November 14th, 2019

“The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”
― Saint Oscar A. Romero,  from “The Violence of Love”

All right, so what is “conversion”? What does it mean to be “converted”. Father José spoke about that topic at our meeting in the cathedral in Tuesday evening. He said that our five-day trip to the Mexican border has to be a conversion experience for us. He has been there twice, and it has definitely been a conversion experience for him. So, what does that really mean to anyone else?

Almost all religious traditions talk about conversion. In Judaism it is “t’shuvah” (תשובה), which roughly translates to “repentance” or “turning back”. In my ten year experience as an unofficial member of an Orthodox Jewish congregation, t’shuvah seems to mean much more than that. It means self-transformation. T’shuvah is about radical change. It means becoming a new person.

I also have experience with Zen Buddhism. In that group, there is very seldom any talk about conversion in a religious sense, probably because Zen isn’t really a religion. I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not a religion. In any case, in Zen there is the idea of change and enlightenment. A person can change, through meditation, and see the world more clearly. The Buddha was, by definition, was a person who became awake. Zen has no gods. Zen only talks about recovering our inherent Buddha nature, which just means waking up and becoming who we really are.

Conversion, in its roughest form, just means “getting your shit together”.

This is hard.

We do not have many good models for conversion. In Christianity, the most obvious example of conversion is that of Paul on his way to Damascus. That example is almost useless. Conversion seldom happens that way. It is unlikely that any individual will be struck down in the road by a brilliant light, and then have God speak directly to them.

Conversion happens in slow and subtle ways. A Buddhist once told me that I would never recognize a change in myself, but other people would. I found this to be true. Conversion is not often apparent to the person being changed. However, other people notice.

Sometimes, in Christianity, people are eager to tell about their conversion experiences. This can be less than useful. I have heard, from at least one person, a story of how he found Jesus, and it was clear to me that his new-found connection with Jesus did not affect his lifestyle in any way at all. He was still an asshole. Conversion means more than just kneeling at the foot of the cross. It means a fundamental change. 

Conversion is not something that can be forced. People cannot be truly converted by the sword or by the threat of torture. Conversion has to come from within the person, and even that cannot be forced. I cannot say to myself, “Today, I will change my life.” Conversion does not happen through the force of will. It is more of a letting go of things.

In the Heart Sutra of the Buddhists, it says, “No attainment and nothing to attain”. We do not strive for conversion. We collapse, and we sit down in ashes and sackcloth, and we accept conversion.  We just let it happen. It comes to us.

Have I been converted by our trip to El Paso/Ciudad Juarez? I have no idea. Maybe. I guess I will find out later.


November 10th, 2019

“People are like stained – glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

“Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are”

from “Wake Me Up When September Ends” – Green Day

My father died a year ago today. I still don’t miss him.



Yeah, I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. I’m not angry with him anymore, but I don’t miss him. Actually, he isn’t entirely absent from my life. I can still hear his voice in my head. I still hear him bitching about something or other. All I want him to do is leave me alone. We’ll meet again soon enough. In the meantime, I just want him to keep his distance.



I remember my dad’s funeral. It was remarkably soulless. I went through the motions, and I think that some of the other people there did the same thing. Nobody said anything about my father, except for the priest, and the priest hardly knew the man. I didn’t even want to be at the funeral. Karin convinced me to go there for my own good, even if I didn’t want to be there for my father. I guess I would feel bad now if I had not gone to the service. However, I went there out of a sense of duty, not necessarily out of love. Well, maybe there was a little bit of love. I don’t know.



Karin and I went to a funeral yesterday. It was held at the Victory Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee. The church looks like a warehouse from the outside. It is on the corner of Teutonia and Center on the north side of Milwaukee. The neighborhood is a little rough. There is a lot of poverty there, and the population is almost entirely Afro-American. We attended the funeral of a woman, Latanya, who we really never knew. We were actually there to support a woman that we do know. The woman we know is Merry Jo.



Merry Jo is the widow of Earnel Nash. Ernie died in August of 2017. Blood cancer. Karin and I were friends with Ernie and Merry Jo. I had worked with Ernie for probably twenty years. He thought I was an asshole, and that’s probably true. Somehow, we got to really know each other, and we were close during his last years. Since Ernie’s death, Karin and I have stayed in contact with Merry Jo. That has been a blessing for us.



Let’s pause for a moment here. You have to understand how racist and segregated Milwaukee is. It’s bad. There aren’t many white people who are willing go up to Capitol and 18th Street, where Merry and Ernie lived, and there aren’t many blacks who will come down to Oak Creek, where we live. But we all did those things. Merry Jo and Ernie came to our house, and we went to theirs. We ate together, and laughed together, and eventually grieved together.



Merry Jo called me on Tuesday evening. She has a soft, musical voice, one that is always soothing. She told me,



“Frank, I just want to let you know that our daughter passed on.”



I was stunned by that. “I’m sorry”, I replied.



She went on, “Well, I just wanted to tell you, because you’re family.”



That cut to the bone.



Merry Jo continued, “The funeral, it’s going to be on Saturday at noon. The viewing will start at 10:30. You gonna come?”



So, what was I going to say? What could I say?



The fact was that I had an electrician coming to the house at noon on Saturday. I told her,



“I might not be there for the funeral, but I am going to the east side to see my rabbi on Thursday morning. Can I stop at your house when I’m done talking with him?”



Merry Jo said it was okay.



That’s what I did. I first went to talk to the rabbi at Lake Park Synagogue. I’m a Catholic, but I still have a rabbi, in case I need a second opinion on a spiritual matter. I’ve been part of the synagogue for ten years now, so they accept me as I am.



It always feels strange driving to Merry’s house. Sometimes folks give me a second look when I park on 18th Street. I guess that they might think I am one of those damn probation officers. Why else would some old white guy be stopping in their neighborhood?



Maggie answered the door at Merry’s house. Merry wasn’t there. I talked for a while with Maggie and Ora, two older black ladies. Well, they are my age. We are all on the same page. Ora asked me about my kids. I mentioned that somebody I dearly love is in prison. She didn’t even blink at that. We talked about the prison in Taycheedah. Ora knew all about that place. So did I. We had something in common. Merry was didn’t come home while I was at her house. She was busy arranging things for her girl’s funeral. So I left after I told the ladies that I would see them on Saturday.



Karin and I didn’t see Merry Jo until the funeral on Saturday. We were there for over an hour before we saw her. Karin and I viewed the deceased, and then we sat in a pew.



Okay, let’s talk for a moment about race.



The church was packed with people for the funeral. All the pews were full, and there were a number of individuals standing in the back. There might have been two hundred black people in attendance. There were maybe a dozen white folks. Does that matter? I don’t know. All I know is that I was like a grain of salt in a pepper shaker. Nobody said or did anything to disrespect me or my wife. Karin and I were welcomed there, and we are grateful for that. We just felt out of place. That was our reality.



The deceased, Latanya, had died at the age of forty-four. She had left behind two adult daughters, and a five-year-old girl. The central section of pews was completely filled with Latanya’s extended family. There were her daughters, her brother, her mom, her uncles, aunts, cousins, and others on the family periphery. There were lots of people gathered there. That impressed me, because I remember there were so few people at my father’s funeral. Granted, he was a very old man when he died, so not many of his contemporaries were still around. However, he had alienated so many people in his life that he had almost nobody left at the end.




Most of my experience with funerals is from within the Catholic Church. We have ritual, and that helps to keep things moving. True ritual touches the human heart. The Baptists have ritual too. The pastor kept the service flowing, even when people wanted to sing hymns solo. The people in this church own these funerals. They know how to tug at the heart strings. They know how to call on God. This service was like Ernie’s funeral; it was totally real. It was strong and it was righteous.



Merry Jo looked tired, and a bit dazed, during the service. She sat in front with her grand-daughters, and she occasionally reached over to them to hold their hands. I could see the love within that family, and it made my heart hurt. These people cared about each other deeply. It showed.



One of the elders gave a sermon. It was about Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. The man spoke like an old school preacher. He was completely authentic. He got himself wound up, and he wound up the congregation. There were numerous “Amens!” from the crowd, and some women held up their hands in praise. I don’t know if I agreed with the man’s theology, but I was in love with his spirit. When he spoke, I believed.



Karin and I were only able to find and greet Merry Jo once we got outside the church. She was surrounded by people, and we kind of pushed our way in to her.



Both Karin and I hugged her.  We told her how much we loved her.



That was a good funeral.



November 7th, 2019

“Pull up a chair. Take a taste. Come join us. Life is so endlessly delicious.”
― Ruth Reichl

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
― John Donne

During the trip to El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, several people told our group to work at building community. I remember, in particular, Father Bill mentioning that. It sounds like a good idea. The problem is: what does it really mean? How do you build community? What exactly is a community, and why do we want to build it?

One definition of the word “community” is:

“A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”.

That definition doesn’t help very much. It could mean almost anything, and maybe it should.

During one of our evening reflections at Casa Vides, a member of our group remarked that we had already done much to build community among ourselves. Really? How and when did that happen? In the last few weeks, since we returned from El Paso, I have heard from five people who were in our company. That would be five out of fourteen. So, does that make us a community? Perhaps not.

Building community, whatever that actually means, is a long and arduous process. Spending five days together with strangers does not make a community. During the five days, I spent hours talking with some people, and I spent at most five minutes interacting with others. I suspect that this sort of thing is normal. I connected quickly and easily with some folks, but I felt a distinct barrier in my dealings with others.

Building community takes time. A person does not become part of a community overnight. Sometimes, the process requires enormous patience. I am part of a shul, an Orthodox Jewish community. I am not Jewish. I would estimate that it took probably five years before I was accepted into that community. It took that long for mutual trust to develop. This might be an extreme example, but I mention it to emphasize that building community is not as simple as friending somebody on Facebook.

Building community requires listening. To truly connect with somebody, a person has to shut up and listen to other people. In our culture we are not good at that. Often when I talk with someone, my mind has already gone some place else. I find it difficult to be with another person 100%. However, that total commitment is necessary to establish a bond with the other individual.

Building community cannot be forced. Connections between humans happen in a haphazard sort of way. There are environments that are conducive to community-building; for instance, meals taken together. However, communities, like friendships, develop at their own pace. Community building is not always an active process. Sometimes, it requires that people abandon their agenda and just let things flow. Our culture is not good at that either.

People move in and out of communities. A person may be part of a community for just a week, or maybe for their entire life. Communities are fluid. They are dynamic because they are alive. Living things move and change. Only death is static.

Is our small group from the El Paso trip a community? I don’t know. It may be in the process of becoming one. We have shared an important experience, and some of our interests are the same. However, we are, at this point, mostly just strangers to each other. We could easily drift away from each other, and that would be a shame.

I guess we’ll have to work at this.




November 7th, 2019

“I stand here at your border crossing
What a way to meet
Face in total disarray
Papers incomplete
A traveler at your mercy
My future rests on you
Will you turn me back around
Or will you stamp me through

Please forgive my awkwardness
I know I’m quite a mess
If I were a smuggler
I’d have much more finesse
Yes, if I were a smuggler
I’d breeze across this border
My clothes a bit conservative
My papers all in order

So please do check my pockets
And by all means check my bag
Make sure you search my vehicle
And check the license tag
And when you feel I’ve met
The strict demands of your employer
I hope you find it in your heart
To lose your paranoia”

“Border Crossing” from Timbuk 3

I don’t understand borders. I realize that statement does not make much sense, but it is true.

When I was in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez, the border was in my face all the time. The wall, the river, the bridges, the ports of entry: all these things made it abundantly clear to me that there is (literally) a line in the sand that some people cannot cross.

I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why these things exist.

My wife, Karin, is not a U.S. citizen. She has a green card, and she has resided in the United States for almost thirty-five years. She has chosen to remain a German.

A number of people have asked me about that. It bothers them. They usually ask things like:

“Why doesn’t she want to be an American? This is her home, isn’t it?”

Those questions only make sense if a person assumes that there is actually a difference between being a German and being an American. Karin does not see a difference. Nor do I. Karin and I, being rather Catholic (or occasionally Buddhist), really believe that there is only one human family, and therefore the divisions between peoples are all artificial.

This means that we consider borders to be things that are only man made, which means they can also be unmade. Borders exist first and foremost in our minds. Borders are just ideas, at the beginning. Later, they take on concrete form. Human borders do not exist in nature. The only physical border that can be seen from space is the the Great Wall of China, which is no longer functioning as a border. All borders are ephemeral, and in a sense unreal. Yes, walls of steel and cement are tangible, but they are not natural. History has shown that they do not last.

What else has history shown us? From my reading, history shows a continual migration of peoples across the globe. There has been an endless mixing and movement of populations, regardless of the obstacles placed in their ways. Even in my own lifetime, borders between countries have changed and shifted. The permanence of these boundaries is an illusion. We spend endless amounts of time and money to stop a relentless tide. We fight against our own future.

It was striking to me when I walked over the bridge from Mexico to the United States. I jumped through all the hoops provided by the Custom and Border Protection folks. I showed them my passport, my little magic book. After a quick glance, they waved me through. Other people, they don’t wave through. How do they decide who is worthy, and who is not? Is there an objective standard? I doubt it.

Am I any better than an asylum-seeker from Honduras? No. So, why can I come into the U.S., but that person cannot? Why can I have a home here, and the other person has to sleep in a tent on the other side of the border? In this world, in this age, what does it mean to be a citizen of a certain country? In a time when the free flow of goods, and information, and especially money is paramount, what does it mean to be a citizen of a particular country? When multinational corporations spread their tentacles across the planet, what does it mean to be a citizen of one country?

Who are we?

Are we not one?




Helicopters in the Night

November 3rd, 2019

I never slept well at Casa Vides. It wasn’t the fault of anyone there. It’s just how I am. I wake up pre-dawn, and then my mind races for a while. While I was staying at Casa Vides, I would get up and sometimes go outside. I would stand on the upper landing in the cool breeze, and stare at the lights of El Paso. It was usually quiet, except for the sound of the helicopters.

There was always a helicopter in the sky in El Paso. Day or night, there was always somebody flying along the border. That was 24/7; constant, endless surveillance.

While we were in El Paso, we had a meeting with members of the U.S. Border Patrol. They met us on the dirt road that runs parallel to the wall. Four agents got out of an SUV. Three of them were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. They were all Latinx. I’m not sure why that was. I don’t think it just a coincidence.

The agents explained their work. The Border Patrol monitors the territory in between the official ports of entry. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection folks work the ports of entry. Border Patrol are in green uniforms, and the CBP in blue. The Border Patrol officers have a big job. They usually operate alone, seeing as there aren’t enough agents for them to work as teams. They ride in SUV’s or on ATV’s. Some of them ride horses. Some fly in helicopters.

The Border Patrol has a wide selection of surveillance equipment. They have infrared cameras, seismic ground sensors, and magnetic sensors. They have all of the newest toys.

The agents spent most of their time describing the humanitarian side of their work. At least one of them was an EMT. They do search and rescue missions to help people who are lost in the desert. They catch human traffickers. They stop the “bad guys”, or try to.

I asked one of the agents, “How much of the drug traffic do you manage to stop?”

I didn’t get an answer. The agents told us that was no accurate way of measuring their success rate with regards to drug interdiction. I found that to be interesting.

If these agents are right, then we, the people of the United States, are throwing billions of dollars into a ambiguous fight against the cartels. We have no idea if what we are doing is effective. We have no way of knowing if we are winning the war on drugs. We are just blindly hoping that our efforts are making a difference. I don’t see this is being a good way to operate.

I don’t envy the Border Patrol agents. They seem to be dedicated. However, it appears that they are doing a thankless, and perhaps impossible job. They are trying to hold back a relentless tide of desperate migrants. They also are trying to stop drug cartels that are probably as well equipped as the Border Patrol is.

It’s a bad situation, and the sound of the helicopters remind me of that.





Casa Romero

November 3rd, 2019

Casa Romero is one of the shelters run by Annunciation House in El Paso. It’s larger than Casa Vides, and it is situated in an industrial area. Casa Romero is located close to a detention facility for illegal immigrants that is run by ICE. There is more than a little irony in that. If I remember right, Casa Romero itself was once a detention facility. That is even more ironic.

Our group arrived at Casa Romero around supper time, so we ate with the guests who were staying there. There weren’t very many people staying at Casa Romero, mainly because of the latest rules imposed on migrants by the Department of Homeland Security. A month ago, this place would have been packed with people. Now it was nearly empty. It is very possible that, at any moment, the shelter could be full again. It all depends on the man in the White House, and changes could occur at the speed of a tweet.

Some volunteers served us dinner. We had spaghetti, garlic bread, and a salad. We sat at tables with the guests. I sat across from an elderly Mexican woman. I made a feeble attempt to start a conversation in my extremely limited Spanish, but that really didn’t work out. We could not understand each other, amid the noise at the dinner table.

Most of the people at Casa Romero were older women. They were from Mexico. They reminded me a lot of the ladies in my wife’s knitting group. None of them were typical migrants. None of them planned on living in the United States. Actually, their story was a lot weirder than that of the other guests at Casa Romero.

These elderly women were in El Paso in order to qualify for Social Security benefits. Their husbands, now dead, had worked legally in the United States long enough to entitled these widows to Social Security checks. Our government requires these women to take to extraordinary measures to collect the money that is rightfully theirs. If a widow lives in or near Ciudad Juarez on the border, she is required to show up at an El Paso Social Security office once a month. If the widow lives far from the border, she is required to show up at a Social Security office on a specific date once a year, and then stay in the U.S. for an entire month. Does this make any sense? Of course it doesn’t.

As far as we know, this rule only applies to Mexicans. As an example, I will qualify for Social Security in a few months. If I drop dead, my wife will get a check. My wife is a German national. If, after my demise, she would decide to move back to Germany, I am pretty sure that the Social Security Administration would send her checks to that country. This particular policy seems to be designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Mexican widows to get the money that is due to them. I have to admire the old ladies staying for a month at Casa Romero. They are determined to get what is owed to them.

After supper, after we cleaned up the tables and put away the chairs, Brinkley gave us a talk about the detention of illegal immigrants.

That talk was hard for me. Brinkley talked about the government’s policy concerning detention of people who have crossed the southern border illegally. Those who are arrested are almost always placed in detention for an indefinite period of time, without access to friends, family, or legal assistance. This applies even to those persons, or especially to those persons, who are seeking asylum in the United States. Brinkley spoke to us about the innumerable obstacles placed in the path of these detainees. It all sounded way too familiar.

There is a young woman in prison right now. My wife and I love her dearly. Some people in our group seemed shocked and disturbed by Brinkley’s comments. They just don’t know. I understood Brinkley’s words clearly, because I have lived them. Nothing that Brinkley said was new to me. I have seen all of this.

I asked Brinkley directly,

“So, what you are saying is that these detainees are screwed unless they have somebody on the outside to pay for their access to phones and mail and legal representation?”

There was an awkward pause, and then she replied, “Yes.”

It’s true. A prisoner is totally dependent on support from people on the outside who have money. That is not just for migrants. This is for anybody who is incarcerated in this country. A person without a friend on the outside is lost, utterly lost. I know this.

It breaks my heart.

The United States is a cold and cruel country sometimes.

It just is.







Bill, Betty, and Peter

October 30th, 2019

Anapra has some surprises.

A quick tour of Anapra (a poor neighborhood in Juarez) can be instructive. The signs of grinding poverty are obvious. The steel grills on the windows and the razor wire on top of fences indicate that there is crime in the area. It is clear that people struggle to survive in Anapra. There are rumors of violence, although I didn’t witness any. It is a place where I would not want to be alone, especially at night.

Is there anything good in Anapra? Yes. I think the people are good, most of them anyway. We met a few who were truly remarkable.

I am talking about Bill, Betty, and Peter.

Father Bill is the pastor of Corpus Christi parish in Anapra. Our group joined with his congregation for Mass that morning, and then Father Bill took some time to speak with us. He took us to a church hall/community center near the church. The small building had one door with multiple locks on it. After Father Bill opened the place up, we all grabbed folding chairs and sat in a circle. Father Bill started talking.

Father Bill is a Columban priest, and he has been at Corpus Christi for quite a while. He has an interesting history, that includes a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War. His life is one of change and conversion. He’s had a hard road.

He is a man of faith who is also brutally realistic. He spoke to us about the poverty in the area. He talked about the factories that have been set up by American corporations to take advantage of the cheap labor. Some of the maquiladoras only pay the workers $2.00 a day. It is pure exploitation. Father Bill made it abundantly clear that we, as Americans, bear a great deal of the blame for the terrible conditions in Mexico. It’s hard to listen to a prophetic voice, and Father Bill has one.

The problem with listening to Father Bill describe the desperation of the people in Anapra is that there seems to be no solution, at least not on an individual level. I finally asked him,

“Okay, so what do I do. When I walk out of this door, when I go back home to Wisconsin, what am I supposed to do?”

Father Bill said, “You need to do interior work first. Get connected with God. If you do that, then at least one person is thinking straight. You need to build community. We have community here. People are poor, but we have community.”

Father Bill didn’t have many specific suggestions, but then how could he? I have to find my own path. So does everyone else.

Later, we drove to Casa Tabor. It’s a Catholic Worker house in Juarez. Betty and Peter live there.

Father Peter and Sister Betty invited us into their home. It’s basically a shack. The ceiling is low with the wooden beams exposed. There is a tiny cooking area that connects to a living room of sorts. Both Betty and Peter have bedrooms. Father Peter shares his bedroom with Brother David, who is a chaplain for the El Paso detention center. Sister Betty’s room also doubles as a guest room. They have indigenous artwork in their living room, along with a crucifix on the wall. The house is simple, clean, and welcoming.

We all sat in a tight circle. Father Peter had a notepad on his knee. He wanted each of us to tell our story. So, we did. Father Peter took notes as we spoke. Peter is a bit deaf, so sometimes we had to repeat ourselves. I mentioned to him that I had once been an Army helicopter pilot. He found that to be interesting, and he wrote it down on his pad.

Sister Betty smiled at us, pointed at Father Peter, and asked,

“How old do you think he is?”

Somebody guessed, “Seventy.”

Sister Betty laughed, “He’s ninety-six.”

That dumbfounded me. I would never have thought the man was that old. I don’t expect to look that good at the age of ninety-six. Actually, I expect to look quite dead.

Betty is a Sister of Mercy, and Peter is a Carmelite. They worked together in Peru back in the 1960’s. They started Tabor House in Washington, D.C., in 1973. They moved to Juarez in 1995. They have held workshops for women since 1996. From 2007 to 2012 there was intense gang violence in Juarez. In their area, four people were killed each day. Betty and Peter have been busy. They serve their neighbors. They build community.

Sister Betty has a shrine behind their small home. The shrine is a memorial to the people in Juarez who have been murdered over the years. Some of them were journalists, some were lawyers, some were just ordinary folks. She has the names written on a wall, hundreds and hundreds of them. Each of us picked up piece of paper with a name written on it. We were each supposed to write the name on the wall, and then pray for this victim of violence. It is ritual that Sister Betty uses to remember the dead.

Before we left, Father Peter spoke to me. He put his hand on my shoulder.

“So, you flew helicopters in the Army?”

“Yeah.” I felt uncomfortable talking to him about it, because he was so obviously a man of peace.

“How did you like it?”

I smiled sheepishly. “Mostly, it was fun. Once in a while, it was scary as hell.”

Father Peter smiled back at me, “I was a fighter pilot in World War II. During the war, they told us to fly wild. Then after that, they started have all these rules. That’s when I got out.”

I really like Bill, Betty, and Peter.