December President’s Pen: Advent, the variant stem of advenīre “to arrive”

“If it is not scary and surprising and an adventure all at the same time, it is not the call of the Gospel of Jesus.”   -Helen Prejean, CSJ

Advent is the season of arrival, the season of experiencing things as they arise and looking for God in those moments. Advent is a holy adventure challenging us to find grace at work in our world.

On a very recent winter morning, while still dark, people began to gather on a street corner in Chicago’s Loop.  Hushed whispers emanated from bundled, shadowy figures in coats and hats.  Their breaths turning to steam and rising into the air as a slight glow over Lake Michigan promised the sun was coming soon.  Two were handing out pamphlets to the growing crowd.  A short figure jostled into me.  At close range, I realized it was an older woman and she was pressing something into my hands…a rosary.

As if on cue, a small group rounded the corner to join the larger one and I saw in the growing light some familiar faces.  It was a dozen or so students from Cristo Rey St. Martin.  They awoke early this Friday morning to meet at school by 5:30am and arrive downtown to meet at 7:00am.  Afterwards, they would board the bus back to school and arrive in time for third period and a remaining day of classes.

In the brightening dawn, people became more visible.  There were people from all walks of life – old and young; white, black, Latino, and Asian; some priests and ministers in collars, a couple nuns in their habits.  Two people dressed as Mary and Joseph stood in front of a large portrait of La Virgen de Guadalupe.  A small speaker with a microphone crackled to life and someone began to lead the entire crowd in saying the rosary.  With each new “decade” of the rosary, the language changed: English, Spanish, Polish, maybe Tagalog, and another I couldn’t begin to guess at.

When we finished our prayers, some musical instruments appeared from under coats and parkas.  We began to sing the traditional call-and-response song of Las Posadas or The Inns – a re-enactment of the Holy Family’s desperate search for accommodations in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth; moving from place to place, asking in song for somewhere to stay.  Each time, again in song, they are rejected until they are recognized and lodgings are made for them in the stable out back… they finally find shelter.

Only this Posadas celebration comes with a twist.  We began outside Chicago’s ICE headquarters, moved to the Metropolitan Corrections Center (federal prison), to DePaul University, the Federal Plaza across from the courthouse and the offices of our elected officials in Congress and the Senate, and finally to St. Peter’s Church on Madison near LaSalle.  Singing to be admitted, rejected each time, until at last allowed to enter the church as our only place of refuge.  At each stop, the crowd of a hundred or so prayed and sang.  Some held signs saying, “Love your neighbor,” or “Dignity has no nationality,” or “Families deserve to be united.”  Another had a bible quote, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).”

In front of the prison, a burly U.S. Marshal in full body armor and sidearm came out of the lobby, crossed the plaza and stood at the top of the steps above the sidewalk.  A couple of demonstrators were standing on the first step because the sidewalk was so crowded.  He started yelling, “Get off of those steps!  You can’t stand on those steps!  Those steps belong to OUR government! You’re not allowed on them!”  I never heard the words “our government” sound so exclusionary before.

All of our students and most, if not all, of the demonstrators were documented citizens or legal residents.  We were there in solidarity with immigrants, not new immigrants ourselves.   Clearly, the guard interpreted the very peaceful, respectful, and very diverse group in front of him as having their own governments somewhere else.  Regardless of what “side of the aisle” your political views lie, something must be done about our broken immigration system.  Many people want to come to America legally but cannot.  They are facing religious, political, and economic circumstances dire enough to choose to leave their homes for an unknown but hopefully better life in this place – a place that is supposed to value basic human dignity.

If U.S. borders were as tight then as they are today, I suspect my own ancestors may have been refused.  How about yours?  What is the threat to creating a system where earnest people can eventually become citizens?  A prevailing storyline is that immigrants are terrorists, drug dealers, rapists, and criminals.  My own experience is that they are hardworking, decent people driven to desperation because of poverty, war, or politics.  Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were on the road because of a political census.  Later, they wandered Egypt as refugees from radical despotism.  If they showed up at a US airport or border crossing, what would be their chances of acceptance?  What are we afraid of?  This is the story of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents telling itself over and over again.  This is a story of Advent.

Your perspective on this issue would change if someone you cared about was caught up in such a broken system.  I really admire our students, giving up a warm bed and a couple extra hours of sleep to come downtown and be a voice for the voiceless.  It isn’t their direct issue but it is an issue that affects many who are close to them.  The constant uncertainty and truly heartless “system,” if you can call it that, is the result of a lack of determination and fortitude by several presidential administrations; and it is inhumane.  For those of us who have been in the United States for generations, it’s easy to discount or overlook or justify the suffering of others who are looking for their own chance; but it is impossible for those closest to our newest and most vulnerable brethren to ignore.

As we celebrate Advent and the arrival of Christmas, please pray for those who face an uncertain, precarious, and fragile future… who only want a better life for their families and to become more of the human beings God created them to be.  May this season be about our arriving at a higher level of compassion and welcoming those who arrive at our doorsteps unexpectedly.  May it be about helping others “reach, arise, and develop.”  May it be about the arriving of God’s Kingdom on earth.  May it be an adventure and be about the Good News of Jesus coming true right now.  Christmas blessings to you and those you love and to those you may not know but whom I am confident you could love if given the chance!