As part of my first year of formation with my community, I spend an average of a week each month visiting our sisters where they live and work. I recently returned from visiting our sisters who work with migrant farm workers in southern California. While I was there, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began a ramp-up of detainees in several states, including both California and my home state of Indiana.
Sisters Loretta Piccuci and Carol Nolan run Providence in the Desert in the Coachella Valley. They and their staff teachers travel to public school classrooms, mobile home parks, and private homes to teach English to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
As I explored the desert of Southern California, I met Paul, a U.S. citizen who moved with his family to Guanajuato, Mexico, from San Diego, California, shortly after he was born. While he lived in Mexico, he earned an engineering degree. He now works in the fields in California and studies English with Providence in the Desert as a chance for adventure. I met Leticia, who works in the fields. Her husband speaks Spanish, most of her immediate community speaks Spanish, and her son speaks English. She’s learning English to communicate with her son. I met Lupita, Araceli, and Irene, all three naturalized U.S. citizens and able to carry a basic conversation in English. They continue classes twice weekly to improve their ability to have conversations.
As I reflected on the trip, I thought of my previous experiences in Guatemala, Spain, and India, where I didn’t speak the languages. I thought of my reliance on translators and the time and commitment I’ve spent to learn a language in which I can still hardly communicate anything of meaning. Most often in these experiences, I felt welcomed despite my inability to speak appropriately. I relied on translators for some of the time, but I also encountered many people, especially in India, who spoke my own language.
After I returned home from California, I made a short day trip from our motherhouse to Indianapolis for a We All Belong Here rally. A number of local groups organized the rally to kick off a week of events around creating a welcoming city – everything from immigrant and refugee rights to white ally training for racial justice. During the event, the father and son from a Syrian refugee family spoke to us. They had been in Indiana for two years and still required the use of a translator. The son (whose translator assured the crowd that he spoke English but was just shy about it) spoke of hearing from his friends back home, where there were bombs every day and it was difficult to get food and water. The father spoke of wanting to give back to the America that had welcomed him and of telling his friends back in Syria that not all Americans are like the government.
As I attempt to enter into the stories of others and contrast them to my own, safe, experience of the unknown, I weep for the state of our world and particularly for those who are most vulnerable. We may not be able to stop the war in Syria, but we can stem the bloodshed and provide real life and an offer of humanity to those victims of the Assad regime, ISIL, and the warring rebel factions. We can offer sanctuary to those who, like Jesus, were forced to leave their homelands.
We can heed the call given in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to welcome the stranger: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am your God.” (Leviticus 19:34) Jesus says of those who will be welcomed into heaven, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
Nobody ever said following Jesus would be easy. In fact, Jesus told us we had to be willing to follow him all the way to the cross. Through the rally, my experience of religious community, and my daily interactions with others, God assures me that we will not walk alone on this journey.
Emily TeKolste is a Postulant with the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana and a former Catholic Worker from Indianapolis. She’s Jesuit educated (at Xavier University) and passionate about peace and justice. Emily is originally from Carmel, IN, a suburb just north of Indianapolis.