Tag Archives: children

There Is Something We Can Do

They are all I can see when I close my eyes. Little faces pressed up against the grated windows of prison buses. In the silence between us, I feel them plead for help, and there is nothing I can do. I realize where they are going, and I finally feel myself start to crack apart inside. 

I watch the bus disappear into the distance, driving away from the tent city where they have been holding kids separated from their parents here at the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, and a lump rises in my throat. 

What could be worse than Tornillo? What could be worse than this piercing heat that roasts my skin, and this blinding brightness that makes it hard to see? What could be worse than watching preschool age children sit in rows of chairs under an awning waiting to be processed, knowing that it is 110 degrees in the shade?

What could be worse is two words: Indefinite and military.

First, Military because whatever happens there can be hidden. When the children and families are in some sense in our communities, even if behind bars, we have the possibility that visitation and support will some day be open to us. Once they are on military bases, there are different rules than in civilian land. There is less opportunity for transparency and accountability and support.

Second, Indefinite because the executive order that was signed to end family separation included the capacity to hold those reunited families indefinitely. The toll that takes on the psyche is astronomical. The toll that takes on the soul of our nation could be deadly. Indefinite is the kind of word used by dictators, used by tyrannies, used in places where rights have disappeared. 

This should concern you greatly, because as my father the lawyer once told me, if any of our rights are violated all of our rights are violated. Rights only exist if they exist for everyone. If they exist selectively, they are privileges not rights. If you allow your neighbors rights to be violated, you have signed the death sentence on your own rights. We stand together, or we fall together. Privilege is not something you want to stake the safety of your family upon. 

There is a bigger plan at work than we can see, although we can guess at it. Horrified at the cries of children torn from their mothers’ arms, will we once more permit entire families to be held in militarized internment camps. Will the outrage we felt in one moment tire us out enough that we will be docile and complacent in the next? Is this how they planned it all along? 

We must stop crying out that this is not who we are, and face that it is who we have been, so that we can face the future declaring that it is who we will no longer be. 

I close my eyes, and they are all I see. Little heads. Little faces. Pleading with me. 

I want to be with someone who understands. I find myself sitting with Mary, at the feet of la Virgen, at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church in El Paso. I know she understands. We took her son away as well. I sit there all night in silence with her, until total darkness covers us like a blanket. I know it’s time to go. I get up and walk closer to her and raise my face so that the water from her fountain can splash on my dirty, sunbu55133229648__07068729-219d-45a2-9c3f-de3823d2a91a.jpgrnt face. I leave the water there as I walk away, a welcome respite from the tears.

“Remember your baptism, and be thankful.” As the water drips down my face, I remember the words so often spoken in the church. 

We remember the grace that we do not deserve and cannot earn. We remember the tenets of our faith, and the covenant we have made. We remember the commitment we have made to love and support one another.

This is what we have committed to:

On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

reject the evil powers of this world,

and repent of your sin?

I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

in whatever forms they present themselves?

I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,

put your whole trust in his grace,

and promise to serve him as your Lord,

in union with the Church which Christ has opened

to people of all ages, nations, and races?

I do.

I reject the evil powers of this world. I commit to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. I promise to serve in the company of people of all ages, nations, and races.

I close my eyes, and they are all I see. Little faces. Little heads. Pleading for help.

And there is most certainly something that we can do.

There are many things that we can do.

Please read my friend Melanie’s suggestions for action, and add your own in the comments. I will be moderating comments. 

To support folks here in El Paso:

Give to the Detained Immigrant Solidarity Committee here in El Paso, to bond people out so that they can fight for their families on the outside: https://www.fianzafund.org/donate.html

Help fund legal assistance locally to these families by donating to: https://www.facebook.com/lasamericasIAC/

Add your suggestions in the comments below!

Tornillo: The Turning of the Screw

Tornillo. In Spanish it means screw – as in turning the screw – as in taking something bad and making it worse. That is exactly what has happened in this place.

Tonight I stood before the closed gate to the Tornillo-Guadelupe Port of Entry, beyond which sits the newly populated “tent cities” for children separated from their parents. I took it all in and struggled to find words. My colleague from University of Arizona, Juan Ortiz, had brought me there, weaving through the pitch blackness and utter isolation that lies east of El Paso, Texas. We drove as far as they would allow, and then I got out and walked the rest of the way while Juan kept watch. I’m a white woman in a clergy collar: my risk is infinitely less.

It was so dark. It was so isolated. I imagined that must be how the children held beyond this gate must feel. I imagined the tears that wet some of their pillows, like the Rio Grande winding through El Paso.

We are horrified. Finally. Why did it take us so long? Separating children from their parents is not new, but here it is – in Tornillo – that we find the turning of the screw. The point beyond which we cannot tolerate the pain. Dear God, I plead, let us not tolerate the pain. Let us not get used to it. Let us not rationalize and find comfort once again, while others are tortured. Torment us.

Throughout our history, this is what we have done when we have wanted to break the spirit of a people. What are we trying to do now, if not that? We seek to break the Spirit. To break apart families, to break hearts, perhaps in ways that can never be repaired.

Let me take a moment to be clear about what I mean when I say “we.” I mean the powers that be, and all of us that are not on the receiving end of their abuse but are merely mentally tortured by their constantly escalating atrocities. We who will not be the ones whose children are taken. We who cannot imagine a cause for our arrest, rather than dreading it’s arrival constantly. We who do nothing. Let us not be that we.

Let us step away from that “we” and into another. Let us resist. Let us embrace discomfort. Let us refuse to be silent.

The thing that I want us to remember is that while these conditions are horrible for children, there are no conditions into which we can place them that will diminish the horror, trauma, abuse and damage that you inflict upon a child when you separate them from a parent who loves them and is willing to risk their lives for that child. The separation itself is the horror.

Yet, that separation already happens when a family arrives together to seek asylum – a human right – and one parent is taken and held. That separation happens when a parent is deported away from their children.

That separation happens in our mind when we create a narrative where the child is a victim and the parent is a criminal, when in reality their parent is all too often their savior. We have already separated parent from child mentally, before we separated them physically. We have already placed them in separate categories, before we placed them in separate cages.

To end this, it will not be sufficient to end their physical separation. We must also tear down the walls that we have constructed between parent and child in our minds. Until we do that, we will remain complicit. It is our mental divide that has led to their physical one.

Let us bring them back together in our minds, so that we can bring them back together in the flesh.

Below is a portion of the El Paso mural by Francisco Delgado and Juan Ortiz.


Last Glance

“Agua! Agua, por favor. Para mi bebé,” the young mother boarding the bus pleaded, catching my arm. Not knowing if I would have time, I sprinted across the bus terminal to the vending machines. My friend Jasminne explained that this woman had been unable to obtain water for her infant because she did not have the right bills. Having traveled internationally, I knew well the struggle of figuring out how to use unfamiliar currency. Hurriedly, we dug through our pockets and wallets. “I have it. I have it,” I exclaimed as I slid two crumpled one dollar bills into the hungry mouth of the Aquafina machine. “What button do I push?,” I asked Jasminne in a panic. “Any button! The whole machine is water,” she responded.

Grabbing the bottle that dropped smoothly down the slot, I rushed back across the terminal, and thrust the water into the woman’s hand just before the bus doors slid closed. Our eyes met. My lips formed the words, “Vaya con Dios.” Her lips formed the word, “Gracias,” but it was the eyes that said it all.

It is always the eyes that say the most. Whether I spend two minutes, or twelve hours with a family, it is always that last glance that says the most. Gratitude and sorrow and fear and courage. At the close of a day filled with last glances, I shut my eyes and they are all I can see. Those moments imprinted on my memory; those moments when we say everything that the language barrier and our own guardedness has inhibited.

Days like this are never expected or planned. They start with a rapid succession of phone calls and texts. “Hannah call me back…Hannah call now…Hannah, a group of children came in. There’s a lot of them. Get here as soon as you can.”

When I get a call like that, a few things go through my mind. First, I know that a couple hours ago children, and likely their mothers as well, were released from a nearby detention center in Texas and sent to stay somewhere until their trial and – more than likely – their deportation. Second, I know that they are exhausted, hungry, and just as confused as I would be trying to navigate a public transportation system in a language I do not know. Third, I know that they have a long journey ahead of them and it may be a few days, or longer, before they can get a good night’s sleep. Fourth, I know that they have likely already experienced trauma, possibly even before their arrest and detention; and all measures must be taken to make them feel safe, loved, and respected.

The psychological reality for children who are two years old and four years old is chilling. Even more alarming is the messages being received by the eight year olds, and the twelve year olds, and the fourteen year olds, some of whom have grown up in school in the United States and now are being told they cannot stay. Now they are being told we do not want them. Now they are being told they are not a part of the family after all. In Guatemala, I spent time with some of those who have returned. While they focused on empowering those around them and celebrating their culture, some still carried with them scars inflicted by the nation of my birth: scars similar to a child whose parent refuses to claim them as their own. They loved us, and we cast them out as if we did not know them.

So when the call comes in, I go. I drop everything, and I go. I spread the word to those in my network that we have family in town, and we do not have much time to make them feel welcome. We might have two minutes to sprint for water before the next bus leaves. Or we might have twelve hours to collect supplies for the journey and share meals and laughter and stories.

Sitting across the bus aisle from the woman with the thirsty baby, was another mother with a young daughter. She had arrived on an earlier bus and so her transfer had not been quite so erratic. We had a two hour head start on understanding her situation and her needs. However, even with all that time, as I looked around the room at the other two dozen women and children, I could not gather my mind clearly enough to understand what she was trying to tell me. She kept saying something about “tres dias” and I just nodded politely, unalarmed. (The average length of time that these women and their children will be on buses is two to three days, sometimes four.)

Thank God for Jasminne, who came over and with her profound fluency was able to understand that the woman was worried because her cousin would only let her stay for three days when she arrived; after that time she did not know where she and her daughter would stay.

Thank God for Jordan, who lived in the city she was traveling to and answered his phone immediately. “Pastor Hannah!,” my former church member and current colleague exclaimed. I hurriedly explained the situation and left it in his relentlessly compassionate hands, as I turned my attention back to the other eight mothers traveling that day.

I am rarely that fortunate; often I do not get an answer soon enough, and I do not have the luxury of time. That day, however, Jordan did answer the phone and did have the ability to help. So, as I slipped that bottle of water into her seat mate’s hand, she slipped her name and her cousin’s phone number into mine. I would spend the next couple days praying that that information, along with the picture I had taken of her on my phone, would be enough for Jordan to find her when she arrived on the other side of the country.

The bus departures continued throughout the day, more leaving every couple hours. We organized triage so that we could deal with the needs of families case by case: focusing on the needs of those leaving the soonest first, and working our way to the midnight departure of the final group.

Contacts from throughout Houston came in shifts as they were available throughout the day, bringing what they could. Comfort food from a Honduran restaurant arrived first in the hands of Jasminne. Then a coat in the hands of Marianella. Clothes in the hands of Lupe. Hats and gloves for the snowstorm they were driving into from the hands of Brandi. New clothes for the mother whose clothes did not fit in the hands of Jenny. Resources in the hands of Mia. And one final late night delivery by Elaine to meet the requests of the midnight departure.

As I rushed about, I was pulled to the side by a gruff, Texan man with a baseball cap and boots. “I see you are helping these mothers,” he said. “The thing is, I lost my own wife to a brain aneurysm earlier this year, and it would sure make me feel good to be a part of helping.” With that he slipped a twenty dollar bill into my hand, and I slipped it into the hand of a nursing mother.

I drove across the street to get cheeseburgers for the group, and as I pulled up to the window to pay, the cashier told me that the woman in line ahead of me had already paid my bill. I made eye contact with her in her rear view mirror and mouthed a “Thank you” to accompany that last glance.

Back at the bus station, there was one pair of eyes that remained downcast throughout the day. Probably about fifteen, he was the oldest minor present, and he seemed to feel the weight of it, and the weight of caring for his younger brother and sisters.

As this family climbed on the bus in the late afternoon, I called out softly, “Vaya con Dios,” and the young man’s head whipped around. He made eye contact with me for the first time and the last time; and “Thank you!” were his first and last words to me as he finally raised his head erect and his mother’s eyes welled with tears.

There it was. The last glance. Varied in intensity, but still the same every time. A glance of gratitude mixed with sadness. A dropping of the guard carefully maintained. In that last moment, getting on the bus unhindered and realizing they can trust us; while at the same time realizing they are walking away. Safety found in the moment it ends. Heart wrenching. In that last glance, they release all they’ve been holding back. Tears well in their eyes. Mouths say words I do not always understand.

I do not know what will happen to them, and it breaks my heart every time.

I wonder what they see in our eyes. I hope they see love. I hope they see respect. I hope they see that my eyes reflect the pain in theirs, and commit to carry a little bit of it with me. I hope that solidarity makes their own burden just a little bit lighter.


Two days later, my phone buzzed. It was a text from Jordan. “We found her!!” Jordan had arranged for housing, clothes and support for the woman who did not know where she would live in three days; he had found her at the bus station. For the first time, the last glance would not be the final word.

Traveling mother - on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)
Traveling mother – on the left in Houston with us. On the right, in Boston when Jordan found her. (Face intentionally not shown.)

Strength Like A Child

“Lord, we pray for our guardians. Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.” The young girl prayed from her heart, just feet from the altar of the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s in Houston, Texas. Surrounded by her peers, they stood together at the front of the church praying for their parents on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend.

I did not know any of their parents, but I did know their pastors well enough to know that these children had some pretty good guardians looking out for them. Pastoring together for the past five years, the Rev. Justin Coleman and the Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz had brought together a community in that space that felt both delightfully organic and sadly uncommon.

Looking around me I saw a congregation dominated by the presence of youth and children with a diversity that was at once both intentional and natural. The congregation’s musician Dr. Shana Mashego led a worship party that morning that was unparalleled, with a worship team that seemed determined to stretch the global imagination with leaders from Bulgaria to Japan to the Ivory Coast.

By the time that Rev. Coleman got up and gave thanks for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s work, it was clear that in one corner of the world that man’s vision was truly taking on flesh.

Of all the eloquent words that that service contained, however, the ones that stayed with me the most remained those of that small girl who prayed for the adults at the outset, “Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.”

How true it is. There is a reason why Christ wanted us to have the faith of a child, but he also may have wished for us the strength, the wisdom, the courage, the love of a child.

When I was blessed to live at the Isaiah House, in Durham, North Carolina, I had the privilege of living with what may very well be the wisest children I have come across. They had been blessed with guardians and parents who had the strength to love with everything they had, and the courage to do the right thing even when it was hard.

The house was called the Isaiah House because the people who lived there were trying to live out Isaiah 58 as if they truly believed that it meant what it said. The passage says to bring the homeless poor into your home – so they brought the homeless poor into their home. It says to loose the bonds of injustice – so they worked against systems of oppression and injustice. It says to share your bread with the hungry – so they shared their bread with the hungry. And sometimes a smiling face showing up for dinner with a bakery cake received at the food bank revealed that the hungry shared their food with them as well. Their lives bore witness to the love of God better than words ever could.

One sunny day, I sat in the back yard with a young African American boy of about 6 years old, who had moved in when his grandmother was evicted, and a Caucasian baby, who had been born into the Isaiah House family that year. We sat in the hammock and swayed, as the young boy held the baby in his lap and played with his fingers and made him laugh. Sunlight fell in splotches through the leaves of the pecan tree overhead and warmed our faces as the peace of the moment warmed our hearts.

Finally the young boy turned to me and said, referring to the baby, “God loves him right?”

“Yes,” I said with a slight smile.

Then, after a pause, “And God loves me.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And I love the baby.” Another pause. Then he concluded, “I think that’s what Martin Luther King was talking about.”

“I think you’re right,” I answered, putting my arm around him.

It was just that simple. He knew that because God loved this baby, he ought to love this baby.   And because of what Dr. King had said and did, he knew that love carried with it life-changing social implications.  They had shared a home, and shared meals, and shared prayers, and somewhere along the line, they had become family. As Isaiah 58 says, he did not want to hide himself from his own kin. It was just that simple.

It may not have been the red hills of Georgia, but his act of wisdom and love on the brown hills of South Carolina was enough to convince me that Dr. King would have been pleased to see his words taking on life.

Now, five years later, on the church steps of Texas, his words took on life for me again as I saw children that were becoming family; children that were claiming their strength and praying that strength upon their elders.

Often strength looks different than we would expect it to look.  As Dr. King taught us, strength looks like hands gripping other hands in solidarity; strength does not look like hands gripping the trigger of a gun or the controls of a tank.  Strength looks like a pregnant Alice Walker following Dr. King’s casket, heartbroken with all that followed him to the end; strength does not look like a vigilante following a teenager simply because of the color of their skin.  Strength is as simple as a child’s love; not as complicated as the policies and arguments we make to avoid treating some people with love, compassion and justice.

Strength feels like the wood under your fingertips as you grip the edges of the table to keep yourself from leaving when the conversation gets hard; strength sounds like speaking up even when your voice shakes with fear; strength looks like offering your hand in friendship to the one who believes you are their enemy.

This Sunday, strength looked like an African American leader from Texas, and a Latina leader from Bolivia sharing the Table of the Lord – as they do every Sunday.  Strength looked like the the salsa steps of the worship singers, and the smiles exchanged between the musicians gathered from every corner of the globe.  Strength looked like rows of children from many different countries revealing that the kingdom of God has no borders.  Strength looked like joy.  Strength looked like love.  After all that strength has gone through in this scarred land, it was good to see it get to celebrate the fruits of its labor.

For all the days when strength can look tired and beleaguered, it was good this Sunday that strength got to show how beautiful it is.

The children pray for the adults at the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke's
The children pray for the adults at the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s
Rev. Justin Coleman and Rev. Miraya Ottaviano serve communion together
Rev. Justin Coleman and Rev. Miraya Ottaviano serve communion together
Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz leads the congregation in prayer
Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz leads the congregation in prayer
Rev. Justin Coleman brings the word
Rev. Justin Coleman brings the word
Dr. Shana Mashego leads the worship party
Dr. Shana Mashego leads the worship party

Pieces of God’s Puzzle

“He dribbled on you, that’s good luck!” Pauline exclaimed as I swung her grandson up over my head and onto my lap, getting a face-full of baby spit in the process. It was news to me that baby spit was good luck; yet, despite the fact that Pauline was laughing at me – as usual – I could see a seriousness in her eyes that assured me she was not joking. I had received a blessing in that wetting just as surely as if I was in a church. Memories of “high church” services floated to the forefront of my mind, complete with priests in cassocks spraying the assembled worshippers with waters of blessing from immersed pine sprigs. I laughed delightedly as I wiped the blessed spittle off my face with my sleeve, while bouncing the happy baby boy on my knee.

In a way it made sense. These afterschool sessions at Camp Symonette – led by the fearless, fun and creative Brenda Thompson – were a little bit of everything, so why not have some blessing thrown in there as well. There certainly was enough blessing to go around on any given afternoon.

Like many rich experiences, the after school time with the kids from James Cistern Primary School was the part of the day that filled me with the most dread and the most joy. You could hear them coming a good ways off, as TJ scooped up the entire contents of the small elementary school building into our bus and brought them bouncing, laughing, chattering and screaming down the long bumpy driveway of Camp Symonette. “They’re coming,” I would invariably say – half whisper, half scream – interrupting our preparations to sound the alarm with all the urgency of a horseless Paul Revere.

It had all been a bit too much for me the first day I had experienced it. Dozens of children, swarming around me, no clue as to what their names were or how to get them to calm down. But it did not take long for my heart to thaw out; for when you learn a child’s name, you quickly learn a child’s heart – and then everything changes. Perhaps learning Brenda’s heart was more crucial to my thawing than anything else, however. Regardless of how tired she was, regardless of how little time we had to prepare, she had no intention of giving up on her volunteer venture and no intention of giving these children anything less than all the love, discipline, teaching and laughter that she had to offer.

Like riding a bike, I felt myself falling back into a rhythm. My apprehension with getting too involved had not been because the work was unfamiliar, but because it was too familiar. It brought back feelings of the happiest time in my life, back in 2009, when I felt most certain that I was in the right place and doing what God was calling me to do. At the time I was living in an intentional community that offered a home to houseless women and children, and rehabilitated boarded up dwellings in the community. Working with a historic congregation in the heart of Durham, NC, I had joined hearts and hands with them to dream about how we could connect with families in our neighborhood – both those long established and those newly arrived from other countries. God gave us the joy of watching that dream become a reality within a couple months as we launched the Wright Room with no funding and no paid staff but with plenty of love and support from many in the city, state and beyond. I fit into those people’s hearts, and they fit into mine like the puzzle piece that starts to make your jumble look like a picture.

But my puzzle piece heart had been ripped out of that picture and I never quite felt the same again. The attention our ministry was getting from the press and community drew new faces, and my supervisors  became worried that I was being stalked by one of these individuals. Concerned for the children I was living with, I left the community for a time while church leaders tried to ascertain my safety.  After a brief interruption when my grandmother died the next week, I received the decision that they did not feel they could manage the situation with my suspected stalker.

Heart doubly broken, and aware that my family was in pain, I made the choice to go home, to head North. I never talked about what had happened, never told people why I was leaving, I just slipped away. I thought it would make things easier for those who I led in ministry. I was consumed with the worry that what had happened to me would be disillusioning for our young leaders.  I did not want them to carry the hurt that I was carrying; I did not want them to misplace their anger on the church.  They did stay, and they did grow, and my heart feels so big it could burst with joy and pride when I see pictures of graduations and of new babies and of bright futures.

And now I get the chance to serve under the leadership of a woman who inspires this community the way that God once used me to inspire another community; a woman who compels others to action through her own example; a woman who makes our oddly shaped and differently colored puzzle pieces somehow form a picture. In the symmetry, I see my story mirrored and I begin again. In the magnetic pull of this team, I feel my heart coming back together. I may not yet know where my puzzle piece belongs, but I begin again to see its contours, its shapes, its pattern. And seeing myself clearly is the first step in finding my place in God’s picture.

While I wait and while I listen to God, I’ll spend a few more of my Tuesdays and Thursdays here with Brenda, Pauline, Maxine, Lori, TJ, Leroy, and whoever else gets drawn into this picture God is creating. I will hone my soccer skills, which are epic by Bahamian standards, and my free throw shots, which are epic by absolutely nobody’s standards. I will brush up on my arithmetic, practice being patient, and feel the joy of being part of a team. I will begin the afternoon with the slightly alarmed whisper, “they’re coming!” – and end it with the confidence that I have just experienced the best part of my day.

I will rest in the humbling knowledge that God calls forth these pockets of faithfulness and joy all over the world, and I am not necessary to God moving, but I am welcome to get caught in the current.

So bless me Lord, once again, with frustrating math problems and pencils that need to be sharpened; with balls to my head and sticky fingers on my arms; with the sight of young men playing sports with the young boys who crave their attention; with snack time and craft time and play time; and most of all, Lord, cover me in baby spit, for a very wise woman told me that receiving that kind of baptismal remembrance is very good luck – and I’ve never found Pauline to be wrong yet.

Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Leroy shares some dunking lessons with the James Cistern kids.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Brenda keeps an eye on the baby with the blessed spit.
Maxine, Pauline's sister, reads to the kids.
Maxine, Pauline’s sister, reads to the kids.

And some bonus vintage photos from my days serving at the Isaiah House and the Wright Room  in 2009.

Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
Eliciting a rare smile from the little girl who cried every day because her daddy had been deported.
2009 - Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 – Working hard with young leaders at painting one of the rooms in the church to be a gathering place for young people in the community.
2009 - Water balloon day at the Wright Room
2009 – Water balloon day at the Wright Room