Sunday, October 14, 2007
Fr. Shay Auerbach, SJ Reports from Richmond
I am Shay Auerbach, a Maryland Province Jesuit serving as admin- istrator of Sacred Heart Parish in Richmond, VA. We are a parish of about 800 families, over half hispanic and the other half white, African American and African. The Hispanics are largely from Mexico (the majority) El Salvador and the Caribbean.
The amazing thing about this parish is the sense of warmth and welcome. The different communities all get along quite well, and parish meetings are commonly in both Spanish and English, with no one complaining.
People tell the story of how they came here to this parish, for a visit, brought by a relative or friend and then staying because everyone worked so hard to make them feel at home, all quite naturally.
Prior to coming to Sacred Heart in July of this year I lived in Mexico taking part in the final stage of Jesuit formation called tertianship. An important part of my time there was visiting families I had gotten to know and work with in Baltimore and Raleigh, where I had worked before I went to Mexico.
There is nothing like the priest from a young man's church going to his hometown in Mexico or El Salvador and telling a mother that he is doing ok in the US and that she should not worry about him. The life of an immigrant, authorized or unauthorized is one of many challenges and some outright dangers. So many come north to support families. When those families find out that their loved ones are well in the States, that someone in a position of trust personally gives them the message that they are ok, it gives them hope and joy.
It turned out that a group of young men who were part of St. Joseph's in Cockeysville lived twenty minutes from our retreat house in the state of Jalisco. One of them I confirmed before I left for Mexico. Three weeks after I arrived, they all came home and I got to spend much time with them and their families. One of the evenings we gathered, their fathers remembered the hardships and abuse endured in the US some forty years before as participants in the "bracero" program, in which the US government recruited in Mexico cheap labor for agritultural work in the US. In the mid 1960s the program was discontinued because of persistent poor treatment of workers.
In December, I was assigned to the southern state of Oaxaca, very undeveloped and largely poor, with persistent political unrest. A family I knew in Baltimore picked me up at the airport and took me to the Jesuit residence. In May, I visited the remote mountain town they are from, Santa Cruz Tepetotutla, where the language is Chinanteco. It was their parish feast day, and they are so off the beaten track that there are years when the parish priest, who lives eight hours away by foot (the same time by car since the roads are so bad) cannot make it for the town feast day. This year there were two priests, the parish priest and myself.
The reality is that immigrants families live an often painful life of separtion. Parents not seeing their children, husbands and wives not seeing each other for years at a time. An official estimate, which gives an idea of the situation, is that half of the population of the state of Zacatecas lives north of the border--some of them in my parish. The picture on horseback is of Los Soyates a small "ranchito" whose residents in the the US built the town church. The picture of the procession is in the mountain town in Oaxaca--a good number of the residents work in southern New Jersey.
As much as immigration has affected the US and is changing the church in this country, the home towns of the immigrants are thoroughly altered, new homes, new churches, better roads--and families divided. Effective ministry to immigrants on this side of the border must take into account the reality on the other side of the border. I had the privilege to experience that reality, with parents, wives, and children of immigrants who are part of our parishes here in the US. I will never forget the words of a mother and wife of an immigrant in North Carolina. . With deep love in their voices, concern etched on their faces the mother said: "I entrust the care of my son to you." The wife added "Please keep watch on my husband". They knew very well that I lived five hours distance from him. But to them what mattered was that someone also on the same side of the border, someone of the church was keeping tabs on their loved one.
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