By P. Berman, A. Hosack & K. Hecht
Where should I go? I have nowhere to run to! Maybe here…
Larry had run about a half mile before realizing he couldn’t make it to his own church, it was too far away; the gang would catch up to him before he got there. He saw a church up ahead that looked like it might be Catholic. He would have to hope its unknown priest would help him.
He ran up the stairs to the front door, almost out of breath. He pushed the heavy door forward and slipped in. No service was going on, but Larry knew from Manuel, that there was always a priest ready to hear confessions. He saw the confessional to the left at the very end of the pews. He entered and sat down.
It was quiet in the confessional, as if he was alone in the world. He didn’t know it yet, but Larry had run into a church that had experience helping people disappear from Philadelphia. This huge city had overwhelmed Larry when he first arrived. He had never been allowed to just freely explore the city on his own. It included a sizable population of undocumented immigrants who had slipped illegally into the USA. These people lived in constant fear of exposure and deportation back to a home that had nothing but poverty and violence waiting for them.
Within the confines of gang life, Larry hadn’t “seen” these people as they rushed past him on the streets or served him in restaurants. Illegal immigrants of the Catholic faith prayed at churches throughout the city. To survive, many of these immigrants took employment within an illegal labor market that exploited, and sometimes killed them. Years ago, a member of the congregation had confessed to a priest that he feared for his life; this priest had a congregant build a false wall behind the confessional, just large enough for an adult male to squeeze into during the next two nights so that no one else would know of its existence. It had small imperfections in the wall that were air vents.
Larry entered the confessional, covered in sweat, not knowing what to say or do. Once the priest entered, he just blurted out, “father, I am being chased by gang members (1-minute silence), can you help me?” At that moment both he and the priest heard the huge church doors bang open, and the sound of many feet running down past the church pews. “Quick, get in here,” the priest said as he pushed a lever and the dark hole emerged. The priest than quickly closed the door and walked towards the men searching his church.
How long do I need to stay here? I can barely breathe! I must get out!!
Larry’s face was up against the wall. It was pitch black and silent. It only took a moment before he began to feel smother. His breathing became faster and faster as he tried to force air into his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. All his fears of his dad came flooding back, but now the fear was tied to memories of the gang leader’s face. Larry went into a full- blown panic attack and hyperventilated until he passed out. The small size of his hiding place kept him upright despite being briefly unconscious. When the priest returned ten minutes later, he saw how pale Larry looked but he asked no questions. He led back deeper into the church where there was a small kitchen area and gave Larry a glass of orange juice to drink.
Sipping slowly, and feeling confused, Larry slowly looked around – was he safe? “Larry, four young angry men were in the church claiming you stole money from them. They know you attend Catholic Mass. (Larry began to breathe faster again) They came here because it was close by. They showed me a picture of you and asked questions trying to find out if this was your home church and if I had seen you. They will be searching all the churches in the city for you.”
Larry looked down at his feet and said, “your Church is my only hope. I have no family to turn to. (1-minute of silence) I have to get out of Philadelphia.” (Larry put his head down in his hands). “The church can help you get out of Philadelphia this weekend. The church is sending our newest monks up to the Holy Cross-Immaculata Monastery in Ohio to reflect on their spiritual path. I can call the bishop of our parish and get the monks to come here for Friday night Mass. You would need to cut your hair and wear monk’s robes. Then after Mass, you could walk out the back door of the church and get on their bus. Even if the gang has someone follow the bus for a while, you will be leaving the state and the trip will take eight hours. It is unlikely they will follow the bus all the way to Cincinnati.”
They won’t give up. They will get members of the Ohio gang to find me after they find out the bus is headed for Cincinnati. I have nowhere to go…. but I just couldn’t sell drugs to that kid!
Larry’s face was coated in sweat. Terrifying thoughts of what the gang would do to him when they caught him, flooded his mind; it wouldn’t be a quick death, he was certain of that. The priest tried to reassure Larry, “Leaving the gang was the right decision Larry. Those men from your gang threatened me with terrible things if I helped you. The church will do everything possible to help you escape from that life.”
“Aren’t you afraid to help me father?” (1-minute silence where the priest stares calmly into Larry’s eyes) “Yes, I am afraid of those men,” the priest said. “But I have been more afraid during the moral tests God has placed in my path. You can’t escape moral tests Larry like you can escape physical ones; they follow you wherever you go.”
“I didn’t steal money from the gang father, I left the money, and the drugs I had been selling, in the stall I had been working from (1-minute silence). I couldn’t keep selling drugs to kids,” Larry said looking sadly at the priest. “You passed an important morale test Larry,” the priest, “When you take God’s path, it isn’t easy. (1-minute silence) The gang will watch our doors for a while, and some will attend Mass to see if you are here; but it won’t take too long for them to stop; they are in business and they don’t make any money coming here. (1-minute pause) When the bus gets to Cincinnati, it can drop you any place you ask.”
“I have nowhere to go in Cincinatti …or any place else,” Larry said distraughtly. (1-minute pause) “I have no idea what to do.” “Larry, you may stay at the monastery and spend time with the monks if you would like. They will be reflecting on their path forward, and it sounds as if you could use this reflection time too.”
“Would they let me stay father?” Larry said doubtfully, “I have just begun learning to pray and they are…” (1-minute silence) “Yes,” the priest said with certainty, “but even though you will be a visitor not a monk, staying there will require some sacrifices on your part. You will need to follow all the rules of the monastery. Monastic life involves a small community of brothers who spend every day together. A major focus of their lives is to learn to live in harmony and with humility. You would need to do your best to do this. It can be hard even for those who have chosen to be monks to not fight with each other over everyday tasks. We come from so many backgrounds and cultures- it takes time for us to understand each other.”
“Father, I know how to fade into invisibility. I did it as a child to survive living with my father. I did it in prison, to survive living with a man who would rape me if I got on his nerves.” The priest searched in his heart for words that might reach Larry, “I am sorry to hear how much pain you have lived through Larry. God is not asking that of you. To live with the monks is not to be invisible. In a way, it will require the reverse from you. While you will live a simple life and pray frequently, you will be learning to reveal your innermost self. You will expose who you are, to yourself. That is how living at the monastery could help you find your true path.”
Larry sat with his hands clasped, his head on his hands. “The monastery does not have much Larry but I know the monks will help you find a place to live in Cincinnati after you leave them and give you some small amount of money to help give you time to find work once you have decided what your best path is.”
Manuel was right. I couldn’t believe him despite believing in him. These Catholics do care about me?
Larry felt flooded with calm. He was going to get help. Manuel had been right. “Larry let’s go pray for a while in a small private chapel near the back of our building. Ask for the lord to open your heart to his message. Then, I will make the calls I need to secure your safe transportation. (1-minute silence) I know that this will be a safe place from the gang Larry. (1-minute silence) You may find that you face the same trials as the monks- you must search your heart and pray for the message that will guide your future.”
Do you wonder what institutions of faith do to help undocumented workers in the USA? You can read about the position of the Catholic Church at: