The last conversation that I had with my friend Father Val LaFrance, OP, was about an anecdote that moved him so much that he used it in a homily. The anniversary of his death and the current debate about immigration, the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, Education for Alien Minors), and the political climate in our nation made me recall this account. The story happened years ago, just before Easter. For the believer, Easter is an encounter with Christ. It was such an Easter encounter which guided my decision to pursue graduate studies in theology.
As a college student aspiring to be a diplomat and full of idealism, I used to declare facetiously, “I am going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” As a Nicaraguan who had experienced civil war, I was used to strife. So, I understood when my road to becoming a diplomat turned as complicated as Nicaragua’s political history. I faced an insurmountable conflict: immigration limbo. When my family fled war-torn Nicaragua and arrived to this country we requested political asylum. Yet, immigration limbo meant that the government was processing our petition; meanwhile, we had work permit, but no legal status. We were not refugees, residents, nor citizens, yet we were not illegal. For me, this meant no college financial aid, full-time work, and study. I could never attend Georgetown’s prestigious School of Foreign Service.
On the day that this story takes place, I had gone to my parish for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. While in line for confession, a man who smelled awful stumbled in, wearing a denim jacket and no shirt. When he approached, I asked, “What do you want?” With tears, he begged, “Please don’t hurt me, and don’t call the cops.” He broke down, “I’m Juan Carlos, I’m Nicaraguan, I’m lost, and I’m illegal. I work with horses in West Palm Beach.” He showed me his hands with open sores. “Please give me fifteen dollars and take me to Bird Road and 97th Avenue,” he implored. “I need to come up with three-hundred dollars for the guy who gets me my job. If I don’t, he won’t give me work. I was hungry, so now I am short of cash.” He cried again. It was then that I realized that we had both fled our country for the same malady. We both struggled in a country where we were considered alien-foreigners, victims of the same injustices; that I was just one step away from being illegal. This was a turning point in my life. This was the conflict I should seek to resolve, the struggle for the dignity of those who suffer. Pope Paul VI’s celebrated statement became clearer: “If you want peace, work for justice,” however, in this case, the literal translation of this declaration to Spanish made more sense: “Si quieres la paz, lucha por la justicia” (If you want peace, fight for Justice).
Although I never heard Father Val’s homily, I like to imagine that he preached on the mystery of the incarnation. I envision that his sermon echoed the U.S. bishops’ statement, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us, which calls for a vision of Christ’s presence in the world, especially in the poor, the stranger, and the refugee. I picture Val preaching that God’s self-communication happens in unexpected places and that this leads us to enter into fellowship with God and the other.
I took Juan Carlos to his destination. He expressed his gratitude. “You’re so blessed,” he said. “You speak English, you’re American. You drive and know where you’re going. You walk the streets and don’t have to hide. They won’t deport you; you don’t have to be afraid.” He praised me, without realizing that I was eerily in almost his same predicament. When we reached the place, dozens of weary men were boarding a truck. “Thank you,” he said, “If you ever come to Nicaragua, come to my home and I will tell my mother ‘meet my friend, the only person who ever helped me while I lived in the United States.’” He hugged me, approached a man who avariciously counted the money. Juan Carlos then hopped on the truck. I watched as they departed, and I was overcome with anger and sadness. I decided not to return to confession realizing I had just had my Easter moment. My encounter with the living Christ, who ironically was on his road to Calvary on a pick-up truck, had just taken place on the corner of Bird Road and 97thAvenue.
2015 © Francisco Castillo, D.Min. All Rights Reserved.
Featured image by Tim Evanson, photo of hands by mark O’Rourke.