I pulled into Vidal’s driveway on Monday morning, stopping the car just before I reached a big split in the uneven concrete. I was a few minutes early, so I decided not to go to the door right away. Vidal has five children, the youngest of whom is just twelve days old! I figured he and his wife would need all the time they could get to ready their little ones for the day. However, the side screen door flipped open right away. Vidal stepped out, dressed in a crisp, button-down shirt and nice pants, a contrast to the run-down house from which he emerged. He smiled and waved, called, “Hasta luego!” to his wife, and walked toward the car.
“Buenos días, Hermana,” he said as he climbed into the passenger seat.
And we were off. This morning, Vidal was going to share his story.
I’d been asked to do a presentation about immigration for the intercommunity novitiate class in Cincinnati. While I could offer insights from my years of working with migrants, I knew that nothing could replace the testimony of someone who has lived migration. Vidal, a parishioner of the church where I minister, agreed to accompany me.
Vidal started by telling us about his life in Guatemala. He was born into economic poverty in a small town in the country. Most people were subsistence farmers. Vidal never knew his father, and his mother took little interest in him. His grandparents raised him. He desperately wanted to go to school, but his family couldn’t afford the supplies. He only went to first grade, and then, he began to work.
He worked throughout his whole young life, making the equivalent of $1.50 per day. As a teenager, he met his now wife. The pair began planning a future together, but he knew he’d never be able to support a family with what he could make in his home country. At eighteen, he decided to leave and travel north.
It was a long, dangerous journey that involved walking through the desert for six days, being deported once, and being swindled and abandoned in an unknown place by a “coyote” who was supposed to help him. He finally made it to Cincinnati, where some people from his hometown had settled.
Here in the U.S., life has been better, but not easy. Vidal described the difficulty of trying to make a life in a place where they don’t know the language, where they can’t get a real job, where they can’t get a driver’s license, and where many people wish he wasn’t here. He, like many immigrants, has worked long hours for little pay, mostly in landscaping and janitorial services. It is tough, but he hopes to stay here. The United States is all that his children know.
Perhaps the most shocking part of the story is the resistance he and his fellow Catholic Guatemalans faced in trying to find a parish. One parish told them that they weren’t welcome because the parish “already had too many activities going on.” A second parish offered a similar response, but the school principal, a Sister of Charity, welcomed them and at least offered them the school auditorium for worship.
For about seven years, they hired their own Spanish-speaking priests and held Mass in the school, never setting foot in the church building. Finally, three years ago, a new pastor came and began the process of welcoming them fully into the parish.
When we climbed back into the car after the class, I thanked Vidal for his courage in sharing his profound witness.
He said, “Thank you, too, Hermana, for giving me this opportunity. I never imagined that someone like me, an immigrant with no education, would ever be invited to talk in front of anybody!” He shook his head and then smiled, “Doing that made me realize that I’m worth something.”
My heart broke and rejoiced in the same instance. How sad that our world makes people feel like they aren’t worth anything; what a gift it was to be part of a moment that reversed that for one person.
I thought of Pope Francis’ words to Congress just a few weeks ago, “We must not be taken aback by [the] numbers [of immigrants] but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation.”
I’m so grateful for the faces I’ve seen and the stories I’ve heard. Walking with people like Vidal is a true privilege – and a call to never tire of working for justice.