A visit from Mary: An Advent experience

Written by Debbie Gish, a social worker. member of Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, and friend of Alterna.

On Wednesday several of us attended a posada at the Sonoma North County Detention Center (CA). Las Posadas are a Mexican Advent tradition where family, friends and neighbors reenact the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph as they go from house to house seeking shelter, singing a call-and-response song of petition and then of rejection. When someone finally lets them in, Mary, Joseph, friends and family sing with joy and celebrate with food, drink and a piñata.

North County Detention Center

On Wednesday the story told in front of the detention center had a modern day twist. The pilgrims were undocumented immigrants seeking permission to work and live in this country from I.C.E., Congress and finally from “The House of Justice” who welcomed them in. It was particularly moving standing in front of the non-descript buildings housing hundreds of detainees, buildings that looked more like a UPS warehouse than a jail. Although everyone’s story is complicated, for many of those held inside their only crime is crossing a man-made line in the sand to look for work on the other side with the hope of sending money back home to family members. I found the experience very moving. At the end of the service we had a “moment of noise” instead of “moment of silence” to let those inside know they are not forgotten.

Last night I had another even more moving experience. While I was putting Annalise down for bed, the doorbell rang. Dale came looking for me because the woman only spoke Spanish. She was a 20-something, neatly dressed woman selling some of her own gold jewelry. It seemed like an odd time and place to be selling such things, so I inquired further about the story. She had recently hired a “Coyote” to bring her 6-year-old son to the States to reunite with her. He was coming from southern Mexico. She had just gotten word that was now in Phoenix, but that the “Coyote” was holding him there until she paid his fee in full. The story came out slowly and matter-of-factly at first, but then came tumbling out as did her desperation to gather the money. She didn’t need much, but what she needed she needed now. Was this story true? Was this just a hoax? I’ve lived in the city long enough to know people will say many things to get a buck to support one habit or another. But I’ve also lived in the city long enough to become a skeptic and too suspicious of others’ needs. But I share this neighborhood with hundreds, thousands of Latin American immigrants and heard hundreds of similar stories throughout my 25 years here. I’ve heard worse, much worse, about those who don’t make it across, those who die or are abused or disappear in the process of trying. If this story wasn’t true, someone else’s was.

As I handed her some money I asked if I could pray for her and then I asked her name. She said Maria. I now wonder what her son’s name is.

I’m often skeptical of people who claim they are “receiving angels” when they are nice to strangers. I often chalk it up to a romantic notion of ministry and want to challenge folks to love the “guy down the hall” or in their own family who is often more difficult to love than the stranger. But I actually do feel like an angel showed up at my front door last night. And when I looked up the Hebrews passage, the one that reads, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it,” I was surprised to read the verse that followed, “3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” (Hebrews 13:3) It made me think our Posada experience at the Detention Center and this visit from Mary, I mean Maria, may have been related.

May Emmanuel, God-with-us, provide a place of welcome to all who journey in desperation and need this Christmas and beyond. May we learn to be people of open doors and hearts and hands now and always.


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