Featured The border wall separating Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico

How Do You Plead?

viewing through slats in the wall, children are playing
From the U.S. side of The Wall at Nogales, we see children playing at a Mexican school.

Author’s Note: In a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom, a dozen students and two advisers from Gonzaga University witnessed Operation Streamline – a controversial system of justice for migrants accused of entering the U.S. illegally. In less than three hours, we would see 72 individuals processed. Seventy-two times we would hear the judge repeat the same questions to people who did not speak English as a first language (some did not even understand the Spanish translation), and all but a few times, individuals were sentenced to time served and deported back to their homelands. Hearing the legal questioning and the confused answers became the cornerstone of my entire experience learning about the U.S. immigration and deportation system.

Candles are painted on slats of The Wall .
On the Mexico side of the wall in Nogales, candles are painted on bars – a sign of loss and a petition for awareness.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?


An attorney sat with arms outstretched behind him on the bench, arrogance wafting off his puffed up chest. “I volunteer,” he says. Well so does the elderly woman in red — she knows the names of every person on the docket and what their conviction is and what might be done to help them when the attorneys and judges have gone home.

Inside the courtroom, a young girl’s age is argued by people who don’t know her in a language she doesn’t speak. She shrinks away in the presence of the two bulky white marshals who take her back to a stark room where they return her to shackles, and – who knows – maybe strip-search her for the third time that day.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?

We visit a Border Patrol facility where an armed, green “guardian of the borders, America’s frontline” talks of “bad guys” – “unwanted visitors” – “a bunch a creeps” – “a pregnant chick” and the “community crap” his agency does.

Lizbet crossed the border at age 15. Sixteen years and two American-born children later, she is deported. Stuck. Separated from her sons who remain in Delaware while she sits in a cold 4th-floor room in a concrete building, spilling her heart to a bunch of Americans who aren’t sure what to do with her story.

Bullcrap. That’s what Nayelli did with her life in the States. She shoveled bullcrap. Took a job no U.S. citizen wanted – 12-hour days, 6-day weeks doing the disgusting jobs white people couldn’t handle, making more in one day than she’d make in a month back home. Having returned to Mexico voluntarily to care for a dying grandmother, she’s unable to get back to the States where her two young daughters wait.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? 

Getting to the states legally is a mound of paperwork, money, too many people in power, money, so much at stake, so much ambiguity. But not for me. I can walk across the border on a drizzling gray morning without fear, then get in a car and have a great lunch at a taco truck and go on about my day.

Inside a warehouse stuffed with clothing and shoes and diapers and bandages, we pretend to be real people in that maze of immigration. A border patrol officer on a power kick. A twisted attorney. An employer looking for workers to make him money. A desperate mom, a fumbling dad, people offering their fate to others.

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?

A fence of steel, rising up the hills and back down again. Space between slats where life in a community buzzes. It’s recess and children chase one another in a school yard while the late-morning shadows chase them, too. Unaware – perhaps – of what that metal monstrosity represents.

The wall – 654 miles of steel. A hearty person with a dream can go around or over or under, but only at great risk: being caught drug smugglers, turned in by citizen militia, or detained by Border Patrol, resulting in weeks to months in jail, and the stamp of “ILLEGAL.”

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? 


The border wall separating Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Mexico
The Border Wall at Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. A new addition is the layer of steel mesh, intended to prevent the passing of items through from one country to the other. While an original goal was likely the prevention of drug traffic, an unfortunate consequence is the prevention of family members sharing meals together, which was previously a common practice for loved ones separated from one another.
Liberty and Dignity are painted on The Wall - border in Nogales, Mexico
On the Mexico side of The Wall in Nogales, people leave hopes for justice, liberty and dignity.


More to come at wordsncoffee.com as well as blogs from the students at gonzaga.edu


The Immigration Deadline: A letter to Congress

[The following letter was sent to Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents Eastern Washington in the House of Representatives. It was sent following a visit to her office by a group of Gonzaga University students which I was proud to accompany. In light of the approaching deadline for Congress to reach a bipartisan response to immigration reform and the path to citizenship for “Dreamers” under DACA, I wanted to share this more broadly. Please reach out to YOUR representatives and plead for reform that is centered on human dignity.]

Dear Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers:

Thank you so much for making time in your hectic schedule to visit with students from Gonzaga University and to hear their stories about a recent trip to the Mexico border to learn more about immigration. One central theme we heard during the many facets of our time there – visiting with both government officials such as Border Patrol, as well as humanitarian agencies and migrants themselves – was just how complicated this system is. We understand there is no easy fix that will alleviate all the concerns from all the involved parties and from the broader public.

We want to thank you for listening to our students’ personal perspectives from their families’ experiences as well. You may recall Lydia sharing about the misconceptions of “chain migration” and her family trying to bring an aunt here multiple times through proper legal channels. Rani also shared about her mother’s joy in being able to see a child graduate from college for the first time in her family’s experience, as well as the poignant question Rani raised about the parents of DACA students: it’s awesome to open a channel for those students to work toward citizenship, but what of their parents who sacrificed so much to bring them here?

Our students shared many other perspectives based on the things we witnessed at the border. Francesca mentioned the opportunities we had to see the real struggles with human dignity, and Cameron shared his concern for the environmental impact of expanding a physical wall at the borderlands. Participants in Gonzaga’s Justice in January program have written a number of short blogs to capture these sentiments, and we hope that you might be able to take a few moments to read these stories and to reflect on how they might inform the common sense immigration reform you and your colleagues in Congress are seeking to achieve during these last few days before the President’s deadline.  You can find those here.

Gonzaga Justice in January blogs.png

We remain hopeful that Congress will achieve a bipartisan resolution to immigration reform that:

  • protects all people from the dangers of gang and drug activity;
  • allows for DACA dreamers to achieve citizenship;
  • supports a simplified process for immigrants trying to come to the U.S. legally – including “family reunification” as an alternative to “chain migration”; and
  • advocates for the type of infrastructure our Border Patrol agents have indicated they need, which is for properly trained agents and technology rather than additional physical Wall extensions that not only endanger ecosystems but actually do little to achieve the goals of protecting our border.

This, as you know, is a critical moment for the current Congress and we think it’s one of the most important issues of our day. You have our prayers for meaningful dialogue not only with fellow Congress members but also with your constituent base here in Eastern Washington.

Thank you again for your time.

Kate Vanskike
On behalf of these four fine Gonzaga students, pictured left to right:
Cameron Marsh, Francesca Nevil, Amayrani Chavez and Lydia Lopez,
as well as other members of the 2018 Justice in January cohort of Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement.

CMR office

True Confession: I was ignorant (or, The Truth about Blacks’ journey to Civil Rights)

by Kate Vanskike

Let me be honest: Until the last decade or so of my life, I haven’t been incredibly interested in history. In high school and in college, it was simply a required class. In the latter, I’m embarrassed to say, history was the one course I nearly failed because I was taking way too many credit hours, working, participating in a musical and volunteering, and that was the class to take the fall. (My French class would have taken a fall too, if it weren’t for my mom doing my homework for me. Better put an ‘s’ on that confession in the headline.)

What’s my point? At age 43, I finally learned about the deep and twisted history of racism in our country. I learned that lynchings didn’t just happen “way back when” – they still occurred in MY lifetime. I learned that the civil rights movement didn’t end in the ‘60s when Lyndon Johnson finally signed the civil rights act a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. died for the cause. I learned that whites in America have continued to mold our history and frame the facts in such a way that they can feel better about themselves while slavery and racism still exist, just under softer terminology. OK, so we aren’t still “owning” people but our supremacy still flourishes while black families continue to teach their children to be cautious around whites.

I had to own up to all of these facts – and more – while spending a week this spring with college students on a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where we were immersed in the history of our nation’s civil rights movement. Museum after museum after bloody museum called to my attention the horrible realities I missed in those history classes, whether due to my lack of interest or the lack of truth in our written records. In the evenings, the 10 students and two staff members in our group debriefed together – sometimes for two hours or more – processing what we’d seen and sharing our discoveries. Our discussions were academic and intellectual, but mainly painfully personal and vulnerable as we reflected on the natural biases we’ve carried, and ill-informed assumptions we’ve made.

As one student said, “It sucks to be honest with yourself.”


I grew up in a Missouri town, population 711, which had no black families. (Well, there was a black family once in the 20 years I lived there, but they didn’t stay long.) I went to a college that had approximately 10 black students. I moved to Spokane and lived in white neighborhoods and attended white churches. All the while, I learned from our (mostly-white) media about crime rates among blacks, little of it placed into context of the continuing harsh realities for blacks in America. (Consider the criticism of blacks taking to the streets following the deaths of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown.)

I don’t believe I’ve ever knowingly acted racist, but there is no excuse for my ignorance and the ways it has undoubtedly played a part in my thoughts and actions over the years.

And now … I have no excuses.

I have poignant encounters etched into my memory that won’t allow me to continue in ignorance. I have shared the dinner table with a professor who, at the age of 17, was a driver for blacks during the Montgomery bus boycott of the ‘60s. I have linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” with men who marched side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr.  – men who, by the way, feel our nation’s current situation is worse than it was during that era. I have listened to the barber who cut Dr. King’s hair share stories never recorded in our history books. I have looked deeply into the old, brown eyes of a black man who recalled not having been able to look a white woman in the eye. I have stood inside the home of Dr. King with a black woman who passionately impressed on all us that Dr. King’s greatest legacy was love, even when he answered 20-30 hateful, threatening phone calls daily. I have discovered more about Bloody Sunday and decades of violence against blacks than I wish was necessary, and I have stood by monuments erected for children who were victims of white pride and stupidity. I have also witnessed the fervent hope and faith of the black community intent on trusting the same God who abusive whites claimed to follow (which in and of itself begs further reflection).

I am ignorant no more. And that means I can no longer allow instinctive unjust thoughts to take root in my head. I can no longer assume that the mass incarceration of blacks is legitimate, or that African Americans have the same opportunities as whites, or that the slavery and racism and cruelty of the past has not continued to inflict pain on people today.

What I can and must do now is to continue the education, the discussion, and yes, the vulnerability, that 12 of us experienced during a life-changing week in Montgomery, Alabama. Because the question Dr. King asked more than 50 years ago still needs to be asked today: “Where do we go from here?”

Go ahead, read the plaque. Michael Donald was lynched in 1981. Then learn about the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center
Nelson Malden, Dr. King’s barber, who remembers when white men in cars began following Dr. King to and from his personal activities, such as coming to the Malden Brothers Barbershop. 
The bridge at Selma where “Bloody Sunday” took place. Details at the National Voting Rights Museum
Jars containing dirt from the sites of hundreds of lynchings – an awareness project of the Equal Justice Initiative
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pastored, preached and empowered people to take a stand.
Shirley Cherry, tour director at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Parsonage, where Dr. King and Coretta lived during the era of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. And quite possibly the most powerful tour guide you’ll ever meet.
This is me. Sitting at the table where Dr. King had his “Midnight Epiphany” – a confirmation that his leadership in the civil rights movement, no matter how costly, was right. 

DR398   (Our Dominican Vision Trip in 398 words)

a toddler peers through slats in a window to see visitors to her rural Dominican Republic home

Day 1
On the plane, drifting over clouds
And so it begins. We will play in unfamiliar settings and take in all the smells and textures that make up the tiny portion of the Dominican Republic which awaits us.

Day 2
On my bed, beneath a creaky ceiling fan
Sweat. Drips. Sopping wet. H-U-M-I-D is how you spell Dominican Republic.

Day 3
On the bus, heading to our first community
The intern announces, “It’s Terrible Joke Tuesday!”
Later, he says our gang of 6 participated more than last week’s group of 18. We attribute that to Senor Tim.

In a school room where the Village Savings & Loan members meet
A woman says, “We are grateful a thousand times a thousand – grateful for so many things. If we were to share them all, it would take days.”

Merengue musicians, with guitar and drum and guida.Day 4
On a balcony, surrounded by Dominican people, food and music
The Merengue starts, with guitar and drum and guida. They sing about the hard work of coffee growers. We clap and dance.

In a one-room church building, where children line the walls, eager to engage
The teacher leads a lesson on a familiar story: the birth of Jesus. Her emphasis is on a detail maybe we’ve missed before: “Jesus was born into nothing.”

Day 5
On the patio, while roosters call and shoo away the morning gray
Doves embark on playful races and the chants of a dozen birds are muted by the scuffing of tired feet. Morning has broken.

On a thickly forested mountaintop
A young boy and his father drive the oxen to haul logs – carefully selected trees removed for the health of the forest. 

Rosa, a most impressive farmer, shows the diversity of plants she has tended. Watching the chatter between gringos and her neighbors, she wraps her arms around a tree and smiles.

lush green farmed hills in Dominican RepublicDay 6
On a restaurant deck, over the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea
We eat breakfast: four weary Americans and a cheerful Dominican named Chico.

How quickly bonds are made. With or without a common language, there is joy and understanding.

Day 7
On a bench outside Denver’s Union Station
Three new friends reflect on their good fortune: they have seen poverty and richness redefined by Dominicans. And they forge ahead as apostles of a gospel that blends care of the earth with care of those who inhabit it.

Written by Kate Vanskike, 
who journeyed to the Dominican Republic
with Amber Smith and Tim Busse to experience the work of Plant With Purpose, August 2016.
For more on how planting trees has helped diminish poverty, visit

3 May Poems

Riding the Yellow Whale

Riding the yellow whale
through green alfalfa fields
– a roar from the back,
a glare from the front.

They are young and that is good –
inquisitive, defiant
funny, dumb
self-conscious and oblivious.

Past the basalt, past the hay, past
the iron horses all graffitied and
over the wide Columbia, with white ladies
twirling on the bluffs.

Climbing the Cascades now, the black snake straightening
in the rear view mirror, and twisting, winding ahead.
It’s quiet now. Charades give way
to Mocking Jay and Anne Frank.


My Muir Hill

I named the place Muir Hill.
It belongs to the neighborhood, but really
only I and my dog and my daughter go.

We like it that way.

In suburbia, five acres of wild woods
—with deer and coyote and skunk and turkey—
are enough. Enough to hear the birds over
the traffic, nothing more than bulky basalt rocks to clamber and
Ponderosas reaching, (except those that fell victim to the November storm)
only sky overhead, only moss and pine needles below.

I think about the two stately trunks from which I hang my hammock —
I named them Sybil and Ferrell — a young widow and a farmer’s wife.
Both are my grandmothers, but those thoughts
are interrupted by the crows who are fighting —
screaming, it seems — maybe
over the tastiest bugs or the perfect branch.
All I know is they are louder today than ever — right across the street
from the old man who calls his wife Tiger and who
scolds the kids and who once pulled a gun
on a teen who rang his doorbell and ran.

I had words with him, but now
the crows are taking their turn.

I lie on a rock and watch the clouds drift slowly by. I hear
my dog – crunch crunching on the remains of a carcass, and later
when I rise to see her whereabouts, she is silently resting
in a field of wild purple lupines.
I lie back down and the next time I see my dog, she is standing
overhead, fleshy breath and glistening slobber hanging precariously.

The mountains are calling and I must go, Muir said.
I cannot flee to Yosemite today and hide for weeks in the granite crevasses
or wander through meadows and over streams.
But I do have Muir Hill and the sweet wild reprieve
from concrete and from deadlines
and from Tigers.


Rumi on the Rocks

Atop a rock in beloved Montana
watching the river rush by below
reading Rumi high above the falls on a ledge
covered by bluebells and goose poop.

He writes of running at boogeymen and narcissus and kisses
Says there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Ah … Away from the roar of the man-made falls and the hum
of turbines turning water into electricity
for our phones and TVs and laptops.
I find respite in away in the woods, hearing instead
only a whisper of water, bathed in the shadows of trees.

Green, green, all around me green, for now
that’s all I need.

Wash yourself of yourself, says Rumi.

And so I sit.
Hello to the old man and hello to his Spaniel.
Hello little birds whose name I do not know.

Tall grasses toss their heads and branches softly sway
but the rocks, they do not bend, or twist, or soften in the rain.
They gather moss and lichen and wildflowers – sometimes even
give root to trees, and a stool
for a solitary derrière whose person tries to rid herself
of herself.

Kate Vanskike (C) 2016
middle-school girls sit on Capitol steps

On Twain & Tweens

middle-school girls sit on Capitol steps

It was my first time serving as a substitute teacher in a middle school English class.  The topic was Mark Twain, and this should have been easy, as I had grown up near the park surrounding the great Missouri author’s birth home, attended a high school carrying his name, and lived in the same town – Hannibal – where Twain grew up and then used as the setting for the tales of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.  I knew as much about Mark Twain as anyone in this area –how hard could it be to teach about him?

After an hour of chaos, a sixth-grade boy dropped his pants and strutted away from me with his red briefs staring me down. I made sure the school district knew that I would not be subbing for middle school anymore.

That was about 20 years ago, but the experience left me dreading the day my own child would enter middle school.  I prepared her for the worst. Middle-schoolers are confused, I told her, and that confusion plays out in myriad odd behaviors.

She wanted to be part of a student leadership team at her school, which was a brand new charter school without those usual opportunities in place.  When I asked the principal if there would be a student council, he said, “As soon as there’s a parent volunteer to lead it.”

I now spend every Wednesday afternoon with about ten middle-schoolers – the very beings I once swore I’d ignore at all costs.

They can’t control themselves in the rolling chairs we use in the board room.  Constantly swirling, pulling the levers, adjusting the arm height.  Constantly squeaking, leaning back.  One boy can’t resist admiring himself and fixing his hair in the reflection of the large-screen monitor on the table.  One girl never says a word.  Another girl wants to do all the work.  They fight over the occasional treat of fruit roll-ups like it’s the last bite of food they might ever enjoy.

But in short time, these same students have shown their adaptability and eagerness to grow and to push themselves outside their usual comfort zones.  They can articulate why we need to talk to legislators about the importance of funding for their charter school.  They can demonstrate the ways their international curriculum has taught them to see topics from a global point of view.  They discuss leadership and agree that the three characteristics they find most important are responsibility, respect and organization, and they challenge one another to exhibit those qualities in carrying out their work.

These 12-year-olds have restored my faith in middle-schoolers.  And that’s why I traveled by plane and by bus with them recently to plead their case at the Washington State Capitol.  And it’s why I will continue to meet with them on Wednesdays and show them how to run meetings and committees and how to contact local businesses for support.  It’s why I will help them plan an international festival and a field day, and watch them make posters for dress-down days and help them gain confidence in standing before their peers to discuss the importance of good school attendance.

I’ll even volunteer to go bowling with them and be surrounded by 60 of their peers on a Friday night.  Because now – whether it’s because I’ve grown up myself or because I see their great potential – I don’t fear them as I did the kid who mooned me with his bright red briefs.

Twain said it best: “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.”

My 2015 Review, by the numbers

10 Firsts

biking the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago

Attending Zags basketball games
Vegan cooking
Taking a college class as an adult (critical thinking)
Producing Gonzaga Magazine from start to finish
Joined the board of Healing Hearts Northwest
Biking to work, and along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago
Hiking the Avalanche Creek trail at Glacier
21 miles in Spokefest
Serving as parent advisor for student council

6 Firsts with Emily

Tubing at Bear Creek needs to become a yearly thing.

Nighttime sledding at Mount Spokane
Participated in a MLK march
Attending a college lecture on racism
Volunteering for SCRAPS (animal shelter)
Serving with Blessings Under the Bridge (homeless ministry)
Haunted Houses

5 Top Activities for Em

Students from Spokane International Academy at Washington Capitol

Started 6th grade at Spokane International Academy
Second season of softball (shortstop, slugger, All-Star)
Serving on Student Council
A weeklong trip without family to Olympic National Park
Trip to the capitol building in Olympia

5 Traditions Kept

water over rocks in crevasse

Family Camp at Camp White
Spending my birthday at Glacier National Park
Fall harvest at Green Bluff
4 weeks of Christmas activities

1 New-ish Tradition Kept

Hosting an international visitor.  And I just have to say more about this.  Last year, we had a 14-year-old student from Japan for 3 weeks and she was delightful.  This summer, we had two medical students from Guatemala for a month, and they were so much fun and wove their way straight into our hearts.  We are somewhat leery to do it again, only for fear that our next visitors won’t be as wonderful as Saori, Ale and Julia.

Guatemalan friends at Spokane park


4 Fun Trips

Home by Kate Vanskike

Philadelphia – living history
St. Louis – all my parents’ favorite stomping grounds
Chicago – work and reflection, and biking downtown in the rain
San Francisco – Christmas road trip

5 Books Finished

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (John Berendt)
Travels with Charlie (John Steinbeck)
Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
A Jesuit’s Journey through the Tumultuous 1960s (Paul Swift)

7 Books Started

Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything (Fr. James Martin, S.J.)
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimmage (Kimberly Meyer)
Another Roadside Attraction (Tom Robbins)
In the Company of the Poor (Paul Farmer)
Tattoos on the Heart (Fr. Greg Boyle)
Just Between Us (Meredith Jacobs)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Stieg Larsson/David Lagercrantz)

1 Big Wish

Peace, in our hearts and in our world. Courage to defend what is right. Finding God in all things.  Assuming the best in people.  Laughing more. Drinking more spiced tea, eating more veggies, buying less crap, enjoying more music, saying thank you more, celebrating all that is good. Peace, in our hearts and in our world.
a metal sign reading Peace is covered in snow