By Sr. Mary Ellen Lacy
I work in a legal clinic in East St Louis, Illinois which is, shamefully, a third world city in a first world country. Justice occasionally happens in East St Louis but injustice is a way of life. Konnisha came to me when the Public Housing Authority (HA) assessed her excessive move out charges after she realized the exceptional leap from public to private housing. She was going to pay her own way and she was proud of that. We eventually negotiated, and agreed upon, a reasonable Settlement Agreement. Shortly thereafter, we learned that the Housing Authority attorney had filed an eviction action against my client even though she had properly moved out and turned in the keys.
We obtained an order of dismissal. Unfortunately, even after a dismissal is ordered, the fact that a person was once sued for eviction remains on her public record. Creditors and future landlords can see this on a record and assume the defendant got off on a technicality or cut a deal with the landlord before trial. Indeed, they will typically and erroneously judge the accused to be a bad risk and refuse her credit or housing. For impoverished folks, fair credit and decent housing is already difficult enough to obtain. This scarring of her record gravely impacted the future she was working so hard to improve.
It was another injustice that disparately preys upon those who live in poverty. Folks who have never been in public housing will not get erroneously stuck on a list of pending evictions, end up in court and have their public records sullied. Providentially, I had just attended a task force in which someone said it was possible in some instances to seal housing records. No one had yet tried it in our office ….but someone said it was possible. And all things are truly possible with Jesus Christ who strengthens us, right? So I offered, and she agreed, to let me try to get the record sealed. We were hopeful.
First, we struck a deal with the Housing folks. They would not oppose a motion to seal if we waited and Konnisha demonstrated her compliance with the Settlement Agreement for two months. After that, they would let us file the motion, unopposed. Now I knew I did not need their approval but I also knew that I was a novice to housing litigation and no one I knew had done this before. So removing obstacles despite waiting 2 months to be certain of no opposition seemed like a good plan to both Konnisha and me. Another lawyer may have completed this task more quickly or more impressively but I was all she had.
While we waited, I went about representing other clients until the motion would be ripe. Two months passed and I was steeped in eviction cases where mothers and kids might lose their homes. Konnisha called to tell me she had made her timely payments and asked if I had filed the motion yet. Since her case was dismissed and she was in a house, the priority of sealing a record fell below those clients who needed help to stay in their home. I let her know that I had not done so and other priorities were pressing right now. She kindly but matter of factly said, “I get your priorities but this is my priority. Look, I did my part, and I’ve waited. Now you gotta do yours.” I said, “You are right, I will make this my priority too.”
Shortly thereafter, I went to mass. I had walked in and greeted my Jesus upon the cross as I always do. I have been drawn to Jesus upon the cross since I was a child and the crucifix is the first thing I look for upon entering any church. When I gaze upon Jesus with His arms spread open upon the cross, I usually hear “I love you this much.” And I fall in love with Him all over again. On this day, however, I looked up at the cross and I heard, “Look, I did my part, and I’ve waited, now you gotta do yours."
What did that mean? It was the second time my Jesus was telling me to step up today. I thought about Konnisha, again. Life had handed her some pretty tough blows. But she was surviving in East St Louis, Illinois, moving out of public housing and fighting to get a tiny slice of that “future full of possibilities” pie. She did, indeed, do her part. I am inspired by her resilience and her desire to make the most of her blessings.
I considered that I, too, had been having a very tough time lately. I was feeling misunderstood and unwanted. I was kind of on the pity pot and I was not making the most of my blessings. Then, I came across a copy of a homily I had acquired when I was missioned in Brooklyn. It was about the Maryknoll martyr, Sr. Ita Ford. The priest spoke about serving in a place that makes you feel unwelcomed and scared. You do it anyway, because when you look into the hollow and hungry eyes of the poor, you see the beautiful face of Christ. And you love them. And you want them to feel loved. And so you open your arms for them, like Christ on the cross. And in that way, the gospel is lived, and Christ’s love is known. And for that, you will sacrifice anything, and everything.
The priest was saying, If you love Him, you will love Them and you will do your part. Nothing else matters. My Jesus, to whom I had given my heart, seemed so far away but I knew my salvation lied in getting back into His arms. For me, the road to Jesus has always been through His mother and His Poor. I had been begging Blessed Mother to bring me back to Him. While I waited for her to straighten everything out, I worked in ESL and I looked into the hungry, searching eyes of the Konnishas, Tequilas and LaQuishas so I could see His beautiful face. I spread my arms and I embraced Them with all I had. Somehow, I have always known that loving Them was MY part, my special gift. And to protect and incarnate that gift, I will sacrifice anything, and everything.
So, I laid my worries at the foot of His cross and on the lap of Blessed Mother and I promised to do whatever He deemed was my part. I am to serve His Poor and live His gospel. They have waited long enough.
In the time that would follow, Konnisha’s motion would be granted, her record was sealed and a modicum of justice was restored in a community where justice was an irregular visitor. That’s what happens when we all do our part. Amen.