And Then There Was Joy

at home in better timesA month ago, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was reading a book and wondering if it would ever, ever rain again in Brownsville. In this arid land, some older people believe that rainfall is measure of the quality of dialogue between God and God’s creatures. I was convinced that someone in this conversation was not paying attention.

I then got a call from Immaculate Conception Cathedral. The woman on the line simply said, “Please come now. We need your help.”

The woman was a volunteer, calling from a hospitality ministry that the parish had set up for the Central American refugee families. Typically, after the immigrant’s relatives in the US had provided a bus ticket, the border patrol would release the refugees from the detention center, just a bit before the scheduled departure of their bus. The parish, near the bus station, offered the refugees a quick hot meal, a hot bath, a change of clothing, and a bit of orientation.

I drove to the parish where I was introduced to a woman. Her name was Soyla, and she was frantic, as, just moments before, her daughter had been ripped out of her arms and taken from her.

The mother told me that she and her two children had been walking hand in hand, leaving the detention center, and headed for the bus station. At the holding cell’s exit, however, an agent stepped forward, took the arm of her daughter and said, “Not her. She is an adult and we are going to deport her.”

Soyla, startled, had wrapped her arms around her 18-year-old daughter Gladis, cryied out, “No! No!”. Another agent had grabbed the mother as the first one pulled the girl away. Soyla told me that one of the agents had thrown her to the floor and then kicked Soyla in the chest. “Why did they do this to me?” she said. “Where did they take my girl?”

In the meantime, the bus was loading up. Soyla, surrounded by shelter volunteers, moved closer to me. I had no idea who she thought I was, or what I could do for her, but she looked me in the eyes and said, “Help me. Help me.”

One of the volunteers that was there stepped up and said, “Tell her you promise that you will help her.” Knowing what typically happens to nearly every other Central American adult that I had known gave me little hope for Gladis, and I did not feel that I could make that promise. The volunteer, however, continued to insist that I promise that the child was going to be helped. I parked the volunteer into my Pain in the Rear category, and refocused on Soyla.

I asked her where she was from and whether there were family members back in her hometown. I was worried, deeply, about this teenager, and thought that there might be a way to get in touch with someone in her home country.

Soyla said, fiercely, that there was no one left in her village, that everyone had been killed.

She moved closer to me, and said, “Save my little girl.” I gave her a business card that had my cell phone number on it and told her to call me.

Soyla gave me a long, hard hug, and then, stepping back, turned around, took her little boy’s hand and climbed up into the bus.

I sighed, and headed back home. The way the family was treated by the agents at the detention center was wrong. Another family had been broken apart by our immigration politics, and that was sinful. I was overwhelmed that this mother, in love with her child, was just one more amongst the 60,000 that have come through here over the past nine months.

There was nothing to be done, I thought.

An hour later, mUntitledy phone rang. It was a young woman from Brownsville, headed to Houston. She had befriended Soyla on the bus, and she asked what she could do to help. I asked her to see if she could get Soyla’s daughter’s Alien Identification number, the code that the federal government uses to track immigrants. With that number in hand, it would be a lot easier to track down Soyla’s daughter.

lets do thisThe Pain-in-the-Rear volunteer tracked me down on Facebook. Her name was Susan, and she had decided to get the mother and daughter back together. For the next three weeks, Susan figured out the system, wore it down, contributed about $10,000 of her own funds in travel, and for the posting Gladis’ bond.

Gladis with Susan’s mother, free

This past Thursday evening, Soyla and Gladis were back together.

On Friday, rains poured down in Brownsville. I couldn’t help think that God was busy dancing. And three women, Soyla, Gladis, y la Susan, were busy sharing a very special category of smile, the one known as “joy.”

Made in Honduras

Made in HondurasThe children from Central America continue to find their way to our southern border. There are fewer of them than a few weeks ago, but then again, this is the hottest time of the year, the worst time to cross Mexico.

The situation has politicians in a huff. The more mean-spirited among them have chosen to label the children as “UACs” (unaccompanied alien children), as “illegals”, as “disease vectors” and, of course, as a “problem”. It appears that dealing with the children as children requires a courage that is rare amongst many elected officials.

Thus the labeling. It seems to create a bit of social difference, allowing the political shrug of the shoulders that creating collateral damage would require. The social distancing worked in Rwanda and in Armenia; it is working today in Israel and Gaza, in the Ukraine and in Iraq–and in the US Congress.

Occasionally, though, the connection between “us” and “them” breaks through, and startles us.

A compassionate woman, far from the border, was moved by the images of Central American children in Border Patrol detention cells. She is elderly, and so the trip to Target could not have been an easy one, but she went out and bought a variety of lovely tee shirts—bright colors, soft material. A “welcome to America” gift from a woman who chose  the more complicated, but much more interesting decision to suffer the collateral damage of love.

The women mailed the shirts to her friend, a pediatrician who volunteers at a welcome center for the refugees. The shirts were pink and blue and red and purple. They were  perfect gifts for children who have not been able to bathe for a week, and who have been in the same clothing for days on end.

The shirts, too, were labeled: “Made in Honduras”, to be sold in America.

The pediatrician teared up. “I can’t take these to the shelter. I can’t give these to  those moms. Hell, some of them probably had jobs sewing shirts like this for a lousy $1.25 an hour.”

Eventually, the shirts do end up at the shelter. There, they were passed on to children, who, thankfully, were too young to be aware of labels, neither the ones in their shirts, nor the ones that the less happy people in our nation are trying to plaster on them.