“You must be tired,” the fifty-something woman in front of me said compassionately. “Not as tired as she is,” I replied, turning my eyes to the third woman in our circle. In her early twenties, and journeying with two children under the age of five, she was the picture of dignity – regardless of circumstances that would strain anyone’s composure. Just that morning, she and her children had been released from detention and informed that their family would not move forward intact – her young husband would be held and deported. He had promised, as they said goodbye, that he would find them; someday, somehow, he would find them.
Our journey had begun early that day with a chance meeting, although not an unintentional one. I was receiving a tour of the bus station a few blocks from St. John’s Downtown, as the manager and I dialogued about how we could collaborate to support people traveling through our country. The manager had pointed the young mother out to me as we walked by, telling me that she was someone who had been released from detention that day and these were the people he was interested in helping.
Feeling that our gaze had been drawn to her little family unit, the young woman began to panic, certain that she would be locked up again. That she would be mocked again. That she would be stripped of all she owned again. That she would be told again that her children carried diseases and that people needed to be protected from her little ones.
Big tears began to well up in eyes that beheld us with terror and despair. “Oh Lord,” I thought, “We have so much to learn. Help us.”
Gliding across the room, from where I do not know, came our fifty-something angel of mercy, bringing a mothering embrace and words to sooth. “I speak Spanish,” had been her first words, as her gaze of compassion swallowed the family up into her heart. “I will stay with her. I will stay here and sit with her,” she promised, binding herself into the family unit. With her gray-streaked auburn hair pulled back into a loose braid, and her strong Texas accent, she was the picture of compassionate strength. In that moment, she became Naomi to this Ruth, torn from her husband to journey alone into a foreign land. And as the first one had, this Naomi opened her heart to offer generous hospitality to the land where her family had lived since a time long before there even was a Texas.
Knowing it was best to leave them together, I walked outside with the manager. The gray-haired leader of the Greyhound staff was in need of some fresh air as he fought back tears of his own. “It’s the kids,” he explained, “They get to me. I don’t care about what anyone thinks about politics, we’ve got to do something for these kids!”
While the point he was making had to do with the network we were building to support children coming through the station, I knew that it was those two confused children who had said goodbye to their father that day, perhaps forever, that were getting to him.
“I know we can’t do anything for those kids today, you know, but for others,” he concluded regretfully.
“We can do something. We will do something. For these children. Today.” I said softly, as he turned with gratitude to reveal that was exactly what he had hoped I would say. His excitement was palatable as he began to taste the reality of exactly what he had been dreaming to do for months. A way to help all the children that were weighing on his heart daily.
I promised him I would be back, and within minutes I was in my car, on the phone and our beautiful, connectional church was at work. Pastor Mireya pulled together some clothes and a Santa Biblia, while another Mireya scouted out Salvadorian restaurants to get some comfort food. Morgan and Ashley jumped in the car to meet me for a little necessity shopping, while DJ and Abigail made contact with support services and churches in the city where the family was headed.
The result of all this activity from all these people was tears. Tears of relief and joy – and not from where I would have expected them to come. It was the little daughter, only a few years old, who wept. Overjoyed to see her mother’s anxiety diminish and to see a little pink backpack, packed with the food and supplies that every little girl needs for such a journey – familiar foods and favorite colors.
As the night wore on, I sat beside Naomi, who had taken Ruth under her wing, and we three women became kinfolk – or rather, we recognized that we were. We talked about religion – one of us Methodista, one Evangelica, one Catolica. We talked about food – Naomi comparing the papusas I had brought for Ruth to the quesadillas her Mexican relatives make. We talked about family – the fact that one of my favorite men, the father of my niece and nephew, had come into the country himself when he was just the age of the little daughter; and the reality that lay ahead for these little children’s own father as he fulfilled his promise to see them and be with them again.
Finally, the compassionate and gentle Naomi turned to me and said, “I want to tell you why I am here tonight. I just got out of prison this morning.” I had noticed the locator bracelet strapped to her ankle, but had not thought much of it. “I missed the bus I was supposed to be on, and I had to wait all day for the next chance to get home,” she continued, “And I was sitting here planning to pout and gripe all day long when you walked in and I became a part of this. Not everyone speaks Spanish and could help, even those of us whose families are from Mexico way back. Not everyone here could do what I am doing.” A realization was washing over her that she had a gift and that she was needed.
“Thank God for you! I can’t imagine what we would have done without you today,” I said to her. “You were our angel. You were her mother when she needed a mother. Thank God you were here!”
It was then that I noticed, for the first time, how little Naomi had. A little grocery bag with a bible and a book and some papers in it. I realized that was all she had; it was all she had carried out of prison with her. All day long she had been helping us to serve this young mother, and watching us bring her supplies and food – never once revealing that she had nothing herself. She served with all her compassion, all her generosity, all her heart. Having nothing, she gave everything. Like the widow with two mites, no amount was so small that she could not share.
My mind was reeling a bit at the gift that we were all being given of spending the day together. None of it had been planned. Both of them had missed earlier buses and should not have even been there when I walked into the station, on what I planned to be a brief ten minute tour.
We talked some more. About some very big and very important things. And about some very small and very mundane things. We talked about how the family had walked for ten days -through deserts, rivers, mountains – to escape gang violence in their hometown that threatened to conscript young men like Ruth’s husband. While we talked, the children wrestled and pestered us for quarters to play the arcade game.
A former convict, a searching pastor, and a courageous mother. Sitting for a little while together and remembering that what we have in common is a whole lot bigger and stronger than the differences that lie between us.
The time finally came for them to board and depart, and we said goodbye about a dozen times; with kisses on the cheeks and promises to pray for one another, and promises to act – not just for ourselves but for all the mothering figures journeying on this road.
When the last glimpse of them had disappeared from sight, I walked down the street to my car in the deep darkness of late night Houston; completely in another world; incapable of responding to the men who catcalled, or the ones who asked for a dollar. My heart twisting and wrenching inside of me. I slumped into the driver’s seat exhausted. The thought of Ruth, the mother and her children – who by this time I loved – driving in the opposite direction from their father; having to journey on without him. The thought of Naomi, the woman who had become their protector; all the pain she had suffered without becoming hardened; all the light that shone out of her generous and gentle heart. The strength. The courage. The pain. The beauty.
My jaw clenched, and my throat tightened as silent tears slid down my face in mourning and celebration and exhaustion. I felt nothing and I felt everything, all at the same time.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring; but I know that today love drove out fear, and within one little circle, we acted like family. That is a start.