The Gift of a Stranger

I’m padding around the house at midnight unable to sleep. The full moon lights up the living room with a ghostly sheen, but I turn on the twinkling Christmas lights anyway.  They dangle and twist around the agave plant spire that acts as our Christmas tree. The desert is glowing with a silvery patina; the night owls are hooting. While the dogs are softly snoring (along with my husband), I look out at the glittering stars and frost blanketing the surrounding mountains.  It is the most magical time of the year.

And I wonder who is out there.

Samaritan Jaime and baby Angel

Samaritan Jaime and baby Angel

I met at least a dozen men last Tuesday at the comedor who told me they plan to cross the border into the Sonoran desert and head for Utah, Washington, Florida. Did they find a little cave to sleep in on this freezing night? Did they build a fire to ward off the freezing temperatures? Are there children out there? Maybe they are taking advantage of the moonlight and covering some miles on foot tonight. Are they crouching in fear as helicopters hover overhead?  How can people survive this frigid December weather?

Samaritan Linda and baby Eveline

Samaritan Linda and baby Eveline

A few days ago driving to town, I saw a man and woman walking along the side of the road, crossing a bridge heading toward the freeway. They looked Latino, or perhaps Native American; the woman appeared elderly, wrapped in a shawl. The man was assisting her as they walked.

I was late for a doctor appointment, had my mind on a long list of things to do, and needed to drive 60 miles more to Tucson. Slowing my car down, the couple looked at me. I looked at them. The woman waved her hand and looked me in the eye, trying to get my attention.

I kept on going.

Driving about a hundred yards I pulled over, trying to decide if I should go back. I was alone and it was still dark, before dawn. I could not let this couple into my life. My mind was too full of appointments and Christmas lists.

Volunteer Abby and baby Eveline

Volunteer Abby and baby Eveline

Feeling both fear and guilt, I looked behind me in the rear view mirror. I saw the car in back of me slow down and stop to talk to this couple. It looked like they were giving assistance, as the two climbed into the car.

I haven’t been able to get this incident out of my mind. It was a reminder to me that I need to pay attention to the stranger in my midst. I need to slow down and face my fears. Here I live in the wealthiest and most heavily armed country in the world, and I feel fear about people walking along the side of the road asking for help. I need to get a grip.

I’m also just too damn busy.

The Holy Family and the wall

The Holy Family and the wall

This week I participated in the annual posada in Nogales, Mexico—an event sponsored by the Kino Border Initiative and the Diocese Without Borders. The posada is the reenactment of a pregnant Mary and Joseph searching for a place to stay in an inhospitable land. There is no room for them in Bethlehem. No one is welcoming, and the exhausted pair end up in a stable with the animals. Mary gives birth in a manger, a feeding trough full of hay. It is difficult to imagine a more humble birthplace. 

They are the strangers at the side of the road.

Walking with several Samaritans from Arizona into Nogales, Mexico to the appointed meeting place for the posada, we wended our way through the aisles and gates of the port of entry with shoppers, honking cars and children running about.

Let the posada begin!

Let the posada begin!

Is this going to be super religious? What happens during this parade,” asked one of the Samaritans, a newcomer to this work.

Well,” I answered, “ it IS the Christmas story. And the sisters and Jesuits will be running the show. So, yes, it will probably be religious.”

Fr. Pete Neeley, Joseph, Mary and the burro.

Fr. Pete Neeley, Joseph, Mary and the burro.

When we reached the plaza there were people from the comedor in Mexico, with participants from Tucson and many surrounding villages and towns of the borderlands. Mary was fussing with her blue veil, and the angel’s wings were askew. Joseph, a hunky teen from a local high school, looked nervous.

When the burro arrived, Mary suddenly realized she had to ride this animal. She looked to her mother and expressed her fears about falling off. In fact, riding astride the donkey was a challenge, as she hiked up her gown and tried to figure out how to stay on the beast and look serene, composed and Biblical.


Mary at the wall

Mary at the wall

The street hawkers were out imploring me to stock up on their low priced pharmaceuticals, Viagra, bottles of tequila, and anti-depressants.

K-Mart prices,” they shout. “Almost free!”

The day was dazzling and warm, and the sun shone fiercely on our motley group as we began our posada procession winding through the streets of Nogales, Sonora.  Shopkeepers watched silently as we slowly walked along the wall toward the comedor. A chorus of dogs created an opera of barks and howls as we walked by their yards.  Sirens wailed, and motorcycles revved up their engines. We quietly marched along the bumpy streets, watching out for the potholes and pavement cracks.

Marla Conrad at the wall

Marla Conrad at the wall

Stopping at the wall for singing and reflection, there were posada singers on the American side and on the Mexican side. Peering through the slats of the metal fence, the singers expressed the sordid truth about the plight of thousands of Latino people.

The songs did not mince words:

On the Mexican side of the wall the women sang out:

 “Dehydrated and hungry

I crossed this desert.

As we jumped the wall

Our life was uncertain.”

Songs of injustice at the wall

Songs of injustice at the wall

On the American side of the wall the words pierced my heart:

I don’t care if you die.

If you come to take advantage

And if you continue to interfere

We will shoot you.”

The refrains flowed back and forth. There were many verses which made me flinch. As an American, it was difficult to listen to these words. Unfortunately, the songs spoke of truths that my fellow Americans do not want to hear. The U.S. government has turned its back on a humanitarian crisis of huge proportions.

Passing by the killing site of teenager, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez

Passing by the killing site of teenager, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez

This was more than a religious procession about Mary and Joseph. The political and spiritual soul of Christmas was profoundly explored during our parade through Nogales.

I walked beside a couple of migrants who carried a banner proclaiming that “Laws are Unjust That Separate Families.” As we stopped along the way and heard the stories of men and women who were lost in the desert or locked up in detention centers for months, the migrants listened attentively.  There were silent tears as many stared into the distance contemplating what lies ahead.

The Holy Family in the streets of Nogales

The Holy Family in the streets of Nogales

At last we reached the comedor where a feast and music greeted our procession. I thought about how my life is enriched when I let people in—poor people, rich people, people of color, white people, gay and straight people, Republicans, Democrats, agnostics, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Sitting down to eat with the diversity of this posada crowd, I felt connected to my brothers and sisters south of the border.

It was good to get away from the rampant consumerism of the Christmas season and just break bread with strangers and friends. We have so much in this beloved country of ours, and yet we are so involved in the frenzy of gift giving and receiving, we do not let the people in who matter.

May the spirit of this Christmas holiday give you a deeper connection with family, friends and the strangers among us.

May we open the doors of our hearts to the outcasts.

May we stop and help the stranger on the side of the road.

Arriving at la frontera, the border

Arriving at la frontera, the border


Please direct your comments and thoughts to Peg Bowden in the “Comments” section of the blog.  I can also be reached at 

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The Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans is a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent deaths in the desert.  Information and contributions can be directed to:

Kino Border Initiative directs the activities of the comedor in Nogales, Mexico.  The mission is to help create a just, humane immigration policy between the United States and Mexico.  Their website is:

The Border Community Alliance is an exciting new organization in southern Arizona focusing on the economic, cultural and humanitarian needs of the Arizona borderlands.  Non-profit status is pending.  Contact Bob Phillips at:   for more information.

~ by Peg Bowden on December 18, 2013.

10 Responses to “The Gift of a Stranger”

  1. Dear Peg,
    your writing truly stands out. I have tremendous respect for the work you and the other samaritans, nuns and volunteers do at the Comedor. This is political, but it is also deeply personal, and your sharp voice is representing the individuals behind the politics so well. May all involved feel the warmth of the holiday season.
    Kindest thoughts,
    Nina, Tromsø, Northern Norway

  2. Peg,
    This is the best Christmas card I’ve read. Your story is all too familiar, and one we all could tell. How many times have I been “too busy” to care for a person in need? More than I care to admit.

    I’m so put off by the consumerism of Christmas and have come to really dread this time of year. Why do we feel that we must buy so many presents in order to fully celebrate Christmas with our families? Why do we worry about making sure everyone in our lives has just ‘one more thing’ under the tree?

    Maybe next year I’ll do Christmas differently. It would be so easy to make that change and could mean so much to people who really NEED more.

    Maggie Sievers

  3. Peg,

    Thank you for the beautiful and sad “Gift of a Stranger,” and reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas.

    Feliz Navidad
    Richard Chamberlin

  4. What a beautiful touching story! Thank you, Peg, for opening your heart to all that is around you. And for inspiring me to do the same.

  5. I don’t know how I forget to read your blog for a while. It’s wonderful what you’re doing, and writing! Thanks — miss you up here!

    Jeff Parsons

  6. Well, this one made me cry…again. I felt gut-shot by the photos of Mary and Joseph next to that ugly wall. Everything you’re doing is tremendously important.
    Jan Leonard

  7. Amazing Peg. I am grateful for your thoughts and words and your life response.


  8. Merry Christmas to you and all the other angels of the Nogales border community!! I miss you all dearly but your posts help me feel close to the people and issues at hand. Keep working your great work, Peg.

  9. Dear Peg,

    Now I know why I forgot to read your latest blog entry for more than three weeks. I was telling myself and others that I am waiting for a moment when I am not distracted so I can give it the full attention that your blog entries always deserve.

    That moment has come, and in a strange way I have been consoled by your story about driving in the dark and cold and seeing the two people walking on the road. It happened to me fourteen years ago in Massachusetts, around midnight on Christmas eve. It still bothers me that I was afraid to stop for the man.

    Gratefully yours,


  10. I was Mary in the Posada, I lived what you wrote and it still amazes me how touching it was. You wrote it in a way that captured the raw nature of this event. Not only was it beautiful but it was full of flaws and that is what makes it perfect. Thank you so much for this.

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