I will surely hear their cry.
For I have loved them with an everlasting love. Just as I love you. there is no separation in my heart.
This is how I hear God speak in this morning’s readings. God, who hears the cries of the afflicted, the oppressed, the abused, the brokenhearted. God who hears the cries of the suffering widows, the aliens on unfamiliar soil.
How I detest that word: aliens.
I have heard it so often with such negative connotations. To demean, to inflict hate and prejudice toward an entire group of people.
But the definition of alien simply is “one belonging to a foreign country or nation.”
And all of us know someone to whom that term applies – whether it’s grandparents, like mine, who were once aliens in this country, or the Jesus we worship who had no place to lay his head, born in Bethlehem of Judea, raised in Nazareth of Galilee. Drifter along the seacoast towns of Capernaum and Magdala. Where did he belong?
Over these past several years I’ve come to know this traveling Jesus much more intimately. As I myself became the widow looking for a new place to lay her head. And most especially as I recognized his presence in the foreigners I accompanied at our southern border.
You see, for about five years I volunteered at houses of hospitality in El Paso where we received refugees and asylum seekers, so-called “aliens” vetted and released to us by ICE (immigration and customs enforcement). Most of them were from the countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. We accompanied these weary travelers on their journey to their family sponsors, to a place of safety, temporary freedom and the hope of life without the constant threat of rape, extortion, harm to their children or themselves.
My fellow volunteers and I – which included both the greater El Paso community and people from all over the country – accompanied our guests with kindness and compassion, and the dignity and respect all human beings deserve. And they sometimes began to feel safe and relaxed enough to share their stories.
There were many widows among them. Strong women whose husbands had murdered – sometimes in front of them – and try as they might, they couldn’t support their children when constantly being extorted by the local gang. Your money or your daughter. That was the usual threat.
So they would flee their homeland, taking very little possessions, if any.
But here’s the thing: these foreigners traveling with nothing or next to nothing – they were the imitators of Christ to me! The ones Paul refers to in his first letter to the Thessolonians in today’s second reading. These people – both women and men – had received the Word of God in great affliction, under terrible duress, nonexistent options, enduring cruel judgments and treatment along the way. Yet they carried the joy of the Holy Spirit within them, to us and to one another. Their faith journeyed with them.
They were – and are – the model for all believers that Paul speaks of. I can say that because of the effect they had on myself and my fellow volunteers. They enabled me to understand the meaning of the two greatest commandments Jesus teaches us to follow. To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength. And to love your neighbor as yourself.
How do I love my neighbor AS myself? I came to understand that the kind of love Jesus is talking about doesn’t have the restrictions or boundaries we so often put on loving others.
This love is extravagant. It loves without distinction, without placing conditions on worthiness or place of origin.
Let me give you a couple of examples:
One of our volunteer drivers was taking a couple of mothers and their children from our shelter to the bus station so they could travel on to their family sponsors. One of the women asked our driver if she could stop to exchange money. She told our driver she had $20 and wanted change so she could give half of it to the woman she was traveling with – a woman she didn’t know: “I want to give her $10 because I have $20 and she has nothing.”
It’s not an isolated incident. We witnessed this kind of generosity many times.
Our director of Annunciation House often tells a similar story. Once his house of hospitality had taken in a woman who was ill, and when she got better, she agreed to take on a day of housekeeping from someone who’d called looking for a day laborer. When the woman returned to the house after a long day of housecleaning, she had been given only $15 for her full day’s work. She gave $10 to our director to put aside for her and then she gave him the remaining $5 and told him to give it to someone who needed it more than she did.
Whenever I witness or hear about exchanges like this, I feel as though I am living in another world.
Who does this? Who gives half of what they have to a stranger? Or one-third of what they’ve earned when they don’t even know when they will next receive any income?
Who does this? Imitators of Christ.
Such actions make no sense in “our” world with its desire for security and certainty. But in Jesus’ world of reckless, extravagant love, these actions are life-giving. And my “alien” brothers and sisters understand that.
They understand the greatest commandment. And what it means to say the second one is like it. For to love you neighbor AS yourself means to know there is no separation between us. Just as there is no separation in God’s heart. Every one of us carries the Divine within us and therefore can never be separated from the love of God.
Thank God they carried that awareness of who they are and how loved they are. Because they endured such cruelty. And still do.
Yes, the alien, the stranger, taught me what it means to be an imitator of Christ.
And, in meeting them and accompanying them, I understand why God says: “I will surely hear their cry.”
Born in Massachusetts, Pauline spent most of her life on the East Coast, with no intention of leaving, but after 30 years in Virginia, she felt the call on her heart was too great to ignore, and she relocated to El Paso in 2016. Pauline first visited El Paso in 2013 on a border awareness trip sponsored by her church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a freelance writer, she felt attracted to visit the southern border to write and learn about immigration firsthand. But the Holy Spirit had additional plans. The experience so moved her that Pauline returned to El Paso to volunteer for several months at a time – first as a TAU volunteer with the School Sisters of St. Francis, and again in late 2014 through the end of April 2015, as a lay volunteer accompanying asylum seekers at houses of hospitality organized under the auspices of El Paso’s Catholic-based Annunciation House. She continued to accompany asylum seekers until the first half of 2019 when the situation changed even more drastically for those seeking asylum at our ports of entry.
Before following her passion to serve the immigrants, Pauline had a writing/editing business for more than 25 years. Now she writes from the border and is working on a book about the greater El Paso community’s amazing, abundant generosity in welcoming the stranger during the influx of migrant families. Her articles and essays appear on various Catholic online publications, including National Catholic Reporter and US Catholic. She also blogs about her spiritual journey in accompanying the marginalized.
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