A Culture of Encounter
Encounter. What can be learned from an opportunity to listen to a person’s struggles, or drive to leave their loved ones behind to seek a better life elsewhere? What can be learned from building relationships beyond your circle, or meeting the most poor and vulnerable?
The Share the Journey campaign encourages “a culture of encounter.” By telling migrants’ stories, we lay the foundation for greater empathy. S. Tracy Kemme elaborates, “Even a lot of people I love and that are good and loving people, who haven’t had a chance to get to know immigrants, easily swallow rhetoric that is thrown around about who they are and what they are doing to our country. When those people actually hear a story from me, or meet someone that I am walking with, it helps them to see the truth of the situation instead of suppositions that people have. If Catholics really embrace [the Share the Journey campaign] and put themselves in places where they are uncomfortable in order to share the journey with someone else, I think all of our lives will be enriched.”
For the past two and a half years S. Tracy has served as the bilingual pastoral minister at Holy Family parish in Price Hill (Cincinnati), a parish the Sisters of Charity have been ministering to for more than a century. Through the years the parish has been blessed with an increasing Latino presence; today nearly half the parish consists of aging Anglo families, and the other half is a young, growing Guatemalan population. That is what drew S. Tracy Kemme to the parish.
“I was looking for a place in Cincinnati where I could use my pastoral and language skills to work with the Latino population,” S. Tracy said. “… It was very natural. This is where the Sisters of Charity started in Cincinnati; with the population in this area, I was drawn to Price Hill.”
Relationships and encountering our brothers and sisters are at the heart of the Holy Family community, but it hasn’t always been the case. When the Latino community first approached Holy Family they weren’t welcome. It was at the encouragement of Sister of Charity Brenda Busch, principal of the school at the time, that the gym was opened to them. And since, Latino parishioners find it a place to call home. “Faith is incredibly important to most Latino immigrants,” said S. Tracy. “They come from very Catholic countries, and are deeply devoted people. When you have almost nothing, God is everything to you. They have been really patient and persistent. And, when the little door opened, they came in. It’s a testament to the fact that the parish is the center of their life.”
In her role, S. Tracy continues to work on building that relationship and sense of community. “We have these two very different populations. People who had been here for a long time were resistant to change, but, as in anything, once they started encountering each other, they realized we are all human beings.
“Something I’m proud of is during the first year I was here, I started hosting bilingual story sharing meals. It was a potluck meal at Fr. Len’s house. We would have some traditional American foods and some Guatemalan. There were questions at the table, with translators, and they were able to say a prayer and share a meal together. It formed relationships between them.”
“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.” Pope Francis, Sept. 24, 2015
S. Tracy offers a few of her own personal experiences from her ministry at Holy Family, inspiring us to share the journey and to act for justice.
Maria is 14. Her parents came to the United States together when Maria was 3 years old. Her parents are both teachers, which is rare in Guatemala for both of them to have graduated. They were unable to find work besides farming even with their degrees and left Maria and her infant brother in the care of her grandparents to come to the U.S. Her parents went on to have five more children that she would not meet until later on. In Guatemala, Maria’s uncle sexually abused her. Her parents found out about it and decided it was time to bring Maria and her brother to the U.S. They paid a coyote and went into debt to reunite with their two children four years ago.
Maria now goes to a Catholic grade school and is preparing to enter high school. She applied to several local Catholic high schools, but found out that she didn’t do well enough on her PSAT to get into a Catholic high school. She is a very religious person, and works hard in school. Because of starting in U.S. schools much later, she simply does not have the English skills or the background to get into a Catholic high school right now. She is trying to find her way as a young woman in U.S. culture. I think about the challenges she is up against right away, so early in her life. She’s gotten counseling for the trauma she has suffered, but that doesn’t just go away.
Manuel and Laurita
Manuel’s undocumented son, Pablo, was in jail. An officer pulled him over when he accidentally turned the wrong way on a one-way street. Because he was deported once several years ago, the traffic infraction led to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arresting him in front of his wife and 1-year-old daughter.
Saturday morning was jail-visiting time. Third in line, we registered for the visit, and Manuel put a $20 bill into an “Inmate Deposits” machine for his son. The waiting area grew more saturated by the minute until a voice over the PA system announced that group one could begin. Manuel and Laurita beckoned me to follow them through the white door. Along the left, men in green jumpsuits filed out to take their seats in narrow booths, and family members rushed to the glass when they found their loved one.
Manuel moved emotionally to sit down in front of a small Guatemalan man who couldn’t be more than 20. Pablo’s sad eyes met his father’s as they both lifted the phones that would allow them to communicate. The visits are supposed to be 30 minutes, but after just 15, a supervisor bellowed, “That’s it! Say your goodbyes!” Manuel and Laurita huddled close to the phone, offering their last few words of love and encouragement. Pablo cried as he shuffled back to his cell. Two months later, Pablo was deported to Guatemala.
“Despite the problems, risks and difficulties to be faced, great numbers of migrants and refugees continue to be inspired by confidence and hope; in their hearts they long for a better future, not only for themselves but for their families and those closest to them.” Pope Francis, July 8, 2013
The Share the Journey campaign comes at a particularly poignant time in our country. In February the Senate once again opened floor debate on the topic of immigration; the Church’s stance on the issue is quite clear in its support of immigration reform and humane treatment of migrants – families should remain together; DACA recipients should be protected; and mercy and compassion should be shown to those seeking refuge.
“We need to continually urge our elected officials to come to a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive reform,” says S. Tracy. “The system is just not working as is. … One of the biggest misconceptions I find concerns what it takes to become a U.S. citizen. For many of the individuals I work with there’s no way for them to enter the process. You have to have a family member that is a citizen, you have to have an employer that is willing to sponsor you, or you have to win the visa lottery. For them there’s literally no way. When people say it’s fine for them to be here, but just come legally, it’s not such an easy thing. Even for those eligible, it can take 10-20 years and thousands of dollars in lawyer fees.”
S. Tracy has experienced first-hand the heartbreak of family separation. She explains that a majority of the Holy Family population has been touched by such. Recently a young couple in the church became the first Latino couple to get married at Holy Family. The bride had no family members in Cincinnati, and celebrated this most special of days with her new in-laws and parishioners.
“They are so strong and resilient because they are used to it,” she said. “Things I think are unfathomable for us, it’s just what they are willing to do for the well-being of their family.”
She has experienced separation from the other side, as well. S. Tracy and a group of members from the community called Solidarity in Christ visited a Guatemalan parish last summer and plan to return in 2018. Last summer S. Tracy unexpectedly had the opportunity to meet family members of her Holy Family parishioners. “Walking into this ancient church in this small village in the mountains of Guatemala, this woman with a wrinkled, brown face came up to me and asked if I knew ‘Lorena,’” she recounts. “I said, ‘yes, she goes to our church.’ This woman’s eyes filled with tears and she told me that Lorena is her daughter and she hasn’t seen her in 11 years. Then this tall boy comes and stands behind her and says, ‘You know Lorena, that’s my mom.’ He was her oldest son that she had left behind. We took pictures with the two of them and that night I was able to get WiFi and send the pictures back to Lorena and tell her we had met her family. Lorena sent back a sad face and said she was happy we met them but it also broke her heart that she couldn’t be there.”
Those are the stories and moments of encounter that remind us of the humanness of our brothers and sisters. Their strength, resilience, unwavering faith and the heart-wrenching decisions they are faced with are a reminder that by listening to their stories and opening our hearts, our lives are fuller. Share the journey.