My first conversation with Bethany “Sage” Moreno took place during a brief telephone call. She and her husband lived in Whitehall, Ohio and she was interested in becoming Catholic. I explained a little bit about the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and invited her to an information meeting we were having at Holy Spirit Parish later that month.
At that meeting, Bethany shared some of her life story with us. She was the daughter of an ordained minister and was raised in a strong Christian family in Chillicothe and Circleville, Ohio. She was passionate about the theatre and dance and taught English Language Arts for the Columbus Torah Academy. Bethany had been attending Mass with her husband Julio and heard the invitation to enter into the full communion of the Catholic faith.
Bethany’s face lit up as she talked about Julio. She clearly loved him deeply and the two of them had the promise of a bright future together. Bethany shared with us that Julio was an undocumented immigrant, but they were working with an attorney to remedy his immigration status. She told us that if necessary, she would immigrate and they two of them would start their family together in any country that would welcome them.
Bethany requested help discerning a sponsor for her journey though the RCIA. That discernment process was an easy one. I knew a woman who had gone through the RCIA years ago; someone who was also a raised by a minister in rural Ohio; someone who was also a passionate teacher, my wife Susan.
After a few weeks, Bethany shared with us devastating news. Julio had been arrested near Cincinnati and was being held for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A judge had declared that Julio should be deported and transferred him to a facility in Morrow County, Ohio pending appeal. Bethany was resolved to visit Julio every week and to mail a substantial letter to him, including stories and poetry to help alleviate the lack of books at the facility, every day they were apart.
The RCIA process continued as expected. Bethany shared updates with us. We prayed with her and for her and offered to provide whatever support and assistance she and Julio needed. After the Rite of Welcoming, she asked Susan to take a photo of her holding a plush “Stitch” toy. Stitch was going to be present at all of the major steps in the RCIA process as a stand-in for Julio, with whom she would share the photos.
A week before the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, Bethany was making her weekly pilgrimage to visit Julio. It was Valentine’s Day 2015 and she wanted to spend part of it with the man she loved. On the way home from her visit, a snowsquall caused a multi-car pileup on I-71. Bethany was critically injured in that accident.
It was providential that our pastor had been asked to come to Grant Hospital to administer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick to an injured woman brought in that winter day. He realized who Bethany was and was able to comfort Julio, who had been allowed to be with Bethany and her family at the hospital.
Bethany died two days after her accident, surrounded by loved ones. Her journey into the RCIA did indeed end with an anointing, just not the one any of us anticipated.
After her funeral, one attended by the great many who knew and cared about her, Bethany’s husband was returned to incarceration. She wanted Julio to have a safe and happy life with her in America. No part of that wish came to fruition. As his chances for winning an appeal dwindled, a brokenhearted Julio Moreno-Ledesma chose voluntary departure, leaving behind family, friends, and the dreams of a good life he shared with an amazing woman.
This is just one of many tragic stories lived by undocumented immigrants and their families. Whenever I see the news or hear the debate about immigration reform, I remember Bethany and Julio and wish this issue was viewed by Americans through the lens of love instead of fear or wrath.