A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

Los muros caerán — the walls will fall

Los muros caerán — the walls will fall

This past week began with an unexpected trip to a low-income retirement community, and I met someone who has permanently left an imprint on my heart. Her name is Elisa Chavez, and she's a former attendee of Príncipe de Paz church. Servando—the church security guy and the man who I now consider to be the Mexican grandpa I never knew I needed in my life—invited me and another member of the church to visit this woman who he considers una querida hermana (a dear sister). After one visit, I felt a similar connection to this remarkable woman.

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The first thing that struck me about Elisa was that she reminded me of both my American and German grandmothers, for very different reasons. Her dictator-like authority of the kitchen as she prepared a brunch of huevos, frijoles and carne with fresh tortillas immediately transported me to the kitchen of my German Oma Rosel. Both of these women run the kitchen like it's their castle—and any trespassing or offer to assist is strongly but respectfully rebuked. Her selection of dishware and Precious Moments-like figurines recalled the living room of my American grandma Lois, who was never overtly fancy but always kept things impeccably tidy. One item that my grandmothers would NEVER own but which fit Elisa perfectly was this gem of a mug perched on her kitchen counter.

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Not that Elisa has much of an ego. In fact, she's quite humble. But if she were to hold a royal title, it would be Queen of Prayer. Elisa prays multiple times a day: when she's waking up, when she spends a minimum of three hours daily reading her Bible, and before she goes to bed. After she makes her bed each morning, she carefully sets rows of faded, tattered pieces of paper atop the sheets. Each piece of paper lists dozens of prayers, some from many years ago and others from just a few days ago. She prays over her handwritten list daily: for friends, family members, missionaries, children and world leaders. For saints and sinners, Atheists and Christians, Hispanics and Anglos. Seeing the list was almost overwhelming. I felt like a hidden sacred space had just been revealed to me.

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When Elisa hears that one of her prayers has been answered, she highlights the prayer on her list and writes "Gracias a Diós" (thanks be to God) next to it. I asked Elisa if she would add me to her prayer list. "Of course," she answered. "As long as you promise to pray for me." I promised. She gave me a stern look: "Every day?" I smiled back: "Every day." And at that moment, I entered "Pray for Elisa Chavez" into my iPhone reminders. Now, every day at 1 p.m., I say a short prayer for my querida hermana Elisa, that she receives a portion of the love, grace and blessings that she so selflessly shares with others.

I continue to feel like part of a family here, and as I approach the one month mark of my time in Southern California (where did the time go?!) I've done some reflecting on the experience thus far. As you can see from my blogs, it's been incredibly positive. More than I could have hoped for, yet exactly what God had been wanting me to experience. I do miss my family and friends back home, and I really wished I could have given them a hug this past week after learning that a cousin of mine (not close, but one who I had met at family reunions) died in a car accident. It was a tragic reminder that tomorrow is never promised, and that we need to live our best lives today, loving with abandon and celebrating life's little miracles whenever we encounter them.

Thankfully, I'm surrounded by a community that does exactly that. At church yesterday, Pastor Richard brought me in front of the congregation to say a special prayer for our family, specifically the immediate family of my cousin Steven Metsker. It was a prayer of peace and comfort, one that I desperately needed. I did my best to channel all of the love I was receiving in that moment and send those vibes to Idaho, where Steven's family lives.

Moments earlier, a very different kind of praying took place—one involving a spirited mix of spontaneous dancing, hands trembling in the air and a flow of tears. It occurred when the church's praise band performed Los Muros Caerán by Miel San Marcos. It's one of my favorite new songs: a driving rock beat with lyrics as catchy as they are powerful. But I didn't realize how powerful they were—or how much they applied to me—until yesterday. It started when one member of the church began freely jumping and spinning around during the song, forcing the girls who do tambourine praise dancing to quickly evacuate.

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Another woman joined the dancing. And then another. Before I knew it, I was witnessing my first mini-mosh pit of worshipping women.

But it wasn't just women. An elderly man in front of me slowly raised his hands during the song. And then his hands began to tremble. The ushers swiftly grabbed Kleenex boxes and began passing them around to crying worshippers. 

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Up to this point in my time at Príncipe de Paz, I had seen some pretty visceral reactions to praise singing. But I hadn't seen anything like this. I felt awkward standing there and staring at the unfolding scene as I sang along to the words, but then I realized I could make better use of my time by Google translating the words that were being sung...and perhaps solving the mystery of why it was causing such a passionate response. As soon as I hit the "Translate" button, my heart became so full that the only way the emotions could get out was through my tear ducts. 

These are the translated words: When I sing, the earth shakes. When I love you, the chains break. The walls will fall. 

In any other circumstance, those words wouldn't have made me cry. But to be surrounded by more than 100 Hispanic worshippers, many who have encountered countless barriers to get to where they are today, and many more who continue to face obstacles in their paths to citizenship, and others who are young Dreamers praying that they won't be split from the only family they know—that hit me like a freight train.

Pastor Richard and I have had discussions about the fear that lies beneath the surface of this congregation. It's an absolutely justified fear given the current conversations in our government. And it's a concern I now share more deeply than ever, because I am a part of this family now. Together, we pray to God with the devotion of Elisa Chavez and the passion of a dancing worshipper that someday, the walls will fall.

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