Monday, December 22, 2014

Las Posadas and the Welcoming Innkeeper

David Gayes currently serves as an English Language teacher at the Tolton Center in Chicago. He also serves at Casa Juan Diego, an after school program.

I love the Mexican tradition during the fourth week of Advent called Las Posadas. “Las Posadas” literally means “the inns.” During the nine days leading up to Christmas, through music and song, communities reenact the story of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay. Two people dress up as Joseph and Mary, who often rides on a donkey, and look for an innkeeper to take them in for the night. Every member of the community takes a part in the story, singing the dialogue between Joseph and Mary and the innkeepers. The people who sing the part of Joseph and Mary remain outside, walking from house to house while the people who play the different innkeepers are inside, rejecting them. In the last of many exchanges between the groups, Mary and Joseph are finally given a place to stay for the night, and everyone enters the “inn” for a lively celebration.

Image of a traditional "Las Posadas" celebration. 
(Photo from

Here is a link to Las Posadas sung in Spanish, with Spanish subtitles: 

English Translation:

Mary and Joseph:
In the name of Heaven
I beg you for lodging,
for she cannot walk
my beloved wife.          
                                                       This is not an inn 
                                                       so keep going 
                                                       I cannot open 
                                                      you may be a rogue.
Mary and Joseph:
Don't be inhuman;
Have mercy on us.
The God of the heavens
will reward you for it.
                                                       You can go on now 
                                                       and don't bother us, 
                                                       because if I become annoyed 
                                                       I'll give you a trashing.
Mary and Joseph:
We are worn out
coming from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter,
Joseph by name.
                                                       I don't care about your name: 
                                                       Let me sleep, 
                                                       because I already told you 
                                                       we shall not open up.
Mary and Joseph:
I'm asking you for lodging
dear man of the house
Just for one night
for the Queen of Heaven.
                                                       Well, if it's a queen 
                                                       who solicits it, 
                                                       why is it at night 
                                                       that she travels so alone?
Mary and Joseph:
My wife is Mary
She's the Queen of Heaven
and she's going to be the mother
of the Divine Word.
                                                       Are you Joseph? 
                                                       Your wife is Mary? 
                                                       Enter, pilgrims; 
                                                       I did not recognize you.
Mary and Joseph:
May God pay, gentle folks,
your charity,
and thus heaven heap
happiness upon you.
                                                       Blessed is the house 
                                                       that shelters this day 
                                                       the pure Virgin, 
                                                       the beautiful Mary.

Everyone in unison:
Enter, holy pilgrims,
receive this corner,
for though this dwelling is poor,
I offer it with all my heart.                                       

Oh, graced pilgrim,
oh, most beautiful Mary.
I offer you my soul
so you may have lodging.              

Humble pilgrims,
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.              

Let us sing with joy,
all bearing in mind
that Jesus, Joseph and Mary
honor us by having come.

I am moved by the joyful welcoming of Joseph and Mary in the Las Posadas tradition. After being rejected many times, Joseph and Mary finally encounter an innkeeper who accepts them and recognizes the beauty of their situation. The final innkeeper welcomes them unconditionally and commits to offer himself to help them.

“I give my soul for them
And my heart as well.
Let us sing with joy”

He does not turn them away, but rather welcomes the strangers, offering a place to spend the night.

I can relate to this final innkeeper in my year of service with Dominican Volunteers USA. I teach English as a second language with the Tolton Center in Chicago. The people with whom I serve are strangers to the United States and to American culture. Many have been rejected—some having only recently arrived in the United States, while others have been here for a while. They have a desire to not just survive, but to thrive. They want to help their kids get into good high schools and colleges. They want to learn English, so they can understand their bosses’ directions and move forward in their place of employment. They seek to make American friends, understand American culture, and become full, active United States citizens.

David (center) with coworkers Ana and Peggy (left) and three English language students.

Our job at Tolton is to be welcoming innkeepers. We offer free classes and accept anyone who wants to learn, regardless of immigration status. We strive to create a warm, fun, nonthreatening environment with many games and activities. We try to respect every student as an individual with his or her own story and personal goals. We seek to create a place where no individual who wants to learn English will be turned away.

I am grateful for the people at Tolton for modeling for me the role of a hospitable innkeeper. I am thankful for my clients who openly and enthusiastically share their stories. I am appreciative of Dominican Volunteers USA for giving me this amazing opportunity.

In this Christmas Season may we learn to be welcoming innkeepers, giving our hearts and souls in service to the strangers in our midst. 

David's student shares pictures of her grandchildren. David helps her 
learn English so she can communicate with them. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Blessings in Upheaval

Sarah currently ministers with refugees with Catholic Charities Atlanta.

If you ever need to re-affirm your faith in humanity, stop by the Refugee Resettlement Office for Catholic Charities Atlanta.

When you walk in the door, it will likely be chaotic. In my office, people will be funneling in and out all day. Families from places like Afghanistan, Bhutan, Congo, Burma and Iraq will be talking to case managers, like myself, who are helping them become self sufficient. You will see every age group, and overhear dozens of languages. Many will want to practice their English and resettlement staff will be talking with them slowly. You will see people who are there because of war, persecution or natural disaster. 
Sarah's coworkers gather for a photo: Myint from Burma is a translator, Subba from Bhutan is resettlement manager, Frances from USA is Senior Director of Refugee Resettlement, and Sarah on the far right
Of the world's 50 million displaced persons, the refugees in this resettlement office are part of the .5 percent that have been invited by the U.S. government to rebuild their lives in the United States. Many have gone through years of waiting in camps or cities before being given permission to resettle in Atlanta, Georgia. There is a clear relationship between the refugee problem and the issue of human rights. Violations of human rights are not only among the major causes of mass exoduses, but also rule out the option of voluntary repatriation for as long as they persist. Violations of rights of minorities and ethnic conflicts are increasingly at the source of both mass exoduses and internal displacements. Respect for human rights is a necessary condition for both preventing and resolving today's refugee flows. In the words of previous United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, "the refugee issue must be put to all governments and peoples as a test of their commitment to human rights".

The Reception and Placement (R&P) Grant, is given by the State Department to various resettlement agencies, like Catholic Charities Atlanta, according to the number of refugees for which they are responsible during the given time period. In return for the grant, which is supplemented by private donations and other in-kind contributions, the resettlement agencies are expected to provide the following services to refugees approved for resettlement: 

  • sponsorship; 
  • pre-arrival resettlement planning (including placement); 
  • reception upon arrival; 
  • basic needs support for at least 30 days, including housing, furnishings, food, and clothing;
  • community orientation;
  • referral to social service providers (including health care, employment, etc.); 
  • and case management and tracking for 90-180 days. 
As a case manager I do all of the things listed above with each refugee case assigned to me. 

Sarah and Ashley, a current Dominican Volunteer, sort through clothes donations for incoming families.
One of my favorite parts of my job is reception upon arrival which includes airport reception. In August, I received my first case and made all the arrangements for them before I went to the airport to greet them. It was obviously a very exciting moment for me as a new case manager but significantly more exhilarating for the family members I was waiting with. Two adorable children and their parents anxiously stood next to me as we watched people from around the world come up the escalator at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. As we waited I was told by the children’s mother that her parents, my clients, last saw her little girl when she was one year old and that they hadn’t yet met her four month old baby boy. I knew it was going to be an extremely emotional reunion and I was not wrong! It was a moving moment to witness. I had tears well up in my eyes because everyone was crying and embracing their loved ones. The daughter ran up to her mother with her little girl and my clients just broke down in tears. When they finally saw their four month old grandson they cried harder and could not stop holding his face in their hands. They spoke rapidly in Arabic so I did not understand what was said but I could just imagine my clients saying, “my grandson is so precious and beautiful”. 

Moments like my first airport reception are a privilege to witness. I am so blessed to work as a case manager for Catholic Charities Atlanta as a Dominican Volunteer. The successes are there but so are the challenges. The longer you stay in my office, the more you will hear in the voices of the refugees that they are truly thankful but also scared and far from home. They are part of a resettlement program that makes a real difference but would be better with more funding and support. 

There is so much wrong in our world today. There have never been this many simultaneous conflicts or so many reasons for people to seek refuge away from home. There are more refugees since World War II and the number is only growing. Soon, Catholic Charities Atlanta may have Syrians in our office's waiting room. As I watch the news and see millions uprooted, I wonder which few I will work with in the coming year, and what will happen to the rest.

In a time where the world continues to be wrought with nonstop upheaval, there are not many moments to stop and give thanks. It is something though, to be with people directly affected by these issues. They have lost loved ones -- mostly to preventable conflicts or turmoil -- and will still find ways to see what is good. They are kind and resilient. They try again and again.

I challenge all of you who took the time to read this blog post to start learning about refugees. Or go bigger: support your local resettlement office throughout the year. You will never be prouder to be part of a country that has a history of offering refuge. You will never feel more human. And I promise, you will never feel more thankful.

The following are the external links from Sarah's post, as well as a few more resources for you:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Searching for the Source

Mary Clare Mazzocchi currently serves at Immaculate Conception Academy in San Francisco. She takes on a variety of roles, including as chaperon for the Corporate Work Study Program and as a teacher and tutor in ICA’s Academy Plus after school study sessions.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation on BART, San Francisco’s subway system, with an Immaculate Conception Academy sophomore whom I will call Lexi. We were standing in the crowded train car, waiting for the masses to clear out at Embarcadero, the last stop in San Francisco, so we could sit for the long ride under the Bay to Lexi’s work-study job in Oakland. I know Lexi both as her commute chaperone and as her tutor in ICA’s Academy Plus afterschool program, a mandatory study skills session for students who have been targeted as needing extra help. 

It was a Monday, and I asked her about her weekend.

“It was really bad,” she said. She was smiling, and I wasn’t sure if she was trying to be funny. Lexi is always fun to interact with, because she is so open and willing to make a clown of herself.

“Oh no,” I said. “What was bad about it?”

“My mom was supposed to visit, but then she didn’t,” she said. Then she whispered, “She’s crazy,” and smiled like she had told a cute story.

“Oh.” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I knew it was important that she was telling me about this, but it was coming out so suddenly, I didn’t know how to respond.

“I know I’m alright,” she said. “I just worry about my little brother, you know?”

I nodded and made a face like I did know, even though I didn’t.

She went on. “You can’t talk to her, not even on the phone. She gets so mad at us for living with my dad, even though she’s the one that left us, you know?” I nodded. “And I used to be really upset about it, and it affected my grades. I was getting like D’s and F’s and stuff last year because I was thinking about it all the time. But now I’m better.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’re doing really well.”

She smiled, and I could tell she really felt proud. Her grades this semester are very good, and she will probably no longer need to be in Academy Plus come spring. Our conversation turned to school, and then ended when we sat in separate rows.

This was a brief interaction, but it illustrates a struggle that I often encounter in my work at ICA. The school operates using a Cristo Rey model, meaning that the girls work in corporate work-study positions to earn the cost of their school tuition, and receive in return a college prep education and 100% college placement in their senior year. The school has a very welcoming atmosphere. It feels good to be there. On the whole, the girls are amazingly, even shockingly polite to their teachers, and kind to each other. They’re mature. They’re bright. They’re funny. It’s such a positive environment that it’s easy to forget what the school does, and that its work is fighting a very real injustice that has been dealt to its students. Because of the Cristo Rey model, the school can serve a population that would not typically have access to a college prep education and guaranteed college placement, namely, young women from backgrounds of poverty. And sometimes I forget what that actually means for girls and their families.

Mary Clare tutoring a student after school during Academy Plus.

In a recent meeting in the Admissions Department, where I sat taking minutes, a board member brought up an idea that she has long been advocating: the school should initiate a home visit to each girl’s family, to understand her situation and consider what her individual needs might be.

“These aren’t girls like you and me except they’re poor,” she said. “Their lives are very different, and we need to know what’s going on.”

So although the atmosphere of the school makes it easy to forget, the injustice of the students’ situation is a painful reality. Because of their socioeconomic condition, they are dealing with a set of stresses at home that has a very real effect on their schoolwork, which in turn affects their chances of success in college and in the workplace. We can be sure of the consequences of the injustice, if only by looking at the grades and scores of some of the brightest and best learners in the school.

So the problem is clear, but moments like my conversation with Lexi make me question whether the school as a whole and I personally can deal with some of the deeper effects of economic disparity. Most of the time, my experience with the students is tranquil and enjoyable, but every now and then something will happen, like Lexi’s sudden need to tell me about her family situation, that will open my eyes to what is going on under the surface, and to my inability to really change the situation from the position I’m in.

It comes out in flashes. A girl in Academy Plus will respond to my question of who at home can quiz her after she’s finished studying, saying, with genuine sadness, “No one,” then defensively, “They work.” A girl on one of my commutes will make an off-hand comment, trying to be funny, about the rotten food in her refrigerator the night before. When I see a girl dragging her feet in my commute group or sitting in the back of Academy Plus with her head on her desk and tears in her eyes, I know that when I ask how she’s doing and if I can help, the best it will do is communicate that I notice and care, which, although important, will not actually do anything to right the wrong.

It’s not just that I lack the tools or the ability to have helpful conversations with the girls; it’s also one of the fundamental limitations of working in a school ministry like ICA. On the one hand, the school is and should be a safe and separate environment, a place of order and certainty where any turbulence in a student’s home life can be left at the door. But in many instances, I feel as though my work, especially with my Academy Plus girls, is only making surface changes and failing to engage the deeper problem. I recently helped each girl in the class clean and organize her locker and get all of her materials in order, with papers in the right binders and separate notebooks for each class, etc., and I couldn’t help but feel that I was just treating the symptoms, helping her put the externals in order when the real disorder was somewhere deep and out of sight.

So what can we do to combat the deep and often hidden injustice of economic difference creating unfair barriers to success?

Mary Clare (far left) chaperoning students to their Corporate Work Study jobs.

It seems to me that ICA and other schools in the Cristo Rey Network have one of the best solutions that is practically possible, combating inequality of opportunity head-on by providing ample opportunity to students that would typically be inequality’s victims. The approach is effective, and should be extended even further, into school systems that provide direct attention to at-risk students from the beginning to prevent their falling so far behind, or systems that encourage or require active parent involvement in a student’s academic growth.

But that approach seems to run into the same problem. It is a symptomatic treatment. Schools can fill in what unjust inequality took away. But what can be done to eradicate the source of inequality?

I ran into one of ICA’s newer teachers in the BART station after school, and we had a conversation on the platform while waiting for the train. She expressed some skepticism about the idea of “breaking the cycle” of poverty.

She said, “It seems like it’s been years that we’ve been talking about ‘breaking the cycle.’ So when is the cycle really broken? I have friends my age who came from poor backgrounds, and now they’re working in professional jobs and making money. So you could say they ‘broke the cycle,’ but now here we are helping these girls, and they’re in a younger generation, but they’re still in ‘the cycle.’ So I guess the cycle wasn’t really broken.”

Maybe it is helpful to think of ICA as ministering in part to its students, and in part to the students’ families, to their children and to future generations. It’s true that a ministry like ICA cannot enact the kind of social change that happens all at once, for an entire generation of citizens. It serves a small group of girls, and even for them it cannot right some of the wrongs that have already been done. But for those girls, within their families, the “cycle” is broken, starting now, with her generation. If the school cannot directly deal with all of the ugly effects of injustice, it can put each girl on a track that leads to a different kind of life. And because of that, her children will not need a place like ICA to obtain the opportunity that they deserve. And perhaps her children’s children will have a childhood free of the stresses of economic precarity.

So even when I am faced with small moments that expose the depth of our students’ needs, and I feel where both I and the school are lacking, I believe in our mission and work, and I have hope for the girls and for their families. Everyone at ICA is working hard, and the effects might be slow to appear. But over time, for all of ICA’s families, the possible will be achievable, and the ideal will be real.

Freshman poses in the ICA Admissions Office, where she works on Fridays.