written by Sarah Bueter
As a volunteer with Casa Alterna, one is ever surprised by joy. At times, this joy is tempered by the stressful conditions of navigating the Atlanta airport and contextualized by the adverse circumstances that provoke our response of hospitality. But when we lean in and pay attention, it is impossible to deny the interminable spirit of joy at work.
As a first step in traveling through the airport, we approach the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint. The TSA security combs through each traveler’s proper paperwork, and we anxiously watch the clock and the meticulous thumbing of paperwork, but there’s the hope of a ticket in hand and a plane waiting on the other side. Present is a tireless resilience that has crossed across borders, through detention centers, and is now at attention, crossing airport security.
The TSA command for all travelers to empty bags of laptops, computers, tablets, and iPads is met comically by our guests emptying their gifted backpack of spare change, bits of paper, and detention center-issued deodorant. Their possessions lie condensed into just one bag in just one tray: a snack, an ID badge, a phone without much charge.
Afterward, once the paperwork is stuffed back into manila envelopes, we take off, often at a frantic march through streams of nameless passengers much more relaxed than us. As many of our guests are released with no shoelaces, we form a frenzy of flopping feet.
Everyone knows nothing is more stressful than arriving late and breathless to an airport gate. But joy, this sense of joy!
More often than not, the arrival at the correct gate accumulates in an overwhelming need for one, big breath. So we take it. The moment is held, soaked, and experienced. It culminates and we take a big breath to let it out. There is time: time to be at the gate and dawdle for a few minutes, to ease any lingering worries or concerns before boarding. We take time because nothing is more important than being present.
Simone Weil writes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”
Simone Weil writes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.” Being present and attentive to the people we accompany is a gift of living prayers. It is simultaneously an unceasing celebration of migrants’ freedom and an ongoing petition for a change in the unjust U.S. migration system.
Paying mindful attention is also asked of us because it can be easy to not see the traveler with one plastic bag, a bundle of paperwork, and no shoelaces. These are the angels unawares.
Last week while accompanying an Ecuadorian through terminal B, we overheard a suave stranger in the crowd of airport passengers boast to his companion how easily and constantly he traveled through Ecuador. What a strange reality to find ourselves in the same terminal with so vastly different realities: one man escaping his country, and another traversing it freely.
It is easy to not see the traveler with one bag, a bundle of paperwork, and no shoelaces. But angels unawares pass in our midst whether we know it or not. Let’s not miss them as they pass us by.
Sarah Bueter is a Master of Divinity student at Emory University. Prior to her studies, she worked with the Jesuit social action center ERIC (Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación) in Honduras, accompanying communities in their defense of la casa común against violent extractive industries. Most recently, Sarah volunteered at the Mexico/US border with the Kino Border Initiative.