Holding Space for a Culture of Humility...
By Kelly Curry
The humanitarian crisis at the US/MX border insinuated by the policies of the current US administration hit intense proportions over a year ago. Though things haven’t really changed, the situation has been disappeared from the media. So on October 12, with the intention of grabbing and holding and sharing some good news from the Border and being of service in any way necessary, a few of us from my local Oakland peace economy set out for Tijuana, Mexico. Some of us were headed to Ambassadors of Jesus, a shelter where our local peace economy friend and neighbor, Pancho, a de-professionalized astro-biologist, is volunteering full time. In August, CODEPINK organized deliveries of clothes, shoes, diapers, toys and I did a chocolate workshop with the babies. Ambassadors has been taking in children and families seeking refuge from Yemen, Honduras, Haiti, Cuba, and other places from around the globe for years...even more so now. A few of us were going there while others were heading to shelters in the surrounding Tijuana area in places where asylum seekers needed and welcomed support. Seemed simple. Meet up with Pancho, kick it with the kids, hear the good news of their meditation and yoga practices he’d started doing with them and pitch in however else we could. Then continue with the rest of our service journey.
My project was “Love and Peace in the Times of Kids in Cages.” On the road it came to be known as the “Love and Peace Tour.” Because Pancho speech fasts on Mondays, we waited until Tuesday the 15th to connect with him. So when finally we connected with Pancho at a friend’s place downtown T.J., we headed to an adjacent park, made a few short reels to rock on Instagram and Facebook and then hit it to the quaint, dusty, cobbled roads to the shelter. The five, six of us...including Pancho piled into the car...me driving and getting some backseat driver advice about how to drive...which for some reason kind of irritated me. I noticed my irritation right away and it perplexed me. I also noticed that the anxiety level in the car mounted the closer we got to the shelter. I surmise it was because the roads changed from being paved to unpaved and cobbled to cracked up. The speed bumps were enormous and created a loud grinding underneath the car that made everyone shout commands as to how to avoid them and what I should be doing differently. As the Lyft and Uber decals disappeared and large brightly painted school buses that acted as local transport and minivans marked “jitney” appeared...cell phone service also disappeared, the neighborhoods seemed in some ways country rustic meets makeshift to quaint craftsmanship with vivid paint and...the roads winded and twisted and dropped steeply and and the fact that we had crossed into another world seemed to bring the anxiety a little higher.
We turned down the steep winding, busy strip of road with jitney vans and busses packed with local commuters and pulled onto a wide path that looked more like a dried up river bed with large heavy rocks that make you wonder whether your car will make it...half way down the dusty, rocky road that often floods so badly that it’s both unwalkable and definitely undrivable...half of the folks in the car exclaimed discomfort and wanted to get out and walk the rest of the way and the others wanted to continue “supporting” my navigation down a road that I’d dealt with during my last visit to the shelter in August and understood how to navigate aggravating me - to my surprise - even more. The cacophony of voices...no consensus...irritation...made me feel like things were falling apart. Up to that time I’d felt like we were all on the same page about supporting and contributing...after a thimble full of tension folks were turning...what had happened? What on Earth was going on? The people who had come to lend a helping hand and promote good news, love and peace were now losing it a little. Since some folks wanted out of the bumpy ride and others were fine, I moved my own energy with my own laughter as I stopped the car and said “whoever wanna get out get out whoever wanna stay stay…” Homie riding shotgun stayed and they laughed with me as everyone else exited and made their way down the rocky, dusty, parched patch of road to the shelter.
The next worst thing that happened was that the man we’d all come to see and hear from and interview and meditate with...got out too...but he kept walking, Pancho kept walking saying he’d just gotten word that a family back down at the crossing, pretty much where we’d just came from, needed help getting to the shelter and he was going to help.Before we could protest too much Pancho had jumped into the white Church van and was being carried away from us down that dusty, rocky, unpaved road. “What?!!!” Spending time with Pancho; the first timers getting their tour; meeting the children he meditated with; being introduced to the Hatian families who lived behind the high metal gate adjacent the shelter...we needed Pancho for ALL of that. It was hot. It was dry...Tijuana is notoriously dry and this is one of the driest parts I’d been to. It was also just not cool for us to be there without an escort, it made the folks feel uncomfortable and I remembered from last time the sense that even though I was there to support and make chocolate with the children, that this was their home.“He knew we were coming to see him right?” Someone asked. “Yeah” someone else said. WOW. Somehow we accepted that we’d just be waiting around for a while. There was a collective sense of surrender. It came across in sighs...in “well okay,” from others and shrugs and one or two “we’ll live, we’ll just wait.” I focused on making my way down the rest of that jagged path and continued driving as an uneasy sense of dread washed over me. What were the relief systems for this feeling? Why was I so irritated? As I parked, someone in our group announced that it was time for them to go. “Uhhh...Oh okay bye” I said, not really sure what was happening. They were taking off. What I didn’t know and hadn’t been clued into was that they were taking the car we’d come in.
So there we’d be...no car...no Pancho...no true shelter at the shelter...just waiting around. Had we come all this way...for this moment. Our friend who was there to connect with the Hatian community went to their abode, undeterred, knocked... just to be turned away, “no Pancho, no entry.” I shook my head and wondered what I had gotten myself into. It was the first real action day into my “love and peace tour” and I was fuming. “Who knows when he’ll be back?” Pancho’s buddy from the Bay said. We couldn’t turn around we’d come too far. Our only reasonable option was to wait it out and just be there.
Pancho’s compadre, a brown skinned brother with krinkly black hair waved us over and asked us in Spanish if were friends of “Panchito’s.” “Yes.” We followed him and he brought us to an area where the kids meditated...it was through the craftily-wooded-gated footpath that separated the cement building from the natural elements...narrow and dusty. We said our permisso’s and our hola’s and I felt generally uncomfortable since we were without Pancho there to introduce us we were just intruders...well meaning strangers who were now displaced from our projects. Well meaning strangers displaced from our projects...mine being the “love and peace tour.” Uncomfortable and trying to talk myself down from fuming on the first day of the “love and peace tour,” afraid that my sour mood was amplifying out into the community we’d come to serve... I felt ridiculous. I’d considered myself nimble and easy going until just this moment. One of the solid agreements I have with myself is that I will not get myself somewhere and be stranded.
On that day because of agreements other folks had made and Pancho’s first responder status...here I was basically...stranded. Not really...but that was the feeling...and I here I was...with this marvelous gift...first action day of the “love and peace tour…” having a chance to see how I felt and related after being presented with an awkward space that challenged my purpose and perhaps identity...even for an afternoon, unable to support anyone around me, others who were also experiencing tension and irritation. I realized in that moment that I’m not really that nimble. I may not be as uptight as some others but with the combination of these few things...big things...to me...go maladjusted...boy oh boy where is peace? Where is the love?
Still, as Pancho returned we were no closer to our stated goals because he was doing his job which sometimes means being pulled in many different directions in his role as emissary to the founders of Ambassadors; brother and friend to the families; everywhere you turn Panchito is being called so it becomes like the sound of the birds singing in the morning...everywhere...as is his role and what he is there to do...in these moments we continued to fill space and time by waiting...wandering.
Then...as the person in our group who’d earlier indicated they wanted the car for some other business drove off...without checking in with us even though we were right there and the car had our many things in it...food, water..etc...I surrendered. I watched them drive away and I simply surrendered. Those of us who were left behind at the shelter had been thrown into the deep end of the pond and were left to deal with it. And then there we were. And then there were the children. Many were there when we did the chocolate/moringa workshop and they were asking me where the cacao was...the moringa? It made me laugh and smile and regret that I didn’t have my blender this time. I promised to bring it next time. So we hung out with them...my friend Nnej brought out her sticker book. Every child who came our way, she opened the book for them and they chose the sticker they wanted...and a lesson about the Spanish name for the animal or flower or bus or car or train or cloud...and the English name for it.
The afternoon dissolved into a constant but easy tension. At some point I asked again about the meditation and yoga and in that moment the children began asking for their yoga mats. Somehow they got them from the room where they were locked up. I never saw a key. Just a little girl with arms tiny enough to fit through the hole in the door to pop the lock from the other side and then one child after the other emerging with a mat of a different colors, donated by people who understand the dynamic power of meditation. Nnej and I followed them, and Pancho to the wooded area where a little house on a hill is and they walked through the gate and up the path, clearing the area with a broom and stretching out their mats. A large group of little ones sat with Sima, Dina and Nnej as they all assumed the postures and the little ones looked on...some joining and some laying down on their mats...one boy just quietly playing, careful not to make enough noise to disturb the others.
Then there was Jose, a fourteen year old, soccer player and runner emigrated from Guatamala. He sat with Pancho on his yoga mat underneath where we were and under a shady tree and for thirty minutes each sat with their eyes closed, in the lotus position. The calm and quiet, cool of the space transformed what had thus far been an explosion of nerves, tension, blame, hurt feelings and frustration. In here...in this space of tranquility and intentional peace there was what Jose, the young athlete meditating with Pancho called “a release. Feels like my mind is clear...no clutter…” Here at the shelter with Pancho is his first exposure to meditation. Their activity, invites tranquility and an easement of the morning’s snafu’s and I for one am certainly relieved and I was just being with them in the space.
Touched by the events of the afternoon and off to find the others who had taken the car and split off from us and had not returned, I was thoughtful about what had happened. I looked back on how I’d acted...a little about what other people did, but more so how I responded. Even my expectation that things would go a certain way was nonsense in the face of the circumstances of folks we had come to spend time with. I had left all of my understandings about being present and letting things just be, behind in my expectation of what we were there to do and bringing back a product of good news from the border. What a schmuck. I can’t speak for anyone else but I wasn’t happy with my response to the challenges of the day.
The next day as we sat with Pancho in a vegan cafe he knows well, we talked about some of these things. Not what had happened to us specifically, but other situations of volunteers coming and trying to help, often, without knowing it, bringing their polluted energy...their expectations, leaving their agreements behind...coming and telling people what to do or abandoning one another or not really knowing what selfless support looks or sounds like.
Tijuana is already a war zone...coming to report love and peace means just that. Coming and supporting means coming with love and peace...joy...not bringing the war that wages on the inside of us. In my prior visits I’d seen people disappeared back to the desert, hurt and compromised because of volunteers who were caught up in themselves and were only exacerbating the chaos of a crazy, deadly situation.
Sitting on that dusty hill, watching the children meditate and quiet themselves, under the rustling of the trees and sunshine making its way just enough to warm the coolness in the air, I felt for the first time that in order to be in a position to support peace, truly, there must be an empty vessel. There must be a sense of selflessness, preparation and calm.
That next day Pancho introduced a phrase that I’d heard before but never connected to the way I did in this moment…”culture of humility.” “We must create containers that support a culture of humility Kelly” My ears and heart connected in expectation of nourishment and I felt that finally the “love and peace tour” had claimed it’s own way to broadcast itself. Without knowing it, I felt that I’d entered a study in being “in love”, being “in peace”...a study of that which cannot be named, but can be felt and is oft considered simply...Grace. That is the good news. The next day trees were planted. Moringa seeds were sown. Gifts of phones and shoes and sandals were distributed to the Hatian families. And the children of the shelter were able to ease and calm and love the strangers who came for a few days to spread the news of love and peace at the border.
Special thanks to the children of Ambassadors of Jesus; Nnej Kennedy; Dina Erie & Friends and our Dear Comrade and Local Peace Economy friend & host Pancho.