Written by Peter G. Sánchez
As I participated in the Saint Teresa of Calcutta Day of Service last Saturday, one of almost 300 people imitating the life of this miraculous woman in reaching out to the margins in our Camden and Atlantic City communities, I couldn’t help but recognize that I’ve heard this story before.
After a morning Mass with Bishop Dennis Sullivan at Collingswood’s Saint Teresa of Calcutta, my service assignment called me to Catholic Charities’ Camden headquarters on Haddon Avenue. Once there, I learned I would be in charge of one of the game tables making up the day’s carnival for refugee children, held in the organization’s parking lot.
Along with Michael McWilliams, a parishioner from Runnemede’s Holy Child Parish, I manned a modified take on the old “pull the cloth from the table, leave the flowers standing” trick: upside-down plastic cups stacked nearly on top of one another, three or four high, with only a thin index card in between them. As participants pulled each index card out from between the cups, the hope was that the highest would drop perfectly onto the one below it, until all that was left was a stack of cups.
Each child stepped up to the table, their faces showing initial confusion. These children and their families had fled from war or persecution, from Syria, Iraq and Burma. Still getting used to the American soil beneath their feet, they didn’t understand my “Welcome!” or “Want to play?”
I understood more than they knew, though. The story of these children, and their families, is the story of my family.
More than 50 years ago, my grandparents and their eight children (my father being the oldest, a teenager at the time) fled communist Cuba, and began a free, but initially uncertain, existence in the United States. Over the years, I’ve heard my father, grandparents, and aunts and uncles chronicle their struggle during their first years away from the Castro regime, and their first steps in Miami; then Canada; then New York; and New Jersey.
One piece of those memories stuck out last Saturday, and that is the help my family received from Catholic Charities in New York, and one Father Robert Fox. After my grandparents secured an apartment in Jersey City for their young family, it was Father Fox and Catholic Charities who helped them furnish the place. Multiple shared mattresses meant comfort, security and hope for my grandparents, father and aunts and uncles.
My family never forgot this priest’s or Catholic Charities’ assistance; indeed, it deepened in them an appreciation for the Catholic faith, and of Jesus’ call to “welcome the stranger.”
Explaining the carnival game to these young refugees with actions instead of words, the way to play finally got through. And after a few tries, the looks of confusion turned to determination to win, and then to joy after successful attempts. As we clapped for them, their smiles grew.
One young girl, after finally figuring out how to play, returned many times to our table during the three hour-carnival. As she stopped, she would quickly swipe the index cards, watch the cups stack, and happily take her ticket, which was given to each child to exchange at a separate table for prizes.
The youth’s smiles shone brighter than the hot sun that afternoon. Barriers were broken down.
“The best parts of the day were their smiles,” McWilliams told me.
I couldn’t help but think of my father, and aunts and uncles, and that same joy they must have had while playing baseball outside their Jersey City apartment, biking with friends or eating family meals.
To be able to welcome these children and their families and engage, at least for one day, what Catholic Charities does daily with these individuals, a kindness repaid, if only slightly.
Catholics “have an obligation to reach out” to those needing our help, said Michael Jordan Laskey, the director of Life and Justice for the Diocese of Camden.
“These people we assist, are our brothers and sisters,” he added.
Words understood clearly by a saint from Albania, a priest from New York, and a family from Cuba.
Peter G. Sanchez is a staff writer for the Catholic Star Herald.
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