Singing for shelter in a border town
A traveler finds compassion and hospitality from strangers during Las Posadas.
Las Posadas began the night I drove into downtown El Paso, Texas, my Subaru crammed with everything I thought I’d need for a year away from home. I’d been searching for a place to lay my head, not unlike Joseph and the pregnant Mary, whose journey the nine-day Latino festival commemorates. Following a call to serve migrants and refugees, I was hoping to complete a year of ministry along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Earlier in the day I’d made arrangements to meet the director of a house opened to border volunteers, Sister of St. Joseph Esther Pineda. When I discovered she planned to attend a Las Posadas celebration, I asked to meet her there. After all, I’d heard so much about this pre-Christmas festival in which, every evening for nine days through December 24, Latino Catholics reenact Mary and Joseph’s journey of being turned away at one door after another. As part of the festivities pilgrims travel to prearranged houses carrying lighted candles and singing Spanish songs until they are welcomed in at their final destination with lively music and, in true Latino fashion, an abundance of food.
What better place than El Paso to experience Las Posadas for the first time, a city home to hundreds of thousands of Hispanic people?
I agreed to meet Sister Esther at the Sacred Heart Church, where the outdoor procession was to begin. But by the time I parked on a downtown side street, I was having second thoughts. Darkness enveloped the city. Streetlights spewed dim lighting on store windows displaying quinceañera dresses, tight jeans plastered onto models sliced at the waist, and characters from Disney’s Frozen smirking from their posts on multicolored backpacks and lunch boxes. Few people wandered the streets. Everything was closed.
After locking my car, I headed in the direction of where I surmised the church might be. I grew more uneasy with each step further away from everything I’d packed to survive this year-long mission trip. Not only my clothes—which lay strewn across the back seat—but my laptop and printer, books, journals, special trinkets, and favorite photographs of my only son who had just started studying at a New York university—a place that seemed light-years away. I’d brought all the touchstones I thought I’d need to help ground me in the midst of whatever I might face. But then I left all of it behind, glaringly obvious through the windows, parked only a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Stories I’d heard about gang members stealing cars and driving them over the border, never to be found again, circulated in my head. I tried to focus on finding the church and finally arrived in front of a darkened building. No lights shone from behind the stained glass windows. The front doors were not only locked but also barred with heavy, black metal grates, preventing me from even knocking. Similar black grates stretched across all the windows.
Gratefully I remembered Esther saying they’d be meeting at the back of the church. Just as I rounded the corner, festivalgoers emerged bearing candles the size of thick pencils. Though we’d never met, I easily recognized Esther among them. Her pale complexion and short gray hair stood out amid a flock of brown-skinned faces. We quickly greeted one another, and she handed me a song sheet with Spanish lyrics and a small candle as we moved with the flow of the crowd.
A slight breeze blew, making it impossible to keep our candles lit. But I tried anyway. Something about the light glowing in my hand comforted me. It reminded me of the votive candles in the church of my childhood: a warm and safe place, lit by flames constantly flickering inside red glass jars. Or the candle in my prayer space back in my bedroom in Virginia—a space that unknown renters now occupied to enable me to make this border commitment. But more than either of these memories, the lit candle signified that I was not alone—a reminder I needed that night on a dark street surrounded by strangers and singing in a language I barely understood. I shuffled alongside the crowd. We knocked on doors that were answered by the silhouette of women who turned us away with a song.
As we walked, we sang in Spanish the same question that weighed on my heart—“Do you have room? Is there a place for me here?”
It all felt a little too familiar.
Nearly six years earlier, my husband’s sudden death had catapulted me into a truer understanding of what it means to “live with uncertainty.” How would I care for our teenaged son on my small salary? What would my life look like without David? And, on a deeper spiritual level, I wondered, what was the purpose of my life now? Where and to whom did I belong?
My daily spiritual practice helped me listen and remain open to God’s presence as I embarked on this journey—a journey that had become more painful than anything I’d previously known. Slowly I began to heal and realize my life was filled with limitless possibilities. But fulfilling them would require I step out in faith and risk something new.
A few years later I said yes to a one-week “border awareness” trip to El Paso organized by the social justice and charity coordinator at my church. That was the first step.
I had thought I was going as a writer to gain firsthand experiences of the plight of migrants. But I hadn’t counted on the Holy Spirit grabbing hold of my heart. As I met the migrants and caregivers, listened to their stories, and witnessed El Pasoans living out the gospel message of welcoming the stranger, something shifted. Months after returning home, I kept feeling the spirit calling me back to the border.
But how could I respond? I had a home and financial responsibilities, a job I’d have to put on hold, a dog who needed care, and a son in college—not to mention I hardly knew Spanish. With the help of my spiritual director, I released control of my concerns. And somehow everything fell into place, allowing me to volunteer for two months with the School Sisters of St. Francis’ border ministry.
My life would never be the same.
Eventually I took a total leap of faith and signed on for a year-long mission.
And then there I was, without employment, without any certainty of what lay ahead, trying to pretend it wasn’t hard—seeking shelter in a completely different terrain, alone, without the two people who’ve meant the most to me: my son and my husband.
Beyond the downtown structures a sea of twinkling yellow lights spreads across Juarez, Mexico to the mountains on the distant horizon. How many people out there are lonely tonight? I wondered. How many are suffering? How many have left home? Left family members behind, not knowing when and if they will see them again? I thought of the migrant youth on the run who were fleeing gang violence in places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, seeking any meager job to send money home to support their family.
I knew their stories. I came up against them many times while volunteering. Stories of abuse and heartache, torture and rape, relentless hunger and fearless faith. The kind of pain and trauma I can barely imagine even with the traumatic experience of my husband’s death. Although uprooting myself and living with the unknown was not easy, I know it’s only a taste of what my migrant brothers and sisters face every day. At least I had a house to return to. At least my son doesn’t live in fear for his life every day.
I wondered what difference I could possibly make in the lives of those fleeing desperate poverty and violence. Yet, like Joseph, who migrated his family through the desert, I trusted where the spirit had led me. And I soon discovered that it was they who had a gift to give me, the seed of which was already being planted.
As we made our way to the last door for the evening, I sent silent prayers out into the darkness. My own uncertain future paled under the moonless sky.
This article also appears in the December 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 12, pages 19–21).