I pulled into the empty church parking lot a few minutes early as the fresh daylight bathed the world anew. I stepped out of the car and stretched, grateful for the warmth after a long and fickle winter. Standing there, I wondered what the coming hours would bring. Today, I would drive a Guatemalan woman and her young daughter to immigration court in Cleveland, about four hours away. The social worker had told me that this would be the woman’s third trip to immigration court since arriving to the U.S. in November 2014. She is in the midst of removal proceedings. At her December hearing, the judge had granted her more time to try to find an affordable lawyer, but as of today she still hadn’t been able to secure representation.
What was this woman’s story? What would happen?
The journey would be sacred, I knew for sure. Awaiting my passengers, awe pulsed in my heart. “Thank you, God, for this privilege,” I spoke into the morning air. Then, at the Our Lady of Guadalupe grotto, I asked for Mary’s care during our travels.
Walking back to the car, I pulled out a book that I’ve been praying with this Lent: The Church of Mercy by Pope Francis. Today’s chapter, called “A Culture of Solidarity,” happens to be an excerpt from the Pope’s address at the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome.
“What does serving mean?” it begins. “It means giving an attentive welcome to a person who arrives. It means bending over to those in need and stretching out a hand to them, without calculation, without fear, but with tenderness and understanding, just as Jesus knelt to wash the apostles’ feet.”
I begged God to help me embody these words as the other car pulled into the parking lot. A small Guatemalan woman and her round-faced toddler emerged, carrying plastic grocery bags filled with their belongings. I’ll call her Luz, and her daughter will be Maria. We introduced ourselves. Luz laughed in amusement to learn that I was the Catholic sister she’d been told about; I didn’t look like one she had ever seen before! As I looked into her sparkling black eyes and bent down in front of her precious, smiling daughter, I knew that I would be driving Jesus today.
Luz’s brother helped me secure Maria’s car seat in my back seat. We prayed together before we embarked. Maria did a bouncy sign of the cross and clasped her hands together enthusiastically. She had certainly done this many times before! As for so many migrants, faith is central to this little family.
In the course of the journey, Luz shared her story.
About eight years ago, she married and moved in with her new husband and his parents, as is common in Hispanic cultures. Her father-in-law treated her poorly from day one, pressing her to harvest coffee beans and cook and never permitting her to leave. Three years ago, she gave birth to her beautiful daughter, and her husband abandoned them four months later. She still knows nothing of his whereabouts.
By this time, the father-in-law saw her as his property and continued to cage her in. He had grown abusive, forcing Luz to shower with him. He also had opened a “cantina” at the house where neighborhood men came to obnoxiously drink away their families’ meager earnings. Luz’s requests to go and visit her family were always denied. Finally, in September of last year, she escaped and returned to her parents’ house. However, she knew she couldn’t stay, because her father-in-law would come looking, probably in a drunken stupor. After only 15 days at home, she set out with Maria to the United States, unsure if she would ever see her parents again.
It was a 17-day journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, some on bus and some on foot. At certain stops, Mexican immigration officials questioned travelers and ordered some back to Guatemala. She was interrogated once, she said, but by the Holy Spirit she knew just what to say. It was a long journey, and her daughter cried and cried, but by God’s grace she kept moving.
Close to the border, she and a few other women began to walk with their children through the unforgiving desert. Here, United States immigration found and apprehended them, taking them to a detention center in Arizona. They were given a mat and a spot on the floor in a cold room. After four days, they put her on a bus to Cincinnati, where two siblings live, with orders to report to Cleveland immigration court shortly after her arrival.
She laughed cheerfully as she told me, “Guatemala is a small country, so I thought Cincinnati was a few hours away! Finally a nice Mexican man told me on the bus that it would be two days!”
Although she somehow found humor in her circumstances, all of it hit me deeply on this Holy Week. She is truly walking the way of the cross. And it is a way with beginnings long ago in the poverty of her country and the violence of her marriage. She traveled so far, and she still has far to go. Today is just another “station of the cross.” As she walks, some jeer, as Jesus’ onlookers did. Many shout in favor of proverbial crucifixion, not understanding what is really before them. The system stacks the cards against her.
“Oh, God,” I prayed. “Help me be Veronica. Help me to wipe the sweat of their brows, even just for a moment. Help me be Simon, God. Help me lift this cross off their backs in any way that I can, even just for today.”
Eventually, we entered the towering, marble courthouse, passed through security and ascended to the 13th floor. Once in the waiting room, I, an English-speaker, was confused. We finally found her name on the docket and signed her in. Not sure what to do next, we approached the Pro Bono side office.
Angels greeted us. A translator and a young lawyer from the Cleveland diocese welcomed Luz and Maria. Reading a letter from Luz’s social worker, the lawyer explained that Luz would have no representation today, but that her organization might be able to find her one if the judge grants more time. She told Luz what to expect in today’s hearing and showed us to the courtroom.
After sitting in the back row for an hour and a half, Maria playing with her Happy Meal toy and only crying once, the judge called Luz to the table. She donned a provided set of headphones through which she would hear the voice of the court-appointed translator. Her face did not flinch; her spirit did not waiver even as my heart fluttered with nerves for her. Thankfully, the judge granted her a little more time to find a lawyer. She must come back in a few months. Another station complete, but the way of the cross unfinished.
Later, after the sun was down, we arrived to the trailer park that this little family calls home. Luz’s sister and brother and various waddling children came out to meet us. Warm hospitality enveloped me. They insisted that I partake in a meal of chicken, rice and home-made tortillas! Even in this midst of this Via Crucis, through carbonated laughter and sharing bread, an Emmaus moment emerged.
During this holiest of weeks, what a privileged glimpse God gave me into the mysteries we celebrate. As I venerate the cross on this Good Friday, I will know deeply that it is not simply a theological concept, or a symbol from long ago, or the key to my personal redemption. No, the cross is ever before us, carried today by many who are God’s precious children. For this, we should weep. As I kiss the cross, perhaps I will be drawn to reflect:
- Who are the suffering members of the body of Christ? Where is Jesus hurting today, carrying the cross of violence, poverty, war, mental illness, exclusion, discrimination and more? Do I dare to see them? Do I unite my heart with their hearts in solidarity?
- How am I called to respond to the cross? Will I be an onlooker, unfeeling as Jesus walks by, or perhaps even turning away? Or will I respond?
A reflection by Fr. Anthony Oelrich in the daily prayer periodical, Give Us This Day, reads, “The reason we are all drawn to Jesus lifted up on the cross is that to give ourselves in love as gift for others is what our hearts long for.”
In the cross, we see our mission. Let our veneration be our yes to the journey, no matter how far off Sunday may seem.
[Tracy Kemme is a novice with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She has a background in Hispanic ministry, having served both in Ecuador and at the U.S.-Mexico border prior to novitiate.]