Reflections on receiving the second Covid shot

The messages pop up on my Facebook feed every day now: “I got my second shot today!”  My own second dose of the Covid vaccine comes tonight at 5:40. I’ve already written a thank you for the nurse who’ll poke the needle into my arm. If there’s time, I’ll bake cookies.

            Thanks to the shot, this cloudy winter afternoon feels like high school graduation, with the same sense of gratitude and release. Goodbye, lockdown. Hello, sweet freedom. The Facebook exclamations about second shots are virtual mortarboards pitched into the air.  Tomorrow, I’ll feel safer going to the Y, having dinner with vaccinated friends and hanging out with my grandkids. I’ll still wear a mask and keep my distance – vaccinated people can still carry and spread the virus.  But I won’t fear dying in a hospital on a ventilator, separated from everyone I love.

            What’s missing from this celebration, though, is any sense of achievement: I’ve done nothing to merit this shot except be old and lucky.  Many people who are older, sicker and more at risk deserve it more.

So the question comes: How should I use this get-out-of-jail card I didn’t earn and don’t particularly deserve?  Row off to the rescue ship like the lucky, first-class bastards who got seats in the Titanic’s lifeboats? Or stay close, knowing that this gift requires me to serve those still aboard the listing ship?

I cringed yesterday over a headline in the New York Times: A Different Early-Bird Special: Have Vaccine, Will Travel.  Less than five percent of Americans have received both doses of the Covid vaccine, but vaccinated seniors are already flocking to warm-weather resorts and booking exotic trips to places like the Galapagos Islands.

I don’t blame them. Time’s short when you’re 70, even shorter at 80. I too dream of trips to see my sisters out east, bury my feet in Hawaiian sand or just drive south until we find green grass and air warm enough to walk outside without wearing a parka and crampons.

Psychologists have a name for this rush to buy plane tickets: Mortality salience. The sense that life is running out drives people to do all sorts of things. According to a business school professor quoted by the Times, those things now include bookings at better hotels and cabin upgrades on cruise ships. But those photos of pallid, thick-waisted seniors stretching in aqua yoga class aren’t helping the Boomer brand.  It looks like my generation, which has already received more than our share of wealth and privilege, is at it again.

            Way back in March, Dan Patrick — the lieutenant governor of Texas — caused a stir when he told Tucker Carlson on Fox News that he was sure that most seniors would be happy to risk dying in order for the economy to reopen –“keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.”

“And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” said 69-year-old Patrick.  It was a specious comment, rightly mocked, invoking grandchildren as an excuse to open up businesses with little regard for public health.

            Among the many things this pandemic has highlighted are this country’s vast inequities in income, health and treatment by police. As we lucky elders receive our shots and celebrate our freedom, we have a chance to do more than pass on the America we’ve got to our grandkids.  We can use our money, time and votes to leave them something far better.  

NOTE: The lovely watercolor cardinal is by Minneapolis artist Bridget Myers, one of several artists in the Kingfield neighborhood who are participating in the Waves of Thankfulness project hosted by the Kingfield Neighborhood Association. The postcard will go to the nurse who gives me my second vaccine dose.

A grandmother’s rage

A Grandmother’s Rage

Lynda McDonnell

When I was a girl growing up in the boom years of the 1950s, new suburbs filled up with tract houses for growing families. Three- or four-child households were routine, and Catholic families were even bigger. One of my aunts had nine children, another eight, so our six felt like nothing special. We viewed only children with pity and suspicion, certain they would grow up both lonely and selfish. 

In the world of my childhood, big families were God’s will, enforced by the Catholic church’s ban on use of contraceptives other than the rhythm method, a demanding but unreliable effort to time intercourse so as to avoid pregnancy.

In that tight, closed, certain world, I remember a singular voice of dissent – my Grandma Tillie, a sturdy, proud woman who wore shapeless housedresses, baked the world’s best pies and spent hot summer evenings on her front porch rocking, sipping iced tea and visiting.

She was an Aunt Bee figure, with a broad lap and wide smile, tightly permed hair and a fondness for pink towels, talcum powder and sweets.  She doted on her grandchildren. Dimes were ready whenever the ice-cream truck jangled by.

With three children, widely separated by age, she was a curiosity in a world of young families where the crib was rarely empty. She was 24 when she had my father in 1920, 34 when his sister was born, 40 when their kid brother showed up. Perhaps there were miscarriages or long periods of celibacy.  I never asked: Asking her about sex or family planning was unimaginable.

But her challenge to a priest’s authority over women’s fertility remains burned into my memory. I don’t remember how it came up. Perhaps I was back from college or visiting with my newborn son when she recalled a retreat for women in her parish held years before. Before those pious, churchgoing women, the black-robed priest declared that any woman who had fewer than four children was shirking her duty as a Catholic wife and mother.

Decades later, Grandma Tillie remained indignant at his presumption of God-like authority: “What did he know about what it takes to raise children?”

As I reflect this week on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, I feel a similar fury: How dare those six judges (and legislators in 26 states working hard to ban abortion) assume they know better than pregnant women what is best for them and their children?

For at the heart of arguments about undue burdens, constitutional rights and religious morality is this essential question: Do we trust a woman’s ability to decide what is best for her and those who depend on her?  For those men and women in black robes and tailored suits determined to stop women from ending pregnancies, the answer is a resounding no.

No woman feels proud of having an abortion, I’d wager. The choice is too intimate, shaded and widely condemned for that. Listen to the voices of women who’ve had abortions, and you’ll hear relief and sadness, gratitude and pain, wistfulness and sometimes regret.  You’ll also hear the complex calculations that informed their decision: Can I provide for this child? Can I give them the emotional and material support they need to thrive? How might this child affect my own dreams for the future, my partner, my other children, the children I someday hope to have?

It’s not women like me – educated, living in a blue state, with resources to take off days from work, buy plane tickets, pay for hotels and clinic bills – who’ll be hurt by this decision. It’s poor women living in places like Texas and Mississippi, strapped to provide for children they have already, and without the money, time or network of support to clear the barriers that legislators keep shoving in their way.

We know already what happens when a woman who seeks an abortion is turned away. The Turnaway Study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, tracked the lives of 1,000 woman who sought abortions at clinics in 21 states, then compared the outcomes for the woman came in time to receive abortions with those who came too late. The turnaway group was far more likely to endure years of poverty, stay tied to violent partners and end up raising the child along. They were less likely to bond with their babies, and their existing children suffered from poverty and slower development.

As a Catholic woman born when Queen Victoria still ruled the British Empire, my grandmother would probably be appalled by the idea of abortion. But I think she would rear up in righteous anger at the idea of a crowd of men in black suits deciding they know what is best for America’s women and their children.

You’ve Got a Friend

Somewhere, I’m sure, there are parents who remember their child’s adolescence as a delight, full of achievement and steady maturation. If we’re to believe Luke’s account in the Bible, Jesus’s years between his precocious teaching at the Temple and the start of his ministry were like that — “growing in wisdom and grace.” Lucky Mary, lucky Joseph.

              But most of us experience our of kids’ teenage years as years stuck on a roller coaster we never wanted to ride, watching misery, rebellion and confusion from the back seat but largely helpless to smooth the track or ease the pain. Chances are they’ll get to the end of the ride intact, but as a parent, you’re never sure.

              As my grandkids approach adolescence, I ache to learn that the period between childhood and adulthood is more fraught than ever for American teens. Last Sunday, the New York Times reported at length how Covid, on-line learning and social media have accelerated the rise in teen anxiety, depression and suicide attempts.  Experts cite many contributors: Puberty arrives earlier, anxious parents pressure kids to excel, cell phones and video games interfere with sleep, social media bathes teens in images of unattainable beauty and happiness while leading them down dark tunnels of pornography and isolation. Kids are drinking less, driving less, working less, sleeping less, socializing less.  They’re less sexually active while simultaneously confronting a wider range than ever of possible identities and pronouns.  Meanwhile, far above their pay grade, politicians bicker over how to teach kids about race and sex.

              The same day as the Times’ report, the Minneapolis Star Tribune chronicled Minnesota’s broken juvenile criminal justice system. Kids arrested for carjackings and violent assaults are released over and over to their parents, many of whom are desperate for help to turn their kids’ lives around before they end up dead or in prison.  The community counseling programs that are supposed to help them lack both resources and authority to make sure kids show up and do the work.  As with debates over how to teach about sex and race, political leaders spend time talking about cutting taxes, renaming schools and decriminalizing certain behaviors, all of which can agitate voters but do little to help kids.  Meanwhile, both the parents whose kids are cutting themselves and those whose kids are violently stealing cars are largely on their own to figure out how to save their children.

              I’m no expert on adolescence, but I know that getting through it requires trustworthy guides, sturdy guardrails and people and activities to love. Teens need adults and friends who listen and encourage. They need skills to develop, activities that engage their energy and ardor, ways to get out of their buzzing brains and virtual reality to find out what they’re good at and what they love.   For one of our kids, those were running and woodworking. For the other, theater and music did the trick.  And what sustained them as teens and remains in middle age was a set of close friends.  That’s what all of us, including political leaders, should be helping our kids find.

We can’t get comfortable once the election’s done

As a resident of Minneapolis, I look forward to next Wednesday, the day after the votes are counted, the lawn signs come down and the postcards for candidates and charter amendments stop arriving in the mail. As the spouse of a guy running for the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation, I’ll be glad for his return from the campaign trail, eating chili with friends to celebrate his victory or console him in defeat.

Most of all, I look forward to knowing whether we decide to replace the current police department with a new public safety department or continue the system we have.  I doubt that anyone wants the status quo – increased violence in our streets and a police force that’s stretched thin and too often disrespectful and overly aggressive, especially against residents of color.

 I understand the frustration of those who advocate for a new department. After decades of attempted reform, George Floyd’s slow-motion death and the continued killing of young black men at traffic stops demonstrate the violence and racism that remain in the present police system.

Nonetheless, I’ll vote against Amendment 2. It’s simply too vague and the city council too divided for me to feel confident that they’ll be disciplined and hard-headed in developing a better system for keeping all our neighborhoods safe.  Nor do I trust that they’ll engage all the key players – including police.

Over the last year, I’ve read a ton about what changes can bring deep and lasting reform of policing along with improved public safety.  Here are just a few: Changed recruitment and training regimens for cops, along with mindfulness training and mental health interventions; use of social workers and mental-health crisis teams; changed pay, arbitration and pension structures; rewarding cops for developing community relationships instead of making arrests.  I wish that Mayor Frey and the city council had spent more time over the seventeen months exploring these ideas instead of arguing over what “defund the police” means.

Here’s the truth: Whatever we decide on Tuesday, Wednesday is when we begin the hard work of building a safer city and a public safety system that is more respectful, engaged and effective than our current one.

Building that will probably require more money, not less. It will take time to engage key partners, build knowledge and develop a plan, hire and train people, build trust in disparate communities, try and fail and try again.

 In The End of Bias, A Beginning, a deeply researched and important book on implicit bias, Minneapolis journalist Jessica Nordell points out that even with strong support from L.A.’s police chief and community leaders, it took eight years from documenting the “insularity and warrior mentality” and callousness within the LA police department to flower into a police-community partnership that significantly reduced gang violence and improved life in three public housing projects in Watts.

Those of us who live Minneapolis but won’t be drawing up the plans for reform or a new department still have important workto do. Most of all, we can contribute continued attention and a sense of urgency.  

In August 2020, Michael Kleber-Diggs, a St. Paul writer and a friend, wrote an essay that haunts me still.  Kleber-Diggs, who is Black, described how many white friends called in the days after Floyd’s death to check on him.

“I didn’t say what I wanted to say; I held back the full truth…What I wanted to say and didn’t say was this: ‘I’m fine today; the hard part will begin soon. The hard part for me starts when things get comfortable for you again. The hard part begins the day you return to your normal routines.’”

For those of us who are white, in comfortable houses in safe neighborhoods, that’s our challenge: To show the same ardor for building a better public safety system as we’ve shown during the campaign.

Mourning and resolve: Justice for George Floyd

GeorgeFloydMuralI walked last night to 38th and Chicago, the intersection where George Floyd died on Monday with a Minneapolis cop’s knee on his neck. It’s less than a mile from the house where I’ve lived for more than 40 years, and I wanted to pray for my city and grieve for the 46-year-old black man whose life ended because so many Americans have been trained to see every black man as a threat that must be answered with overwhelming force.

It was a lovely evening, mild and bright, the lilacs nearly done and backyard vegetable gardens newly planted. Justice for George Floyd signs hung in the food coop’s windows along 38th Street. At one house, bedsheets had been turned into protest signs strung along the fence.

The intersection where George Floyd died was peaceful, with none of the torched stores and smashed windows like those along Lake Street two miles away. Tables held donated food and water. People in yellow vests guided an occasional car through the blocked intersection. Someone had set up a speaker to play music.

The crowd – mostly young — moved around, studying the makeshift memorial of flowers, pictures and balloons heaped beside the bus shelter. A fresh mural was painted on the wall outside Cup Foods to honor Floyd and other black Americans killed by police – Say Our Names. Three days earlier, a Cup Foods clerk had called the police, suspecting that Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 to pay for cigarettes.

The gas station on that corner is boarded up now, but Cup Foods, Dragon Wok and Worldwide Outreach for Christ remain open. Ministers stood outside the church last evening, wearing clerical collars. For now, 38th and Chicago is a place of mourning and resolve, not destruction.

What struck me most was how young the crowd was, mostly in their teens, 20s, and early 30s.  For them, the civil rights breakthroughs I grew up with — school integration, voting rights, fair housing — are ancient history. Their youth has been filled with attacks on and erosion of those achievements: Mass incarceration, welfare-to-work policies, voter suppression, rising income equality, increased segregation of schools and neighborhoods. Yes, we elected Barack Obama as the country’s first black president. Now Donald Trump is systematically undoing his legacy.

On Facebook, my older son wrote: “Growing up in south Minneapolis in the 80s and 90s, I was always told – and believed – that police officers were there to serve and protect, and that if you needed help, you should call on them. It was disillusioning to learn over the years how much these impressions hinged on class, color and circumstance, but I never thought I’d see the day my hometown made the international news because one of our officers kneeled on a man’s neck until he died while three fellow officers stood by and did nothing.”

Friends from other cities ask: How can this be happening in Minneapolis, a fortress of progressive ideas and liberal government? Despite our reputation for Minnesota Nice, we are not so different from the rest of America. In terms of poverty, housing segregation and educational achievement, Minnesota has some of the country’s worst racial disparities.  People argue about why — white kids do exceptionally well in Minnesota schools, for example — but the reality is the same. We’ve constructed institutions – parks, schools, police – that work well for those of us who are white and middle class. What we haven’t done is listen to angry, grieving voices and change those institutions to ensure that they work for everyone.

By age and temperament, I tend to be a moderate – incremental and seeking compromise. But standing last night among those young people, grieving and desperate for ways to use their energy to change their country, I understood their frustration and impatience. Those of us who rightly celebrate the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s should watch those videos of George Floyd strangled by a Minneapolis cop, Ahmaud Arbery shot for running on a public street in Georgia, Christian Cooper threatened for asking a woman to leash her dog in Central Park, until hurt and shame saturate our hearts. Then let us work to find a way forward.

Let me not forget: I’m a Minneapolis resident and taxpayer; the police act in my name.

Undocumented workers: Essential but ineligible for help

Last weekend, my church in Minneapolis set up tables to distribute boxes of food to 700 hungry families. Most of the people driving through the parking lot were immigrant workers who’ve lost jobs due to COVID-19.  In better times, they watch our children, clean our homes and offices and prepare our meals.

They pay taxes on their wages but do not qualify for Social Security numbers. Instead they use Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN) issued by the IRS. Without Social Security numbers, they are not eligible for the unemployment benefits or federal emergency checks that are keeping so many Americans afloat.

So they use up meager savings and stop sending remittances to families in Mexico and Somalia, El Salvador and Vietnam. They rely on charity, friends and family members who still have jobs. They collect food boxes.

Even if they qualify for benefits like disaster-related food stamps, many don’t apply, wanting instead to remain invisible.  For the undocumented, becoming visible means risking deportation or being judged to be a public charge, which could cost a family member a chance ever to become a permanent resident. Given that two-thirds of undocumented residents have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years and that many have American-born children and spouses, every deportation or lost chance at permanent residency is a tragedy, not just for those families but for our society.

In the midst of a virus that doesn’t discriminate, it’s time to recognize the enormous contributions of immigrant workers and create a safety net that doesn’t distinguish between the documented and undocumented.

President Trump often refers to COVID-19 as a “foreign virus.” Yet the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that six million immigrants work at the frontlines of keeping U.S. residents healthy and fed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, the conservative Cato Institute points out that foreign-born workers were 35.2 percent of home health care aides, 28.5 percent of physicians and 20.9 percent of nursing assistants in 2018, far more than their 13.7 percent share of the population.

Immigrants also do such risky and essential work as cleaning our airports and hospitals and processing and delivering our food. Half of our maids, a quarter of our janitors, 37 percent of folks working in meat processing, 35 percent of crop production workers and 18 percent of industrial truck and tractor operators are immigrants.

Meanwhile, the immigrants like those coming to my church for food boxes are overrepresented in the sectors already devastated by mass layoffs: Restaurants and hotels, office cleaning services and in-home child care. In addition to the six million immigrants working on the pandemic’s frontlines, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that another six million work in the hardest-hit industries.

Minnesota foundations and the city of Minneapolis are dedicating millions of dollars to help. Immigrant advocates are pushing for state action as well. Giving $500 to each of the estimated 95,000 undocumented immigrants living in Minnesota would cost $47.5 million. But a safety net big enough to catch all immigrant workers, regardless of legal status, must come from the federal government.

There are things each of us can do to help make that happens. Start by calling your members of Congress and urging them to provide no-cost COVID-19 testing and treatment for all, regardless of immigration status. Ask them to expand immigrant access to federal tax rebates by removing the Social Security number requirement. Meanwhile, ask them to halt implementation of public charge rule and release people from immigration detention to prevent the spread of COVID-19

This crisis can’t be solved by food boxes.



Sacrifice at last

All my life, I have waited to be asked
To sacrifice something for my country
Not myself alone or those who suffer too much
Even in the best of times.
But the rest of us, the comfortable, satisfied, secure
Who did not go to war when others did
Who prospered while others lost their homes and livelihoods.
In my parents’ time, a Great Depression and World War.
Everyone sacrificed something- meat, butter, nylons, lives.
The Greatest Generation and we, their children
Dreaming of a better world
But no one asked for sacrifice.
Our leaders sent guns to Vietnam and fed us butter,
Afraid to ask us to pay for their foolish war.
After 9/11, this command to patriots:
Crowd the shopping malls
Spend our way to safety
Lest the economy stumble
And cost more than towers and lives.
Now comes at last the request for sacrifice
•Use up what I have
•Take no more than I need
•Share what I can
•Be patient and kind
•Open my heart to needs greater than mine
Lessons for children, simple and hard.

Looking back, what will matter?
How well I paid attention,
How much I gave away.

Sheltered at the border

Casa de Refugiado, the El Paso immigrant refuge where my husband and I volunteered in January, has space for 400 people, but during our two weeks there, the number of guests reached no more than 40. The main reason is the Trump Administration’s remain-in-Mexico policy, which has sent more than 60,000 Central American asylum seekers back to Mexico since January 2019. There, they must wait for months before appearing in an immigration court in the U.S. The grim consequences are well-documented: Squalid tent cities, violent crimes against immigrants, asylum seekers giving up before their court dates arrive.

In late February, a federal appeals court found the policy legally invalid, but the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the policy to continue until the court can make a final decision about its legality.

 We visited one small refuge in Ciudad Juarez to talk with families affected by that policy. Here’s what we learned.

At first glance, the refuge looks like the scene of a poor man’s house arrest: A modest house above and dim cement-block basement below, all surrounded by a high metal fence with concertina wire coiled on top. Outside the fence is Anapra, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where rutted dirt roads are dotted with stray dogs, broken sewer pipes and people selling old clothes. A few blocks to the north, the rust-colored border wall stretches in both directions across the desert landscape. Beyond it, I-10 and the hillside homes of El Paso are visible in the distance.


Only trusted visitors pass through the refuge’s metal gate, and the basement’s residents leave only for court dates in El Paso, which are infrequent and unlikely to end as they wish. There are no bedrooms, simply bunkbeds curtained off with blankets for privacy. The only safe space outdoors is a narrow strip of land inside the fence where long strings of laundry hung the afternoon we visited.

Yet the residents of that basement – five mothers and eight children from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala – count themselves lucky. Unlike thousands of other Central American asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico while they seek protection in the U.S., they have food, clean clothes, a safe place to stay and dedicated women from the nearby Catholic parish looking after them. Every morning, they give thanks in the basement’s tiny chapel.

“Our aim was to protect the women and children. They are the victims here,” explained Si, a lay missionary with the Columban Fathers. The Columbans operate the local Catholic parish, Corpus Christi, and parish volunteers provide food and transportation for the families. Si, who gave only her first name, served as the interpreter during our visit. She asked that we change their names and take no pictures of them in order to protect them.

Since the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols took effect more than a year ago, more than 60,000 asylum seekers from Central America have been sent to wait for months in Mexico for a date in a U.S. immigration court.  When it’s time to appear before a U.S. immigration judge, asylum seekers must walk across the bridge into El Paso and reënter U.S. custody. At the end of the day’s proceedings, they’re bused back to Mexico, where they must remain until their next court date.

Rosa, who lives in the refuge with her two small children, left Guatemala last summer to follow her husband, who fled before them after gangs threatened to kill him if he didn’t join up. He made it to New York, but the rest of the family is stuck in Juarez. Rosa has been to immigration court in El Paso three times since last summer; her next hearing is scheduled for August.

The Department of Homeland Security’s website describes the Migrant Protection Protocols as a way to restore a “safe and orderly process” for people seeking asylum in the U.S. “Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay,” the website promises.

The reality is otherwise. Families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America must wait for months in towns like Juarez. Even if they can find lawyers and make it across the border for multiple hearings, their requests for asylum are likely to denied.

A few statistics illustrate the risks they face in Mexico.  Juarez is twice as big as El Paso, but in 2018, it had 54 times as many homicides:1,247 in Juarez compared to 23 in El Paso. Gangs, government corruption and the failure by police to investigate most crimes all contribute to the high crime rate. During our stay, the Sunday newspaper in Juarez reported that five Mexican national guardsmen assigned to the Juarez airport were being investigated for kidnapping and abuse of authority.

“It’s a very big danger,” says Gertrud, who came to the border last July with her five-year-old daughter when gang violence in Honduras made it impossible for her to feed her family at home. She worked in a bakery and a factory that made cement blocks, but gang members showed up on payday to steal workers’ money.

Like most asylum seekers, Gertrud has family in the U.S. with whom she and her daughter could stay while awaiting their asylum hearing. That’s the way things worked before the Trump administration implemented the remain-in-Mexico policy. After being interviewed by immigration officials, Gertrud would have received an ankle bracelet and been released with her daughter to stay with family until making her case before an immigration judge. The people we served in El Paso had made it through that process and were on their way to join their family members.

But in Mexico, the Central Americans’ accents, clothing, even the lack of shoelaces (ICE takes them from people in detention) make them targets for thieves and kidnappers. So does the awareness that family members in the U.S. can pay ransom. One mother at our El Paso refuge had to raise $8,000 to pay kidnappers to return her three boys – ages 7, 8 and 12. Another mother reported that a man in Juarez tried to steal the baby she carried on her back.

These aren’t isolated incidents. As of January 21, there had been at least 816 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers forced to return to Mexico, reports Human Rights First, a nonpartisan human rights group based in New York and Washington,.

Unlike in El Paso, where religious and community groups ensure that no immigrant family is left on the street, Juarez has too few refuges. Si keeps a list of 400 immigrant families waiting in Juarez who need shelter. “And there’s many more,” she says.

Merely supporting the five families in the refuge in Anapra requires great effort. A Corpus Christi member named Cristina Coronado organized the basement refuge in space donated by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, who also pay for utilities. Cristina also persuaded the Juarez cathedral to donate space where asylum-seekers can get necessities and legal counsel. Outside donors also help. My Catholic parish in Minneapolis donated $4,000 at Christmas.

But being confined for months with strangers, with little privacy or contact with the outside world, presents its own challenges. The children aren’t in school; local residents fear they would attract gangs. The women take turns cooking and cleaning, but boredom and depression set in.Gertrud's sunflowers

To help, Cristina’s sister taught the women to embroider bright patterns onto cloth bags. Sunflowers, roses, a peacock displaying its tail feathers, each design takes about two days to complete and sells for $35 at the farmers market in nearby Las Cruces, N.M. Of that, $20 goes for materials and house expenses; the resident keeps $15. Gertrud sends what she earns to Honduras to help the husband and three children she left behind.

Each bag carries a tag with the maker’s story.  Gertrud’s tag explains, “In Honduras, the rise of organized crime and insecurity is threatening our nation…It is an injustice that we have to wait in a country where we are not seeking asylum.”

Across the circle of the women bent over their needle work, she delivers a more direct message – about the lack of health care and education back home, the narco-traffickers who control so much in Honduras and the U.S. government’s support for a government that serves its people so badly.

“Don’t support a corrupt government,” she pleads. And then she turns back to her work.




Learning across generations in El Paso

Volunteers Christa Kuck, at right, along with the author and her husband, Elissa Rothman and Nate Putnam. Putnam and Kuck are opening an Annunciation House refuge for families waiting in Juarez.

Ok Boomer vs. Gen Z. We are accustomed to seeing divisions among generations. In this corner sit older Americans, white, clueless and desperate to hang onto privilege. Over there sit the young, diverse, debt-laden and eager to topple the status quo.

During two weeks volunteering at Casa de Refugiado in El Paso, Texas, my husband and I were lucky to be led by volunteers young enough to be our grandchildren. We gave two weeks of time to mop floors, hand out clothes and do whatever else was needed. The young gave months of their lives, living in an old warehouse turned refuge and leading the work.  The guests’ needs, so vastly greater than our own, brought us together to serve and learn from each other.

First, some background: Casa de Refugiado is one of several sites run by Annunciation House, a nonprofit that has served poor immigrants in El Paso for more than four decades. Along with local volunteers, out-of-town helpers fall into three groups: Retired religious sisters, secular retirees like Steve and me and young people in their 20s, just out of college or gypsies moving among different types of social justice work. Most retirees volunteer for two weeks, while many of the young give three months, a year or more before going on to the rest of their lives.

So what do we learn from each other?

Christa Kuck, a slender, soft-spoken woman from Michigan with a seriousness beyond her 24 years, has volunteered full-time with Annunciation House since August 2018. After serving as site coordinator of a refuge in El Paso, she is helping open a small house to shelter a few of the hundreds of immigrant families forced to wait across the border in Juarez, Mexico.

Her greatest teachers at the refuge have been religious sisters in their 70s and 80s, women who’ve given decades to working with poor immigrants in the U.S. and overseas. Anti-consumer, feminist, and joyful, they model dedication and enduring faith without being didactic or judgmental.

“The sisters we work with are some of the most radical people I’ve met,” says Kuck, who describes herself as spiritual but not religious. The sisters listen but never proselytize, guide but never preach. (To learn more about rich relationships between young activists and religious sisters, see Nones & Nuns,  and work by writer Kaya Oakes.)

Their example gives Kuck, who will start medical school this fall, a vision for her own future. “It’s finding people who are in their 80s who aren’t cynical and are still passionate about making change in the world…I found a flexibility and a warmth that I haven’t found in religious and nonreligious people.”

The admiration is mutual. Sr. Sandy Wardell, a soft-spoken Ursuline sister who taught poor children in the South Bronx for 40 years, sees in the young volunteers at the refuge an echo of her younger self, when she spent summers working with the poor in West Virginia.

“For me, it’s so encouraging, so hopeful to see this generation so generous, so unafraid to face whatever experience comes their way…I see how much joy they get from what they’re doing.”

Age brings plenty of fears: Illness, senility, death and now the prospect of leaving behind a world plagued with inequality, warming temperatures and social division.  Working with young, we take hope from their strength and energy, laughter and courage.

Larry Wight, a retired high school teacher and school administrator, left four kids and five grandkids behind in Seattle in order to spend four months volunteering at the refuge. A lean, muscled man with a shock of white hair, he still hikes and runs at 77 and came to El Paso in search of service and adventure,  “not being afraid to do something that’s out of my comfort zone.”  He found something far more profound.

Larry Wight in the dining room of the refuge

Since arriving in November, he’s quietly organized mountains of donations and overseen painting and other projects to make the gloomy warehouse feel more like a home. He’s missed his family greatly.  But living and working at the refuge, working with immigrants and young volunteers, have opened his heart.

He savors lying on his bed in a dim room at the back of the warehouse, hearing younger volunteers talking and laughing in the next room but feeling no need to join them. He enjoys taking young volunteers on hikes and playing ping-pong with a 17-year-old, feeling not competition but friendship.

Most powerful have been his encounters with immigrants, who often spend weeks traveling to the border, months waiting in Juarez and days in ICE custody before arriving at the refuge. He tears up when he recalls the Brazilian father who fell into his arms, weeping with relief, gratitude and uncertainty as his family left to join family in another city.

“Whatever trauma he had experienced, whatever trauma I had experienced, in that moment we were one and the world was good.”  Wight points to his heart before continuing. “Never in my life has my heart been so open.”

It’s this part of the experience of working at the border that’s hardest to explain, that service is both hard work and a great privilege.  Making a salad, handing out toiletries and helping a mother find a warm coat doesn’t move immigration policy, but it responds to basic needs with love and welcome. More importantly, it opens the heart.

And everywhere one looks, volunteers use their skills and connections to tackle some small part of the huge problem. Midwife Kata Burke and her husband Miguel, a nurse practitioner, left their home, family and jobs in Rochester, N.Y., to manage Casa Del Refugiado for a year. While there, they are collecting 200 bottles of prenatal vitamins to give to pregnant women who pass through the refuge. Sr. Andrea Koverman, who works with poor and disabled children in Juarez, is collecting 100 books in Spanish to start a small library for children in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

One of my teachers this year was Sr. Sandy, who first volunteered at the border six years ago when she was 72 and newly retired. Two of her birth sisters had died that year, and she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. If she wanted to do other things in life, she decided, it was time to get moving. She went first to Laredo, Texas, after seeing news video showing white women screaming words of hate at a bus full of immigrant children. Since then she’s been on extended retreat in England, Bible study in Israel and run an after-school program and Sunday school in South Africa for a year.

At 78, she’s happy she can still contribute. “I can make sandwiches. I can do laundry. I can be with a mother and child who’s not feeling well.”

The refugees exemplify courage and resilience. My fellow volunteers – young and old — model what I can do, not what I can’t, and how powerful it is when we work together.

News from the border: First, care for the children

My husband Steve, friend Kathleen and I arrived in El Paso on Saturday to volunteer at a refuge for immigrants for two weeks. Yesterday, as Kathleen and I cleaned rooms in the vast converted warehouse and outfitted refugee families with used clothing, I thought how little is required to make children happy: Clean clothes, full bellies, a chance to play, a warm bed, the love and security of their family. All the things we lavish on our own grandchildren – skating lessons and gaming systems, LOL dolls and LEGO blocks – are wanted and delighted in. But they are not required.

And yet we have as a nation repeatedly denied these most basic needs to immigrant children who crossed the border with their families over the past three years. Seven hundred families have been separated; seven children have died while in government custody. Last summer in Clint, Texas, less than 30 miles from El Paso, immigrant children taken from their families were held in conditions that Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School, described asappalling”:  “In 12 years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.”

All this has been done in the name of deterrence. In other words, if we can make coming to America more horrible than the violence and poverty that drive people to leave Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico, we’ll stop what President Trump likes to call the “invasion” at our southern border.

No surprise there: The first step to hardening the heart is always to dehumanize the other, to make the weary father from Morales and smiling baby from Cuba alien and dangerous, part of an invading horde that will displace our workers and overwhelm our resources. Hardening the heart can lead to far more dangerous acts. Last August, a young white supremacist targeting Latino immigrants drove 600 miles from Dallas to El Paso, entered a Walmart, killed 22 people and injured 24 injured more. Because of that, our refuge has security cameras and no exterior signage. The tall fence is topped with razor wire.

As regular readers of this blog know, I support neither walls nor open borders. This year, I want to explore the vast territory in between. What principles should guide us? What policies can best implement those principles? Coming to El Paso and serving immigrants through Annunciation House, which has been doing this work for more than 40 years, is a place to begin.

At the Annunciation House shelter, the process of welcoming families newly released from ICE custody follows a routine. An ICE bus pulls up to a back gate of the warehouse and exhausted families step off. They are welcomed warmly, then interviewed and asked to call family or friends in the U.S. who will buy their bus or air tickets. A day or two later, families leave us and travel to Houston or Chicago, Miami or Boston. There they will wait for a chance to make their case for asylum before an immigration judge.

At the shelter, after the interview and phone call, there is a simple routine: Collect bedding and toiletries, choose a set of used clothes and take a shower, often their first in days.

Yesterday afternoon, the job of finding clothes fell to Kathleen and me. First, we brushed up on vocabulary: Socks are calcetines, underwear ropa interior. One by one, the families arrived: The tiny 19-year-old Guatemalan woman – exhausted, pregnant and dressed in grey ICE sweatpants. Her husband was turned back to wait in Mexico; her face looked as shattered as her spirit must be. The best we could do was find pants that fit, a pretty blouse, a warm wool jacket and soft, pretty scarf that coaxed a small smile. In a day or two, she will leave on her lonely trip to New York.

I think too of the seven-year-old boy, bound for Chicago, who came with his exhausted parents and six-month-old brother. He delighted in finding himself a forest green jacket, lime green gloves and kelly green hat and a hooded Christmas outfit for his baby brother.

The small kindness of clean clothing is made possible by the people who donated it, Sr. Edith and others who spent months giving it order and the volunteers who come daily to help guests find something fit for their journey, maybe even a little stylish.

The shelter’s numbers are down significantly because of President Trump’s remain-in-Mexico policy. It opened last year with room for 500 people. Last night there were fewer than 30. One mother, traveling from Guatemala with three boys, spent three months waiting in Juarez before being allowed to cross into the U.S. Yesterday, freshly showered and dressed, the boys wore their new gloves as they careened down a ramp riding a toy car.

Regardless of what happens in Iowa next week or at the polls next November, the issue of immigration will remain: Who will we allow to come? How will we welcome them? And do we have the collective will to make good on the pledge we learned as children – to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”?