Encounters while volunteering at the border - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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A Maryknoll mission immersion group visits Casa Vides in August (Photo by Coralis Salvador).

It is a relatively quiet day at our Casa Vides community center. We have just received a family of four, a mother and her three children (15 to 2 years in age). Their story is a sad one: While crossing the Rio Grande river to enter the US, the father was swept away by the current and drowned. We will offer the family hospitality until formalities are completed for the body to be cremated, after which they will travel with the ashes to be united with relatives in another part of the country.

Earlier in the month, an Afghan mother and her five children were our guests. Desperately fearful and wanting to escape the violence in their country, they were airlifted from Kabul, transited through several international airports finally touching down in the US, and arriving at our center with merely the clothes on their back. After a couple of days they traveled onwards to their home. The pain and agony from their experience and the anxiety for the welfare of family members and friends left behind in Afghanistan was etched deep into their faces, and weighed heavily in their words.

A few days ago, into our Center stepped a young man from Turkey. A folk singer and bağlama player, his dream is to travel the world bringing peace and harmony through his music. Formerly an imam, he has transitioned to sufi tradition and practice.

Plucking on his specially handcrafted seven-stringed cherry-wood instrument, he mesmerized guests and volunteers in our center with songs in Turkish and Arabic that he had composed from verses scribed by ancient-day poets. For almost an hour, all our cares and worries were suspended as we were transported to a heavenly place. If you’re curious about the sound of the bağlama, for your listening pleasure please watch and listen to this video of Gönen and Okan playing the instrument.

Friday was my day off. I spent it in reflection and rejuvenation at a casita on the grounds of the Archdiocese of El Paso. I received this gift from a Carmelite brother who is visiting his aging father.

How appropriate that I am reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass these days. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she urges the reawakening of our consciousness to the indigenous wisdom of our reciprocal relationship with the natural world. As I gazed upon the majesty of the Franklin mountains that accompanied me on my meditative walks, I yearned to hear the stories they would reveal to me were I open and attuned.

I have a trove of memories of great generosity, strength, resilience and loving kindness that ameliorate life’s tragedies. These sustain and teach me. I am reminded constantly of God’s divine mystery and the myriad gifts from this time in El Paso.

Merwyn De Mello
Merwyn de Mello is a returned Maryknoll lay missioner (Class of 1994), who served in Japan, Tanzania and together with his wife Kirstin in Zimbabwe. They also worked in peace building with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Afghanistan and Bangladesh.