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Life Finds A Way

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Imagine watching the first Jurassic Park movie without knowing that eventually the dinosaurs are going to break loose and start eating people.  Can you picture the lush vegetation and beautiful terrain?  Maybe if you focus hard enough, you can catch a whiff of fresh air…it’s easier to appreciate these things when you don’t have a hungry T-Rex chasing you.  They’re always hungry.

I’ve been in the Dominican Republic for a month and a half now, working as an intern for BLUE Missions as I complete my degree in Sustainable International Development from the Heller School at Brandeis University, and lately I’ve been thinking about Jurassic Park.  I’m not a fan of the movie—I never saw the sequels or read any of the books—but how else can I describe the beauty I see in the Dominican countryside?  



Dominicans take pride in the natural beauty of their beloved country, but danger lurks among the forests and mountains.  Figures from 2015 show about 18% of the rural population here in the DR lacking convenient access to safe drinking water, with about 24% lacking access to safe and hygienic sanitation facilities.  Life finds a way of being difficult for everybody at one time or another, but for most readers of this blog, the struggle to survive doesn’t include the risk of water-borne diseases or the time and labor involved in daily fetching water from a source 40 minutes away.  I have personally only had to risk drinking potentially unsafe water once in my life, and it was through my own fault—I hadn’t prepared for a hike I took by myself in France, because I hadn’t planned on getting lost in the woods.  I should have known better, but I’m fine.

Life finds a way.

Those very same Dominican landscapes offer hope and salvation as well though.  A number of my hikes here have been with colleagues to evaluate potential new water sources to supply a community’s future aqueduct system. Yes, there is a water crisis, but there are also untapped water opportunities.  People are tough.  We find a way to live.

The intermingling of beauty and danger in my tropical surroundings is similar to the rest of life in our broken, messed up world.  The people and institutions that should provide the most reliable safety and comfort inevitably find ways to hurt us, whether by accident or through criminal behavior.  Monstrous crimes were committed within the Church and other trusted institutions both by abusers and those who covered up abuse.  While some of us were victimized directly, others of us suffer from a sense of both collective and personal betrayal.  But we are strong, and we can both stand with those who don’t feel strong at the moment and also strengthen our Church by demanding justice and accountability. Life will find a way.    

At the same time, I remember another unnatural disaster unleashed at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC in 2015, when a white visitor sat as a welcomed guest with a black prayer group before opening fire on them, murdering nine.  The shooter failed in his attempt to spark a race war, and instead the pained response of surviving parishioners and family members was forgiveness, mercy, and love.  Because life finds a way.

Today is a special, but often overlooked holiday in the Catholic Church.  In remembering the birth of Mary, Mother of Jesus, we remember the birth of an ordinary woman whose bold decision to say ‘yes’ to God’s will allowed for transforming and redemptive grace to enter this world. This is also a special day for me personally, as it marks the day, ten years ago now, when I officially began my life in the Marist Brothers community as a postulant.  There have been unexpected pains and sorrows along the way, as there is over the course of any life.  The biggest and most numerous of surprises however, have been joyful ones.  As many of my friends, colleagues, and former students begin a new school year, we know that in this too there will be both challenges and joys, but never fear: life finds a way.

By the way, I know that in Jurassic Park, the phrase “life finds a way” foreshadows the dinosaurs breaking loose and running amok, but all the characters we really like survived, right? Life finds a way.


Each week, this blog will feature a recommended and relatively brief piece of reading to provide some “brain food”, as well as some recommended listening as “ear candy”.  This week I have chosen a song reminding us that blessings only come with perseverance.

As we in the Church also continue to grapple with the issues of abuse and accountability, I have chosen an article that suggests one way that we might productively process our own feelings and those of others.  

Ear Candy: “You Can Get It If You Really Want” by Kirk Franklin

Brain Food: “Couples Therapy for the Catholic Church” by Arthur C. Brooks

Come back next Saturday for a new post!

Spirit of the Rio Grande Valley

The Humanitarian centre in McAllen, is located at the southern tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley bordering Mexico, a Catholic charity, full of the spirit of the people of the Valley. Much of this can be attributed to its director, Sister Norma, also referred to by locals from both sides of the border as the “living Saint of the Valley”. She is a saintly woman indeed. A lot of the work she does is behind the scenes but when she is present at the centre she can be seen stuck in the middle of chaos with her beautiful smile. She is very placid, unassuming, passionate and compassionate woman of God. but when asked about the centre she speaks from her heart of the total injustice of the whole refugee situation. "To prevent inhumanity one must first fight for justice”.

I first arrived in McAllen, Texas on Jan. 6th in the company of two Marist brothers from NY, David, Peter and Luis, a postulant with the Marist Brothers. We dropped our suitcases off at our accomadations and headed straight to the centre to meet Sister Norma. She never told us what to do except that the afternoons would be a goodtime for us to help as its busiest then.  When we first sat down together to strategize our month of volunteer work the only thing we could plan was morning prayer at 7.30am, followed by mass at 8am and breakfast. We planned to have dinner at 1pm as it would be to late when we got home from work each day to have dinner.

At the centre we had no particular tasks, just fall in where we felt we were needed. We settled in immediately helping in the kitchen to feed the incoming refugees, predominantly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Then we would clean up the centre which meant sanitizing the kitchen, preparing food for the following morning, putting away all the chairs, mopping the whole place, cleaning out the toilets and refilling the bathroom essentials.

When the refugees came over the border from Mexico, most of them had often been travelling for 3 or 4 weeks, some even longer. The went through immigration on the border and were given the refugee status. In order to get this, they had to have had a legal sponsor in the USA. Often a family member or someone close. Once processed at immigration, they would call their sponsor and he/she would purchase a bus ticket for them from McAllen, TX to wherever the destination would be. Usually, to the home city of the sponsor. Once that was in the place the border patrol would drop off the refugees to the bus station in McAllen and inform the refugee centre of the drop time and the number of persons. Usually between 70 and 150. Some days, there were up to 400 refugees coming through the centre. The refugees would be picked up by mini bus or if an exceptionally large group walked from the bus station to the centre. It wasn’t far, 3 or 4 blocks. When they arrived they would be warmly greeted by a rousing applause. Their exhausted, famished appearance would lend a weary smile. They would all be seated on small chairs, much like the old classroom chairs from my school days.

 There was a system in place for the arriving Refugees at the centre. Firstly, they would have to go through registration which was done by Sister Norma and several other members of the volunteer staff who spoke fluent Spanish. Each refugee carrier an large brown envelope which contained all their personal details and most importantly their sponsors information and destination city. Once each family had completed registration they went onto the next area where they were given toiletries, a change of under garments, socks, toothpaste, toothbrush, razors etc. Then, they use the bathroom, wash their hands and their teeth before coming back to the dining area to be fed. The food was very simple, usually soup with bread or tortillas. The kids might get a banana, if lucky and if the gathering wasn’t too large. After the meal, volunteers would help pick out a change of clothes for them, pants, T shirts and sweaters. I must mention, the refugees were not fed altogether but rather in dribs and drabs depending on how quickly they were being processed through registration. This was very helpful for us in the kitchen as we didn’t have to deal with a large number of people sitting down at once. Once they had there change of clothes they went outside to shower. The showers consisted of a portable unit on loan from the city of McAllen. It consisted of 8 individual shower units. Each unit was small in size but large enough that the shower curtain divided the cubicle so that parents could wash their kids without having to get under the shower itself. When all this was done, everyone came back inside and we determined their final destination. This was very important as those that were travelling to northern states where the weather could be as low as 4,5 or 6 degrees Fahrenheit would need and be given warm jackets, hats, gloves and shoes. Once everyone had everything they went back outside into large military size tents which had AC and individual mattresses. Here people would rest for a while.

The groups of refugees would start coming in the morning from 7.30am and the last group at around 7.30pm. There was an average of 4 or 5 groups a day. The buses leaving McAllen for the various destinations would be at different times, but most of them were between 9pm and 11.30pm. Therefore, there were often times when the centre would get over crowded. All the refugees getting the evening buses would be escorted down to the bus station before 8pm and those who were not getting buses until the following day would go to bed at 8:00pm after having their evening meal at 6.30pm. This often comprised of more soup, hot dogs, pizza, rice, beans, burgers and various combinations. Those leaving that evening would be given To-go bags which included, four ham and cheese sandwiches, water, juice, fruit, potato chips and a bottle of insect repellent. The repellent was to help prevent the spread of the SIKA virus.

When all were fed, clothed, bathe and on their way that’s when clean up began. Br. David and Br. Peter would normally clean the kitchen and Luis and I would clean up the rest of the centre. All the chairs, maybe 70 or 80 would have to be stacked away in a closet, the floors would be swept and then mopped. The toilets would be sanitized and restocked with the essentials, toilet paper, soap, deodorant spray, shaving cream, etc. We would normally be done by 8 or 8.30 pm.

So that was our daily routine in a nutshell. It was great to be able to be part of all that but this experience goes way beyond the physical duties. In the beginning I mentioned the spirit of the RIO Grande valley. This place here in McAllen, is very special. The centre offers a lot more than food and clothing, etc. Every one of those families and individuals that pass through here including staff and the many volunteers are treated with the utmost respect and dignity. Sister Norma, through her faith in God and humanity has shrouded this city and people in a bubble of spirituality. In most charitable and non-profit organizations worldwide, it seems very difficult to persuade volunteers to give up their time to help out but here it’s just the opposite. Teenagers from all the local schools help out every weekend, local men and women stop by to assist anyway they can daily. All surrounding non-profit organizations offer whatever assistance they can especially with food and clothing. Last weekend there was a group of 12 volunteers from Houston, TX, a 5-hour drive from McAllen. Two college girls that heard Sister Norma give a talk on humanity and injustice spent a week. They were from Las Vegas and Michigan. Our group of Marists volunteer travelled from NY to volunteer for a month. It goes on and on. A young doctor from LA comes to the centre every 2 weeks to volunteer. All the local churches help out and even tonight one of local banks donated super for 130 refugees and even came to help feed everyone and clean. I could go on and on.

Sister Norma and her crew work hard every day to make sure all that happens at the center keeps going. They are all very humble and special in their own way. Sr. Norma has instilled Grace, respect, dignity and pride in the center. They have all the qualities we should strive to have and to teach.

There are many heart-breaking stories in the midst of all this inhumanity. Even though, many are leaving their homes and families in search of a better future and are influenced by hope, it doesn’t always work out. There is a family here at the centre, a dad and 2 boys, who travelled for 28 days from Honduras, by foot and hitching rides along the way. When they finally made it here to the Mexican border, they were exhausted, suffering from dehydration and starving. When they got to immigration their sponsor fell through. Through local influence here in the centre they were allowed to enter the USA but now they are in no man’s land. One of the guys in the centre has opened his home to them. This can only be short term. The boys’ sister and mother are still in Honduras and their future is so uncertain. Similarly, a mother and 3 kids arrived here. She went out and found work illegally to help feed and clothe her children. She was caught and sent back to Mexico. Her children are still here and the state have appointed the kids a guardian. The guardian came looking for money to help feed the children. In a humane society all human beings have a right to life, to bodily integrity and the means suitable for the proper development of life. Primarily food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and necessary social services. Our faith teaches a basic solidarity among all citizens and a responsibility to work together for the benefit of all. Here at the centre of humanity in McAllen, TX, and throughout the Rio Grande Valley Sister Norma has instilled in a spiritual way this teaching of solidarity.

Always With Us

In the past 2 weeks, the work at the Sacred Heart Respite Center has certainly been a stretch for me. Normally I would be hesistant to ask people how their journeys to the US have been, or why they have decided to come here. At this point, it has become part of my normal interaction with the refugees who arrive daily.

My "aha moment" came when three young men told a few of us their stories with passion and excitement. Somebody asked them about their lives, and they were grateful for the interest. It seems to me that the respite center does a lot more than clothe, feed, and help refugees move along to the end of their journey. The goal is to help our sisters and brothers feel like the dignified humans they are.

As a list, some of the tasks we perform include: helping pick out new clothes for refugees, translate information and explain, direct refugees to showers and tents for their sleeping arrangements, cooking and serving meals, preparing travel food bags, and general cleaning duties. This week, I got involved in two very different parts of the program.

The first was picking up refugees at La Central (bus station) in Downtown McAllen (about two blocks from the center). Usually they are picked up in a van, but this time, we walked with them from the station to the center. I announced that we (myself and the supervisor) were volunteers and that we would walk to the center. I stood at the back of the line as we walked up 15th street toward the center. I could not help but consider what was on their minds. This was their first time walking in the United States. They were on their way to their families and friends here. They were ever closer to some sort of freedom and promise. It was humbling.

Another task was helping the refugees make phone calls to their familes and friends. They could speak briefly using two of the center cell phones, and the calls could only be within the US. People were so excited to make calls, and were expressively grateful for the opportunity. People would ask "Can I make a call?" "Is it okay to redial they didn't pick up."

Jesus tells us in the Gospel that the poor will always be with us. The refugees who come to the center are not afraid to ask for what they need. They are fully aware of what is happening and know that they must reach out in order to move on. That is a lesson that I believe we all can benefit from. It is NOT all about us as individuals, and no one can go on on their own.

After a meal, a shower, a change of clothes, and a call home... you can see the relief on the faces of the refugees. There is some type of weight lifted off. A long journey lies ahead, but they have come this far. Most express great gratitude and offer praise to God in that expression.

In the very simple lesson that we cannot exist alone, we should also realize that collectively we suffer. Whether it is poverty, illness, or spiritual disconnection, the human condition is universal. Suffering is not to be compared, but to be met with mercy. The poor will always be with us. A part of us will always be poor. Sometimes that is the part we need to pay most attention to.

May Jesus help us remember that we all are in some type of need. May Jesus help us recognize the needs of our sisters and brothers, and respond with compassion and love. May we offer our poorest parts to God.

A Stop In McAllen

Last year I learned that part of the experience in postulancy would be an extended ministry experience outside of New York. This excited me, as I enjoy traveling and spending time in new places. When I heard that the experience would be in McAllen, Texas, I was even more excited!

The Christmas season didn't make me forget that this experience was on the horizon, but it sort of got blurred a bit. Pushed into the back of my mind. As Christmas Day arrived, I began to feel anxious to get down to Texas.

Brother Dave, Brother Peter, Tomas, and I have formed a community here in McAllen. Our ministry for the week is located at Sacred Heart Church in Downtown McAllen on 15th and Dallas Avenue. This is where a refugee center has been set up for migrants crossing the border into the United States.

No matter how much I have read about the refugee crisis in parts of our world and no matter how much I have seen on the news, nothing compares to working with migrants face to face. Many have shared stories about their travels by foot, bus, and getting rides from helpful people along the way. Most are coming from countries in Central America, but I have met people traveling from as far as Brazil and Venezuela.

A couple of days ago, I was hesitant to talk to a group of young men and ask them about their experiences traveling to the US. While speaking with them, their eyes seemed to light up and they told their stories with great emotion. They were, in this moment, happy. Someone was interested in their story, someone was with them, and someone cared. It was a conversion moment, as I truly would have rather been doing something "functional" like serving food or folding clothes in that moment. There is a time for everything (Ecclesiastics 3).

For the women, men, and children that come to the center, it is a stop in McAllen. Their immediate needs are met, and they quickly move on via bus and sometimes plane to their next destination. There will probably be a bunch of stories and small anecdotes to share. We will all be here until the very end of the month. I will share what comes up as frequently as I can here on this blog.

Until next time,