Sister Judy’s Smile

Beth Hoffman Faeth March 29, 2020

Scripture: Micah 6:8; Ephesians 4:31–32

I am grateful that we are in the midst of a sermon series on the “fruits of the spirit.” It seems necessary in these days to continually remind ourselves of the character traits that root us in an understanding of the significance of human connection. In case you need a refresher, or have forgotten the Sunday school song that many of us learned as children, here is the Apostle Paul’s invitation to the people of Galatia, and ultimately to each one of us, of what it takes to live life seeded in the spirit:

As is written in the fifth chapter of the book of Galatians: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” I might add there is no executive order prohibiting these things, either.

Today, our fruit of the spirit is kindness, that beautiful possibility of opening our heart to another and experiencing the blessing of connection. Here are two scripture readings for today that emphasize kindness:

God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what is required of you
is to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God.

—Micah 6:8

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

—Ephesians 4:31–32

Let us pray:

Holy one, open our hearts to a new perspective as we ponder the meaning of kindness in this time of distancing and isolation. Amen.

*              *              *

I have to admit it is hard for me to believe that just one month ago I was traveling along the Arizona/Mexico border with over 20 other Plymouthites. It seems like a lifetime ago now. Our goal was both simple and complicated—we wanted to witness what is happening on the Mexico border and see for ourselves what we had only read about and watched on the news reels. Our itinerary was ambitious and significant. We spent time in Tucson hearing what local groups like the Samaritans are doing to serve the migrants. We walked through the desert, humbled by simple crosses marking spots where human remains had been found, desperate people longing for shelter and security and sanctuary and instead sacrificing their lives for it. We sat in a federal court room and watched as 70 people, shackled with chains on their wrists and their ankles, were paraded in front of the judge only to be deported, never having a chance to tell their story or articulate their hope. This same judge spoke to our group afterwards, answering our questions with surprising candidness, admitting that the “system” is terribly broken and the way things are done are not the just way or the humane way. And he was very clear that the only pathway to change in our immigration courts is to elect different people with different values to office. Because no matter how high a wall is built, or how restrictive the crossing laws become, or how severe the punishment for illegal entry, there will always be people risking everything to step onto American soil, fleeing the cartels that kill their children, kidnap the women and torture the men.

On two significant days we piled into rented 15-passenger vans and spent time on the border, both the American side and the Mexico side. For some of you, a bit distressed by the amount of time you are now spending alone, this may sound like exactly what your extroverted self needs: to cram into a van with 14 other people and travel into an unfamiliar country. But ask any of our folks who had to sit in the very back seat for 12 hours, and they might tell you social distancing is much preferred. But I never heard a complaint, and these were the days that held the most impact for me.

Aside from traveling skyward up the most precariously steep hill I have ever traveled—to visit a shelter in Nogales, Mexico—our travels were safe and secure. This particular moment however, makes my palms sweat just thinking about it. Following our fearless guide, a retired UCC minister who was driving the other van, it became clear as we struggled towards the top of the hill that, one, if I took my foot off the brake we would slide backwards and, two, the only way down was to turn around. As 15 people were trying to tell me what to do and my head was spinning and my stomach churning, a man appeared at the driver side window. He had the kindest eyes and a gentle smile. While language was a barrier for us, he helped me get to a place where someone else could take over the wheel—my hero, John Schenk—and with confidence could “land” the van in a safe spot. Later I learned that man’s name was Hugo, and he was the shelter supervisor and was waiting for the possibility of asylum with his family. After safely parking the vans, we all gathered to learn more about those staying in the shelter and hear their stories, and I asked what we could do for them. And Hugo, again with the gentlest eyes, looked at me and said in Spanish, “tell people in America that we are not bad people.” That may have been the most poignant moment of the whole experience for me, especially after it was Hugo who had rescued me just moments earlier, when I feared for the safety of a van full of beloved people who were in my care. Even in the midst of his family’s predicament, waiting in agonizing anticipation for a first border interview, Hugo did not hesitate to help, to reassure, to be a calming presence. And that, my friends, is the epitome of kindness.

The plan for today was to have many of those who traveled to the border here to help lead worship, to share their experiences through this time together, in addition to other opportunities for small group gatherings. And that will happen when it is safe for us to be together again, because what we saw and heard and felt were life changing. We cannot unsee what we witnessed. We will never forget the stories we heard, the people we met, the looks of trauma on the migrants’ faces combined with the hope of a new future. We will not forget the ugliness of the wall, the bitterness of tears shed for the helplessness we felt, the children who laughed and played and smiled at us with unabashed joy. And we will not forget the helpers we met, the fierce determination of those who have dedicated their lives to the plight of the migrant, who work every day so that a few can know shelter and safety, have food and fresh clothing. We need to share this with you, over and over again, so that you might join us as we work for the wellbeing of the immigrants in our own community, and as we advocate to create a country that will practice radical hospitality and welcome rather than hostility, cruelty and exclusion.

And so, since our travelers could not be with me today, I asked them to reflect on this question: “How did you witness and also experience kindness during our border immersion endeavor?”

On our second day in our 15-passenger vans, we traveled across the Arizona landscape to the town of Douglas, across the border from Agua Prieta, Mexico. It was there we met Sister Judy and Sister Lucy, part of the order of the Sisters of Notre Dame, who warmly welcomed us into their home before escorting us across the border and guiding us through our day of meeting migrants waiting for their first “credible fear interview,” as well as taking us to see some glimmers of hope at a Women’s Cooperative and then a Coffee Cooperative in Agua Prieta. Our day ended with our return to Douglas to participate in a weekly vigil, in which folks gather in a public square to lift up a cross for each person found dead in the nearby Arizona desert since 2000. 300 souls were named, and crosses laid on the curb of a busy street. Words do not do that experience justice.

It was this day that seemed to have the greatest impact on our travelers, because of what we witnessed from this pair of nuns and their relentless work of hospitality and kindness towards the migrant, and towards us.

This is what some members of our group noticed:

The Sisters of Notre Dame demonstrate kindness in so many ways. They make many trips across the border to be certain migrants in the shelter and in the tent are safe. Despite their busy lives full of kindness, the sisters welcomed all of us into their home to use bathrooms and eat the fresh bars they had baked for us, not once but twice during our day with them. —Joan Thompson

Sisters Judy and Lucy are the penultimate in kindness—true heroines. They are selfless, are completely devoted to those to whom they minister and have devoted their lives to caring for persecuted immigrants. I think about them every day as examples in kindness, humility and purity. —Nancy Siska

I remember thinking about how modestly the nuns lived in their residence near the border. And yet, they had prepared scrumptious, homemade bars for us to enjoy. That’s an act of kindness that meant a lot to me. The nuns just in general seemed to be full of kindness. We saw it, too, when the child was crying at the shelter and a nun brought a treat of some kind to calm the child. —Jerry Davis

For me, the epitome of kindness was expressed in Sister Judy’s smile. As she escorted us through our day, each of us struggling with what we were seeing, Sister Judy would look upon us and smile, and that alone would be balm for our splintered hearts. I would watch her interact with those to whom she ministered, and her smile never wavered. She was never without a kind word or a gentle touch, and while we grappled with the enormous emotional impact of the Healing Our Borders vigil, Sister Judy guided us with her smile . . . reassuring and constant.

As we move through our own time of isolation, distance and insecurity about the future, kindness must become our spiritual practice. In the words from the prophet Micah, we are told that God not only expects us to do justice, but we are required to love kindness. Social justice workers and advocates often use this text to champion a life’s mission, rooted in the work of justice and peace, yet we cannot do justice if we do not practice kindness; the two hold hands in an effort to live humbly and rooted in God’s presence.

Kindness is not a trite expression of “being nice” . . . kindness is the selfless offering so as to lift up and encourage another. Jane Thompson, Plymouth member and border trip participant, writes this: “Now and during the border immersion trip, the very essence of kindness for me is to see the heart of another and to have my own heart seen. . . . There’s a knowing that extends beyond information and empathy. The greatest kindness, the most sacred exercise in kindness, is to see the heart of another.”

The poem “Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, that Seth read earlier has become a favorite of mine since discovering it a few years ago. I have offered it before on a Sunday morning, and I shared this poem with my fellow travelers during a morning meditation, and in the last two weeks the words have reminded me of the significance of kindness as a spiritual practice. Written while lost and desperate after being robbed of everything on her honeymoon, Nye illuminates the true essence that can pull a person from a personal darkness—it is to sit in the darkness, too, and acknowledge the mysterious sorrow that beckons one into a place of despair. It is to keep showing up, to be present, to smile with authenticity that has its own healing. When we reach out to one another from empathy rather than from a need to be the savior, the “tender gravity of kindness” can be another’s saving grace. Parker Palmer writes this about the poem and about the practice of kindness, “in a world that can be as heedless and heartless as ours, kindness must grow from deep inner roots if it is to stand strong and be sustained. As the poet says: ‘Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.’”

As we move through this time where in-person connection is not possible, the practice of kindness becomes even more essential. Many of us are experiencing sorrow in not being near the ones we love; we are missing human touch and the opportunities we once took for granted. We have the choice to grow bitter and resentful and to place blame for what is happening on those who do not deserve it, or we can open our hearts to both give and receive kindness in newly innovative ways. I would love to hear how you know kindness as you socially distance and how you might share kindness, too. My greatest hope for this era of COVID-19 is that we will emerge from it a softer, gentler people who finally realize that we really need each other for our own survival. May that influence how we open our borders and hearts to the migrant, and how we really see the heart of one another.

Practice kindness, my friends.