Transforming Work

This article appeared in the June 21, 1997 issue of America: The National Catholic Weekly.

By Ann Naffziger

AS I SAT ON THE BENCH outside the Safeway store holding close the dark-haired, dark-skinned baby boy, I was conscious of the long stares I was receiving, the questioning looks of incomprehension shot at me by the mostly Anglo shoppers. What was I, a young white woman, doing rocking and cooing to this Hispanic boy and playing with his two-year-old sister next to us, their mother and father nowhere to be seen?

The customers' looks made me self-conscious and uncomfortable. Indignant, too. Was there something wrong that I was caring for these Mexican children as their mother did her grocery shopping? Was it that the customers were uncomfortable seeing a white woman look after darker-skinned children, rather than the other way around? I secretly wished that those staring at me would ask me what I was doing, because I would have proudly shared my story.

The children's mother, Maria Elena, is one of my clients. Rather, I should introduce her as one of my teachers. The two-year-old, Cecilia, is one of my teachers too, and one of the prettiest I've ever had. Then there's the little boy, affectionately called "Alfonsito" by his mother. Between them and their father, Roberto, I am reminded how the poor families that I "serve" actually have much more to give me than I might ever give them.

Maria Elena's family is one of the thousands of Mexican families who have crossed the U.S. southern border illegally and come north to work in the fields of the fertile Willamette Valley in Oregon. Despite her husband's luck in finding work in a local nursery, her family must still seek out financial help like so many other migrant families. Thus it was that an eight-month pregnant Maria Elena came to my office asking if I had any donated beds available, and I had the good fortune to make her acquaintance.
My job description at St. Luke's Parish in Woodbum, Ore., is intriguing in its variety. Two days a week I am a pastoral minister to the large senior citizen population. They are Anglos and, without exception, American citizens. The other three days a week I am the coordinator of the emergency service office at the parish. Ninety percent of our clientele in this office are Hispanic, with the majority being undocumented migrant workers. For the most part, the senior citizens I work with love me, but it is difficult for many of them to accept the other hat I wear when I am not bringing Communion to the sick, comforting the dying or planning potlucks. Some of them equate the work that I do helping the undocumented Hispanics with aiding and abetting criminals.

I NEVER IMAGINED that someday I might be doing something so controversial as this. In fact, my father, a law professor, used to go down to the Texas-Mexican border for two weeks each year and do pro-bono legal work for political asylum refugees or other undocumented immigrants who were being detained by "la Migra," the U.S. Immigration Service. I was never too sure what I thought about his volunteer work, because I knew he was somehow supporting people who had not entered our country legally, and I vaguely disliked that idea. I rationalized my unspoken objections with my moral sense of "fairness"; after all, my grandparents had to go through a process to enter the United States legally, so shouldn't everyone have to do what they did?

Then I came to Woodburn, and the immigration issue instantly reared its not-so-pretty head and began to be a part of my daily struggles with social justice issues. My job involves finding these undocumented workers food, clothing and housing. My housemates help them gain access to education, health care, mental health services and labor rights.

What is my philosophy on the immigration issue? It depends when you ask. My feelings about the issue are often determined arbitrarily by my success or failure at finding resources for these clients. I sometimes wonder if I'm only enabling and encouraging more people to break the law by providing resources for those who have already done so. It's on those days that I try to remind myself that Christ said, "Feed the hungry," not "Feed the hungry if they are legal residents of your own country," and "Clothe the naked," not "Clothe the naked if they are citizens."

Throughout the Bible, in fact, there is an emphasis on caring for the "alien" in our midst, and I'm learning now that aliens aren't always foreigners. The alien might be a financially poor Mexican, or it could be anyone different from me: the physically disabled, the mentally handicapped or even the spiritually poor in our consumer society. One of my professors in college liked to suggest that all of us are "aliens" in some way, all of us are handicapped. "All of us are brain damaged, wounded, helpless kids, hidden old men and women. It's just that some of us can pretend better than others."

THIS THEN, is how Maria Elena's family teaches me. They are a family that because of skin color can't hide the fact that they are unwelcome aliens in this land. Thus it was that I approached them as a social worker to the broken, a worker of miracles, doer of what they couldn't do for themselves, a healer. Yet as I've walked with them these past few months, I've been surprised to discover that they've transformed and healed me, a me that I hadn't admitted was broken. I hadn't given much thought to Emma Lazarus' invitation, "Give me your tired, your poor..." before I began my current ministry, but now I understand the gifts that these immigrants have to give us.

Little Cecilia heals me with her resplendent smile each time I knock at their door. Alfonso likes to be held and cuddled, and he doesn't notice that my skin is white and that other people look at us disapprovingly. (How odd it has been to be so conscious of my light skin color this year.) Roberto and Maria Elena have fun feeding me a caldo so spicy that tears run down my cheeks as I splutter in Spanish about the fire inside my mouth. Yes, their liveliness and good nature transform me and my work.

DESPITE HER FAMILY's cursed privation, Maria Elena will "pay me" for my home visits with an orange, an apple or a can of Coke before I take my leave. Her family is financially poor, yet much richer than I in spirit, and they share all they have with me. A case in point: I drove Maria Elena and the children to the hospital for Xrays one afternoon, and when I discovered she had not yet eaten that day, I sent her to the cafeteria with five dollars. She returned with four dollars and two bananas. One she gave to me. The remaining one she broke in half and shared with Cecilia. I marveled, then, at her generosity of spirit and gently chided myself for all those times when I inwardly grumble with resentment at having to share my possessions with others.

It was the huddled masses arriving on Ellis Island that created the heterogeneous America that we know now and inspired Emma Lazarus' lines many decades ago. But what has happened to that spirit of welcoming? Maria Elena and her family had to sneak furtively across a river to make it to here, and they live in constant fear that our Government might yet deport them. But, "aliens" though they are, they manage to teach me. Oh, how they teach me, these, the "tired ... poor ... wretched refuse" entering our country from the south.

ANN NAFFZIGER, a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, has directed the social services of St. Luke's Parish in Woodburn, Ore., for two years.