A Pastor/Psychiatrist is Blessed by Unaccompanied Central American Youth
Nov 05, 2019
By The Rev. Carol Kessler
God is forever walking in the garden and saying, “Where are you?”
“Where are you, all ye saints”, cries God. For we are all saints/sinners as God showers God’s grace upon us each moment for eternity, if we would only receive it.
I am a pastor and a psychiatrist who first received God’s grace among the poor. Note that in the Beatitudes, Luke uses the word, “poor”, unlike Matthew’s, “poor in spirit.” The Greek word for poor used in Luke’s gospel is “ptochos”, a word that closely resembles “ptuo” or spitting. The Greek “ptuo” from whence comes our “ptooey.” The spat upon, in the tradition of spitting to ward off evil spirits and outcomes.
I am a child of German immigrants, my parents growing up in a country where wealth went to the war machine that spat on the non-Aryans, the gays, the gypsies, the Untermenschen. My parents grew up on the farms that Nazis stole harvests from to feed the soldiers that peasant women bred. My mother’s “education” was Nazi indoctrination. Saying, “Heil Hitler” while knitting socks for soldiers. She found God in the poppy fields and the chamomile flowers, and brought fruit of the earth to the altar, to the welcome table where she sang God’s praise with joy.
As a first-generation immigrant, Jewish peers wondered where my parents and their parents were. Why didn’t they shut down the camps? And so, I went to El Salvador during the Cold War era when the U.S. sent one million dollars daily to fuel a twelve-year civil war. There among the ptochos, I joined the spat upon, feeling vulnerable in the face of guns and bombs, yet singing and dancing among the cornfields, in the river, to God, to Saint Romero, to one another.
The love of the ptochos planted the seed of a call to Word and Sacrament that blossomed in the South Bronx, where I journeyed in a community mental health center. There, the ptochos prayed for me when my brittle bones broke; prayed with me as we struggled with a rat infestation. We walked together, oppressed by substandard housing; the legacy of racism; underfunded schools; lack of safe recreational space. My office became a sanctuary, a garden of grace, until our rich country gave less and less funding to mental health of poor children of color. I worked more and more, and woe to me who thought I could change the world and defeat the monsters of social injustice and greed.
After landing in the Intensive Care Unit and recovering from sepsis only to need surgery for an infected arm one month later, I surrendered. Woe to me who thought I was the rich one who could save the clinic. I wept with my patients/ptochos who thanked me for our time walking in God’s healing garden. We wept and the ptochos blessed me. We placed one another in God’s hands. Woe to me. I failed in my call as a community psychiatrist.
Until, grace! In a list of job openings, flashed – bilingual child psychiatrist needed to care for unaccompanied minors in Children’s Village. Children’s Village cottages on acres of land hidden away in affluent Westchester County. Cottages that house the ptochos – U.S. citizen children failed by this rich country. Poor children of color, involved with the foster care or “justice” system, cared for by the least paid, least educated young people of color. Children’s Village, where for the last ten years up to two hundred unaccompanied minors have been placed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. There, they are deloused; vaccinated for the first time; and granted legal representation to determine whether they are eligible for political asylum can be placed safely with a relative in the U.S., can enter foster care, or return safely to their home country.
I’ve only been to this village twice, and there amongst the ptochos, I have been blessed. I met twelve-year-old Agustin. A sweet Honduran boy who smiled when he learned that I’d lived in El Salvador. “El Salvador is beautiful!”, he exclaimed. “I walked through there on my way here.” I learn that Agustin lived in Tegucigalpa with his father and older brother. His mother fled when he was two or three years old, due to his father’s extreme violence toward her and her children. She lived in another neighborhood and didn’t dare risk returning for him. So, he endured daily blows with fists and sticks. “I have one mark here, where he hit me with an electrical cord,” Agustin calmly says, pointing to his knee.
“I never went to school because my father didn’t have my birth certificate. Instead, when I was seven, I began to work on a nearby farm that grew fruit and flowers. I loved the land where I played with the other children that worked there. My father worked in construction and couldn’t find work, so we rode on the top of a train to Mexico in search of daily labor. Instead, we slept on the side of the railroad tracks for months, doing odd jobs, like cleaning car windows. There was no future in Mexico. My father planned to return to Honduras. But I asked if I could go to the U.S. where I could get an education. Because in the U.S. it’s against the law for children not to go to school.”
Agustin’s father agreed and travelled with he and his brother to the border. Agustin hoped that his brother would accompany him, but his brother froze with panic and couldn’t go on. Agustin crossed the river, where the paper with his father’s phone number dissolved. He doesn’t know his father or brother’s whereabouts.
Agustin was detained at the border and now lives in Children’s Village. He feels guilty for leaving his brother behind and for eating without knowing if his family in Honduras has food. He is hopeful because he is attending school for the first time. “Maybe I’ll learn and have a job and a wife and be able to love her the way I would have loved my mother,” says Agustin. “A woman from the Honduran consulate is looking for my father. I hope to go to a foster family. At least here, there are trees and land and I go to church. There was a church down the street from where I lived back home, and I saw people go in and out, but I never went. I want to be baptized and receive my first communion, but there’s no river here,”, says Agustin with regret.
“Here, we bless water in a bowl and sprinkle it on your head to baptize,” I explain.
“Really!” Agustin’s eyes lit up.
“Do you know what communion is?” I wondered.
“It’s when you learn the ten commandments,” Agustin replied.
“No,” I said, and asked if he knew who Jesus was.
“Yes”, said Agustin. “Adam and Eve were in the garden, and Adam sinned first by telling Eve to eat the apple. Then Jesus came and was killed to save us.”
I explain that the world is filled with sin because the poor are treated unjustly. So God was born in Jesus to a poor woman.
“Mary!”, exclaimed Agustin.
“Yes”, I reply. “And Jesus lived among the poor and loved them, but the people didn’t understand and they killed him. Before he died, he ate supper with his disciples. He took bread and said, “This is my body given for you. The he took a cup of wine and said, “This is my blood shed for all people. Do this to remember me.”
Agustin got excited. “Oh! Is that what that weird round white thing was that the priest gave me to eat?”
“Yes! You received communion”, I informed him.
Agustin beamed. “Do you know the song, Sumergame?,” he asked.
“No. How does it go?”, I wondered.
“Sumérgeme, en el río de tu espíritu
Necesito refrescar este seco corazón, sediente de ti.”
“Immerse me in the river of your spirit.
I need to refresh this dry heart, thirsty for you.”
Later, I met twelve-year-old Isabel, from a small farming village in Guatemala. “I was the only one of my siblings that wanted to come here, “she explained. “My cousin lives in Miami and when she spoke of it, it sounded like heaven. I couldn’t go to school back home because I would have to cross three rivers and could drown. I wanted an education so I came to the U.S. by myself. I used the GPS on my phone. I was detained at the border and lived in a program in Miami for a while. I moved here when the hurricane came. The judge doesn’t want me to live with my cousin and I don’t want to live with strangers, so I asked to go home. I’m leaving in a few days.”
“Are you scared?” I wondered.
“No”, she assured me. “The immigration authorities are taking me on a plane. They’re even taking me to my home town, so my father won’t have to pay for the bus. And I’ll be home in time for the Day of the Dead and the corn harvest. I’ll eat tamales made of fresh corn, not the horrible ones made of corn flower in this country!”
Thirteen-year-old Maria meets me for the first time, giggling. “I’m going to be a singer,” she says. She sings songs that she composed. “I like to sing in church,” she says. “I like to dance even thought my religion says I shouldn’t.” We spend time singing church songs. She laughs when I sing a song that I learned in El Salvador.
Pequé, pequé Dios mío
Perdón Señor, piedad
Si grandes son mis culpas
Mayor es su bondad.
O God, I sinned, I sinned
Forgive me Lord, have mercy
If my sins are great
Greater is your kindness.
Isabel belts out – “Stand by me!”
Stand by me O God. The God who blesses the ptochos, the poor who remind me that God is forever walking in the garden, inviting all sinners/saints – dead; living; and yet to be born – to the welcome table, so we may dance with joy and go in peace, blessed with ever-present grace.