Today’s first reading is from a text referred to by scholars as “Third” Isaiah. He is the third writer on this long scroll known generically as “Isaiah.” This section extends from chapter 56 to the end of the scroll (or book)–that is, to what we know as chapter 66. Why is that important? The text draws from the situation at the time it was written, and our task is to understand how it connects to our own historical and personal experience. Language is not spoken or written in an historical vacuum. By the time this text was composed, the Jewish people had returned from exile in Babylon, the Temple had been rebuilt and the idea of God’s dwelling with them was more intense…God is understood as present to them and through this text –present to us. And that presence calls for response. What is God asking of us?
The issue in both texts this morning is “fasting.” There are times to fast—and times to celebrate, to enjoy the goods of the earth. But today’s reading suggests that we sometimes don’t understand what fasting is all about—giving up candy (or desserts ) for Lent may be difficult, but it is not exactly heroic. The prophet this morning asks us to “set free the oppressed.” But what if we are the oppressors? Who are those we oppress? –Whom I oppress? . . . (WE— –I’m not talking about radical Islamists or racists . . .we can oppress without their help. ) It is just a matter of denigrating people we live with or work with, or privately regarding another person with contempt. That is the kind of self- indulgence we are asked to resist. We are asked to “set free the oppressed.” That kind of effort is preferred to fasting. How do we free those around us whom we refuse to love? How do we free ourselves from our own self-hatred? Giving up ice cream isn’t going to fix that kind of bad habit.
In this Gospel reading, Jesus redefines fasting. Giving up candy is easy compared to giving up our opinions, or our hostility to another , or giving up our leisure to study something—anything (but preferably scripture). Lent is not about self-control (which is hard enough) but self-giving—and self emptying. If that kind of effort is hard—and it is—we can count on the Lord’s help: “If you cry for help, today’s reading reminds us, “You shall call—and the Lord will answer. . .He will say to us in what may be our desperation, “Here I am!”
He is here, and in our self doubt and perhaps lack of confidence in our own capacity to love, we can call to Him. “‘Here I am’” Is the response. His presence among us is the basis of our hope and our reason to love and forgive one another and to celebrate— with or without ice cream—even in Lent.
Having spent only two weeks in El Paso at the border and by no means an expert on the historical or political underlying events that have led to what is now a crisis of humanity, I am sharing this brief reflection on where my heart is at this time. I am back in Boston now for less than one week and am still trying to unpack all of what I saw, and especially what I felt and still feel about the trip.
As background, the crisis at the border in El Paso, as I now understand it, was precipitated when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency released roughly 400 immigrants who were stranded at El Paso’s Downtown Greyhound bus station late in the day on December 23, 2018. No notice of this release was given to city or county leaders. The local government was naturally unprepared and overwhelmed by this situation. The refugees themselves were just lost. Most, if not all, were non-English speaking, had little money and were carrying all their belongings in clear trash bags. They were also holding close to their hearts or bundled on their backs, their children, infants, and toddlers.
The mayor of El Paso was desperate to find help and reached out to a well-known Catholic justice activist living in El Paso, Ruben Garcia. Ruben immediately set out to contact every church and organization in the area as well as local business leaders, food distributors, and medical personnel. The response was tremendous and the outpouring of help and support on that December evening was remarkable. All the newly released refugees were fed, and most, but not all, were placed in temporary housing locations that night. Ever since that night, the mantra of Annunciation House has been that “No refugee will be left on the streets.” I would add to that statement that, “All refugees will be treated with great dignity, compassion, and love,” because that is what I experienced as a volunteer.
As you read in Joye Gros’ blogs, we prepared breakfasts and lunches and helped to find a change of clothing from bags and boxes of donations. We also made hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to send along with the refugees as they headed by bus, train or plane to their new homes in America.
Joye, JoAnna Magee, OPA, and I lived in El Convento, owned by the Sisters of Loretto. The convent housed women religious and associates from many congregations and communities from all over the United States. Although we were all serving in different centers and did not gather each day when we did meet it was a time to share our experiences good and not so good. Most days it seemed that we would be able to have a good laugh at ourselves and someone in the group would be able to share a really happy story about their ministry that day. One of the sisters dubbed us “The Sisters Gray Brigade.” And you know what? That was an honest description of who we were.
The other part of the story was told by the refugees themselves. They were held in detention cells with as many as 17 others, sleeping on the floor with only a blanket to cover them. They were given a glass jar to use for a toilet, and semi-defrosted burritos to eat. These men, women, and children were held in these conditions from 4 to 7 days before being released. While in the holding centers each adult was fitted with a very large ankle bracelet so that they could be located at any time. The bracelet was so big that many of the refugees had to cut the leg of their pants in order to change or remove their pants. Before leaving the border detention center, the refugees were warned not to remove the ankle bracelet. If they did, they would be arrested, deported and would never be allowed to enter the United States again. When questioned about how long they were to wear this bracelet, the answer was consistent, – “I don’t know.” I wondered as I watched them walk around the center with this large ankle bracelet if it was a deliberate way to make people they would meet along the way feel uncomfortable and cautious around them.
When the refugees were finally released from the border detention center, they were transported to our center in large white buses driven by a uniformed border guard and with a second armed border guard riding along with them. When they came off the busses, they were silent, queuing up and just waiting to be given directions as to where they should go and what they should do.
All of the refugees were tired-looking; the face of a group of people who had just been worn down. Many of the adults and children were not well. Colds and stomach issues were common. Several of the children came to the center with such high fevers that they were taken to the local children’s hospital for immediate treatment. Other children who were less seriously ill were seen by a local doctor who generously volunteered his services and fitted them into his office schedule. Thank God JoAnna Magee was with us. She helped so many who needed her expert nursing skills and was able to diagnose the case and advise what was needed to help people just to feel a little better. Headaches, sore throats, cuts, colds, and lines of waiting patients became her daily ministry.
To be honest with you, when I close my eyes, I can still see the faces of many of the hundreds of people I was honored to serve. I think once they knew that they were safe and would be going “home” to family, some of the anxiety and perhaps even the fear they felt, was somewhat diminished. At least that is my fervent prayer.
My struggle with what I saw and experienced remains with me because I deeply feel that our government leaders have by their actions, wounded the very integrity of what our country has always stood for. When people are seeking refuge from hatred, brutality, and political abuse, I believe we as Americans should not add to their suffering and fear but embrace them and hold out to them a hand of welcome and a promise of freedom. For me, I think it may take some time to be able to have the same depth of pride and the feeling of joy that I have had in being an American.
I know that immigration is only one issue among many urgent issues that must be examined in our country and in the world today. I am grateful to the Congregation that I have had the opportunity to begin to prayerfully reflect on one of these issues, the Immigration crisis.
It could have been a disaster. One word would have corrupted the project. But it didn’t happen – thanks to an honest conversation.
Last year, I wrote a children’s story featuring female white squirrels and the life skills the mother teaches her daughter. All generations of these albino squirrels were called Whitey. The story itself is not flawed; however, the original title was. You see, I had called it “Lessons from Whitey.”
During a massage with Adrienne, my African-American therapist, I mentioned the story and its title. I noticed a definite change in touch when I said the word “Whitey.” I immediately told her to stop and to tell me what had just happened – and yet, I already knew because something also changed for me. She knew that the title was based on the name of the squirrels, and still found it to be very offensive to her and to all African-Americans. And so, we talked. It was an in-depth and wonderful conversation about racism.
“If you were to see this title in a bookstore or library, what would you do?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t touch it, let alone open it, and would probably ask the owner or librarian why they had the book in their children’s collection,” she answered.
Instantly I had the new title: “Lessons from Mama.“ “This title would pique my curiosity about the lessons Mama had to teach. I would definitely check it out,” she said excitedly. I gave her the manuscript to check for any other possible offensive or confusing words, and happily, she found none. It’s interesting that I had been questioning the title for several months, feeling that it might be greatly misunderstood. Adrienne confirmed my suspicions. “Lessons from Mama” was saved!
We often talk about the power of words. They can build up or tear down; they can reveal or conceal; they can offer hope or intimidate. It’s why we have to choose our words carefully. We make choices with our words – and I chose to change ONE word, which has made all the difference.
Sr. Joye Gros is currently serving the refugees in El Paso through the direction of Annunciation House.
It’s not that I didn’t know to look for the face of God. It’s just that I was overcome by the blessings of so many, the gratitude of those unable to come, the promised prayers of support, and the mandate to notice the many faces of God.
And I saw them. It wasn’t hard really: the wide-eyed expectant children, the watchful eyes of attending parents, the bright-eyed pride of naming home country, the gratitude at my feeble attempts at Spanish (who knows what I REALLY said!), the joy and tears of hearing the voice of and talking to the sponsoring family, the delight in a warm shower, fresh towel and toiletries and clean clothes, the relief of hearing we are NOT the government. We are the Church – the people of God – here to feed you, provide safe shelter and connect you to your family.
Don’t you just love the list of all the things that happened during 2018? Here’s my list of all the things/people/events I am grateful for this year.
The members of the Justice Committees – Eco Justice, Immigration Reform, Human Trafficking and Peace and Nonviolence – who work to keep the congregation and associates informed and active. Thank you to the chairs who keep the committees running smoothly.
The many secular and religious groups that study issues of injustice and educate us on how to work for justice such as LCWR, Network and Ohio Nuns on the Bus, Dominican North American Justice Promoters, Farm Research and Action Center, Human Rights Watch, Interfaith Power and Light, USCCB Justice for Immigrants, Catholic Climate Covenant, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence, Everytown for Gun Safety, BREAD, American Friends Service Committee, Win Without War, Death Penalty Action, Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking and many others.
Faith in Public Life, especially the Ohio Chapter where interfaith leaders in Columbus meet regularly to address issues around Columbus.
The DSP Communication Department – Alice, Dee, and Ashley – who have been essential in getting the word out about our justice actions.
That the midterms are over, voter turnout was one of the highest ever including 3.3 million voters aged 18-29, a 188% increase over 2014, that Farm Bill passed with provisions protecting SNAP, and that the incoming representatives are talking about finally passing some gun safety legislation, that despite the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, many cities, educational institutions, businesses, and religious organizations are still committed to the principals of this accord.
And finally, my gratitude to all the sisters and associates who have been active in writing, calling, and/or walking for justice. You make my job worthwhile. Let’s keep it up in 2019!