Hello my name is Joshua Ponter. I am a member of Haddonfield Monthly Meeting in South Jersey’s Philadelphia area. I have embarked on a year-long mission to travel around the country collecting stories about the founding of different meetings and looking at the way we practice Quakerism today. I will be blogging about my travels on the PYM website. Find my latest entry below. Please email me at JPonter1@gmail.com if there is anyone from your meeting who would like to sit down with me and speak to some of your history — or if you would like more information on me or my project . Thank you!
So I was not planning to travel this far south. My plan was to get far enough to escape the cold then cut west. Of course, I then ended up in 16-degrees Fahrenheit weather in Texas, but we both know to what regard I have held my plans previously. Part of this journey has been to experience people and places I have never encountered before. It seems to me that it is very easy to believe I have the elevated perspective when I haven’t experienced those things from another’s point of view. So, while I definitely had the wind chill factor on my mind, my real motivation for visiting El Paso was my need to learn and experience what life was really like right up against the border of our closest southern neighbor.
Down here, they have three seasons: The wet season, the dry season, and the windy season. I am here in the windy season. In fact, as I write this I have been stuck at a campground for two days longer than I planned because driving my tiny Jeep with my kite-like trailer in 50 MPH wind gusts is not fun for me. For those who are like me, a grossly ignorant in the subject of geography (yes I know, probably a subject I should have address before heading off on a road trip around the entire country), El Paso is at the very tip of west Texas; a few miles north or west and you’re in New Mexico, a few feet south and you’re in old-Mexico. Really, the city of Ciudad Juárez can be seen from the rooftop of any three-story building (they don’t get much higher than three stories… Did I mention the wind?) or the apex of any of the small hills that buttress the city. Or should I say half the city?
I’ve met a lot of people while I have been here. Some said stories I don’t think are totally appropriate to mention here in what is supposed to be a spiritual recounting of my journey. The people I have met who lived here awhile describe Ciudad Juárez and El Paso as two halves of the same city. I say lived here awhile because recent legislation has left this city very much castrated. It was once normal for people to live on one side of the Rio Grande, go to work or school on the other, go back to pick up their kids from day care,and again to eat dinner with their in-laws. Depending on who your in-laws are this could be considered a totally normal day in any family regardless of nationality, but a barricade exists that bars this now. Not one of brick and mortar, from what I am told some sort of barrier has existed there for ages. The wall that exists now is one of hate and fear, not erected by the people living within the city but by those without; without connection, without context, and without compassion for a world torn asunder by greed, politics, and fear.
Believe or not, this was something that surprised me. I expected to be writing about the diverse viewpoints I witnessed and how there was a good side and a bad side to this rift between countries. When I asked people why they thought this opinion was so one sided, the overwhelming consensus was that, “If people didn’t like living on the boarder they wouldn’t live here.”
I have gotten this far and realized I haven’t even mentioned El Paso Monthly Meeting. I will endeavor to remedy that now:
So, I was not really sure where I was going to stay in El Paso. Often there is a campground right in or around the city in which I can park my trailer. El Paso however was lacking in such luxuries. I reached out to the Meeting and was invited to camp out in the parking lot in the church they rent a room from for their meeting.
The meeting started in 1971 with an ad in the evening Herald Post announcing that a worship group would be forming and meeting in a local YMCA. For at least one of the founders it was considered “an oasis of serenity and spiritual sustenance in the turbulent years of the Vietnam war.” Later they began meeting at various houses before finally ending up in the small room in the lower level of the Christian Church in which they now reside.
This is an unprogrammed meeting with about 8 Friends in attendance this Sunday. Many of the Friends talked about their work in the various refugee shelters strung throughout the city. One of which was the Annunciation House, a center for people, both individuals and families, awaiting transportation or residential placement outside the city. I had the pleasure of visiting this facility when I first arrived.
There were a couple of things that struck me as significant and the reason why I consider El Paso to be my favorite city thus far on my journey. First is the commitment people seem to have for one another. The resources required to house and care for the refugees is an enormous strain on the city and her people. Yet everyone I talked to both within and without the Quaker circle seemed committed to making “this work,” to care for those in need and welcome those travelers in search for a safer and better life for themselves and their families. The second is the beauty surrounding the city. While the mountains and the desert are spectacular things to behold, those are not the works of God to which I am referring. On most every cinderblock wall of each worn infrastructure rests a Technicolor monument to the human condition. A mural depicting the faith, kindness, and love we have for each other even in the worst conditions. I wish that you, dear reader, could see what I see when I look across the skyline, in sadness and hope, and across the transient obstruction that does not separate two countries, but one people.