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Full of Our Nothing

I’m a work intern at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, spending nine months under gloriously blue skies and with a diverse community of fellow spiritual seekers. I’ve been the brunt of much good-humored teasing throughout my life. (Since I’ve never learned the art of not blushing or pretending to be unaffected, I’ve always been a tantalizing target.) Here, also, I have become the laughing stock of the group. At least once a day, if not more, someone is saying, “You’re so special” in a mocking tone of voice that attempts to imitate mine—airy, sickly-sweet. Or, “You’re such a four!”

Around the CAC, Enneagram numbers are tossed about like epithets and endearments, as the Enneagram is one of the CAC founder Richard Rohr’s pet subjects. (The Enneagram is an ancient personality profiling system that describes nine types based on “sins” such as gluttony, fear, and envy.) Number fours are known for their desperate need to be special, unique, authentic. My status as the only non-Catholic intern and as a vegetarian with dreadlocks certainly puts me well on the way to being the “most special” person at the CAC. Fours are plagued by envy. They long to be more unique than the others, to be one of the chosen (were the Israelites fours too?). We can be moody, delighting in darkness. Vincent van Gogh was a four. The number isn’t all bad. We have heightened sensitivity to beauty and pain and a great capacity for compassion. If motivated, we can express our deep feelings through art in ways that invite others to connect more intimately with themselves and the world. But pain can also overwhelm and incapacitate us.

During my first week at the CAC we spent a couple days spilling our guts with the strangers who would be our housemates for the next nine months. By Thursday, I was exhausted. Adonna, our work internship coordinator, pulled us together for an introduction to the history of and current situation in Juarez, Mexico, a city experiencing tragic violence. Juarez is just across the border from El Paso, Texas, a city with an amazingly low crime rate. The CAC has a close relationship with a women’s cooperative, Centro Santa Catalina (CSC), on a former landfill in Juarez, and seeks to stand in solidarity with CSC through financial support and friendship. For three hours we looked at depressing facts and discussed possibilities for healing.

• During the 1990s, hundreds of young women in Juarez disappeared without a trace. Kidnappings are on the increase.

• In 2008, there were 1,600 homicides in Juarez (a city of 1.3 million), due primarily to the drug wars and war on drugs (increased military presence—over 13,000 police and soldiers—has only increased the violence). This was a 500% increase in violence over previous years. In the last three years, 4,500 people have been killed due to drug-related violence. In January of this year, drug gang hitmen killed 15 people at a party, most of them teenagers.

• Drug cartels have taken over drug rehab clinics, threatening recovering addicts with death if they won’t work for them as drug dealers. Over 40 people have been killed at drug rehab clinics in the last year and a half.

• Protests and complaints about the abuses of the army in Juarez clearly indicate human rights violations and the need for civil controls. Human rights violations include summary executions, torture, illegal detentions, sexual abuse, and robbery.

• Ciudad Juarez has lost about 180 jobs per day, mostly from maquila (factory) industries, increasing the already high poverty rate.

The situation is complex, dismal, and we seemed helpless. I felt myself shutting down, becoming paralyzed by the discouraging reality. I turned away from Adonna and the other interns, focusing on the hundred-year old cottonwood tree embracing sky with its branches, clinging to earth with its roots. I imagined its thick trunk leaning into my back and the grass kissing my bare feet. I prayed for the life force in its veins to somehow also flow in me, and in Juarez. I longed for silence, an end to the seemingly fruitless discussion and ceaseless gunfire. I wanted to weep and let my salty drops water life into being in the midst of the dying. I wondered if that’s all God can do sometimes—cry silent tears.

I’m a four. I don’t do political activism, whether it’s toting a placard or crossing a line and facing imprisonment. I don’t do journalism or preaching, as I’m terrible with research and even worse at public speaking. I feel practically impotent. I’m not even sure this cause is the one asking for my energy and attention (I can’t take on responsibility for every instance of suffering—that’s God’s job; my part is only one instance of the Infinite Love’s active compassion). But my gift as a number four is my desire for authenticity and union, which can translate into deep empathy and presence to what is. I believe, though I have no scientific proof to back it up, that my openness to the suffering of others makes me part of their experience and somehow helps them be not quite so alone, like Jesus—Emmanuel, God With—joining us in the fullness of human experience, including all that entails, even death.

Twice a day, morning and afternoon, interns gather for a twenty minute meditative sit in the chapel. Someone signals the beginning of silence by striking a Tibetan singing bowl three times, hitting it again twice to end the prayer. Soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, these words came as an expression of what I hope to offer in my daily prayer time and moment-to-moment living:

The poor are

an empty singing bowl

struck. Their suffering

resonates full, a call

to compassionate action,

reverberating sounds cupped

in polished brass worn

smooth by prayerful hands,

overflowing emptiness

upon air waves and Earth’s


spilling emptiness

until we are full

of their nothing

and know their suffering

as our own.


Later, during a Juarez Solidarity event sponsored by the CAC, I learned that there are some things we can do to tangibly participate in solidarity with those of Ciudad Juarez. As you read about the issues and suggestions below, hold this question in your heart: What is mine to do?

Immigration: Those trying to flee death threats from the drug lords are legally denied political asylum in the US. Some US citizens are sheltering these refugees in their homes, despite negative consequences for themselves should they be discovered. Others are protesting unfair immigration policies and promoting immigration reform.

Drugs: If the US legalized marijuana, a practically harmless drug, and imposed a tax on its sale, the violence in border cities would be drastically reduced, diminishing the power and competition of the drug cartels. Refusing to buy illegal drugs as a protest to the violence would decrease the demand and thus the violence (though I’m assuming few reading this article would find this tip applicable).

Arms: The manufacturing of weapons in the US and the legal and illegal trafficking of them to Mexico must be addressed. Get involved in legislative action.

Consumption: Because of the increased violence in Juarez, many maquilas have closed or moved, increasing unemployment. Women from CSC have voiced a desire for more maquilas (which means more jobs). But factory wages are pitiful. Low wages make it possible for corporations such as Wal-Mart to sell jeans and alarm clocks so cheaply. When we purchase inexpensive products from sources that don’t pay workers enough to meet their basic needs, we support injustice. Buy Fair Trade and Sweat Free.

Presence: Our neighbors in Mexico need to know we exist, though our backyards are separated by an ugly fence. In the past the CAC and other organizations took groups across the border to visit CSC to learn about the conditions there, to become aware of immigration concerns, and to form relationships. Most visits have been called off for a couple reasons: many people are uncertain about putting their lives in jeopardy by going to Juarez, fearful of what could happen to them in such an unsettled environment. Also, the presence of “wealthy” Americans could draw unwelcome attention to our friends at CSC, making them targets for kidnapping (most violence has been aimed at the middle class rather than the poor living in the colonias [shanty towns] who have no ransom value). We need to look for other creative ways of demonstrating our solidarity with the people of Juarez.


• Center for Action and Contemplation:

• CAC’s pages on Juarez:

• Centro Santa Catalina:

• News articles on Juarez

Joelle Chase is an intern at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

See Spectrum’s interview with Joelle Chase.

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