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Gratitude Feels Different This Year: A Reflection on Volunteering with RVRP

My husband, Jonny, and I just returned from a weekend down at the US border, where we volunteered at a respite center for families seeking asylum. This short weekend experience reaffirmed something that a former church leader taught me: The best thing you can do is show up for people.

I first learned about the Rio Valley Relief Project through a church service activity. We were assembling hygiene kits in a tidy assembly line. Hair ties, toothbrushes, deodorant, toothpaste, and chapstick all stuffed snugly in ziploc bags. It was there, in the assembly line, that I spoke to one of the board members there about her experiences of going down to the US border. She told me story after story of heartbreak of what she saw and witnessed and learned, and her stories brought tears to my eyes.

She said something to me that I will never forget. She looked at me and said, “Those people don’t need your sympathy. They need bodies down there helping and serving. If you just show up, there will be something for you to do.”

I was a little taken aback but realized she was right. Here I was, feeling so good about myself for spending 30 minutes of my Saturday afternoon doing a service activity, chit chatting with friends in the community, not really connected with the people who would be benefitting from my little attempt of service. At that moment, I felt so far-removed and privileged that I felt a little sick to my stomach. Her words stayed with me. They don’t need my sympathy. They need me.

And so, that’s how Jonny and I found ourselves this past weekend at the respite center. My church leader’s words echoed in my head: the best thing you can do is show up for people.

We spent most of the two days there playing with the children. We offered baby carriers and hygiene kits and coloring books and crayons and stickers. The children’s eyes lit up as they got to choose colors of embroidery thread to make friendship bracelets. We spent hours giving piggyback rides to kids, coloring with them, and talking to them.

Jonny even led the kids in limbo, modeling how to shimmy underneath a broomstick. We brought a speaker and took music requests. We all danced together. Jonny made us all laugh by casting an imaginary line and reeling in a mom watching from the sidelines; she came into the middle of the circle and danced and we all clapped.

Afterward, a mom looked at me with tired eyes and thanked me for playing with her two high-energy daughters. I held them by the arms and spun them around and around while they shrieked with laughter.

A child I talked to told me that she had walked by foot to the United States for four months. She showed me the calluses on her feet and smiled shyly.

A small boy told another volunteer that he walked through the jungle and saw lots of big snakes and dead children floating in the river. “You are very brave,” she told him. His eyes sparkled.

I spoke with a teenage boy who reminded me of my own students. I told him, through Google Translate, that I was a high school teacher. Do you have any questions about schooling here in the US? I asked him. His main question was if he would be bullied based on his skin color or nationality. My heart just broke for him. I knew whatever I said would shape the way he viewed America, so I was careful in my response. “I hope not,” I said. I told him that many of my students who also came from Venezuela were some of my hardest-working students. “Really!” He said. He looked surprised. He smiled, “Then I will work hard, too.”

I watched new parents hold their newborn baby in a bundle of pink blankets, just 5 days old. They asked us if there was a way we could get them baby clothes. The volunteers went to Walmart that night, oohing and ahhhing over sweet small baby clothes that we would buy for them.

The best thing you can do is show up for people.

It’s painful knowing that the future of the families I met is so uncertain. Jonny and I have prayed for them every night since, hoping that everything goes smoothly for them. That they will be safe and find a loving life here.

This Thanksgiving season, I have mixed feelings. I feel it wrong to be grateful for the things I have simply by chance, by luck, by circumstance. I could have just as easily been born in a situation where my needs were not met. I do not understand why the circumstances of life differ so drastically.

I feel hesitant to say I am grateful for my home, running water, my job, modern medicine, five grocery stores within 10 minutes of me. I am grateful for those things. I also know that there are others who, through no fault of their own, are unable to say the same. I suppose it’s better than having those things and not being grateful for them.

Saying “thank you” in the midst of poverty and war and confusion and tension and grief and sadness feels naive. It feels daring. It feels hopeful. It feels relieving.

There is a poem, “Thanks” by W.S. Merwin, that I will leave at the bottom of this letter. This poem so beautifully captures the tension of gratitude and grief. If I was in charge of a fancy Thanksgiving meal for hundreds of people, this would be the poem I would read before eating. I suggest reading it out loud - the rhythm and pacing of the poem comes through more clearly that way.

I am learning that gratitude can exist in a world that is both dark and light, both evil and good, both heartbreaking and hopeful – both things can be true at once.

In the midst of war, confusion, sadness, grief, offering gratitude can feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, being grateful can also be brave. Being grateful can be humbling. Being grateful can look like showing up.


By M.S. Merwin


with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky

and say thank you

we are standing by the water thanking it

standing by the windows looking out

in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the door

and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks we are saying thank you

in the faces of the officials and the rich

and of all who will never change

we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us

taking our feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

thank you we are saying and waving

dark though it is

You can read more of Kimber’s writing on her newsletter, Kimber Was Here.

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