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A Christmas Story from the Border El Paso, Texas

A eventMonday, 17 June 2024

Like Assumption Sisters the world over, we met as a community to talk about how we would observe the Triduum and celebrate the Nativity of our Lord.  One thing was clear to us:  this would be no ordinary Christmas.  The number of refugees sleeping on the streets of El Paso was sky-high and the expected temperatures around the 25th of December were going to be as low as they can go around here.  Not a good mix.  We chose not to make any fixed plans for how we were going to observe Christmas but decided instead to make ourselves available for whatever needs presented themselves through Annunciation House and the El Paso Diocese.

An SOS came on the afternoon of December 23rd. Because of the frigid temperatures, the Diocese was opening two parishes as emergency shelters to receive refugees who were sleeping on the sidewalks.  They needed 15 volunteers pronto.  And to ease the fears of the people who thought the buses going around the city streets to bring them to the shelters were actually rounding them up to be sent back to Mexico, Bishop Seitz himself went to the sidewalks and alleys to win their trust and persuade them to come in and get out of the terrible cold.

And so it was that Chabela, Carmen, Tere, Nha Trang and Mary Ann spent time on December 23rd – 25th at the parishes  of Our Lady of the Assumption, John Paul II and Sacred Heart volunteering and/or spending the night along with other religious and priests, Knights of Columbus, Red Cross personnel and regular El Pasoans – giving up precious time with their families – trying to provide places of safety, warmth, hot food, comfort and care to hundreds of freezing and homeless refugees.  Bethlehem was never so near.

Through the night people knocked on the door, seeking refuge.  It was hard to take on the role of the innkeeper, but after 11:00 pm there was only room for women and children.  Safety demanded it.  We were at capacity or maybe even a sliver over it.  The men who pleaded with us to take in their wives and children were okay with that.  They would sleep on Red Cross blankets in the bitter cold outside, but they were grateful that their loved ones would be warm and sheltered. 

We had to call 911 (emergency) twice on Christmas night because of injuries and sickness among the refugees.  And twice we went out to the hospital Emergency Room to bring them back, moving ever so gingerly in the Red Cross van through the narrow lane left open by huddled people in blankets on either side of the alley.  Our greatest fear was running over the feet of sleeping people.  Thank God that the refugees themselves guided us through this sea of humanity and kept their compañeros safe.

There are scenes that play over and over in our minds as we remember the evening of December 25th, 2022.  In the darkness of that night the words of John resounded:  “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of the world.  The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Right there.  Right there, on the streets and in the shelters of El Paso.  On Christmas night 2022.

Three days later we received 10 families of refugees in another parish, a total of 30 people.  To our dismay and theirs, they were unable to begin their journeys towards their sponsors and families within the three days it usually takes.  Why?  There were absolutely no seats on any planes or buses out of El Paso until the 1st of January.  Apart from it being a traditionally busy time of the year for travel, thousands of flights had been cancelled earlier in the week because of the mega-snowstorms that affected huge swaths of the country.  We had to bring some families to other shelters run by Annunciation House and the City of El Paso because their sponsors didn’t have the means to fly or bus them out even by January 1st….fares were just too costly.

And so it happened that on the night of December 31st we were gathered with four refugee families in the church hall.  Together we represented nine countries:  Ecuador, Colombia, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Guatemala, Mexico, Vietnam and the Philippines.  The Turkish/Russian mother prepared food from their culture which is typical for welcoming the new year:  borscht and white salad.  She even baked bread to go with it.  Another lady prepared enchiladas verdes.  Someone made ponche.  And the rest of us provided horns, trumpets, sticks that lit up in the dark, and bright, shiny beaded necklaces to cheer up even the most forlorn soul.  The kids had a blast, deafening us with their energetic blowing of the horns and trumpets, running around with their luminous sticks.  Who cared if 6 year old Igor from Russia didn’t understand a word that 3 year old Rosalba from Colombia was saying?  It was a time to give thanks that the old year was ending – and ending in the company of strangers who had become friends, and alienation that had become community.  It was a time to be grateful that a new year was beginning – and beginning with Colombians eating Russian soup and Russians drinking Mexican punch.  A new world is possible.  And it was happening right here.  Right here, in the comedor of this parish on the Border.

And then the hour came to end the festivities and walk over to the Church for Mass for the last time in 2022,  there to understand more deeply the song of the angels on Christmas night:  “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of goodwill.”  Gloria in excelsis Deo.  Gloria in excelsis Deo.

And what of the Christmas Triduum with which this letter began?  Yes, we did renew our vows on Christmas Eve just as all our Assumption Sisters around the world did.  And right after the Christmas Chapter was read and we were about to rise from our seats to pronounce those vows, a knock on the chapel door stopped us.  It was our dear friend Ignacio, a gentle, faith-filled man who lost both his wife and only son at different times last year under very tragic circumstances.  He had come to pray with us.  His appearance, just at that very moment, was a reminder to us that our vows are not meant to be lived simply in a private, personal way.  They bring us more deeply into community, into the Church, and are meant to be lived with others and for others.

And so, Anne Francoise, Chabela, Tere, Carmen Amalia, Nha Trang and Mary Ann – in the presence of Ignacio and united with all Assumption Sisters gathered similarly around the crib, symbol of God’s choice of the poor and powerless, the small and weak -- pronounced those words that express the deepest desire of our hearts: 

 

Before God, in the Church, and in the presence of my community,

for love of Jesus Christ and in answer to his call,

I desire to consecrate myself to him, freely and forever,

and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom.

 

I renew my vows of chastity, poverty and obedience,

following Christ until death, in the congregation of the Religious of the Assumption

and according to their Rule of Life.

 

Like Mary, I entrust myself to the love of the Father,

to the grace of the Lord Jesus, and to the power of the Spirit.  

 

                Right here.  Right now.

                Amen.

 

 

Shared by the Sisters of the Chaparral Community:  Mary Ann, Chabela, Anne Francoise, Tere, Carmen Amalia, Nha Trang