On Christmas morning I put on my red Samaritan sweatshirt and headed toward the border, along with eight other Samaritans. We were a merry band of die-hard do-gooders on this sunny morn, and for once, the border crossing was empty of people and vehicles. Most Americans were at home enjoying the revelry of brightly wrapped presents, excited children and good times around the Christmas tree. A few Border Patrol agents were casually milling around the checkpoint, their weaponry reflected in the sun. We waved and shouted a greeting.

bearing gifts           Chris with gifts for the comedor

Approaching the comedor was a different story. Over the course of the next hour we were busy serving 150 migrants a breakfast of menudo (a hearty traditional Mexican soup) and bread. Everyone got a plastic bag of lunch treats today—fruit, a sandwich, some candies. I helped serve the hungry migrants, washed a hundred glasses, then served more migrants, and washed the dishes again. It felt good to be doing something on this special morning.

Bette helps serve breakfast

Bette helps serve breakfast

Shura, a Samaritan founder, was decked out in her bright red velvet Christmas lingerie, wearing this bit of nonsensical seasonal confection over her jeans and jacket. She looked liked a provocative Mrs. Santa Claus. Her husband, Rich, sported a Christmas elf hat that lit up and played a silly song. The migrants applauded our little show of jollity as we entered the shelter, and for a moment there was a festive rhythm to the busy morning. Fr. Sean gave a Christmas blessing, and the multitude was fed.

Mrs. Santa Claus

Mrs. Santa Claus

The crèche in the corner was aglow with tiny lights, and all the characters were in place in the traditional stable—Mary, Joseph, the manger, the angels and all the animals. But there was no baby Jesus just yet. The manger was empty, save for the resident cat who was curled up next to a cow and a camel. The cat knew the warmest place in the comedor, and he slept soundly under the Christmas lights on his bed of wood shavings with his head on the manger.

Room for everyone at the manger

Room for everyone at the manger

As breakfast ended a migrant approached me with his empty soup bowl, not sure where to line up with his dirty dishes. His face was heavily lined with dust and fatigue, and his eyes glittered with a wetness—from the cold, from pain, from tears? I didn’t know what was happening with this gentleman.

A migrant, Santa's elf, and the shoes

A migrant, Santa’s elf, and the shoes

He wore a dirty khaki jacket, his shoes were worn through at the soles, and his jeans were ripped. Looking at me through his teary eyes, I could see my red sweatshirt reflected in his gaze. His eyes looked red; then they looked like all the reflected colors of the Christmas lights on the manger scene. I couldn’t see his irises, but only the lights of the room reflected through his tears. His eyes were barely open as they locked onto mine, and we both looked at each other awkwardly.  I thought he was going to cry.

A Christmas moment

A Christmas moment

I asked him where his home was.

San Luis Potosi,” was his reply, a city in the central part of Mexico. He was more than a thousand miles from home.

He went on to explain that he had walked in the desert in the U.S. for nine days. He had slept in the Nogales cemetery on Christmas Eve, and was still very cold after a night of freezing temperatures. I asked if he was hurt. He didn’t answer. When I asked if he was OK, he stared at the floor and just shook his head back and forth. We stood there for what seemed like an eternity, and I had a thousand questions I wanted to ask him, but my inadequate Spanish couldn’t come up with the words. He looked so beaten and despairing, I was immobilized. In fact there were no words in either English or Spanish that wouldn’t seem cheap and superficial. So there we stood, our masks removed, truthfully and transparently trying to make a human connection. I couldn’t get past his eyes; they were full of tears, and yet they would not spill over down his worn, weary face.

A moment of warmth

A moment of warmth

And I wondered on this Christmas morning how we can celebrate the birth of Jesus, when God doesn’t help this man through perhaps the lowest point in his life. Where was the love? Where was the mercy? Why wasn’t God more of a lifeline for this wonderful person in front of me who kept staring at me?  His world was chaos, and I was having trouble entering his world and being with him. I realized that no matter what I said to this man, it would fall short. The room was probably full of 100 more stories as sorrowful and dramatic as this man’s narrative. It was overwhelming, and I wondered what I was doing here on this traditional morning of Christmas joy.

We are all migrants (sign on refrigerator)

We are all migrants (sign on refrigerator)

So, not knowing what to do, I took his empty soup bowl. It was a gesture of busy-ness, of trying to fill the self-conscious moment. He put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said, “Gracias.” I told him to be careful. I said I would say a prayer for his safety. I wished him “Feliz Navidad.” And he disappeared out the door. I wondered if I really knew how to pray for anything, much less the well-being of this lost soul.

After serving breakfast and distributing the clothes to the traveling pilgrims, one of the sisters asked our group of Samaritans if we would like to stay and witness the placing of the baby Jesus in the manger. The manger had been empty for weeks, and now it was Christmas Day and time for Jesus to sleep in his manger of straw.

Rocking baby Jesus

Rocking baby Jesus

And so we did. A lovely pageant of Christmas unfolded before our group. We watched two young women place the little statue of the infant Jesus in a small dish towel and swing the baby like a hammock, to and fro, while a group of migrants, sisters and kitchen helpers sang a song about the Christmas story. (a very long song) Then the baby Jesus was placed on a kitchen tray filled with candy and was slowly passed around the group. We were told that this was a time to ask Jesus for our own personal Christmas miracle, and take a piece of candy, a gift of His love. Each person was invited to kiss the infant statue and whisper a Christmas wish as the tray was passed around the circle.

Cradled in sweets

Cradled in sweets

Our group of Samaritans—this motley crew of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, and all the in-betweens—all stood there nervously and watched as the ritual evolved. It was a sweet moment of vulnerability for all of us, as we entered the tableau and each planted a kiss on the little Jesus statue. We bent down to whisper whatever we wished–our prayer for ourselves, our family, a sick friend, or the world of pain we had just witnessed with the traumatized migrants. The question of whether we believed the story of Christmas didn’t matter. It was a powerful moment for each of us.

The meek and the mild

The meek and the mild

It struck me at that moment, as I kissed the baby Jesus’ forehead, how vulnerable a newborn baby is, and how vulnerable I was in the presence of the suffering and despair of the migrants. I thought about my own children when they were babies—their illnesses, their traumas, their defenseless nakedness. My emotions were right on the surface. Perhaps His message isn’t experienced in our strongest moments, but in our honest weakness. I have never found it easy to be with people who are suffering. I do not want to enter the chaos and feel helpless.  And yet today I simply stood with a man who had been living an horrific drama, and I forgot about myself and my own discomfort, and just stood with him, connecting as best I could. Being in his presence was a profound gift to me in ways I haven’t quite figured out. He touched my life, and perhaps I touched his.

Peg and the newspaper lady

Peg and the newspaper lady

Our group was oddly quiet walking back to our waiting cars in the U.S. I believe that God was with us today in the unpretentious, simple surroundings of the comedor. I smile when I picture each individual bending over the little statue of Jesus on the bed of candy, and whispering hopes for the future.

And that was the best Christmas gift of all.

(Photo of “Peg and the newspaper lady” by David Zweig, a fellow Samaritan.)

Peg Bowden can be reached at

The Green Valley Samaritans are volunteers whose mission is to save lives in the southern Arizona desert.  To find out more about the Green Valley Samaritans, check their website:

The Kino Border Initiative (KBI) is a bi-national organization that works in the area of migration, and is located in both Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.  The KBI’s vision is to help make humane, just, workable migration between the U.S. and Mexico a reality.  Their website is:

The Santa Cruz Community Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting economic development and cross-border issues, can be accessed by emailing the Director, Bob Phillips, at:

I  endorse the activities of these organizations.  Financial contributions to these groups are especially welcome to help support the work in the borderlands.

~ by Peg Bowden on December 27, 2012.


  1. Dear Peg,

    Thank you for the greatest gift of this holy season: “Bearing Gifts, We Traverse Afar.”

    Richard Calabro

  2. Dear Peg,
    My flannel pj sleeves are soggy from the tears that fell as I read your blog today. Thank you for being there with our Mexican neighbors, for our weaknesses, and for your persistence in writing close to the heart.
    Merry Christmas to you all.

  3. Dear Peg,
    Thank you for your postings throughout the year and for the all-important day-to-day work at el comedor that you and your fellow samaritans perform — offering nourishment, warmth and generosity of spirit and hope to all those migrants harrowed by poverty, displacement and loss.

    The photo of the resident el comedor cat curled up next to the holy family in the manager brought a smile to my face: I have no doubt Jesus would have fully approved of this communal sharing of a warm space…

    All good wishes to you and your fellow samaritans for the coming New Year.

    Dr Joseph Pugliese
    Associate Professor of Critical and Cultural Studies
    Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies
    Macquarie University
    NSW 2109

  4. O Peg I wept when I read this posting. It was truly a very special Christmas. A moment when you were able to let another feel compassion and mercy. Emotions God gives to each of us to share. I feel so blessed, as I know you do, that we have the privilege to be with these migrants.

    I woke up Christmas morning to see snow falling from the sky. How I love white Christmas, but when thinking of our migrants I really couldn’t enjoy.

    Bless you for your gift of words.

    Bette Mulley

  5. Merry Christmas to you and the beautiful Samaritans, Peg.

  6. Hi Amy—-Merry Christmas to you in the Republic of Georgia. Hope you are keeping warm and changing the world. The Peace Corps is lucky to have such a shining star. –Peg

  7. Dear Peg,
    Your blog , as always, shows us of these valiant migrants who risk their lives and much hardship to find and/or to restore with their families a better life. Happy New Year.
    John Hemann

  8. Hi Peggy,

    Your posting about Christmas brought me to tears. I love what you and the Samaritans are doing in Nogales. The photos included in your postings add a reality to your profound thoughts. Thank you for your kind deeds. . .It reminds me of the song “What a Wonderful World.”

    With much love, Cheryl

  9. Hi,
    Just wanted to make sure that you have heard of our project:

    We also have a concert in Tucson, Jan 5, 7 pm , Southside Presbyterian

  10. Hi Robert—thanks for the heads up about the CD and the concerts coming up. I will be at the Jan. 5 concert. I listened to some of the songs and part of Chuck Bowden’s interview, and it all sounds great. –Peg

  11. Just a beautiful post.



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