Living faith with the immigrants
I first met my friend, Raúl, on a Sunday morning after Mass. He was very agitated, anxious; he needed someone to explain things to him. Raúl is a fairly vigorous, sixty-two-year-old Mexican immigrant living in USA, who came over the border back in the middle 1980s, when he received a green card during the amnesty of 1986. Despite having lived here for so long, he knows very little English. He lives an austere, solitary life for the most part; most of what little he earns at a meatpacking plant he sends to his sister and brother in Guanajuato, Mexico. Raúl is supremely cautious, and has never had any sort of legal trouble. Hence his agitation.
He showed me a piece of paper, which was a citation from the police. Then he began to explain: he had been in the supermarket, looking for some quality fruits and vegetables for the week. He decided he might like some apricots, so he tried one, to see how sweet and ripe they were. Unfortunately, they were neither, so he continued with his shopping. Eventually, as he left the store, he was accosted by two men-one a store manager, the other a police officer. The manager accused him of eating, according to the citation, "$2.27 worth of apricots" without paying for them. Raúl explained he had no intention of stealing, and he'd happily pay for the fruit now; he had simply been testing the apricots (as he often had done in other markets), and hadn't thought twice about it. The manager refused to allow him to pay, and instead, the police officer gave him the citation, which included a summons: his date in court was set six weeks from now. This had Raúl deeply concerned. Was he now a criminal? Would this jeopardize his chances for government benefits? He had many questions I couldn't answer, but that I thought weren't too problematic. The problem I had was with the fine listed on the ticket: $362. This, for sampling an apricot in a supermarket, was nearly as much as his weekly take-home pay, before he sent most of it to his siblings.
I was appalled. How could they expect an obviously poor man such as Raúl to pay such a fine for such a small violation? I wasn't even convinced there was a violation. I suspected had I been sampling the apricots, I might have been warned, and at least allowed to pay for them. Raúl's obvious 'crime' was his poverty. I made up my mind that I couldn't let it stand. Raúl asked if he had to wait until his court date to pay the fine, or whether he could do it now. I told him not to pay, and that I'd help him, because it was unjust. Thus began a lasting relationship, as we both began to learn the ropes regarding the legal system, the health care system, and other human services in Southeast Wisconsin.
Raúl is one example of how I have been drawn in by the mostly Mexican immigrant community on the south side of Milwaukee, where I am associate pastor in three parishes. The tri-parish community is full of joys and sorrows: on a recent Saturday morning, I recorded twenty baptisms. Within the week, an unidentified immigrant man lay dead of a gunshot in our church parking lot. I recently returned from a conference in Atlanta dealing with justice for immigrants, which gave me occasion to reflect on how I can help bring about justice in our Milwaukee community. I find it's almost always in little ways: doing a weekly blessing for our food pantry's staff; chatting with and assisting those who come for food, clothing and bedding each week. Our parish staff and volunteers are impressive: our pastor and associate are both from Colombia, and work tirelessly on behalf of all. But the support staff is equally tireless in their efforts, for which I'm very grateful. These amazing men and women devote themselves to making ours a community of joyful worship, and a place of refuge and support. They demonstrate great love for the Church in their solicitous care for the least among us.
In the meantime, I am learning a great deal each week about the politics of community organizing, about the ins and outs of local services, about the ways around obstacles to living well without many resources. It is very fulfilling, even when there's not enough time in the day to do it all. I look forward to this time totally dedicated to living our faith in the community, meeting our incarnate Lord in the profound needs and the caring hearts all around.
John F. Montag, SJ