Friday, April 6, 2018

How one year turned into a 20-year pilgrimage

Twenty years ago, my son was in first grade, my daughter in preschool. I was content working for a school district at the time and taking graduate classes, on track with the 10 and 20-year-plan I outlined for my family and myself. However, God had other plans. I did not realize at the time, but he was calling me home, back to the Church. His accomplice, my husband who faxed in my résumé to the diocese, helped me pay attention.

When I started in 1998, I did not know what to expect. I thought I would try it out for a year. Fast forward to 2018 where April 6 marks the 20-year anniversary of my first day on the job. But the word “job” no longer fits, as the journey taught me that my work here is a ministry. Likewise, these years have served as ongoing catechesis and provided some life-changing lessons.

Learning to surrender ranks as one of the most impactful lessons. Connected to this came lessons in patience and humility. Also, I count the gift of each encounter with the people in our diocese which continually reinforces the intricate ways God connects us to one another. 

The pilgrimage continues and I still have much more to learn. For now, I leave you with two poems from my manuscript titled Somewhere Between Surrender.

The Painter Stirs Each Moment

He paints pink oleanders in my backyard, blends
greens into shade, into palms, basil, bougainvillea,
adds salmon into the mix. He stirs blues of the sky
with grays, oranges, pinks. He creates colors we
try to name, gives light, whispers his directions.
The path sometimes blurs in my eyes. He wakes
me with aromas peppered with spice, the perfume
of gardenias, the voice of love, the cries of my
babies gone now, making their own ways,
the premonitions afloat en el Rio Grande
with songs from la frontera.

Mixed media on canvas. Los consejos de mi mama,
la industria de mi abuela, the chess moves my
father tried to teach me, the birdhouses I painted
with mis pequeños, their laughter a contagious tint.

He holds some colors in reserve. Offers hues we
might not dare. He gifts the lizards their own
paintbrush, these chameleons that scale my
porch screens. He, the master painter, in the light
of the Resurrection. I, his apprentice, his groupie,
his skinned-kneed child. I paint with bloodied palms,
color all over the page. I cannot sing, hold a tune,
tantas las canciones, but I write, try to capture
lightning on the page, try to end the hunger, try
to keep from catching fire, catch daylight, answers,
hear the symphony of the hours in each moment.

A Work in Progress

Our expectations falter, critical selves of missteps
and falls. He picks us up, trusts us, again
and again and again. He wants to hear our laughter, cheers
us on, wipes our tears. Abba, I am your work in progress.
Yet you deliver surprises with a bouquet of red
kalanchoes wrapped in Sunday comics.

He does not count promises, disappointments; he picks
us up, gathers our dandelion florets scattered by
day's wind, nudges us in the direction, through hikes
in el Valle's wild, witness the gold blooms on the huisache.
If cactus flowers bring spring to the desert,

I offer my day, my poems, in prayer, in thanksgiving. Ni
el frio de Abril, ni la inquietud del miedo me quita
el ánimo. I wake each day for you Lord, incomplete I look
to discover your work in progress, your surprises, todas
tus maravillas. I surrender. May my pilgrimage walk
give witness to his love.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Look! Where are you focusing your lens?

Lately I have been looking back at photos from recent trips and some from years past. I enjoy this traveling back in time. This practice helps me tickle a memory awake and see again what I might have rushed through when I originally snapped the picture.

The opportunity to see again helps me count the blessing of a moment beyond what was captured by the camera. Each image emerges as a line in a poem or in a story. Sometimes I am also surprised by what I see in the photo that was not the focus at the time. With this comes the recognition that we don’t always see everything that stands before us.

Alexandra Horowitz, in her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, notes, “The world is wildly distracting.” We simply can’t take it all in, so we learn to see without really seeing. She adds, “Expertise changes what you see and hear, and it even changes what you can attend to.”

Consider your own focus from day to day. After a long weekend, we often have to refocus ourselves on our work and the week ahead. Where your focus lies determines what you will see. Consider as well that our lens can get blurry as we proceed on autopilot or in a rush, and we may not always see what stands in front of us.

Lent, which calls us to spiritual growth as we walk together as community to Easter, helps us pay attention to where we point our lens. During this Lenten season, we can refocus our eyes on our faith life, on the people in our lives and those in need; and on the blessings we sometimes take for granted.

Pope Francis in his Message for Lent said, “Lent summons us, and enables us, to come back to the Lord wholeheartedly and in every aspect of our life.”

In essence, it helps us focus, look more closely. It’s healthy to pause from the rush that can take us off track. Bishop Mario Avilés, who led a Lenten Retreat for our diocesan staff in February, cautioned us to be mindful of what we do and what we see. We have to be careful, he said, with thorns on the path that can choke our faith life and our relationship with others.

Speaking about the reality of sin, Pope Francis reminds us in his Lenten Message, “In order to confound the human heart, the devil, who is ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (Jn 8:44), has always presented evil as good, falsehood as truth. That is why each of us is called to peer into our heart to see if we are falling prey to the lies of these false prophets. We must learn to look closely, beneath the surface, and to recognize what leaves a good and lasting mark on our hearts, because it comes from God and is truly for our benefit.”

Almsgiving, one of the spiritual practices of Lent, provides us as well with an opportunity to see through another’s eyes, or through their perspective to gain a better understanding of what others might be dealing with.
In his homily on Ash Wednesday, Bishop Daniel E. Flores emphasized that during Lent we walk together towards the Cross and the Resurrection. To walk together, he said,  means we are connected to each other. Those connections are deep and imply some responsibilities to one another.

While the grain of the world has always been individualistic, Bishop Flores said, the clarion call of the Lenten season is to be people of mercy. Mercy is being able to respond to the person in need next to you, just as Jesus responded.

Ultimately, Lent is about refocusing our lives as Christians upon the connections we have. Starting with prayer, he said. “Prayer connects us to God. If we aren’t praying and asking God for help, how can we be of any good and use to anybody else?”

Bishop Flores added that almsgiving is “recognizing that what I have is not just for me alone, that I have a responsibility to use the goods that God puts in my possession for the good of other people.” It is “about that sense of giving of yourself, not just about material things, but of the time you have, and the support you give each other. He advises us to more conscious about how we treat each other, starting with family and friends.

The Holy Father tells us as well, “Love can also grow cold in our own communities.” He reminds us, that in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, he “sought to describe the most evident signs of this lack of love: selfishness and spiritual sloth, sterile pessimism, the temptation to self-absorption, constant warring among ourselves, and the worldly mentality that makes us concerned only for appearances, and thus lessens our missionary zeal.”

By focusing on the people in our lives, we can prevent love from growing cold in our communities, and it might help us see something we might be missing. We might also try to see through another person’s perspective – an elderly family member or someone in our community in need.

As we begin to pay more attention on where we focus our lens, we may gain a better vantage point to recognize and appreciate the everyday moments in our lives, and maybe to see with the eyes of a child and their sense of wonder. Consider too the value of looking with all our senses, not just our eyes.

Indeed, Lent is a time for fasting, almsgiving and prayer. It is also a time to count our blessings. How often do we thank the Lord for the graces in our lives?

(Originally published in March 2018 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Transitions, letting go and new beginnings

Our little birds will fly

Joy overflowed on the eve of New Year’s Eve, Dec. 30, as my son and new daughter-in-law were married at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville.

The bride’s talented mother did a beautiful job overseeing all the details for their themed wedding – “Let love grow.” The Wedding Mass and reception provided the perfect occasion to celebrate their new beginning as husband and wife and as leaders of their “domestic church.” It also provided a perfect backdrop to gather family and friends.

As mother of the groom, I held fewer responsibilities. I did not have to worry about all the details. While I usually tend to juggle multiple projects with a checklist in hand, always feeling pressured for time, on this occasion I welcomed the grace of time to pray before Mass, to be present for family, to take in each moment.

The flurry of emotions such a milestone moment brings caught me off guard. Lydia Pesina with the Family Life Office reminds us often that every stage of family life comes with rewards and losses. Rewards are obvious as we celebrate the sacrament of marriage. Yes. I know: “I am not losing a son; I am gaining a daughter.” This certainly brings our family great joy.

However, we do not often speak about the losses. These losses are part of the transitions that take place as children leave the nest and start their own families. Naturally, we want this for our children. We want them to become independent responsible adults. Over the years, we have walked through various stages – learning how to drive, leaving for college, living on their own, becoming financially independent, and now marriage.

At each stage, our roles as parents change, as do our relationships. They no longer depend on us in the same way as when they were children. Holidays will take on a different feel as they divide their time between families and start their own traditions. And I am now a mother-in-law and no longer the main woman in my son’s life. I can accept these roles. We learn to let go. Learn to trust more and more in God to guide them. However, we continue to worry about their health, their safety, their wellbeing.

I confess, though, that hearing my son refer to his mother-in-law and me as his “two moms” stung a bit. That is a role I am not quite ready to share. Although I am grateful that his new in-laws love my son, it will still take some time for me to adjust. I can accept that I am no longer the main woman in my son’s life, but the role of a mother is different.

I remember the words the deacon at St. Anthony Parish in Harlingen shared 27 years ago as he led the baptismal classes. He reminded us parents and godparents that our children are on loan to us from God. Hence, as I let go and celebrate new beginnings, I recall the words of St. James who tells us to “consider it all joy.” Jas 1:2

I also focus my eyes on our Blessed Mother Mary, who is an example for all mothers. I invite you to share your stories and consejos about some of your transitions and letting-go moments as your children set out to live their own lives. As we share, we learn together.
For now, I treasure each second my son and I shared during the mother-son dance. My son chose the song titled “The First Lady in My Life,” by Paul Todd.  We laughed; we cried; we shared a private moment even as everyone watched.

I am grateful for my role as a mother. I know too, my role as a prayer warrior will grow, and no matter how old my adult children are, I will continue to give them a blessing before they depart my home or my presence.

(Originally published in February 2018 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Gift of silence and solitude

New Year, new calendar to fill. I imagine we share a similar story as the days in 2018 begin to unfold. Just a few days into the year and already my calendar rushes me ahead to the coming months as I fill the dates for future events.

We just finished what sometimes feels like a rush through Advent and into the Christmas season. The speed of life can leave us breathless. As a remedy, I find silence and solitude essential. This can take the form of a mini retreat or even just a few short moments alone without any distractions, without music, television, or any other noise. Setting aside such time is most helpful for prayer. Without it, how can we make sure the rhythm of our lives is in tune with God’s will for us? 

A dear friend has been inviting me to learn more about contemplative prayer, which the St. Teresa of Avila said, “means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2709.)

I confess I struggle with staying still, but I think contemplative prayer may help me find a balance to the sometimes crazy tempo in my life.

I have also come to appreciate the simple pleasures of the ordinary – the art of lingering, of drinking a cup of green jasmine tea, of reading a few pages from a book, or even preparing a meal or taking a short walk.  Always I emerge refreshed and ready to tackle the next challenge.

If we are constantly in motion, running through our to-do list, even adding to it before we have a chance to complete the list, if we are incessantly caught up in all the chatter of the world, if our mind has lost some focus, if we start to lose our creative spark, it may be time to retreat. Sometimes we need a “Do Not Disturb” sign to create some space to rest and recharge.

Winter, with the darker nights and cold chills that cue nature to rest before a spring rebirth, reminds us it is healthy to take a break. What joy, though, knowing dormant periods are opportunities for regrowth, for renewal.

Silence and solitude give us space to think, to hear our own voice. The world grows loud with others’ ideas and opinions. Finding time to process and form our own ideas takes time. Social media, which helps keep us connected to our ever-widening community and provides us with some valuable communications tools and countless idea resources, grows overzealous for our time. There is simply too much to take in as we scroll through hundreds and thousands of posts daily.

It is healthy to step away from all the noise in the world; healthy to rest and recharge. Just as we sometimes have to turn off and restart our computers, we have to refresh ourselves. When was the last time you took a nap? How did you feel afterwards? I used to take naps on Sunday afternoons. It’s been awhile, but I remember how refreshing they felt.

The gift to myself this January and in this New Year – some silence and solitude, some time for contemplative prayer. Even if it’s just for a few short moments interspersed amidst all the rush and chatter, I am going to make use of my virtual “Do Not Disturb” sign. I am especially going to make sure my calendar includes scheduled time for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

As noted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time: one makes time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter. One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state. The heart is the place of this quest and encounter, in poverty and in faith.” (CC 2710)

(Originally published in January 2018 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Corn tortillas, beans and rice

A story of response, love and abundance

Two sisters on their way back from buying bread and milk for breakfast one morning waited for the train to pass. As the train, known as La Bestia (the Beast), slowed down they saw some men appear and several yelled out, “Madre, tenemos hambre; regálanos tu pan.”

The sisters did not hesitate to give them their bread and milk. People were hungry. After sharing the story with their family and at their mother’s suggestion, the next day they prepared 30 food packets with corn tortillas, beans and rice, and then listened for the train.

That day in 1995 changed their lives, said Norma Romero from the small town of Guadalupe (La Patrona), Veracruz, Mexico. “It made us more conscious of the realities we’re living. Too often, we ignore what is happening around us.”

At the time, “We didn’t know where they were going; we didn’t know about the immigration issues; we didn’t know if they were here legally or illegally. When one wants to help, the last thing you think about is their legal status. For us they were humans,” and that is all that mattered, she said.

Romero, who visited McAllen in October, shared the story of the women now referred to as Las Patronas, denoting the name of their town. In Spanish, the word patrona also means boss or protector.  For Romero, the name reminds her they are working under the patronage of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and doing God’s work.

For the past 22 years the women, campesinas from La Patrona, have fed thousands of migrants traveling from Central America. “Donde hay amor, no hay cansancio,” she said. Where there is love, there is no fatigue.

Listening to her story, underscores the importance of our initial response when we see someone in need. These women did not hesitate to help the moment they heard the words – “Madre, tenemos hambre; regálanos tu pan.” And 22 years later their response has not diminished. It has grown.
Las Patronas now have a shelter named El Comedor la Esperanza del Migrante. With the help of the community and other contributors and volunteers they prepare up to 300 meals daily which they toss to migrants as the train passes.

We see this response here in our own community. Close to home, we have our own Norma, Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who one day in June 2014 responded with a yes when she heard there were immigrants at the bus station in McAllen who needed a place to rest. With her yes, other yeses followed from near and far from people who came to volunteer and provide needed supplies at the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen.

Both Normas and those who help them illustrate all that can be done when you see a need and take action. The capacity of a generous heart provides light and hope.
During her visit in McAllen, Romero spent some time with Sister Norma and visited the Respite Center.

“It gives me hope and joy,” she said, “to know there are others who are supporting our migrant brothers and sisters. Each day God is bringing more of us together, helping us grow in solidarity, not just with our brother migrants but also as a team.

“This space represents hope in the midst of so much violence and evil. There is hope, but above all there is love. I feel as if I am in my home, because these are spaces where God is, where you feel the solidarity, you feel the brotherhood.”

Romero added, “We all need to continue working and need to be conscious of all they are living and how they managed to arrive here, all the obstacles they had to overcome.”
Bishop Flores reminds us God wants our response, and this response is a grace. But in order for us to respond, we must be ready, he said. We must read the Gospels, share them with our children, with our families.

At the Diocesan Encuentro Mass on Oct. 14, Bishop Flores reflected on the image of the Virgin Mary reading, as she is often depicted in many paintings. He pointed out she is reading the scriptures, meditating on the words of God and the prophets. She was ready to respond when the angel appeared to her at the Annunciation.

"Dios quiere un pueblo capaz de recibir la gracia y de responder." / God wants a community capable of receiving his grace and responding.

“Pero tiene que tocar el corazón,” he said. It must reach the heart.

While Thanksgiving provides us an occasion to express our gratitude for the abundance in our lives, year round we need to be ready to respond where needed so that we may say yes to God’s call and be a blessing to others.

As Romero notes when she talks about her work, “We are all Church. From the moment we were blessed with baptism. We need to work in God’s kingdom.”

We don’t need great wealth. But in our response we can find an abundance to share. Let’s go listen for the train. Las Patronas show us it starts with a generous heart, and perhaps with some corn tortillas, rice and beans. 

(Originally published in November 2017 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Take a pilgrimage, volunteer your time

Can you imagine opening your doors to anyone who comes to your home looking for a place to stay, no matter their health condition or legal status? Every day the Sisters of Divine Providence welcome strangers into their emergency shelter — La Posada Providencia in San Benito.
When answering the telephone or opening her door, Sister Zita Telkamp, who has served as the shelter’s executive director for 13 years, never knows who will need her assistance. “We never turn anyone away,” she said.

Since the sisters opened in the center 28 years ago in 1989 they and volunteers have served more than 9,000 people from 81 countries. Many of their clients arrive with only the clothes on their backs, and “with hope in their pockets,” said Sister Telkamp. The stories recounted by the men, women and children overflow with hardships from their long journeys in search of safety and a better life.

Pope Francis is asking us to share the journey with our migrant and immigrant brothers and sisters. But long before he announced the international campaign on Sept. 27, Sister Telkamp and so many others in our diocese have been answering the call, witnessing to the power of accompanying others.

The campaign draws us to ask ourselves the question, “How are we sharing the journey?”

When considering this month’s Close to Home pilgrimage, I felt a prompting to do more than visit a traditional religious site. St. John Paul II reminded us a pilgrimage is “a process of conversion, a yearning for intimacy with God.” He said it is a gift of grace.

When we reach out to others and share our time, that is also a part of the pilgrimage, one the sisters and volunteers at La Posada Providencia live daily. I went to the shelter in August to report on the visit from Catholic Extension and Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, and was drawn to return in September. This time I made some time to volunteer.

Sister Telkamp always has something for volunteers to do, whether it’s for an hour, a weekend or more. Help is needed with the vegetable garden, inputting data or tutoring a student, among other activities. Elvira Canales of La Feria has been volunteering every Tuesday for the past five years, and has recruited other volunteers to join her. She said she draws great joy from her work.

On the Tuesday I visited, I tutored three young girls with their English lesson for the day. I confess I was nervous as I did not know in advance what I would be doing. Sister Therese Cunningham of the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and Mary Immaculate put me at ease reminding me of the essentials — love and patience. As the young girls practiced their English we shared some stories. Yuriel from Honduras also instructed me on how to make tajadas, fried bananas. Another highlight: holding a one-month old baby, Hilda, born on the Feast of the Assumption.

Sister Cunningham, who has been at La Posada Providencia for 12 years, said her time at the shelter has been a learning experience and one that has enriched her life. “I feel privileged to be a part of this wonderful ministry here at La Posada.”

“Their faith inspires me; their faith in divine providence that God is going to be there for them,” she said. “Sure they have anxiety and moments when their down and depressed,” she added, “but underneath that they have a real trust and a real faith.”

She said sometimes it can be a challenge on how to serve “our immigrant brothers and sisters” who are at the shelter for just a short period of time. “It may just be to be compassionate at heart, to be a compassionate presence, to listen to their story. It might be to give them a hug, a smile, just to be there to tend to their needs in this particular moment and show them they are valued, that they are reverenced because they are God’s creation, that we are all brothers and sisters on a journey.”

“While we’re here on earth,” she said, “we have this opportunity to be God’s hands and feet and heart for one another.”

To visit or volunteer, call (956) 399-3826.

(Originally published in October 2017 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Consider your circle of influence

Listening to the wisdom of the saints helps us remember there is much to celebrate. We are alive for another day. While there is so much we can’t control, we can focus on what we can do.

St. Francis de Sales advocated for living in the moment. “Leave the past to God’s mercy, the future to his Divine Providence and embrace the present willingly and lovingly,” he said. He also advised us to “bloom where you are planted.” In other words, in our own homes, work and communities, we should do what we can to make a difference.

In his book, “33 Days to Merciful Love,” Father Michael E. Gaitley, with the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, also offers us the example of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who advised, “Keep trying: Keep trying to grow in holiness and do little things with great love.”

We witness this wisdom lived out daily in the work of so many here on the frontera. Daily, starting with how we care for our families, we are making a difference, influencing the people in our lives with our actions, with our love.

And it’s not just the saints who offer us this advice. Stephen Covey, in his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, points to being proactive as the first essential habit. He notes as we look at being proactive, we should consider our circle of influence, areas of which we have control instead of focusing on the circles of concern, those areas which are out of our control.

Patrick Lencioni, author and management consultant, spoke about the circle of influence and circle of concern during the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America in Orlando, Florida, this past July.

He said we have to focus on our circle of influence; otherwise, if we focus on the circle of concern, there is a danger of doing nothing. People can lose hope and get bitter, he said. However, hope grows with those who take action. This starts, he said, with our faith life, our interior peace and personal holiness. We then need to work with our teams (within an organization) with whom we share a responsibility.

In August, we had a chance to give Cardinal Blase Cupich and visitors from Catholic Extension who traveled from Chicago a tour of some of the different areas in our diocese, including the Humanitarian Respite Center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen and La Posada Providencia in San Benito. I emerged reenergized by witnessing again the amazing work taking place.
During the visit to La Posada Providencia, an emergency shelter for refugees fleeing from political oppression, natural disasters and poverty, we had some time to hear the stories of the residents. Some came from Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, South Africa and the Ukraine. They met at the shelter as strangers, but under the guidance of the sisters who run La Posada Providencia, they have formed a temporary family, helping one another heal from some of the struggles they’ve lived as they learn English together and share their talents at the shelter.

As they recounted their stories, they each mentioned how much they appreciated Sister Zita Telkamp, a Sister of the Divine Providence who has served as the director since 2008. In a story we published in our newspaper in 2013, Sister Telkamp, who “welcomes the stranger” at all hours and from multiple countries, was noted as not just an administrator, but also “a chauffeur, teacher, friend and much more.” Sister Telkamp, who lives on the property where the shelter is located, is virtually on call around the clock.

In our communications ministry, we get to cover stories every day about the people in our diocese here in the Rio Grande Valley like Sister Telkamp who put their faith into action, people who use their gifts within their circle of influence to help one another on this pilgrimage of life. We may be among the poorest dioceses in the nation, relying on the generosity of founders such as Catholic Extension and others, but we live in an abundance of love.

In our present political environment, it is natural to worry about health care, immigration and safety. We must do more than worry. We must stay informed, speak up, and take action, remembering we can be more effective by focusing on what we can do close to home in our own families, work environments and communities.

After our visitors from Chicago leave, after the cameras and reporters disappear, after we return to our day-to-day, the work continues within our circle of influence. Love continues to overflow as well in our communities. It does so because of the inspiring men and women, women like Sister Telkamp and so many others whose stories we need to tell.

(Originally published in September 2017 edition of The Valley Catholic newspaper)