Doing the Right Thing

Tucson Star columnist and cartoonist David Fitzgerald prepared this article about Casa Alitas, where our Sr. Esther Calderon will be ministering to the refugees seeking asylum.

I met Teresa Cavendish, director of operations from Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, out back, behind the Benedictine Monastery on Country Club.

Since 2014, Casa Alitas has served over 6,000 souls, working out of bus stations, classrooms, group homes, hotels and now at the old monastery, sending refugees on their way to the custody of their sponsors. Casa Alitas means House of Little Wings.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement van arrives and Teresa alerts a volunteer to come out and greet the new refugees. Two agents step out and greet Teresa. One opens the side door.

The monastery housing Casa Alitas.

Families emerge and gather in front of Sister Eileen Mahoney who has come out to greet them.

Some smile. Most are anxious, holding on to their children tight. They appear innocent, naive and weary. Women wear their black hair in ponytails, held in place by tinfoil strips which they tore from the tinfoil blankets they were given when their hair ties were confiscated. Shoelaces, too.

Each carries all of their worldly belongings in a large clear Ziploc bag with their name on it. I thought of the storage sheds we fill with excess abundance. I’m staring because I cannot imagine my world distilled into a bag. Their clothes and lace-less shoes are worn but clean. They carry their dignity on their shoulders, and their vulnerability in their hearts.

If you feel your job is threatened by these simple souls, I pity your pathetic insecurity. If you fear these innocents, I pity you for your cowardice. If you hate them, I pity you for your ignorance.

The refugee families are welcomed by Sister Mahoney. “Esta su casal,” she says. They see the sanctuary. They are collectively relieved. One young man sees refugee children playing among the trees. He quietly asks Sister Mahoney, “Libre?” Sister Mahoney smiles. “Yes. Libre. We are not the Government .” This is a place of safety and hope!

“You will get a health check and a warm meal. We’ll check your documentation. You can call your sponsor. We will help you get to your hearing. You will have a safe place to sleep.” Sister directs them inside.

As a dad politely answers his intake counselor, his tiny daughter, wearing pigtails bound with tinfoil, colors superheroes in a coloring book. I study her tiny shoes. Shoes that have carried this child across deserts, jungles and mountains. So worn. I think of my granddaughter. She has a closet full of shoes.

Sr. Esther Calderon at Casa Alitas.

I eavesdrop on volunteers.

“Someone slashed the tires of some of the volunteers’ cars the other night.”

“What happened to that 80-year-old woman from Guatemala? Can you believe she made it all this way by herself?”

“And then to Homestead, Florida!”

A sunny clothing bank volunteer tells me he enjoys finding “the warmest coats” among the racks for refugees heading to cold climates. “It’s the only coat they’ll own!”

I remember a Sunday school lesson in my past. One most of us have forgotten.

Pediatrician Dr. Richard Wahl says, “I’ve been involved since October!” Wahl points to Teresa and says, “This woman shows up at my synagogue. Tells the story. I’m blown away!” They laugh.

“I’ve lived here since ’85. When I came here the first time I saw this a special place. Tucson is responding in ways that many cities do not!”

True. In other communities, such souls are simply abandoned by ICE at bus stations. Dr. Wahl has an email list of 140 medical colleagues he calls on when help is needed. He’s heartened by the generosity and kindness of his colleagues. Just ask and ye shall receive.

Volunteer Kristin Helland has a theory. “Being on the border in a multicultural place – it opens people’s hearts. It’s amazing. They trained 200 volunteers in about a week!”

In less than three weeks they have helped over 600 refugees to their final destination. Teresa tells me, “We have 50 rooms, and we only take families. We only had one exception. A single man from Honduras with one eye gouged out and both arms hacked off above the elbows. Because he refused to sell drugs. Santos… he sang hymns. Beautifully!” Another volunteer nods.

A petite young mother from Guatemala watches her boys play outside. They’re heading to Atlanta to work on a peach farm. They walked across Mexico, spent 12 days in a detention center and when I ask her what she hopes for she looks at me like I’m a very silly man as she looks to her children. I’m asking her to state the obvious.

A little boy on a tricycle races toward me. “Knuckle blast,” I say. He holds out his tiny fist. Our knuckles meet, our hands fly back in a mock explosion and he smiles.

It took one father and his 16-year-old son 15 days to walk across Mexico. I can’t get my teenager to walk around the block with me. Near the border, they were robbed by bandits. Penniless, they joined a group of 300 who crossed at San Luis where they were picked up. They spent the last seven days sleeping on the floor of a detention center before coming here. Here the gangs can’t threaten to kill him and his son if he doesn’t pay.

A mother and son were decapitated in front of him. Teresa says, “We’re here because we don’t want to be part of what these folks are running from fear and anger!’

Another van arrives. Back outside, a joyful young woman, Ali Hofer, cheerfully greets the newest arrivals. She instructs them, comforts them, and shepherds them inside. Why is she here? “I’m with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps!” She smiles as she explains, “Sort of like AmeriCorps for Catholics!”

I’m in awe of this selfless, beatific kid. What about the desperation she sees? “It can be overwhelming. Heartbreaking. You can’t help everybody. If I help one person it’s a victory!”

Why do this? She turns to her flock. “It’s the right thing to do!”

Posted in News

Seeing Christ in Everyone

Blog by Sr. Barbara Kane, OP, Justice Promoter

Last week there was a Facebook Live press conference at Annunciation House in El Paso. Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, was joined by two women and their children seeking asylum and one citizen immigrant. Each explained that they wanted to be in the U.S. because it was where they could live in peace and provide a good livelihood for their families.

Throughout the press conference, people sent emojis or made comments about how they felt about the people speaking.  There were many who felt compassion but there were also a lot of negative comments.  Some of them were downright mean. I felt a great sadness in my heart for these attitudes. What is it that causes this hate?  Are they afraid of losing their own freedom and liberties?

I heard recently that it is human nature to want to limit freedom to our own group whether that group is our race, our religion, or maybe, our country. This is a scarcity mentality in which I want to be free and enjoy the benefits of that freedom but I don’t want to share it with others.  As Christians, aren’t we called to transcend our human nature and be more like Christ?  The Scriptures are filled with Jesus coming in contact with people outside his comfort zone – women, demons, Samaritans, prostitutes, Romans, Pharisees.  Jesus didn’t think freedom – the kingdom of God – was limited to just his group. He wasn’t afraid to share the liberating and beneficent power of God.

On February 13th, in his daily meditation, Fr. Richard Rohr commented “In fact, that is my only definition of a true Christian.  A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else.”  Maybe we can’t see Christ in immigrants or asylum seekers because we’ve never met one and we hear so many bad things about them.  I must admit that spending time on the border gave me a very different perspective on what these brave folks are experiencing.  Knowing someone who is different – color, religion, class, nationality – can provide us with a new understanding and acceptance of them.

Perhaps we should take some advice from Wisdom 11:24: “You (God) love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate.” Let us put aside our hateful, fearful, and limiting attitudes and see Christ in everyone.

Posted in News, Peace & Justice Blog

They ate and were satisfied… and there was left over.

Sr. Joye Gros, OP is currently on a 2-week mission serving refugees in El Paso, TX.

The reading on Saturday, February 16, was Mark’s Feeding of the multitudes.

“In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus summoned the disciples and said, ‘My heart is moved with pity for the crowd because they have nothing to eat…’  The disciples responded, ‘Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy them here in this deserted place?’

Taking seven loaves, he blessed them, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute….they ate and were satisfied.  They picked up the fragments left over – 7 baskets.” (Mk 8:1-10)

Over these weeks, I’ve noticed that volunteers often begin a conversation noting their limitations: “I don’t speak Spanish,” “I don’t know how to cook for so many.” “I wish I could…”  All came with a generous heart and awareness of our perceived shortcomings in the face of great need.  And like Jesus, who said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd,” we came.

We wondered if our compassion would be enough because the need is great and continuous.  We received between 30-150 people a day at our site alone.  Some came sick.  Several small children needed to be taken to the emergency room or to a doctor’s office.  One doctor stops by the shelter most days just to check on the most vulnerable – his services are offered at no charge.  When the children are taken to his office, no one pays.

Over these weeks I have witnessed the wealth of contribution – the multiple gifts, large and small, that have been blessed and shared.  The perceived limitations combined have been multiplied and overflowing. “They ate and were satisfied- and there were leftovers.” The abundance came from generous hearts moved with compassion, and the willingness to do whatever to respond to the need that was presented,

When I was a novice one speaker had us memorize a quote from Edward Everett Hale.  It comes back to me often and certainly daily here.

I am only one, but I am one.

I cannot do everything, but I can do something;

and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.

Posted in News

Watch Your Language!

Blog by Associate Colette Parker

It has been a week since I watched a video of the “doll test” and I still can’t stop thinking about it.

In working to determine why I couldn’t get the video off my mind, I discovered that it was because I was trying to figure out a solution to what I saw as a problem: black children identifying black dolls as “ugly” and “bad” while identifying white dolls as “pretty” and “good”.

Before moving on, let me provide a little background:  “the doll” test is a psychological experiment designed in the 1940s in the United States to test the degree of marginalization felt by African-American children because of prejudice, discrimination, and racial segregation. The test — based on the research of Mamie Phipps Clark, a black female psychologist — was conducted by Phipps Clark and her husband, psychologist Kenneth Bancroft Clark.

During the test, the Clarks used diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color. They showed the dolls to black children between the ages of three and seven. When asked which they preferred and which was “nice” and “pretty,” versus “ugly” and “bad,” the majority of the children attributed positive characteristics to the white doll.

The test was utilized as social science evidence in lower-court cases that were rolled into the 1954 landmark United States Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The high court cited the test in support of its conclusion that segregation harmed the psyches of black children.

While some have argued that the test is not good science, I subscribe to the notion that it says something about internalized racism and how that internalization begins at a young age.

What disturbs me is that when the doll test was duplicated 70 years later (as shown in the video that I viewed a week ago), the results were the same: black children identified the black doll as “ugly” and “bad” (while acknowledging  that the black doll looked like them) but identified the white doll as “pretty” and “good”.

So, how do we help each other embrace a belief that diversity is beautiful?

One way is to “examine” and “modify” our language. Can we really expect anything to change when we continue to define the word black as dirty, angry, evil, depressing, and hopeless and the word white as pure, clean, hopeful, happy, and optimistic? (a white lie is better than a black lie; the most disgraceful person in the family is the black sheep; black ice is deadly ice; etc.)

More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about self-determination and how language is used to further oppress and stigmatize Black Americans. He said:

“Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word Black. It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word White, it’s always something pure, high, and clean. Well I want to get the language right tonight.

I want to get the language so right that everyone here will cry out: Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful!”

Isn’t it time for us to evaluate our language to determine if it communicates the importance of respect and dignity to all?

Listen to Rev King here (

Posted in Associate Blog, News

Memorable Words

Blog by Associate Mary Ellen George

What three words best describe who you are?  What words would others use to describe you? Take a moment to reflect on these questions to see what words bubble up for you.

In preparation for writing a eulogy for my Mom’s recent memorial service, my nephew, Andy, asked my seven siblings what three words we would use to describe Mom.  The three most meaningful words given were family, sacrifice, and faith.  Andy spoke about how Mom embodied and gave meaning to these traits in her life by telling stories he collected from us siblings about her.  He invited all of the mourners present to “take up the baton of faith, sacrifice, and family,” asking us to answer these questions:

  • Who will serve their families well, even when it’s hard?
  • Who will sacrifice for others as [Mom] did for everyone around her?
  • Who will keep a long prayer list, pleading to God on behalf of family and others who desperately need those prayers?

After noting the family significance of the “wooden spoon” that Mom used only to scare us little ones when we needed to change our behavior, Andy suggested thinking of it now “as a baton that’s being passed to each of us“ to carry on Mom’s legacy of family, sacrifice, and faith.  In his closing remarks, he noted these two Scripture passages in marking the end of Mom’s earthly life and in inviting us to persevere in finishing our own race:  “In 2 Timothy 4:7, St. Paul says to his spiritual son: ‘I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…’ In Hebrews 12:1, it says, ‘And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…’”

We each then received a “wooden spoon” with a purple ribbon (Mom’s favorite color that we were all dressed in) containing the inscription, “Finish the Race.  Keep the Faith.”

How do you want to be remembered?  How will others remember you and what you stood  for? What will be your legacy to pass on to others?  We know in Christ Jesus the fulfillment of God’s legacy of love for us and so I invite you to embrace the words of the song, All I Ask of You, as sung by Gregory Norbet, OSB, of the Monks of Weston Priory.  Let yourself hear and hold onto God’s loving words in the refrain:  All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.

God calls each of us for a specific purpose in life. Perhaps you are being called to respond to the words, “Come, follow me” by becoming a religious sister. Discerning what these words mean in your life is part of what our Vocation Ministers are here to help you with. You can find Sr. June, Sr. Mai-Dung, or Sr. Bea’s contact information here. They look forward to helping you discover God’s path for you.


Posted in God Calling?, News