I hope you’ll forgive me for the length of this combined with the mixed up verb tenses and also the length! If you read until the end, I applaud you.
Sitting down to write reflections on my experience at Annunciation House feels quite strange. I feel so much discomfort around the idea of creating something entertaining or inspiring to read about my voluntary decision to work in a migrant and refugee shelter, even though I know that is probably a normal thing to do. I can’t help but feel that I am somehow taking advantage of the reality of the people I work with for my own benefit, whether that be my skillset, my resume, my character. I know the guests would never see it this way, but once you begin to look at things from a wider perspective, it just becomes more complicated. I want to tell the world about the holiness of this place but I also don’t want to lose site of the fact that my existence here in the first place is because of a very very hurting and broken world: a country that fails to care for (or even persecutes) its most vulnerable guests (asylum seekers and the undocumented) paired with the violent, impoverished conditions that these people are seeking refuge from.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not something I wonder about and feel constantly, because there are usually so many other things on my mind, like.. “how do I say this in Spanish?” 😊 But when I sit down to write about it, boy does it become more complex. It makes me realize that life is very complicated. My living here with guests exists in a complex way; at any moment, I can change my mind, throw in the towel, decide to go back to my family and try something else out. The guests here, however, usually do not have anything resembling that choice; perhaps their survival depends on them being here, apart from their families, risking persecution and even death to find a better life. I think maybe part of the reason why most people of privilege do not reach out to and accompany others whose lives are so dramatically different from their own is because it is painful and there is very little that can be done to fix the problems that make it so.
Even though I’ve only been here for a week, I care about my coworkers and the guests so much. Because they make me smile and laugh, because they are so resilient and strong and patient with my minimal Spanish, because they face adversity, heartbreak, and uncertainty quite often and still manage to wake up each day and get out of bed.
I am honored and privileged to get to be here and accompany the guests of Annunciation House in the smallest of ways. I am in the presence of Holy people who put their faith in God and I really do hope to be like them in my life.
And now, for some small vignettes:
Señor, ten piedad
On my first full day at Annunciation House, there was an all staff meeting on the second floor of Casa Theresa, one of the houses owned by Annunciation House which contains office space and a retreat for volunteers to find when they have a day off. We celebrated Mass together in this small living room, sitting on chairs and futons around a small desk that was turned into an altar. We were each handed an 11-page packet that contained all of the readings and Mass parts as well as a photo from a recent Annunciation House event.
Now, before I came to El Paso, when I was telling everyone where I was going and what I would be doing, I got a wide range of responses. Some people, knowing very little about this city or the border region in general, expressed enthusiasm and excitement for a year that would be “so fun” and would look good on my resume. Others responded with confusion and worry, asking me why I would go to such a hot place near such a violent city (Ciudad Juárez). Still others expressed open appreciation for me coming here and doing this work, and then others expressed a combination of all of that and more. I understand why many people did not respond to my decision in a way I would have loved…how can you ask that of people who can’t read your mind? It is also true that this place tends to make the news only in negative ways (but then again, isn’t it seldom when the news does not focus on that which is negative?).
Anyways, to get to the point, I found a paragraph on that day in the living room of Casa Theresa that calms all of my worries and that I hope can offer clarity on why I believe it is so important for people of faith and of good will to go where there is risk and no promise of reward; where there are weather conditions that are deemed “less desirable”; where they are called by the God of goodness and mercy.
Before the first reading, we read a “call to conversion” written by the director of Annunciation House for the purpose of this liturgy. Here is the final paragraph, which moved me beyond compare:
“God, forgive us for calculated efforts to serve you only when it is convenient for us to do so, and only in those places where it is safe to do so, and only with those who make it easy to do so. And may almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”
Three blue bowls
“Are you hungry or thirsty?” She asks in Spanish as they walk through the sala into the office. A few staggered “si”’s follow shortly after. There is a very young man, age 19, who is wearing a hat and a worried expression on his face. Then there is a 10-year-old boy wearing a button up long sleeve and pants with his hair slicked up. He is very patient. Finally, a young woman with her hair tied into a bun, only a few inches taller than her son, enters the room and takes a seat with a small bag in her hands. They wait quietly and patiently as I prepare them Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds in three differently shaded blue bowls. Then I grab them cups from the cupboard and fill them up from the cantina, and the new guests quietly eat the cereal and drink the water and me and my supervisor put away the half of the fridge that we previously unloaded to clean the refrigerator shelves. The young boy is the last to finish his snack, I take his bowl and cup, and we get settled to begin the intake interview.
Why did they think you work here?
“What about you made them think you worked here?” I ask my supervisor as we are walking to the car after a brief visit to one of our temporary shelter locations located outside of downtown in a former nursing home. She had to reload the shelter’s phone cards with more minutes and invited me to tag along to see the place. It was luxurious in comparison to the house I work in but was chaotic and a bit disheveled since ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement) had just dropped off dozens of families. While I was inside, I noticed that all of the volunteers could be easily spotted amidst the congregating groups of families waiting to complete the intake process. They all wore nametags, clean clothes, and, to no surprise, were all the same race, which was different from the guests.
As we were leaving, one of them spoke to my supervisor as if she was a coordinator there, something about locking the kitchen.
“It’s probably because I’m white,” she replied to me in a bashful, sort of joking tone.
“No, you’re totally right, that’s exactly why!” I said, realizing that nearly all of the volunteers I saw were white and most of the volunteers at Annunciation House are too.
As we get in the car and start off back towards downtown, I am thinking about the complexity of this and wondering why it is so. Even though it is unsettling and there is much more to investigate, I am comforted that at least the migrants who encounter AHouse and its’ shelters know that there are people who share the racial privileges of those in high power but who resist the lies about immigrants of color that are paraded by our administration and who defy acts of racism and exclusion that make people feel unwanted, unseen, and unheard. That to me is worthwhile to note.
In the basement
On my fourth day in El Paso, my grandmother died. I had seen her six days before, drinking a blueberry and banana smoothie with a spring in her step. I was shocked to find out, even though her health had been challenged for a long time. Hadn’t I just seen her less than a week ago, happy and hopeful? At the very same time, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I did get to see her, because I hadn’t in almost seven months and it was just a really lucky day for me that I did see her right before I left.
The day after she passed, I was working shift in the evening and we received a whole bunch of donations. There were lots of food donations, as well as personal care items like toothbrushes, diapers, and lotion. Because of the donations, I frequented the basement where we store them all, and got to see the overwhelming abundance of materials for our guests that were mostly donated in response to media attention around the shelter and its involvement in the reunification of families separated by the government.
Looking at the abundance was so consoling to me, because it reminded me of my grandmother’s generosity. I know if this place was down the street from her house, she would be bringing fresh fruit and new underwear all the time. She would ask for what was needed and provide. She might have been in support of the political individuals and party who are largely responsible for these separations, but I know she would have also given so much for the comfort and care of the most vulnerable who reside at Annunciation House.
As I stood before the overflowing crates of deodorant and shampoo, I was filled with love for my grandma and the spirit of generosity she expressed with every step. I felt that she was with me then and I think of her each time I go down there.
Cleaning muchos huevos frescos
“You can either wash them all now and then refrigerate them or leave them unwashed and they will be good on the shelf for about a week,” said a man who had delivered us roughly 125 eggs fresh from his farm.
“Wow, thank you!” I said. “How do you wash them?” I asked, realizing I had never handled fresh eggs before. After he left, I committed to hand washing the eggs even though I would have to do it after my 8-hour-shift.
“It will be a fun project… and satisfying!” I said to my supervisor, who gave me a okay, if that’s what you want! sort of look.
As the clock struck 2, I decided to take a twenty-minute break sitting in our new office chair, and then I googled how to clean eggs. It was a bit different than what the man had said, but I felt more comfortable with it because it involved bleach and these eggs were for a large group of people, after all. I set up the bowls, grabbed some clean rags, and began hand-washing and drying each individual egg.
About halfway through, I had a thought. What if I just accidentally break some of these…this is taking forever… But then I focused on the fact that this act of labor was an act of love, that each egg represented the blessing of nourishment that we have in the house. I also thought about the possibility that the eggs would somehow all break after I was finished with them, and I decided that I would be okay with that. I thought to myself, my attempts to reach detachment and indifference (in a spiritual sense) are going pretty well!
By the time I finished, three hours had passed, and I was burned out. I did the math (in the most inaccurate way, using time) to figure out how many eggs I had just washed and dried by hand. Though it is a rough estimate, I handled about 125 eggs that day. And I only broke two. 😊
I like to drink ice cream juice
Every Monday evening, there is a junta where all the guests from the house come together in the sala and we share names and go over announcements. Each person introduces themself with their name, where they come from, and then there is a fun question to answer.
This past Monday, the question we got was “Cual es su bebida favorita?” All kinds of answers came out. Jugo de jamaica, Coca Cola, agua, te. Then, it came around to this 6-year-old Chinese boy who is learning English with a little bit of Spanish mixed in.
“I like to drink ice cream juice,” he said in his adorably squeaky voice with a big smile on his face. Those of us who understood English burst into laughter, so endeared by the innocence and cuteness of his reply. Our supervisor explained in Spanish to the others what he said in English, proceeding to further explain that what he meant was he likes milkshakes.
It was the cutest moment I have experienced in so long and it brings me laughter every time I think of it. It is moments like these that color each of my days here with discovery, compassion, and gratitude for life.