[This post is the second of three installments.]
The dream we hold must translate into a daily journey of concrete steps…from conflict to communion, from hatred to love, from escape to encounter.
A patient journey to the land God has prepared for us. The land where, when people ask, “Who are you?,” you can respond, “I am your brother, your sister.”–Pope Francis, Nicosia, Cyprus
It has been a hectic day at the migrant shelter. The second-shift coordinator asks me to pick up a prescription at Wal-Mart for one of our guests.
“The pharmacy closes at nine,” she says, scanning the departure board for a missing bus ticket.
I check my phone for the nearest store, then type in the wrong address.
Or do I?
When I exit the Interstate, I realize that this is not the Wal-Mart nearest the shelter, a store that I had visited earlier that week. I park my truck and reset the GPS destination. I have ample time to drive to the correct store. As I pull away, I notice a police officer at the entrance to the store. It suddenly occurs to me that this could be the Wal-Mart where the massacre took place two years ago.
I park my truck and feel my pulse increase. How would it feel to stand in a place where 23 people were killed by a man full of hate and gunning for Hispanics? I take a deep breath and turn off the ignition.
I follow a young family across the asphalt to the sidewalk. When they pass beyond earshot, I ask the officer, “Is this the Wal-Mart where the killings took place?”
My voice sounds tight in the night air.
The officer gives a slow nod. “Yes.”
I glance at the door then back at the officer. “Guess I’ll step inside and say some prayers.”
We hold each other’s stare.
“Pray for me, too,” he says.
As a priest, I spend much of my life in the borderlands, a parched terrain that one encounters beyond the doors of nursing homes, funeral homes, emergency rooms and courtrooms. And, tonight, a Wal-Mart located about ten miles north of the Rio Grande.
The Bible refers to the borderlands as a wilderness. We call them detox centers, rehab centers and pregnancy centers…places where weary travelers scan the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of the new Jerusalem.
The desert is a harsh place, yet it can become a holy place with oasis of grace and conversion, where life-giving water flows from the cleft of a rock known as the Church and mysterious Bread, known as Communion, appears alongside the hardpan road at the break of day.
“Pray for me, too.”
Inside the store, I stand at the center of an aisle and stare at the floor, my hands in my pockets, Lord, have mercy on my lips. Christmas music fills the air, but the ribbons on the wreaths remind me of the blood on the crucified Christ.
Roy spent his life working for the US Immigration Service in the area of border security. Now retired, he volunteers at Casa del Refugiado a couple days each week.
When I ask him why, he shrugs, “People are people. We’re all the same.” He frowns a bit, then adds, “Sometimes I worry that we’re losing sight of that.” He pauses for a moment and the frown gives way to a gentle smile. “The time I spend here helps ease that fear.”
The next day I share lunch with Sr. Johannes while she shares with me a brief overview of life: after teaching in parochial schools, she helped coal miners unionize in eastern Kentucky, then worked in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, then lived in Guatemala for 37 years during a civil war, including six years inside a refugee camp in Honduras.
A few days after our conversation, I learn from another volunteer that Sr. Johannes received the United Nations Nansen Refugee Award in 1997. When I Google her name on the Internet, I discover quotes from Kofi Annan, Secretary of the United Nations, praising her courageous work in extreme and dangerous circumstances.
The witness of faith and hope encountered in Roy and Sr. Johannes is also reflected in the shelter’s other volunteers. In an age dominated by self-absorption, the dedication of young, college-age volunteers is particularly impressive. Many of them sign up for months or a year at a time, residing at the shelter in order to give their all to serve immigrants seeking refuge and protection.
I consider these young people as saints among us. Occasionally, in my prayer, Lord, have mercy, gives way to a litany comprised of their names: Grace, John, Lillian, Araceli, Ellen, Jack, Marisol.
Bless them, Lord, bless each one.***
“Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
This gospel verse introduces the First Sunday of Advent. That evening, in the homes of the devout, the first of four candles is lit.
It is called the Hope Candle.
On the night of my unexpected pilgrimage, I did not notice Advent candles on the shelves of Wal-Mart. Yet, I firmly believe that Christ appeared as a light shining the darkness of this world and that no darkness will ever extinguish it.
This Advent, I discovered the warmth of that Light inside a migrant shelter chapel, its radiance illuminating the city beyond and softening the arid mountains and harsh terrain of the borderland.