I wrote another essay a few months ago about immigration and confessed that I didn’t exactly know where I stood on the subject of deporting illegal aliens, social justice protests over their mistreatment, the tearing apart of families and the whole murky swirl of complications that accompanies the whole topic. I conceded then, and still maintain, that it is very complicated and for that very reason is not easily resolved. Current laws and future changes to them will always displease some groups and there will be political fallout no matter how fair lawmakers and politicians try to be. Perhaps that is why no equitable resolution has been found to date. And whose definition of “equitable” is to be used as a yardstick?
I recently listened to a presentation by a social activist, a seminarian, talk about his own involvement in this area in concert with a faith-based group. He and others would go out into the Arizona desert near the Mexican border and put out jugs of water at strategic points along routes that migrating individuals were known to travel. There have been deaths in these areas due to dehydration in the hot desert climate and the placing of jugs of water is a humanitarian gesture. After a period of time, this seminarian and others were accosted by federal officials and given tickets for littering. It sounds preposterous, but there you have it. There was a large fine attached to the ticket and the seminarian refused to pay the fine. He was given a sentence of several thousand hours of community service. The matter was appealed and the Ninth Circuit Court overturned the original decision, finding that sealed jugs of water do not constitute refuse or garbage, and therefore their acts could not be considered littering.
I greatly admire those, like this seminarian and his cronies, and people like Martin Luther King, Jr., who take action when they feel some wrong has been done in the name of the law. Sometimes that is the only way that maltreatment of groups of people is brought to light and laws changed. I have to admit, though, that I am a chicken and while I might admire them from afar, I am not likely to be out there in the desert placing water jugs or walking in a protest march or participating in an “occupy movement. The idea of being hauled off to jail, and possibly having a record, are deterrents to my taking any social action. Likewise, I am too chicken to endure rain, wind, sweltering heat and adverse conditions (like hunger strikes) to make my point. Think what you will of me – them’s the facts.
During this presentation, the seminarian talked about the good works done by faith-based groups over the last several decades. He mentioned the sanctuary movement. Over a period of years, churches of many denominations have provided safe harbor to families facing deportation and the likelihood of parents and children being torn apart. Their goal is to protect immigrant families from unjust deportation, while calling attention to the issue through social witness. Congregations are able to provide hospitality and protection to a limited number of immigrant families whose legal cases clearly reveal the contradictions and moral ambiguities of the current immigration system while working to support legislation that would change their situation. A little bell rang in my mind when he talked about the sanctuary movement.
I recalled a situation involving two of my aunts (now deceased) some 30 years ago or so. These were two of my mother’s siblings. One of my aunts was a nun, Sister Matthias. She was living in a convent complex in the San Gabriel Valley designated by her order for older, retired nuns who were still ambulatory. Her order was considered one of the more liberal orders by Catholic standards. They were a missionary order and did a lot of humanitarian work in Central and South America as well as other parts of the third world. Many in the order came to be identified with liberation theology, a left-leaning philosophy that sought to use religion in a manner to make people’s lives better in the here and now rather than simply offering them the hope or promise of a reward in heaven. Their efforts frequently put them at odds with the church as well as laws in these third world countries and in danger from military coups and violent overthrows of political regimes. Some members of their order were murdered for their efforts.
Sister Matthias, to all outward appearances, was a meek, quiet individual. But those who got to know her better, and her family, knew her to be a force to be reckoned with when she was “on a mission.” So, it came to pass that Sister Matthias approached my other aunt, my Aunt Jo, about taking in a boarder, a young woman who had been living with the good sisters and working in their kitchen at the convent. Not a great deal was shared about her background but my Aunt Jo lived alone in a small bungalow and though it was modest, it was her castle and she wasn’t keen on taking in a boarder, even for a short time. The young woman, perhaps 20ish, was pregnant out of wedlock. She was from El Salvador and did not speak much English. Sister Matthias explained that Aunt Jo would be doing a great kindness to provide her a place to live. Sister Matthias appealed to her citing her obligation to engage in “corporal works of mercy.” In the Catholic scheme of things, the corporal works of mercy included feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. Aunt Jo tried to refuse, but Sister Matthias wore her down, as is her wont and customary MO. So this young woman, Gabriella I’ll call her, came to live with my Aunt Jo for a short period of time.
During the period when these events occurred, I was busy spinning in my own orbit, working and pursuing a career, trying to improve myself financially, and socializing at every opportunity. I had heard the terms “sanctuary movement” and “liberation theology,” but I hadn’t paid much attention to what that they meant, exactly, and what kinds of acts and behavior might occur if one followed those philosophies with earnest religious zeal.
It was only with hindsight, some years later, that I fully realized what had occurred. I had thought they were doing a kindness to a poor single woman who found herself pregnant with no financial means, and they had taken her on out of the goodness of their hearts. But these little old nuns, in their quiet and unassuming way, were sheltering illegal aliens. Gabriella was probably only one of several individuals they helped who might have fallen into the category of “political refugee.” Their convent was part of the sanctuary movement. I conjured up visions of the feds raiding my Aunt Jo’s house. Of course, that didn’t happen, luckily. My Aunt Jo couldn’t have afforded an attorney, nor could my parents have helped if the worst had happened. Many years later, on a visit to Sister Matthias at this convent, I was dining with her in the cafeteria and was introduced to Gabriella, how approaching middle age, and mother of a teenage daughter. She was still working for the nuns. Aah, I thought, the “famous” Gabriella I had heard so much about in heated interchanges between the aunts. I didn’t inquire about her legal status, whether she was on a path to citizenship, or not. Best I didn’t know.
So when I listen to news reports and hear social activists put out the rallying cry on behalf of immigrants, I think of this scenario in my own family. I’m glad Sister Matthias hadn’t come to me and asked me to take in Gabriella. I don’t know what I would have done or said in such a case. I’m sure we would have gone several rounds, conversation-wise, at the very least. And, this essay might have had a far different ending.