By FATHER FILEMON JUYA
Who is here for the first time? Please stand up. This is a routine question by the priest during the celebration of the Mass. There are always two, three, six or more new persons in our celebrations. We give a welcome greeting, offer our community as their new home and we offer them our services.
At St. John of the Cross in Batesburg, and St. John Neumann in Columbia, there is always an opportunity to share fraternally after the Mass. We get to know each other better, they tell me their experiences, their pains and their dreams. There is a large presence of migrants in both communities. Some are always arriving and some leaving; there are always welcomes and farewells. That is the life of the migrant.
These are some experiences I have had with them: One day I noticed among the new ones, a face too young to be in that group. She was a 14-year-old girl. I approached her to say hello. On her face I could see the imprint left from the hard experiences on her way to South Carolina. She spoke with a broken, distrustful voice. It was hard to make her believe that I have no connections with immigration authorities.
“Father, I had to come here because my parents are very poor and they could not feed us all,” she said. “I could not go to school. Since I heard so many wonderful things about this land, I thought it was the best way I could help my parents a little and perhaps one day be able to study. I arrived eight days ago, I’m in a camp. I hope to find work soon and I came to give thanks to God. I promised the Virgin of Guadalupe that if I arrived safely to the United States, I would visit her one day.”
“How was the road to here?” I asked. “Very different,” she anwered. “I suffer much. A lot of hunger and thirst. I almost drowned in the river. I thought that was easy. The men that one pays to help you come across, do not help, they only show you the way, but are not responsible for what happens to us. I had to walk many nights because in the daytime we could be caught. In the desert I had to eat tender shoots from small trees to take the water and calm my thirst. There are many dangers especially to women who are more exposed to humiliations and bad treatment …”
One afternoon before Mass, I saw a young man kneeling in front of the altar crying with his head in his hands. I approached him respectfully to find out what ailed him. He told me that his brother had left Mexico to run the adventure of crossing the border and meet him here.
“The last time he called,” he said in tears, “he told me he was trying to cross the border. Since then I have not heard from him, neither has my family. Is he dead or in jail? It’s been four months. Father, help me to pray for him.” We talked, we prayed together, then celebrated the Mass for his intention. What else could I do for him?
Among my routine runs, I arrive at a house, if you can call it a house, because it does fit the requirements of the basic hygiene conditions of a dwelling. I take some food and clothing for this family with two children. I asked if everything is OK: “Yes, father, thank you. I only ask one favor. Say a prayer for my little daughter who died last week in Mexico. I had to leave her with the grandmother because she was too young, nine months old, and we could not cross the border with her.”
These are only a sample of the stories I hear daily on my walks with them. Each morning on awakening, I ask the Lord to help me carry them all, and in the evening, as I sleep, all these pictures cross my mind as a terrible nightmare.
Persons like these, aside from my helping them to gather spiritual strength that they need, a little food and clothing, I carry in my heart with gratitude, because I am reminded that the Gospel is not a doctrine but a life. There, listening, sharing with them, living with them, helping in whatever way possible, I find the opportunity not to let my priesthood be a romantic escape but a compromise in the everyday action with Christ who continues today, to be crucified in these brothers, “because I was hungry you fed me, I was thirsty you gave me to drink, naked and you clothed me, I was a wanderer, migrant, and you opened your home and your heart …” (Matthew 25)
Three years ago I came to this diocese to serve the Hispanics, migrants in their majority from the Midlands. At first people asked: “Are there Hispanics here? Where?” I remembered the first time I said that we would start the celebration of the Mass in Spanish at St. John of the Cross, some asked: “For whom?” Today the answer is given by those who asked.
The Hispanic attendance is twice or three times greater than the Americans. Thank God the American community found in them the opportunity to understand what it means to be Catholic and the opportunity to live their faith in the fraternity and sharing of goods.
Each day I find more Hispanics. They are like seeds planted in this huge field. There are many more than we can imagine. They don’t come out unless we look for them. It is for us to initiate the meeting. With them we cannot make a pastoral office; it is the work of the shepherd who goes looking for his sheep. Because we have forgotten this aspect, the pastoral in the search, we have lost many for our church. I will explain with another experience.
I enter a restaurant and a lady tends to me kindly. She’s happy to be able to speak Spanish with me; we talk about Mexico and many other things. Later I tell her I’m a priest and invite her to my church. Her expression changes, she looks at me with sadness and says: “Too late! When I came to this country I cried a lot because I could not find a church where they could speak my language. I went all over the city, I asked everywhere. In one I was told to remember we are in America and here English was spoken. Finally, I found a church where I was welcomed with love and spoken to in my language, now I am a Jehovah Witness. The conversation was over and she did not return to my table. I felt sad and ashamed, and while I finished my dinner, I thought of the many more like her, whom we have reached too late.
Thank God and the good will of many people, the apostulate grows each day. Today, the Eucharistic sacrifice and the Word of God are celebrated not only in these two temples but also reaches the fields and the zones where there is a larger concentration of people who cannot drive to the temple. Don’t be surprised if you hear of celebrations and evangelization programs also in house trailers, in the open air or under a tree.
We, the baptized, have the most important temple and there we celebrate the meeting with the Lord. What is important is that part of our church, the future and hope of our church in North America, can smile again, with the assurance that there is a God that loves us all alike and also cares for them through us.
God bless all those who, with feelings of Christ, the Shepherd, pray, work and make possible this mission in our midst. There is much to harvest, but we have few workers (Lc. 10).
PHOTO: A eucharistic youth celebration after a day of Spiritual Retreat at St. John of the Cross in Batesburg. (Provided by Father Filemon Juya)