The migrants came, some as early as 4 a.m. the Saturday morning of Nov. 19, five hours before the doors opened to the basement of historic St. Teresa’s Church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Most had arrived from Venezuela, some in the summer via buses launched from Texas to the Port Authority. Others had been here only days. They included children, used to tropical climes, experiencing the onset of a late autumn freeze, many without winter coats to brace them from the elements.
This isn’t ‘nice to meet you, here’s a sandwich.’ This is accompaniment.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan greeted the migrants at the Catholic Charities-sponsored Resource Fair, a visible reminder of the Church’s ongoing concern for them.
“This isn’t ‘nice to meet you, here’s a sandwich.’ This is accompaniment. This is staying with them,” said the cardinal. He noted that as Thanksgiving approaches, pilgrims are still coming to our shores, and that the church is, as always, anxious to welcome them.
In the church basement, the migrants – estimated at about 250 – perused tables for hoodies and sweaters, socks and underwear, and spoke with caseworkers and immigration lawyers. They were assisted by Catholic Charities’ workers and volunteers, who staffed the tables distributing the clothing and other items, including Christmas toys for the children. They sipped coffee and some received haircuts offered by a volunteer who called himself Bon Jovi, not the pop singer, who said he wanted to help as a migrant himself from Nicaragua who came to New York four years ago.
Deb Presti-Eschen, Director of Case Management, told the caseworkers that it was important “to acknowledge their patience,” both in the migrants standing on line and, in the larger sense, through thousands of miles of a perilous journey that has ended in New York.
As the migrants entered, the caseworkers informed them about needed services, such as access to food, clothing, health care, and legal services. Juan, a man in his twenties who said he was from Caracas, has been living with his brother in a city shelter since arriving here in October. He was handed information on English-language lessons.
Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Director of Catholic Charities, noted that while the early days of the migrant influx were somewhat chaotic, New York has opened its arms to them. Evidence included the Nov. 19 event, which had been preceded by regular Saturday gatherings for the migrants throughout the fall.
Alva Fresco, a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Manhattan’s Inwood section, volunteered for the day, staffing a table and providing clothes.
Our Lady, like the migrants, knew the experience of traveling to escape oppression.
“It gives you purpose. You can see the needs of others,” said Alva, an immigrant herself from Paraguay.
The day included Mass in Spanish led by Cardinal Dolan, Msgr. Sullivan, and Father Alexis Bastidas, pastor of St. Teresa. The readings for the liturgy were geared to the Feast of Our Lady of Providence, the patroness for Puerto Rico, but also noted in much of Latin America where Marian devotion is intense.
Msgr. Sullivan, the homilist, said that Our Lady, like the migrants, knew the experience of traveling to escape oppression and seek opportunity.
“It was a difficult road, but she walked it,” Msgr. Sullivan noted about the Scripture account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. He said that another biblical story, the Holy Family’s fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod, shows God’s message of love and support for migrants forced to flee persecution.
God’s concern, he said, continues to rest on poor migrants, lived out in action downstairs from the church that very moment.