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Anger and Tears at Injustice: The Death and Remembrance of Juan Patricio, A Former Annunciation House Guest

“May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for economic justice for all people. May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, hunger, homelessness and rejection, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.”

I didn’t feel very blessed at all on Monday when I received these “gifts” of anger and tears during Monday morning’s reflection with the volunteer community (that included the above prayer). I felt frustrated with my anger, because there was nothing I felt like I could do about the injustice and embarrassed of my tears because I wanted to be stronger than that.

I knew intellectually, of course, that these are the emotions that make me human, that drive me to want to help make the world a better place for all, but in that moment I did not feel like giving way to my logical side. All I could feel was helplessness, sorrow, and anger. And those things don’t really make me feel all that blessed.

So let me share the story with you and see if you are blessed with anger and/or tears:

 

In 2003 a 19 year old young man named Juan Patricio was staying with Annunciation House. He had been there for a bit, instantly winning the volunteers and other guests over with his charm and happy smile.

On Saturday February 22, 2003 at about 8:30 AM Juan Patricio was taking out the trash after breakfast. After returning inside for a moment to return the trashcan, he returned to Annunciation House’s parking lot to hang out with two friends. At that moment an unmarked Border Patrol vehicle pulled into the private lot and two uniformed officers got out of the car and began asking him questions. They instructed him to put his hands on their car while they searched him for weapons and he complied with the request.

However, when an Ahouse volunteer came onto the scene to ask the officer what was going on, Juan Patricio took the opportunity to run, as he was undocumented and thus afraid that even though he didn’t have a weapon he still might be detained by Border Patrol. The first officer followed him on foot while the other got back into the car and radioed for back up.

While running and trying to hide the agent did catch up with him, knocking him to the ground. The officer removed his baton and hit Juan Patricio over the head with it, despite their official policy stating that they can only use it on the legs to knock someone to the ground. Despite the hit, Juan Patricio again got free from the officer and ran out of the alley, along the way picking up a pipe, about 5 feet long, for protection. He ended up being cornered on San Antonio Street, the street that runs in front of Annunciation House, about 2 blocks from the house. At least 5 officers who had arrived on the scene formed a semi-circle blocking access back to the house.

While the agents initially had their weapons drawn due to Juan Patricio’s holding of the pipe, they did all put them away in an attempt to negotiate with him to put the pipe down and allow them to take him to headquarters. Of course, after already being beaten in the head once, Juan Patricio probably didn’t trust them very much to not beat him again. A sixth officer then arrived on the scene, and using Border Patrol’s own radio logs we know that the last agent was at the scene for a total of 44 seconds between him arriving and the ambulance being called. It seems based on witness statements that he came from a slightly different direction than the other officials who were standing together, startled Juan Patricio so that he turned to face him, when the officer fired two bullets at him. Despite the fact that Border Patrol issued them bullets that expand upon impact, the officer still went over and started trying to put handcuffs on him, until the other officials said that wasn’t necessary and radioed for the ambulance.

And so, Juan Patricio, a 19 year old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, armed with nothing other than a pipe that he never swung in the direction of the officers according to witnesses, died there on the street, two blocks from the homeless shelter he was staying in, after being questioned on such homeless shelter’s private property. That story, and walking through the events in the places where they occurred as the story was told was bad enough. I was on the verge of tears and anger was starting to boil up inside. The death was tragic and clearly not necessary, but the events that followed put me over the edge.

Immediately all agents who were at the scene were sent back to headquarters and put in one room, replaced by a supervisor to meet with the El Paso Police Department who was assigned to investigate the shooting. He insisted that the police only be able to interview the agents at BP headquarters instead in the police headquarters. All of these actions were clearly against protocol, including having the officials leave the scene, putting them all together to allow them to get their stories together, and by not going to the police headquarters to be interviewed.

As the police were canvassing the neighborhood they found multiple women who worked as midwives who witnessed the scene and a neighbor whose house was located directly in front of the confrontation. All reported that Juan Patricio was not swinging the pipe or making any threatening movements with it whatsoever, a statement that contradicted what the agents later said happened.

The police also knocked on the door to Annunciation House to see if any of the guests saw what happened. As it turned out 8 other guests, all of whom were also undocumented, did witness the scene from the roof, which had a perfect vantage point for the scene as well. Despite strong reluctance to talk to the police, the officer and the Ahouse volunteers eventually convinced the guests to give their statements as well: all gave the same story as the other witnesses that Juan Patricio made no threatening movements during the confrontation in San Antonio Street. The police then asked them to come to headquarters to give their statements. Although the guests initially refused due to fear, the official eventually gave his word that he promised that he would take them and then return them all back to the house. They trusted him and left to give their statements.

While at the police headquarters Border Patrol showed up, demanding to have access to and then detain the witnesses because they were undocumented. While the police initially refused, they eventually bowed to pressure they were receiving from superiors and allowed them access. In the meantime one of the guests called Annunciation House to tell the volunteers what was going on, and so began the scramble to quickly assemble lawyers. The team of three lawyers did finally successfully get in and refused Border Patrol access to all but one of the guests, with the other guest having already been detained. The lawyers said that the agents couldn’t prove they were undocumented, having not actually talked to the immigrants yet, and that they would not allow the agents to speak to their clients. After many hours all the witnessed did return home, including the one who had been detained.

Despite all of the events that took place that day, the grand jury in El Paso decided no crime had been committed, and therefore did not indict anyone one any charges. The Border Patrol agent who shot Juan Patricio continued working for them. In the civil suit that was filed by Juan Patricio’s parents the judge ruled that the shooting was done in self defense. At the end of the day, injustice triumphed.

 

As someone who has always hated movies or books that did not end in good triumphing over evil this was more than I could bear. Unlike the previous encounters I’d had with these kinds of stories, this one was real. A boy three years younger than I am now, full of life and joy, was shot down by Border Patrol. The agency then proceeded to break protocol in many different ways to cover themselves. Finally, they tried to detain (to then deport) 8 people who had done nothing wrong other than trust the police officer that they would be safe to leave the shelter to give their witness statements.

By the end of the reflection, when I was reading this prayer that began this post it was all I could do to concentrate on saying the words. As soon as I finished the tears I was holding back began to flow and anger and rage and hatred began to surge throughout my mind and body. I couldn’t look at the picture of the boy whose picture was at the bottom of the page smiling up at me, not knowing what his fate would ultimately be. I still have tears running down my face as I write this now.

I have to say, these strong emotions don’t make me feel blessed. They make me feel frustrated and unable to do anything. But maybe I should quote the whole prayer:

“May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for economic justice for all people.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, hunger, homelessness and rejection, so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in the world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.”

 

So yes, while I don’t feel blessed to have the anger or tears, I do feel blessed about what they mean about me. They mean that I care. They mean that I am capable of strong empathy with the plight of the oppressed and marginalized. They inspire me to do things like volunteer for a year at Annunciation House. And they make me want to be a college professor to pass this anger and tears to another generation of young naïve middle class kids who have never had the system not work in their favor. So while no, I still don’t feel blessed to feel angry or to cry, I feel very blessed about what it means about me and what it inspires in me. And makes me thankful to be part of a community that helps us all transform the daily injustices we witness to a calling for action and change.

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Glad the Federal Government Has Decided that Providing Emergency Shelter is the Only Important Factor in Alleviating Homelessness, or The Random and Unpredictable Life of Funding for Non-Profits

About a week ago I went the El Paso Coalition for the Homeless General Membership Meeting. These meetings happen once a month and this was the first I had ever been to, but the volunteer from Annunciation House who usually goes invited me along to see what it was like.

I had absolutely no idea what these meetings were for or about, but based on the name of the organization and meeting I had assumed that it was a group that got together once a month to unite all the different organizations and people who are working to help the homeless to get together to confront problems faced by the homeless population. I was kind of, a little bit, right.

The coalition is a group with the purpose of coming together for this noble goal, but the meeting I attended was almost entirely focused on funding. Apparently the group, in addition to being a place to come together for a discussion of ideas, is also a place to come together for funding. Instead of each individual organization or non-profit applying to HUD (Housing and Urban Development) for funds, the coalition comes together to get a pool of money that is then distributed to the individual organizations.

Okay, that sounds pretty good so far. All of the organizations working together to help the homeless, deciding together how to spend funds. Sounds like a good way for the community to able to look at the specific conditions facing its homeless population and adjust funding for different projects based on the need in the community. I was pretty impressed until the discussion actually started and it was clear that was not at all what was going on.

HUD apparently decided that it was going to reduce the overall funds to the coalition by 5%, so the coalition had to decide where these funds would come from. However, HUD didn’t just say it must be reduced, but it said that it could not be 5% cuts across the board to all, as might be the first impression of what would be the best solution. No. Instead the decision must be based on “performance” by the organizations, according to standards set by HUD. For anyone following current education policy debates, this kind of rank and punish system based on the federal government demanding quantitative performance data might sound a little familiar. In this case, the indicators were the percentage of people leaving the program with the following four things: employment, cash benefits, non-cash benefits, and permanent housing.

I agree that if you had to say the goals of homeless organizations, these would be some pretty good ones. But ranking all of these organizations the same when they serve different populations is blatantly unfair. For instance, there is one homeless shelter in El Paso that is the primary one to serve the chronically homeless and those with mental illness. It should be abundantly clear to anyone that this shelter will have a harder time getting their population jobs and permanent housing than shelters who primarily serve those who have temporarily fallen onto hard times. Therefore, comparing the percentages across the shelters is just grossly unfair (just like comparing schools with large percentages of special education and English Language Learners against schools with small percentages of these populations is obviously unfair, but that’s for a different blog post).

This would also be a relevant time to say that Annunciation House doesn’t get funding from this or any other government source. We were just there to see what was going on with other services for the homeless that could affect our guests. In fact, we don’t even officially keep this data, let alone submit it to the government, which is good considering we serve many undocumented immigrants who would not be eligible for government cash or non-cash benefits, nor are the authorized to find employment (though some of our guests who are not undocumented are eligible for these things for different reasons based on their immigration situation) so we might not get a very high score either.

I’ll leave out the details of the discussion, but suffice it to say that the man who came to represent that shelter I mentioned above was outraged and upset by these changes. The coalition board of directors came to the meeting with different scenarios that all paying members could then vote on and all included different funding cuts that would affect different programs of that shelter and that shelter alone. It was all “supportive services” that were being cut, as HUD is trying to move in the direction of only funding emergency shelter and direct housing.

Now, this move could seem to almost make sense at first. The federal government is always trying to find places to cut funding for programs, so it would make sense that the Housing and Urban Development would want to move towards only funding housing initiatives. However, let me give an example of one of the things that is a supportive service that was discussed being cut. That shelter provides transportation for things like jobs, mental and physical health appointments, education and training, etc. and it is available to anyone homeless in the city (we sometimes use them to provide transportation for our guests as well). I think it is quite clear how providing this transportation to work, for example, would directly affect and improve the number of homeless individuals who can have a job. But no, sorry, it’s not housing so HUD isn’t really that interested in continuing to fund it or similar programs. The long-term goal of HUD would no longer provide funding for these sorts of vital programs that definitely help the homeless achieve HUD’s stated goals.

But in this meeting we didn’t yet have to cut all supportive services, just some. And while it is not official yet, it looks like the mental health program, including the psychiatrist, will be cut from that shelter where 50% of the people who stay there are mentally ill. Congratulations America, our bad decisions are continuing. But in all seriousness, having to resort to making these kinds of decisions is dangerous and counterproductive. If we want to create a society in which all people who live in it are able to contribute to the best of their abilities then we cannot and should not be heading in this direction. To be fair, the shelter can apply for grants from other sources than just HUD, but the government should be making it easier, not harder, to work on progressive and comprehensive solutions towards eliminating homelessness.

It was painful for me to watch this process happen before my eyes, and even more painful to consider how few people know or care about these changes. I mean, it was just dumb luck that I happened to be at the meeting and hear about it, but I can guarantee that I will continue to take this sense of utter bewilderment with me as a source of inspiration to work for change in a positive and productive direction.

*Note: All of these conclusions that I came to were based on observations I made or statements said by others. Therefore, while I believe I understood everything correctly that I wrote about, I apologize if there were any mistakes or misunderstandings, as it was my first meeting so I didn’t necessarily have a great working knowledge of the subject matter.

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“Te voy a echar la migra” in the search for posada, piles of presents (though none for me), and baby Jesus in a cake: Christmastime at Ahouse

I know I haven’t written a blog in a while, but seriously Christmastime at Ahouse has been crazy. Ever since Thanksgiving I have been drowning with work due to all the increased donations and trying to sort that clothing in, being part of the committee to plan Shopping Day, having a pretty full house, and the normal expected and unexpected things to do around the house. It also doesn’t help that for pretty much all of November and December I was sick with one illness after another. All that to say, Christmastime was amazing and I feel so fortunate to have been part of it…

First came the planning and implementation of Shopping Day. For the last 5 years it has been organized by the same person, Taylor, now a former volunteer and despite the overwhelming logistics of it all, she has it all down to a science.

The basic idea is that we want our guests who have children in the house to be able to have a Christmas and shopping experience of dignity. Therefore, we host a “Shopping Day” for all of the mothers to come to a hall to personally pick out and wrap the presents for their own children. For the weeks leading up to shopping day we made public our request for NEW toys and gifts for kids and teens that the parents would be able to choose from. Throughout the year the families must rely on used donations, which while certainly very valuable and appreciated, are never the same as opening the package or toy for oneself. Then we decided approximate values on a scale of 1 to 5 for the gifts, making sure that 5’s were really great toys like remote control cars for kids or mp3 players for teens.

On the actual shopping day the moms can in a few at a time and we had volunteers who helped be “personal shopper assistant” to help the moms figure out what to pick out for their kids, how many presents they could get, and then help with wrapping all of the gifts. Each child received approximately between 8 and 13 gifts, depending on what the parent picked out. It was absolutely amazing and beautiful, because while generally the consumerism of Christmastime annoys me, here the gifts were representations of gifts of love from the community, gifts of dignity for the families, and gifts of joy for the children who generally have not had access to these kinds of new, nice toys in a while. The actual “shopping” was done a mere 2 days before Christmas.

Shopping Day Setup

Then came Christmas Eve, which to me usually meant lots of excitement for the next day and maybe a nice dinner with my family after attending a Christmas Eve service at church. I was very quickly proven wrong.

Apparently in Mexico Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, is the big day of celebration. If it weren’t for us requiring the presents to be opened the morning of the 25th, the guests definitely would have opened them the 24th. Many women spent hours that day cooking delicious, wonderful tameles (that they even made with some only having cheese so I could actually eat them instead of loading them all with chiles). Then we had the posada.

Typically in Mexico a “posada,” from what I’ve gathered, is a communal way of acting out Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay until someone, like the inn keeper, finally says yes and invites everyone in for a big party (with varying levels of actual religiosity). But of course Annunciation House, being the awesome place that it is, had its own very special version of the posada. We sang the following song as we went to three (pre-arranged) locations before showing up at Ahouse to sing the last two stanzas (the English translation is a rough one done by me in parenthesis). The first, third, fifth, and eighth stanzas were sung by the guests and the others were sung by the people in the respective houses in response to the request for posada, then the last part was sung together by all:

 

Posada del Barrio (Adaption R.M. Zarate)

 

En nombre de la justicia  (In the name of justice)

Pido apoyo solidario        (I ask for support and solidarity)

Cruce la linea de noche    (I crossed the line this evening)

Vengo de indocumentado (I come undocumented)

 

No vengas con tu miseria (Don’t come here with your misery)

Ni vengas a molestar        (And don’t come here bothering me)

Te voy a echar la migra    (I’m going to send immigration to get you)

Pa que te mande a volar    (So that they will send you back)

 

Paisana/o soy de tu tierra   (We are of the same land)

Como tu vine a buscar       (Like you, I came in search)

Con mi familia un trabajo  (With my family for a job)

Mira mi necesidad             (Look at my needs)

 

No me interesa quien sea  (I don’t care who you are)

Deja ya de mendigar         (Stop begging)

Yo ya soy cuidadano/a      (I’m already a citizen)

Y te puedo reporter            (And I can report you)

 

Ya va a nacer mi criatura   (My baby will be born soon)

No tengo a donde llegar     ( And I don’t have anywhere to go)

Al brincar la muralla          (After jumping the wall)

Mi esposa quedo muy mal  (My wife is left in a very bad condition)

 

Si me sigues molestando    (If you keep bothering me)

La migra te voy a echar      (I will send immigration after you)

Vete mojado a tu tierra       (Go back to your country wetback)

Aqui no tienes lugar            (You don’t have a place here)

 

Peregrinos de mi tierra       (Migrants of my land)

Venga a la comunidad        (Come to the community)

Aqui nos organizamos        (Here we organize ourselves)

Por justicia y dignidad      (For justice and dignity)

 

Gracias les damos hermanos   (We give you thanks)

Dios en ustedes esta                (God is with you)

Gracias por darnos posada      (Thank you for giving us hospitality)

Mil bendiciones tendran          (You will have a thousand blessings)

 

Vamos juntos como Pueblo, como hermanos, como hermanas a sembrar

La justicia que en el barrio, que en el barrio, como estrella brillara

(Let’s all go together as a one people, as brothers, as sisters, to sew

The justice that in the community, in the community, like a star will shine)

 

There was something immensely profound about singing that song, and acting out the search for posada with homeless immigrants. As they entered Annunciation House as the song ended, the powerfulness and truth could not be ignored. Here are people who, like Joseph and Mary, were forced from the place that they knew to search desperately for someone, anyone, who would let them in. These people, as individuals and as a group, have suffered much persecution and there are many people who if they asked for help would get a similar response to the one that the song states. But instead, Annunciation House really does say “Welcome. Come stay in our house, as our guests” (the language we use on a daily basis) because we value your human dignity and we want to together work for justice. What a more powerful meaning for the Christmastime than presents.

But of course after the posada, and the mass we had at Ahouse, and the wonderful dinner, and the baile in our sala until almost 1 AM, it was finally time for the presents. We, the volunteers, put out the presents at 7 AM under the Christmas tree (so as to not tempt the kids with them early) and went around the house at 8 to wake everyone up and have them all come out together. It was a wonderful experience seeing the kids open so many presents (and the adults open the presents that we picked out for them from what was left), but I will fully admit that it was also hard. I literally didn’t have any presents that morning. I only gave and did not receive. In my family my sister and I are still considered the children, so it was weird to not be the center of the gift receiving (although I did give the extra stockings that we had to the other volunteers and myself, so I did get a few candies and other small things). But it was also humbling. It was the only day of the year when the guests had more, materially speaking, than I did. And I think it was very important to experience even just a few seconds of what it feels like to be the one with less.

But after Christmas morning finished up my parents’ flight landed in El Paso and they got to shadow my shift that afternoon and night, as I was the one in charge of the house that day. They got to meet the guests and see the house, and most importantly, we got to be together for Christmas (something much more important than anything I could have unwrapped that morning). Alyssa, my sister, joyfully joined us the next day. We spent the time catching up, eating too much, and just generally enjoying each other’s company while exchanging a few gifts. It was by far the smallest Christmas I’ve ever had in terms of presents, but being together was much more valuable.

After all this, and my week off, I thought the Christmas season was over. We celebrated New Year’s through dancing, games, and lots of hugs at midnight. I thought things were finally going back to normal. But I had one more surprise: yesterday was Epiphany, the day representing when the three kings, or the magi, went to take gifts to the Baby Jesus. I can’t remember ever doing anything more than singing “We Three Kings” at church to celebrate before, but today I got to see a small part of the way they celebrate it in Mexico. We had a rosco bread, a bread in the shape of a crown that had 3 baby Jesus’s baked into it. The tradition is that whoever gets the Baby Jesus is responsible for hosting a party (traditionally also making tamales) for February 2nd, 40 days after Jesus was born. And of course I found one in mine. Guess I still have a bit more to learn and do before the Christmas celebrations are officially over…

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A Letter to Anyone Thinking about Donating Used Clothing this Holiday Season (Or Really Ever)

“It’s definitely the dress,” says Captain Von Trapp. “You’ll have to change before you meet the children.”

“But it’s the only one I have,” explains Maria because she had to give away all her worldly possessions when she entered the abbey.

“Well, what about this one?” asks Captain Von Trapp confused.

“Oh, the poor didn’t want this one.”

This scene from the Sound of Music has always made me laugh. But why? Is it really so farfetched of an idea that there would be clothing so ugly that even “the poor” wouldn’t want it? I believe in our culture it is. But I’m here to deliver a little news that should be common sense: “the poor” are also people and also have feelings and standards over what clothing they want to wear.

So why is this letter addressed to anyone thinking about donating used clothing this holiday season? Because as someone who has worked in the clothing bank of Annunciation House, a homeless shelter for immigrants, for a total of about 7 months I have seen clear proof that not everyone understands this idea based on some of the clothing we have received as donations. And I’m kind of tired of what I’ve seen.

So what is my advice? How do you avoid the pitfalls of bad donations that cause homeless shelter workers to write slightly angry blog posts about you (or at least roll their eyes at you)?

Well, I think it all boils down to your answer to this simple question: Why did you decide to donate that piece of clothing?

If the answer is something along the lines of, “well, it’s really cute but I haven’t worn it in a long time and it’s taking up space in my closet” then go for it! But, if the answer is something like, “I would never want to be seen in public because [insert problem with the clothing]” then it’s probably not a good idea to donate it.

Let’s go over a few specifics:

  • Jeans that have a huge hole in the crotch are not anymore useful to someone who is living in a homeless shelter than they were to you
  • Your child’s shirt with a huge stain on it that you would never want him/her to wear in public is not desirable for another parent for his/her child either
  • Socks with a hole so big that the person might as well not even be wearing a sock at all
  • Shoes with a broken buckle so that it could never stay on a child’s foot
  • A winter jacket that has lost the zipper so that it cannot truly be worn to keep out the cold

I have personally seen all of these things, and more, during my time sorting in the newly donated clothes to the shelter. Many, many times. So it really does happen.

I say all of this not because I do not appreciate the donations. I say this because I do. I appreciate the people who donate beautiful clothing that can bring joy to our guests when they find them. When a guest arrives at our door with nothing but the clothes on their back, yes they are in a state of desperation for more clothing to just fulfill that physical need, but why should it stop there? If they only have access to dirty and torn clothing, what does that say we believe about their worth? But instead, when they are given the opportunity to choose a stylish shirt or a cute pair of skinny jeans, we are restating their worth as human beings. And not everyone can or wants to work for a homeless shelter. But everyone can further its mission of brining dignity to those who pass through its doors, even if it is just with a pair of jeans you outgrew.

So please don’t waste our time or insult the dignity of our guests by thinking that someone would want that clothing that is too gross for you to even look at anymore. Please. And the next time you get tempted to donate your stained underwear to a homeless shelter, please just throw it away. And maybe even consider buying a package of new underwear to donate along with the rest of your used clothing. Because even “the poor” deserve it sometimes.

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“And So You’re Not Scared of Me? You’re Courageous.”

“Do you like Led Zepplin?”

I turned around to see who was asking that question. It was the man I had just past and made polite eye contact with on the sidewalk. He had turned around in the middle of the intersection to ask me that question.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I asked him while taking a few steps closer to him to be able to hear better, not really thinking I had heard him correctly.

He gave me a surprised look, but asked again, “Do you like Led Zepplin?”

It was at that point that I noticed that he was listening to music so the question did in fact make sense. I told him I didn’t know much about them, but gently took hold of his arm to steer him out of the intersection and back onto the sidewalk in case any cars came, as it was dusk and the cars wouldn’t be able to see us well.

He looked even more surprised then, but very willingly followed my lead. I could tell he wanted to ask me something, so I looked him in the eye and waited for his next question.

And so there we stood for the next few minutes or so, him asking me where I’m from, me explaining I’m from South Carolina, and him explaining that he had looked for work out there. I asked him if he was looking for work here in El Paso, though he never really answered.

He asked again where I was from, and I repeated South Carolina wondering a bit where the conversation was going. But then he clarified that he meant where was I coming from, as in where had I just left to now be walking down the sidewalk. I explained that I was leaving the staff meeting for the homeless shelter that I work at, ready to next answer his questions about whether or not he could stay there. But that question never came. Instead, he just asked for clarification to make sure he heard me correctly.

He then said that he was lonely and was glad to meet a friend and introduced himself and stuck out his hand to officially greet me. I told him my name and warmly shook hands with him and said I was glad to meet him too.

After a few more minutes of small talk he asked if I smoke cigarettes (no), coke (no), eat chips (no), until he finally looked a bit exasperated and asked if I ate at all. I laughed and told him of course, just that I try to be healthy.

Then there were about five seconds of silence in which neither of us spoke and were just looking at each other. Then, with slight embarrassment, turning his head down slightly looking a bit incredulous, he asked, “And so you’re not scared of me?” Taken aback by his question I immediately said no with a confused look on my face. He repeated the question again and again I replied with a firm no.

“You’re courageous,” he replied.

Without a hint of hesitation or sarcasm I ask him simply, “Why?”

At this point he looked even more taken aback and just repeated that I’m courageous. I shook my head no to signify that I didn’t agree and repeated my same question, “Why?”

This time he paused a little longer to think about it, clearly not expecting me to question this notion and just said, “That’s a hard question to answer.”

I know that at that moment he were both probably thinking about the same things: that he was a poor Hispanic man, probably in his 50’s, whereas I was a middle class young white female with my backpack full of the things I had been using on my day off, including my laptop, though he may not have known that detail.

So we were probably both thinking that our class, race, age, and gender differences, according to the mainstream social rules, should have told me to feel scared, or at least uncomfortable. But I wasn’t.

After we just stared at each other for a few more seconds, neither willing to actually acknowledge what we were thinking, he then changed the subject, saying that he would like me to be “company” to him and that we could go someplace together. I decided it was probably time to end the conversation, as I had no desire to be physical with him (or any random stranger that I’ve ever meet). I told him I was due at the shelter for dinner at 6, which was in about 10 minutes and it was on the other side of downtown (which was not a lie, as that was exactly where I was headed before I ran into him).

He then thanked me for taking the time to talk to him as a friend, because he really needed one. I thanked him for his conversation as well and we parted ways.

For the 15 minute walk back to Casa Vides I couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation and how appalled I was that he was so surprised that I was not scared of him. I wasn’t uncomfortable by his presence at all, just by his question. Even more by the fact that while I could honestly answer that I wasn’t then, that I know that before I came to Annunciation House I know that I not only would have been very scared of a man like him talking to me on the street, I would not have even been willing to make eye contact with him (or really any other stranger on the sidewalk). Uncomfortable by the fact that that used to be true of me and is probably true of most people similar to me.

I was very practiced at averting eye contact with strangers, particularly if they were men that society had taught me to fear. And I easily could have done that with him as well, and I know that he would not have turned around to ask me if I like Led Zepplin.

And so while I know that he was thanking me for my time because the time of the wealthy is viewed as much more valuable than the time of the poor (if you need any proof of this, see my previous blog post about going with a woman from the shelter to the free health clinic for the homeless and how awful that experience was), I am truly thankful to him that he would take the time to engage me in conversation, despite him assuming that I would be scared of him and not willing to talk to him. To me, that takes courage, knowing that he has probably been shut down by people like me a lot in the past, yet he was brave enough to try again.

And I’m very thankful that I can be reminded of the importance of those small acts, like making eye contact with warm eyes, in recognizing the human dignity of all. We are the same; we are both human. No differences in race, class, age, or gender should stop us from always recognizing that. Always.

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Does God Really Want Some People to Be in Poverty?

“God made some people poor and others not so that those who are not have the opportunity to be able to help others.” This quote, said by one of the Social Security guests, made me freeze in place when I heard it a few days ago (and okay, so I did not write it down and I had to translate it, so it’s probably not an exact quote, but you get the point).

Another Annunciation House volunteer and I challenged her on this idea, particularly the implications implicit in it, namely that God has chosen for a group of people to suffer from the oppression of poverty so that others would have the opportunity to engage in charity. Does God really want to condemn some people to suffer the violent oppression of poverty?

Well, of course, I don’t know the answer to this question from a theological point of view. I don’t really know what I think about religion in general, let alone a specific question like that. But I do know how I feel about the implications about religious beliefs like this from a sociological standpoint and as someone who cares about social justice and human rights.

Any god who decides that some people should be poor so that the rich have an opportunity to help them, is a god who is taking the side of the rich. In this scenario, the rich are the actors who god is empowering spiritually, while the poor are simply in the place that god intends for them (and thus should stay there) to be acted upon. Of course, this view is not without any sympathy for the poor, as she clearly believed charity should be given, but they should not fundamentally change their position or the structures because this is the way god wants it to be.

Before I go any further it might be helpful to explain something about the guests in the house, because you might be a little confused why a woman who lives in a homeless shelter has this view of god from a non-poor standpoint. While many of the guests are in desperate poverty, some of the Social Security guests are solidly middle class in Mexico. All SS guests are women whose husbands worked legally in the US and paid into the system, so the women can collect the benefits when their husbands pass on. However, because they must stay in the US for 30 days every 6 months, even if they are middle class and are receiving money, if they do not have any family or friends in the US, they could not afford to stay in the US for the entire month, so they need to stay with us (although not all SS guests are middle class). The woman who said the above quote is definitely middle class in Mexico.

Working for an organization with a Catholic background (and participating in prayer services or masses about once a week as part of our staff meeting time), I have been reflecting a lot on religion, and what Christianity calls its followers to believe and do about poverty. And I have to say, I am so incredibly thankful that liberation theology, a movement in the Catholic church, came into existence and that that is the perspective Annunciation House takes.

Instead of siding with the rich (or trying to remain neutral, which inevitably means siding with the rich if you are not challenging the status quo), liberation theology calls for a preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the poor, believing they are an oppressed people who are worthy of a better material existence. Rather than simply focusing on the next life, liberation theology believes that this life matters too and that material suffering now should be alleviated. The kingdom of god should be brought to Earth now, rather than simply telling the poor that their time will come in heaven when they will be blessed. Some priests in El Salvador in the 1970’s and 80’s literally took up the fight in Salvadoran civil war to pursue this kind of justice for the poor and oppressed.

While neither I nor any other person can really know the truth about what god wants or thinks, I know that I personally have no interest in any god who takes the side of the rich and condemns the poor to suffering so that the rich have an opportunity to perform charity. Yes charity can be very important, as quoted from Matthew 25: 34-40:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

Therefore, yes, obviously, Christians are being called to charity work. To feed, to give drink, to provide hospitality, to clothe, to take care of in times of illness, and to visit in prison (incidentally, all things that Annunciation House does).

However, I must ask a question that I feel is all too obvious but usually ignored: would a loving god really just want us to provide this charity and stop there? Or, instead, would he/she want us to question why people are poor, hungry, naked, homeless, or imprisoned (or in detention), and work so that no one will be hungry in need of food or homeless without a place to stay?

So, my answer to whether God really wants some people to be in poverty is I sure hope not. And I know that I am exceedingly blessed to be working for an organization that simultaneously provides charity and works for justice. No one deserves to suffer the oppression of being in poverty. Whether we view it as being brothers and sisters as part of the same human family or brothers and sisters in Christ, I hope all people will come to the view that poverty is not something that needs to or should exist.

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My Big Wonderful Vides Family

My last blog post I talked about the hardest event and week so far at Annunciation House. Since then I have been working to concentrate on the things that bring me joy of living in this house, particularly by concentrating on the ways in which we build a family here, rather than simply run a homeless shelter (the difference being that we strive to be a house of hospitality instead of just a homeless shelter, a difference I’m sure I’ll talk more about in the future).

So, in this blog post I will describe some of the weird, funny, and joyful moments I’ve shared with my “family members” here:

  • Great Aunts: About a week ago two of the older women pulled me aside to saying that they needed to talk to me about something. I got concerned that there was some problem I needed to address, but instead they said, “Alanna, I need to ask you a question.” Feeling nervous I said, “Okay?” She asked me where I was the day before (on my day off), because my face was really sunburned. I responded that I had been hanging out in a park with some friends for a few hours, why? The woman who originally pulled me aside then asked something that I didn’t understand but the friend burst out laughing and I start to feel nervous again. She repeated the question: “Was it a nudist park?” Ummm no! But they were laughing so hard I was pretty sure it was a joke. I moved my tank top I was wearing over to the side a bit to see that in fact I had tan lines and had been wearing clothes. At first I was just really embarrassed and flustered that any of the guests would accuse me of that, until I realized that it was actually hilarious that a guest would be brave enough to ask me, the person in charge, that kind of question. And I suddenly became really glad that we have built a safe enough environment that they felt like they could joke about that with me. Even if it is awkward when they continue to bring up this inside joke around other people who do not understand the context of them asking if I’ve gone to the nudist park again recently…
  • Father: Our director, who I think is very appropriate to refer to as the dad here, often assigns the volunteers different projects to do at our weekly staff meeting. Usually they are things like research about this, ask this guest about that, find out how visitation to a particular detention center works, etc. So when he was trying to assign organizing the food pantries, one of the volunteers brought up the concern that we have a ton of canned yams/sweet potatoes and that they don’t really know what to do with them because the guests don’t like them. So he turned to me and gave me the task of finding a recipe to use the sweet potatoes that the guests would actually enjoy. I love doing what it takes to run a homeless shelter, but it is times like that where I really feel like I am living in a house of hospitality that our director deems it worth it for a volunteer to invest the time and energy into finding a new recipe that the guests will like while trying to use up what people have donated to us. And yes, I did succeed when I made a yummy sweet potato casserole, did receive a high five from him for doing so, and reminded the guests that they actually do like sweet potatoes. Yes!
  • Little Nephew: Last night I was sitting at the table next to the toddler in the house. He’s just learning to speak a few words and I tend to forget that he can understand a lot more than he can speak. He was eating toast with some yummy-looking spread on it so I just commented to him, “Que rico!” and something about him being lucky to have such a yummy dessert before bedtime. He immediately turned to me with his big, bright eyes and handed me the bread so that I could have a bite. I was moved by his easy compassion to share his food (he LOVES eating) and realized that he learned that from everyone in the house who are all quick to share their food, even food they bought. I gladly shared that moment with him, though slightly regretted it when he immediately starting coughing right after I took the bite and I remembered he’s been sick for a few weeks.
  • Big family gathering: We had a baby shower this week for one of the guests and I swear it reminded me of the big family gatherings I’ve had to celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving with my family back home. Almost everyone brought a gift for the baby, even if it was just a small blanket, and they went all out cheering for the pregnant girl and wishing her luck. There was an overabundance of cake, nachos, and so much food that so many people contributed to in the ways they could, such a buying the nachos chips or cake mixes, or helping cook if they had no money to contribute to buying anything. Although the girl said she was sad to not be with all of her family during this time, I think she also felt the wonderful presence of her family here.
  • Mother/Sister: Last night while on night cover I finally got the call: she was going into labor! Ali drove the car to the hospital, with me in the passenger seat, and the pregnant girl, her mother, and another guest in the backseat (who wanted to go to support the mother so that she wouldn’t be alone in the waiting room by herself, even though they just met 2 weeks ago!). As soon as we arrived at the hospital they immediately instructed the pregnant girl to get in the wheel chair and took her away to start some prep work. Therefore, the mother was left to fill out the registration paperwork for her daughter. I love this mother and I applaud her external calmness she was giving off, but I could tell inside she was totally freaking out. I could picture this happening if Alyssa were to be the pregnant girl and I was there with my mom. She forgot her daughter’s birthday, couldn’t figure out what number to use for telephone number (even though she has an El Paso cellphone) and I was so glad to be there to help get the registration completed and to be a stable presence beside her. Ali brought the other guest to up to where we were, and Ali and I left once her paperwork was complete and it was just the waiting game from there on out. I made her promise to send me a text when the baby was born and so this morning at 5 AM we had a 20 minute text conversation when we rejoiced over the birth of the baby! I couldn’t wait to invite a new nephew to join the family!

So despite sometimes having things that really weigh heavily on my heart and soul, I think it’s clear to see that overall I am loving life right now! I might have have passed the record that I have ever gone without seeing my family, but this family here sure is supporting and loving on me. And I’m trying my best to return that love.