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A Meditation on Refugio
by Rev. Karen M. Shepler
Painting by Federico Vuittonet

There is an advantage to traveling to countries outside the United States if one is astute enough to be aware of their surroundings. The most unique learning for me has been the difference in media and message. My first realization of this difference came when I was 16 and made my first trip to Haiti. There, we read the newspaper "Le Monde" which came from France. There was a great difference in the reporting, particularly when mention was made of the United States or its involvement with other nations. I realized as a teenager that it was very possible that, through our media sources, we were not getting the whole truth about what was going on in the world; that we were only hearing what was happening from a US point of view.

Living through the Vietnam era and all the "gates"(Watergate, Iran-gate, etc.), I came even further in my understanding of the difference between real and hype, between good reporting and that which sells papers and books.

From the first time I visited Refugio in 1993, I realized that I was entering the real world, not the world I was used to. It was in Refugio that I had to face the fact that I had no idea what was going on in Central and South America; that I was being told one thing by my government and by the media, but that the evidence was clear that what I was being told was not what was real. At Refugio, everyone lives on the same level. All of us work, all of us play, all of us share our resources and talents. None of us has to tell our stories, none of us is subject to rejection of self, and none of us has to be like anyone else. The beauty of Refugio is that I may come and Juanita may come, and Juan may come with different stories and backgrounds and learn from each other in a safe, relatively comfortable environment.

I realize better now why the daily newspaper has a comic strip page. The real world is not very positive, no matter where you are from. We need the comic strip page to realive the stress. Coming to Refugio, for me, is not a negative experience and I don't believe that Refugio is built on negative energy or on negativity. For me, it is a place built on Reality. It is a place where we hear a lot of negative things, but we try not to let them dominate our every thought and action. Refugio is a place to confront those things and to do what we can to better the persons who step into this reality from wherever they may come, and from whatever their experience of that negativity is. For some it is political oppression, for some economic oppression or repression, for some it is a search for self and identity, for others it is a means of working off sins of the past or present. We all come for different reasons, but we all need to confront the things that have caused our negativity, that thing we might best call "reality."

I have periodically been upset by (that may be too strong) some of the art work on the buildings of Refugio. But I realize that those words and works of art were done by persons whose experience is not my experience; those who know all too well the meaning of those pictures and words on the walls, whose realities I have not experienced as a middle class Caucasian from the United States. If I were to write on a wall, "Long live the Democrats! They have helped my people!" somehow it would not have the same effect. I have not been persecuted because of my beliefs or stances on issues. My brothers and sisters who have been at Refugio have. I live in a country where I could write the above on a wall, or I could tell the Republicans where to go and no one would punish me for what I said, only for what I did, if I defaced a building or public property. Our lives in the US are so different from those of persons of other countries, the ones who come seeking asylum or freedom. We too often take it all for granted.

My roommate has told me that when I enter the gates of Refugio, my whole countenance changes. She tells me that my facial expression changes, my voice changes, I have new energy, and I smile more. I've never bothered to check to see if that is only her perception because I know that what she says is true. I consider Refugio to be the most spiritual place I have ever found. It is not a religious place but it is very spiritual.

The first time I visited, I felt the spirit of the people who had been there. I know to some it sounds crazy but I could see the people, particularly as they huddled in The Mesquite Grove by Casa Dos. The spirit(s) is there in many ways - it is in Dolly's Place, it is by the Pond, it is under El Buen Arbol, it is with the animals, it is in the kitchen. It is everywhere on the grounds of Refugio if one can be open to feel, sense and hear it.

As a Christian, I appreciate the eclectic character of Refugio. I can appreciate the part of it that is based on Catholic Worker concepts. I also resonate with the philosophy of Gandhi and Pio's Gurujii and the Nipponzan Myohoji monks. It has been a wonderful stretch for me to learn more about those who have been in the struggle for peace and justice, for the poor and downtrodden, for those who are the voiceless in an oral society. It has been a call to growth in openness for me, one who was raised to believe that Protestantism, particularly United Methodism is the best form and practice of religion for me. Through Refugio and through other involvements, I have learned much about the value of many religions and the similarities we have that often we don't realize.

I know that if I were not open to the spirit, if I were looking for "God" or for "Jesus" at Refugio, I might be disappointed. It's not that they are not there. They certainly are! But one cannot come to Refugio expecting to have a religious experience which will lead them NECESSARILY to Christianity. I can say with out any reservations that they will learn many facets of Christianity and that may be where they come out if they are looking for a RELIGION. And they will certainly find a Spirit, maybe even the Spirit Woman. But it can only happen if the person is open to that and not expectant of a Christian camp experience. Refugio is much too open and responsible for that. Each person will have her/his own experience and can name it what they want.

There is a beauty about Refugio that cannot be expressed in words. It's a beauty that comes from the hundreds of persons who have lived inside its gates, who have rested and recovered there, who have begun a new life there, who have volunteered there, and who will still come there. It comes from the animals and the trees and the birds, the rodents, and even the snakes. It's in the pond and the willows, the banana trees and the cactus, the anacuas and the loquats, the ebony and the mesquite. Actually it is everywhere if one has eyes to see and ears to hear.

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