Our guests arrive in the evening. They arrive and the news said they were in the detention facilities. ICE has released them and now is the slow, steady work of reconnecting them with their families and communities.
Many arrive as partial families. They arrive with children, some small and shy, some giggle.
They arrive carrying one another.
Here, one guest carries a baby.
Here, one guest carries a small, dirty pack. Here, one guest holds onto the hand of a child.
Here, one guest stands and stares.
There are many children. They hold each others hands.
I am in the kitchen when our guests arrive.
The pastor taps me on the shoulder. “Are you fluent in Spanish?”
I shake my head ‘no’ and he continues to tap volunteers until he has enough for the Registration table.
A long term guest sits behind me at the kitchen table and sighs. Perhaps this guest knows how overwhelming this transition is for the newer guests.
The new arrivals are quiet. Or, maybe they just sound quiet because I am inundated by the noises of the kitchen: commercial dishwashers hum; knives chop rythemically, a stool screeches across the tile floor and my spoon scratches the bottom of a large metal pot.
Many do not have much. Tengas ropa?
Many carry the clothes on their back. Their hands carry children.
I am stirring a large pot of chicken and noodle soup for the next days meal and worrying about my Spanish.
Worrying that I don’t have enough to give.
I say my name: Bonita. Hola, mi llama es Bonita. Como se llama?
I practice/practico saying the names of what we will be eating.
I continue stirring.
We are a ragtag team of volunteers.
Some are members of the hosting church. Others are local community members:
Michelle* is from the Bahá’í Faith.
Ingrid* is a relative of someone who goes to the church.
Jenny* is the Church Administrator.
Courtney* is married to one of the long-term guests, David.*
Raquel*and Jorge* make Enchiladas and Spanish Rice while my husband chops lettuce/lechuga.
I stop stirring and turn around. Volunteers work steadily behind me. Well oiled machine, my mother would say.
As we prepare, we carry. We fill our arms. We feel the weight in our arms and shoulders and back. We feel the weight in our legs and knees. Buckets of water. Trays filled with utensils. Steaming trays of food. We carry weight. Familiar and unfamiliar. We wear forest green aprons. We carry cups and utensils, napkins and water pitchers, heavy china plates and coffee mugs.
We carry what we have. Some of us carry things we brought: anxiety, depression, excitement, pain. We carry one another with smiles and gentle instructions: chop, stir, set, serve.
A volunteer makes my introduction. By the end of the night, we will have shared a warm hug and many laughs. We will have carried one another in the little smiles of humor passed like old friends.
Another volunteer shares stories of Woodstock. A past life…when I was bad.
Another volunteer will offer to sit with the children. In case they need help with their food.
We carry light. And warmth. We carry good intentions and guilt.
We carry bodies that go home to families and warm beds. We carry bodies that are American. We carry blood on our hands. Tear gas on our hands. Tent cities on our hands. Barbed wire and guns.
Can we also carry God?
Can I dare grasp the uncomfortable tension of living with both dueling realities?
Can I dare not to?
Before dinner, someone frets that we need more food. The tables look too empty. A two person team heads to the store for salsa and chips.
Later, they return carrying large grocery plastic bags filled with more plastic bags holding corn tortilla chips and salsa in large plastic tubs.
The TV is running. Guests wander between the makeshift sleeping quarters and the dining area. Some wander barefoot on the cold concrete.
A small child carries a Disney Princess Coloring Book. Small fingers wrapped firmly around the book.
A pile of toys is strewn haphazardly on a small square of carpet. Unfinished castles and towers lay forgotten.
Two children sit, watching us move around the room and giggle.
In the middle of the room, the TV is playing How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No one thought to turn on the subtitles. I have always hated that movie. A knot wells up in my stomach when I watch the eyes of our smallest guests staring at blonde, Cindy Lou-Who. The small child laughs and almost imperceptibly touches her own long brown hair with a small brown hand.
I want to burn all stories of white innocence. I want to turn the TV off and hand them all books of empowerment.
I want to fix this…but too many fixes take away the agency of those most vulnerable.
The TV stays on. The child moves to a seat and starts coloring a princess. A yellow marker streaks through the page. A Disney princess stares back at me with blonde hair.
I carry hands bawled into fists. Short, sharp nils biting into palms. I carry anger and shame. I carry the dreaded reality of shared responsibility.
I cannot fix this.
I turn my back and continue to stir. The soup is ready for more ingredients.
Just add a little wine, Jenny says, cracking open a bottle. As she pours it in she says, It will cook out. And, winks.
She carries the bottle and the recipe. She carries cutting boards with chicken and bay leaves. In the background, David laughs.
It is impossible for me to comprehend what chaos and lunacy prerequisites legislation which separates and detains families.
I don’t believe anything can be such prerequisite.
I grapple with the distinct desire to separate myself from legislative policy. From words like guns, detention centers, tear gas, tent cities, cages, ICE …America.
I cannot fix this.
I grapple with the realization that separating families was done in the name of making America great. Was done in the name of keeping us safe.
Was done…for me.
I cannot fix this. But, I can create small inns ready for Jesus.
A small child reaches with a small brown hand and then takes my husband’s white hand. Shyly, the child asks: “¿Dónde está el baño?”
A baby needs clothes. A team leaves to buy infant clothing. What is open on a Sunday night?
After dinner, we carry trays. We carry dirty dishes back to sinks. We carry chairs back to tables. We carry glasses full of Kool-Aid and water and mugs of coffee. We carry high chairs and dirty rags and trash bags.
We carry full and warm bodies.
We carry…safety. And privilege. And power.
We carry white skin and brown skin.
We carry small hands reaching for help.
We carry laughing eyes.
We carry children tottering across wet floors. Cuidado.
It occurs to me, again, that this is the Advent season. That people are still fleeing Herods. That people are still seeking room in inns that are too full. That Jesus is still born for such a time as this.