, Mary Oliver asks herself and then answers eight questions of attention:
What did you notice? What did you hear? When did you admire? What astonished you? What would you like to see again? What was most tender? What was most wonderful? What did you think was happening?
It’s a poem that treats the details of our days as a blessing and calls us to do the same. So for this month’s exercise, let’s accept her invitation:
First, take a few days and just spend some time with the poem.
But here’s the catch: You’ve got to decide how to gather the details for your poem. When reading Oliver’s poem, you get the feeling she wrote it at the end of a long day outdoors. But it could just as easily have been written at the end of a week, a year, or even a life. So you pick what calls to you. Maybe you take a 2-hour hike and then sit down and write it. Or maybe sit down and write it at the end of an ordinary day of work and family? You might even want to answer the questions as if they are asking about the past year of your life? Or the past few decades.
Think about sharing the poem with a close friend or your life partner. The point is to let Oliver’s eight questions help you remember that our attention is a way, maybe the best way, we say thanks for these precious days we’ve been given.
Option B: Join the Slow Art Movement
You’ve probably heard of the slow food movement. But how about the “slow art movement”? It arose from museums realizing that people were “seeing” their art but not really “looking” at it. For instance the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York discovered that people spent an average of only 17 seconds looking at their masterpiece artworks. 17 seconds! So now museums around the country organize special days where guests are asked to sit and view the art for 10, 20 even 30 minutes at a time, and then discuss what happened for them in that time of intensive and intentional looking.
This month you are invited to do the same. What a great excuse to invite a friend to your local museum! And if you don’t have a museum near you here’s a video with a bunch of options: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DAESq9BGMc . Or maybe you want to do it with a piece of art in your house that you say you love but now rarely give your attention to.
Here are a handful of articles and videos to get you centered and inspired for this exercise.
Let’s be honest, we sometimes ignore their need to be noticed. We’re talking, of course, about our loved ones. It’s never their big needs that we ignore. But on a daily basis, it’s all too easy to get…well…busy. Preoccupied. Wrapped up in work. Or worry.
We also know how big of a difference a little attention makes. You see it in your partner’s eyes when you take an extra 3 minutes and bring them coffee in bed before you rush out the door with your own mug.Your kid comes home all excited to tell you a story and you have the good sense to put the phone down and look right in their eyes as they spin their yarn. They light up right in front of you.
Yes, we’re tired. Yes, life is stressful. Yes, half-hearted attention is not sin. But this month take a week and fight it. Spend a week intentionally finding all the ways you can to give your full attention and full heart to someone near you.
Oh, and be sure to pay attention to the difference it makes for and to them, and the difference it makes to what goes on between you and them…
I have loved biking since I was a child, but I have never considered myself a real cyclist. I bike to commute and occasionally for recreation. I do, however, love the sense of freedom I have when I’m on my bike. I also love getting to see places with more proximity than I can from a car. When the idea came about to join in a long-distance bike ride for immigration justice, I felt called to participate even though the longest distance I had biked recently was the mile or so between my house and the center of town.
Vermont Interfaith Action was organizing a Solidarity Bike Tour as part of a regional March for Immigrant Justice. Hundreds of people were walking from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and even Maine to the Strafford County Correctional Facility in Dover, NH which houses detainees arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All of the participants were joining the journey to call for greater justice, compassion, and humanity in our immigration system.
The small but mighty group of cycling Vermonters set off from Montpelier on August 21. I was able to join them the next day for a 30-mile leg of the 140-mile trip.
By the time I joined up with them along Mascoma Lake in Enfield, NH, the group had already formed some bonds. On the trip was a married couple from Strafford, VT on their matching recumbent bikes who had traveled by bicycle all around the world together. Another couple of teenage friends from Burlington were also on the trip. The previous day the whole group had cycled through the pouring rain and up some steep hills before settling in for the night in Norwich, VT.
Despite being new to the group, they all welcomed me into the fold and helped me make a few adjustment on my bike to get ready. The fact that we were all there with the same intent fostered a sense of familiarity and comfort as we set off.
Those who passed us in their cars could also decide whether, in their minds, we belonged or not. A few loud honks, revving engines, and indiscernible shouts made clear that a few people did not think we belonged. But, there were also a few friendly honks and waves from cars that indicated our message and purpose were welcomed.
After several hours of biking, we made it to our destination for the evening in Andover, NH at the home of a member of a local UU congregation. By this point, I was ready to give my tired legs a break and was grateful for the food given to us and the gift of a warm shower.
I departed that evening back up to Montpelier, but the group continued on for another day of cycling and then the final march to Dover where they joined with others in marching and singing with common intention and purpose.
In the journeys we take together, we come together and form bonds and, in doing so, we can nurture for one another a sense of belonging. We can also remember that belonging is a gift – a gift that can be shared with others. We can ask, who else around me can I invite in? How can I embody belonging for others?
My 30-mile bike ride pushed me outside my comfort zone physically and mentally. It also opened up the chance for me to find belonging with strangers and to create together our own stand of resistance and declaration that ‘we all belong.’
October Spiritual Exercises:
Option A: Whose Are You?… All in One Place
We all know that belonging is not just about place, but people as well. Quaker teacher, Douglas Steer gets at this beautifully:
“The ancient question, ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one: ‘Whose am I?’ – because there is no identity outside of relationship. You cannot be a person by yourself. To ask “Whose am I” is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder: Who needs you?Who loves you?To whom are you accountable?To whom do you answer?Whose life is altered by your choices?With whose life is your own bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?’
It’s such a powerful and important truth: we are who we belong to. But it’s also a hard truth to remember. The world around us doesn’t help. Its focus is on becoming not belonging. It wants us to wake up every morning and ask, “Am I succeeding?” not “Who needs me?” “ Who loves me?” or “With whose life is my own bound up?”
So this month why not engage in a bit of course correction? Why not see what happens when who we belong to is front and center at the start of every day?
This exercise is designed to help with this. Here are your instructions:
Clear off a space on a table, dresser, desk or shelf in your house.
Over a few days or a week populate that space with pictures of people who come to mind when you ask yourself “Whose am I?” Find or print out the pictures. Add as many as feels right. Push yourself to think beyond the obvious answers: your family, your church community, etc. Treat the question as a meditation practice. Asking it each day will lead you to unexpected pictures: a mentor from your past, an unknown boy on the other side of the world suffering because climate change caused by us, those who have been exclude from our faith because of white-centered structures. Or maybe it will take you beyond people, to a pet from your childhood or that park you walk in every Saturday of the Fall.
Once the space is filled with your chosen pictures, send another week or two using it as an altar of sorts. Pause briefly before it every morning. Or maybe more than briefly.
Pay attention to how bringing your network of belonging changes your days. Journal about it. Discuss it with your partner or friend.
Note: You don’t have to do this exercise by yourself. Consider doing it with your partner or with your children as well.
Option B: Belonging to the Earth
When talking about belonging, one soon meanders around to the idea that we all belong to the Earth.What is your connection to the particular plot of Earth on which you live?Take some time this month to be outside around your home.This might be a time of sitting and observing, or mindful walking. In walking around the neighborhood or the plot of land, note particular landmarks.Use your various senses to pick up the sounds and smells of the place.Ask yourself other questions, like, do you know where and when the sun is currently rising and setting on your horizon?What plant or animal species also call this plot of land their home?
If you like, journal or take some notes during or after your time outside. Or different options might include doing a sketch or writing a letter to the plot of land on which you live. Share your writing, sketch or your reflections with a friend or loved one.
Optional ways to take it further:
Consider doing some investigation to learn more about what that land might have looked like 20, 50, 100, or 200 years ago.
Option C: Find Your Place in the Work of Belonging
Belonging always comes with blindsides. When we receive a generous welcome it’s hard for us to imagine and notice the ways in which that open door doesn’t work the same for everyone. Our faith is slowly waking up to the fact that we haven’t been and aren’t the “welcoming congregations” we aspire to be. This is especially true when it comes to race and systems of white supremacy. The gap between our intentions and impact remains painfully large. The work is urgent and large.
This exercise is intended to help you find your place in that large work. Below are a number of resources and discussions that speak to the work our faith is doing around de-centering whiteness. As we know, the work needs to be systemic, but in the midst of systemic work there is also personal work to be done. Identifying “your work” is as important as participating in “our work.” So during this month where we are all trying to “be belonging” for others, not just find belonging for ourselves, use the resources below to better identify and deepen “your work.”
With the cooler nights and the first leaves starting to turn, we know that autumn is upon us. I hope that you have had many opportunities to rejuvenate your spirit during the summer season. My own spirit has felt renewed by slowing down, listening to the patter of rain on the tent while camping, floating in lake water, and sharing many laughs with old friends and family.
Continually renewing our spirits is important as we face the natural ups and downs of our lives and the seemingly all too constant barrage of troubling news in our world. I am grateful that we will be returning to our life of communal worship and the rhythms of our church year giving us all the opportunity to renew our spirits in our shared community.
We start our new church year in September with the theme of “Invitation.” I invite you to consider how you are re-engaging with our shared community in this new year. What intention can you set for nurturing your spiritual journey by participating in the life of our congregation? What support do you need? What gifts do you want to offer in service of our mission?
In early September, you are invited to join others in protecting the Earth, our home, by participating in the UCM Climate Action Team retreat on Saturday, September 7. The newly formed Climate Action Team seeks to mobilize the UCM community to address the climate crisis with meaningful action within the church and beyond.
During the month of September, you are also invited to learn more about the Building for the Future Project – a project to address the comprehensive needs of our congregation in fulfilling our mission today and into the future. You can learn more by visiting the Building for the Future website and attending a cottage meeting or congregational forum this coming month. (Upcoming events are listed on the website.) You can also share your ideas, questions, and hopes with the Education Work Group in person or via e-mail.
There is much afoot as we begin our 2019-2020 church year! I continue to be inspired by all of you and the many ways you share your love and compassion, inquisitive minds, searching hearts, and dedicated service with one another and our broader community.
I look forward to seeing you in the coming weeks!
September 2019 Spiritual Exercises
Option A: An Invitation to Redefine Success
The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer is one of the most referenced spiritual writings among all liberal religious groups–for good reason. It invites us to completely rethink what this game of life is all about. Forget “what you do for a living” or “how much money you have,” it says. Instead tell us about your ability to “risk looking like a fool for love,” “disappoint another to be true to yourself” or be “weary and bruised to the bone, but still do what needs to be done for the children.” It represents an entirely different spiritual metric. It invites a radically counter-cultural vision of “the good life.”
This exercise asks you to engage its invitation. Here’s your assignment:
Spend a week with the poem. Read it at least once a day for a few days.
Pick the one line that you hope will most characterize your life. Don’t worry about whether or not you are currently living up to it. This is about aspiration.
Share with a friend (or write for yourself in a journal) why this particular invitation is one you want to aspire to.
Option B: Are You a Pilgrim or a Monk?
In her essay, Following an Ancient Call, Christine Paintner reflects on two basic spiritual orientations. Each invites us to engage life differently. Using an animal spirit metaphor she writes, “the bear hibernates to regain its power and the salmon follows the ancient call back home.” Using the metaphor of monk and pilgrim, she writes,
“The monk in me feels the call of moving inward. My inner monk knows the deep wisdom to be found in rest, in slowness and spaciousness, in not letting the productivity of the world keep me running ever faster. The pilgrim in me feels the call of moving outward. My inner pilgrim feels a longing to travel, to walk across new landscapes, to find myself the stranger so that everything I think I know can be gently released.”
So which is it for you? Restoration of power or return to home? Deep wisdom found in rest or needed release found in new landscapes? Which kind of energy is life inviting you to nurture this coming year?
To help with your discernment, take some time this month to:
Discern which of the two orientations is inviting you most clearly. Think about this as your spiritual work for the coming year.
Share with a friend (or write for yourself in a journal) your discernment process and two concrete commitments you are making to yourself to fulfill the call of the monk or the pilgrim.
Option C: Invite a Friend to Church!
This exercise may seem predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. We UUs have a complicated relationship with sharing our faith and inviting others to receive what has been given to us. If sorting through those complications is something your heart is calling you to do, then this exercise is for you. Don’t rush into it. Take time to figure out why you want to invite someone to church. This exercise is really about you figuring out your reason. Once, you’ve got better clarity, go do it. Feel free to reach out to Rev. Joan or Congregational Life Coordinator, Elaine Ball, to let us know how it went and what you learned.
This week, I have been grateful for the openness and spontaneity of this congregation. I treasured the fun and improvisational nature of this past Sunday’s “Question Box” service. I treasured it most for the window it opened into the hearts and minds of each of you that submitted a question.
The questions themselves, more so than my brief responses, held insight, curiosity, and longing that can be guides for all of us.
To what do we or you pray? How can we bring a sense of courage and faith to children and young people in these scary times? What is the spiritual or religious significance of having a marriage ceremony? How can we resist/move on from shame? How do I give basic human respect to persons who I really think are evil? Do you believe in God? If so, how do you define God? How do you hope to help us navigate this time when the spirit and hope are swamped in waves of despair over an increasingly threatening future? Have you ever witnessed a miracle?
This small sampling of your questions provides a years’ worth of reflection! I take joy in the wonderings held in your hearts, minds, and spirits.
Questions can be the source of deepening connection with ourselves and others.
When used properly, questions have the potential to connect us to the world of another. A heartfelt “How are you?” or “How was your day?” can become the bridge that keeps us in relationship to the lives of those we love. Sometimes, too, questions create a bridge within ourselves, allowing us to hear what’s going on at a deeper level. We know when we’ve encountered a question that has this potential because it stays with us — maybe for the day, maybe for our whole lives. It taps us on the shoulder to wake us up, or it wiggles its way in more deeply, opening us up to seeing things in a new way.
Thank you for your questions. I will work my way into responding to some of them with sermons and blog posts, and I invite you to reach out to me to make an appointment if you’d like one-on-one time to delve into your question further.
These are the words of Juan Lopez, an environmental and human rights defender from the Aguan region of Honduras. He joined our Interfaith Delegation for a visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa. The words he shared at the embassy, quoted in this post, speak directly to the root causes of migration from Honduras. It was an honor to meet him and learn from him.
A Reflection written by Juan Lopez, a lay leader in the Catholic Church, a teacher and Delegate of the Word of God. Juan is a leader in the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Common and Public Lands of Tocoa, which works in the region and in coordination at the national level. Here is his testimony that he presented to the Charge de Affairs, Heidi Fulton at the US Embassy. Because of threats, Juan and his family are unable to return to their homes.
(Translation follows each paragraph)
27 de marzo 2019/March 27, 2019
Eran las 8:45am del viernes 22 de marzo, sonó el teléfono y conteste la llamada. Una voz firme y pronunciación muy clara a pesar de la mezcla entre Español e Inglés, ella Estadounidense y yo Hondureño con pocas horas de conocernos pero con una historia y una fe que nos une. Me dijo; “la reunión…
I returned over a week ago now from a weeklong pilgrimage to Honduras to learn more about the root causes of migration and to offer witness and accompaniment to Honduran environmental and human rights defenders. There is so much to say about the trip and what I learned and experienced, and for now I’d like to share a few photos to give you a sense of what the trip was like. During the Easter Sunday/Earth Day service on Sunday, April 21st, I will be offering a deeper reflection on the whole experience and will be presenting about the trip on Wednesday, May 1st in an event sponsored by the Central Vermont Refugee Action Network at UCM.
The purpose of our pilgrimage was to learn more about the root causes of migration and to offer witness and accompaniment to local people engaged in the defense of their land and their human rights. In subsequent blog posts, I will share more about these themes.
Our March worship theme of “Journey” is very much on my mind as I count down the days to my departure to Honduras on March 18 for an interfaith “Root Causes of Migration” pilgrimage. Preparing for a journey like this one requires physical, material, emotional, and spiritual readiness. I have many questions running through my mind: Can I maintain my physical health enough to feel ready to leave and healthy while I’m away? What do I need to bring with me to feel that I have what I need for those eight days of travel? How can I prepare myself emotionally and spiritually to be ready to engage in a new experience, meet new people, and make meaning of this journey? What do I need to tend to here with you and in my personal life to feel okay about stepping away?
I find the four stages of pilgrimage that I have been learning about to be helpful in this preparation: motivation & longing, preparation & departure, journey – the way, and return & promise.
[C]aminante, no hay camino se hace camino al andar. Traveler, there is no road, the road is made as we go. ~ Antonio Machado
In these days prior to leaving, I am reflecting on the reasons I am called to participate in this pilgrimage, what I seek to learn, and how my own life story is connected to the history and people of Honduras. The journey I have been on as a Unitarian Universalist has called me many times over to reflect on who and how I want to be in the world as well as for whom and with whom. Within our spiritual community at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, I witness so many examples of people choosing to engage in loving service of others. I believe that part of my journey with you as your minister involves finding those ways that I am most called to serve the world and to engage in dialogue and conversation with you about this service. I look forward to talking with you more about this journey in the days before my departure and after I return on March 25.
In the next few weeks, we have an exciting opportunity to engage in discernment, commitment, and generosity as members of our spiritual community. Our Annual Budget Drive for the 2019-2020 church year begins on Sunday, March 10 with the theme, “Fuel Our Flame.” One of the principles of pilgrimage is that we rely on each other for it is always a new journey. We, too, rely on each other within our congregation.
We care for one another with the gifts of a listening ear, warm meals, smiles, and laughter. The generosity of our time and many talents allows us to carry out our mission as a spiritual community engaged in shared ministry. And, our generous financial contributions are key to ensuring we can sustain our church community for one another continuing to be the people we desire to be and make a positive difference in the world.
I hope you will consider with an open and generous heart the many ways you can engage with our congregation to nurture your own spiritual journey – and others’ as well – in the months to come.
Below is a guest blog post written by Jo Romano, member of the Unitarian Church of Montpelier. She and two others from Montpelier, one also a member of UCM, answered the call from the UU College of Social Justice for volunteers to support asylum seekers and refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border and left for El Paso, Texas on February 1 to volunteer with Annunciation House, a shelter for migrants and asylum seekers.
February 6, 2019
As I feast my eyes on the magical El Paso night skyline, I am reminded how thankful I am to know beauty, compassion, and joy for this crazy world I live in – especially with those so much less fortunate than me.
On Friday, February 1, Sally, Abby and I arrived in El Paso, living in a sparse Air BnB.No bureaus, or tables to put our belongings on. So we use the floor. It is clean and spacious. I sleep on what feels like a very hard couch for a bed, but by morning as I awake it feels soft and comfortable and cozy. We are tourists today, for tomorrow we begin orientation with the Annunciation House with the goal to welcome, feed, clothe and help migrants arriving daily to their next destination, somewhere in the United States.
We explored El Paso by foot walking 5 miles on Friday and 5 miles on Saturday and went to the History and Art Museums passing by the El Paso Detention Center. Saturday afternoon we get a text from the Annunciation House asking us to change our plans and travel Sunday morning to Las Cruces, New Mexico because a new site to receive migrants has opened at a LaQuinta Inn. All three of us are up for the task and are driven to Las Cruces, which is only 45 minutes away from El Paso. We arrive 30 minutes before the arrival of 50 immigrants mostly from Guatemala, some from Honduras and El Salvador.
We receive no orientation and are thrown into the fire. 50 people arrived by bus and sit outside on sidewalks and curbs in the LaQuinta parking lot. They are families, mostly 2 people per family. A mother or father with a child, babies still in their mother’s womb to 17 years old.
We learn about their journey.I am furious and very disturbed by the experience that is confirmed.
They cross over the bridge from Mexico to El Paso and are taken to a holding site where they are registered. They are given a thin metallic (silver) paper blanket and sleep on a cold hard concrete floor with this one blanket for the two of them. The air conditioning is turned up high causing the people to be very cold, which is not what they are used to having come from warm climates. The adults are given one frozen burrito 3 times a day.The children are given a juice box and animal crackers, 3 times are day.
It is a stark and frightening experience for them, on purpose. The officials at the holding center are directed to make their stay very unpleasant in hopes that they will give up and decide to ‘self deport.’ They are there 2 to 5 days and a fair amount of these people develop sickness, colds, fevers, and upset stomachs.
At the holding sites, each adult and child is registered, given a date for legal action. A thick heavy black permanent ankle brace is put on the adult programmed with the address of a family or friend, who will sponsor them while they wait for the government process to unfold. The ankle brace does not come off, so the government can keep track of each person at all times. If there is a change of address or if the address is wrong and needs to be changed, they need to return to the detention center for the brace to be reprogrammed to the new address.
The government officials at the detention centers refer to the immigrants as “bodies” and when it is time for them to eat, they say “it is feeding time.” They see these people not as human but more as animals and treat them as we might treat our animals on farms.
You may have read about this in the news. Currently there are 30 people in one detention center in El Paso that are on hunger strike because of the conditions. They are force fed by a tube that is put through the nose and down their throats.
The day before Christmas Eve, the government dropped off, by bus, a hundred or more in a park in El Paso with no food, water, or a place to go, knowing no one. It is winter here and it was colder than usual out that night — 30 and 40 degrees.
Lindy, a 31-year old site coordinator for Annunciation House was awakened by a call at midnight by Reuben, the director of the Annunciation House, and was asked to contact all 6 sites/shelters to see what capacity of beds they had, if any, to receive these 100 mothers, fathers and children. By 2 am, Lindy completed her research, found transportation provided by local volunteers and delivered them all to one of the 6 sites in El Paso or to a hotel (where a new site had to be opened).
By 6am some of the migrants were placed. The rest, a large number, were transported to a new site at a local La Quinta Inn. 30 rooms were booked (2 family pairs to each room). Often a new site needs to be open at a hotel to meet the need.
There are 300-400 people arriving daily in El Paso seeking asylum from poverty and violence in their home countries. Lindy said that in one month (Nov – Dec), it cost $150,000 just to temporally house migrants in hotels. This does not include the costs of the fully functioning 6 sites in El Paso.
The Detention Centers do have a relationship with Annunciation House’s director, Reuben. They call him daily to say how many they are releasing from detention to the temporary shelters. Usually by 11am, Reuben notifies site coordinators at shelters and hotels how many will be arriving at their site. There is a tremendous amount of coordination going on to make this system flow daily, thus the need for volunteers locally and from afar.
95% of the migrants have someone in the U.S. who will sponsor them, where they can go to live. Thesedestinations are all over the U.S. – Chicago, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Atlanta, Washington DC, NY upstate and NY City, Philadelphia, North and South Carolina, Florida, California, Oregon, Washington State, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and even Vermont to name the few that I have worked with so far.The receiving family member or friend (sponsor) pays for a plane ticket, or a bus ticket. It often times takes l to 3 days to get there by bus.
Life as a volunteer.
We arrived in Las Cruces, New Mexico at the LaQuinta Inn, a new site that opened on a Monday housing 100 people, then the next day 50 more were added. That is when Sally, Abby and I arrived.
In the full group of 50 or 100, each mother and child or father and child (sometimes there are 2 or 3 children per adult) is oriented. They are welcomed by the coordinator of that site and told that 1) they are safe here, 2) there will be food to eat here and enough water to drink here 3) there is medicine here for those that need it 4) they will be warm here, 5) they are welcome and respected here and 6) we will do our best to support them in the next l to 3 days to help them continue on their journey to their sponsor and reach their destination by bus or plane. Volunteers are introduced, so they know whom they are to go for help and ask questions.
They are escorted family by family into one of the hotel rooms, which is the “central office.” Here there are four volunteers (must speak Spanish) doing intake in two rooms. One volunteer writes down the full name of the mom or dad, the name and age of the child(ren), where they are from, and where they need to get to next.
Then the family moves to another table where another volunteer (must speak Spanish) begins to make transportation plans. They call the receiving sponsor in the U.S. and the sponsor tells the volunteer that they will purchase tickets by bus or plane and a date and time is decided upon. Usually the mom or dad talks on the phone with their sponsor to ensure that the mom or dad understands the plan. Forms are filled out and pinned to complex white boards delineating the next step by date. Today, tomorrow, or the next day by bus, plane or pickup (if very local).
Sometimes the destination address given at the detention center that is programmed into the ankle brace changes. And when that happens, it is a real problem, because then arrangements have to be made to go back to the holding center to get permission and reprogram the ankle brace to the new address!
Then the family goes to the next station, where I am serving as a volunteer who coordinates and assigns a hotel room number. Keeping track of the rooms and where everyone is assigned is a feat. With a large matrix on the wall, filling in who is where, with colored sticky notes, color depending on the day they arrived. I need to make sure that mothers with female child(ren) are assigned in the same rooms, fathers with male child(ren) are assigned in the same rooms, a mom with a male child is assigned with another mom with male child, a dad with a female child, etc. Of course we need to make sure that male and female children over the age of 6 are not assigned together. Yes, it is complicated!
Then I give the family their room number and escort them to the next station where they get a small packet of toiletries (soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb). This is where Sally is volunteering, making sure they get their packet and that they connect to the next station, which is meeting the “runner” who will take them to their room.
Abby is serving as a “runner,” taking the adult and child(ren) to their assigned room.
Abby speaks enough Spanish to help them get settled in their room. She tells them
how to open and close the door, how to work the shower, to make sure that they flush toilet paper inside the toilet (rather than put in the trash can, which back home they are accustomed to), that they cannot use the phone, that only one key to two families is provided, that breakfast is from 7-8am, lunch 12-1pm and dinner 6-7pm, that they can come down to the lobby but not leave the building, and that they can come to the office at any time with any questions or medical needs, etc.
They they relax – or sometimes not!Rooms are limited. I often have to reassign a family to another room at a moment’s notice (Abby goes to them, asks them to relocate to the room I reassign).Abby says they are all so accommodating – “sure no problem and thank you.”
Whenever there is a quick reassignment, I have to make sure I go and find their paperwork and change the room assignment on the form so we can keep track what room they are assigned to.
The other volunteers (must speak Spanish) are now working on transportation plans, time and flight, and they have to assign a “transporter” to take the family to the airport or the bus station. There are volunteers who help in this way. I took a family to the local bus station in Las Cruces and made sure they got on the bus.
The people are being transported to bus or plane throughout the day, morning or night, every day. I am amazed at the coordination that these volunteers and coordinators are responsible for.And then there are missed busses or connecting flights that have to be solved.
There is a room assigned for “medical help and supplies.” Sometimes there is a nurse practitioner or doctor who needs to be consulted.Today, there was a mom and 3-year-old daughter who had a rash. The nurse practitioner was called in to look at it and he determined it was scabies that can only be treated by a prescription. So a prescription needed to be called in, a volunteer had to go to pharmacy in El Paso to pick it up, etc.
At any time during their short stay at the hotel, they may choose to go to the “clothing room” where Sally, Abby and I also volunteer, organizing and sorting donated clothing.Each person is provided one new pair of socks, one new pair of underpants, a pair of pants, blouse or shirt (if needed), and a winter coat (if needed).Many of the immigrants’ destination is Northeast and requires warm clothing.
Local churches volunteer to provide lunches and dinners for 100 which consists of rice, pinto beans, corn tortillas, sometimes shredded chicken. When there is a lack of volunteering, pizza is brought in.
When the moms and dads and children leave, they are provided with a bag filled with the following — if they’re leaving on a plane (no water): an orange, apple, granola bars, pudding, or other snack, juice packets and 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white Wonder Bread per person. If they’re leaving on a bus, a similar bag is prepared, with a water bottle for each person, and 3 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches per adult, per day.So a family of 2 traveling on a 3 day bus trip requires 18 sandwiches.
Sally, Abby and myself are pretty busy all the time from 7am into the evening making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packing destination bags.
We smile and comfort these folks whom many are frightened. It is our honor to greet our neighbors from abroad with empathy, compassion and a smile.As the mission of my home Unitarian Church of Montpelier says: We welcome all, as we build a loving community to nurture each person’s spiritual journey, serve human need and protect the Earth, our home.
The UU College of Social Justice is still accepting applications for volunteers to support refugees in Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border. More information can be found here.