Sooner Rather Than Later

dreamers

She is an amazing young woman. She has worked very hard to earn a college degree and gain respect in her job. There are few challenges that daunt her. She fearlessly tackles problems with determination. She is faith filled and regularly attends church. She married her sweetheart not so long ago and the two of them are already living the American dream in a house that they purchased with the income gained from their dedication to their careers. She takes fun vacations with her spouse and charts plans for living a purpose filled life. She represents the epitome of the future of our nation and our world but she has borne a burden for the last two years that has threatened to destroy all of her dreams.

She is an immigrant who came to the United States as a young child. She lived here under temporary protection, all the while studying and pursuing a model lifestyle with dedication and grace. She has become an all American girl while never forgetting her roots. She is talented beyond measure and loving and gentle in nature. She should in every sense be exactly the kind of person that our country needs, and yet she has quietly worried about what might happen to her with the new immigration policies of the past two years. She wondered if she might have to return to a country that is now little more than a vague memory. She tried to imagine what she might do with her college degree if she had to leave for a place that has fewer opportunities. She thought of how she would miss all of the friends that she has made here in the United States. Her mind has been filled with thoughts of what might happen if she one day lost her protections.

In September she went for an interview with the United States Citizenship and Immigration System. She was applying for status as a permanent resident of the country. She had so much at stake, and even though she is generally optimistic she faced the reality that acceptance of her application was not automatic. She would have to undergo an interview, something that she generally does quite well. It is the kind of thing that is part of her work, but this would be so very different. All for which she had worked would be on the line. She confided her nervousness to me and requested prayers that her earnest desire to be a good and contributing resident of the United States would be seen by those who tasked with judging her credibility.

Those of us who know her well believed that she would greatly impress, but we also understood that such things can sometimes go in ways that are unplanned. We prayed and thought of her as the hours of her interview grew into what seemed like days. It was difficult to concentrate or relax. Happily good news soon followed. She now has permanent residence status and need not constantly look over her shoulder with anxiety any longer. She is free to enjoy her wonderful life and to continue to excel in it. The United States of America just won the lottery with her whether they know it or not.

I’m ecstatically happy for my young friend, but I can’t help but think of the thousands of other young dreamers like her who still live in fear. My heart aches for them because there is nothing worse than living with uncertainty lurking around every corner. So many twenty something immigrants are caught in a trap that is not of their own making. They know as little of their family history in another country as I do of mine. Only stories of people and places and ways of life create a vague picture for them but it never feels quite real. Instead their reality lies totally in the neighborhoods where they have lived in different parts of the United States, and in the schools they have attended and the friends they have made. Sending them away would be as terrifying for them as it would be for any of us who were born here. There is something intensely cruel about the very prospect of doing that to them.

I learned long ago that each situation in life must be judged by its own merits, not some ironclad set of rules that do not make sense in certain cases. The wisest judgements are those that take humanity into account. We have laws to keep order in society but when those laws do not fully consider implications that fly in the face of logic and compassion then we must change them, but so far we have not had the wisdom or courage to do so. We quibble and squabble but never quite get the job done. Meanwhile truly good and deserving young people live in the shadows wondering if and when another shoe will fall.

I am very excited for the new chapter of my young friend’s life. I know it will be glorious and that it will exemplify the dreams of the millions of immigrants who have contributed to the welfare of the United States of America over time. I wish her all the best and feel lucky that I have walked with her on her journey. My only hope that is that one day we will pave the way for more people like her to earn the right to have the weight of uncertainty finally lifted from their shoulders. It’s time that we all push for changes that will make that happen sooner rather than later.

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The Dreamers

many cultures

They came to America with little more than a few belongings and hope that somehow their lives might be better than they had been from where they had traveled. They were refugees from a government that wanted to erase their language and their culture. They were hated and accused of being lazy in a place where their family had lived for ages. Perhaps in their new home things might be different, at least that is what they desperately wanted to believe as they settled into a small apartment in the foreign environment of Houston, Texas.

They found jobs that were menial by most standards but they were proud to have work so they didn’t complain. He toiled in the blazing summer sun while she worked over a hot stove cooking for the hired laborers. It was back breaking work that left them aching and exhausted at the end of each day. They struggled with learning English and their dark looks and strange accents gave them away wherever they went. Not everyone was welcoming. In fact some people insulted them without ever attempting to get to know who they were. It was a difficult and lonely life, but it was still better than what they had known. They were free. They were saving money, things that never would have happened back home.

Before long their first child was born, an honest to God official citizen of the United States of America. The man told his wife that their son must speak English and learn everything possible about this great new country. So he did as did his brothers and sisters who numbered eight before the woman was no longer able to bear another child. She had her hands full at home now raising her boys and girls, taking care of the garden and the house that they had built from the fruit of their labors. They paid for each room in full, adding to the square footage bit by bit until it was finally done.

They were not always loved by all of their neighbors. Some of them worried about having strange  people from a strange land in their midst. The children of the man and woman knew nothing of the old country. They were red, white and blue Americans right down to their toes, but still they heard taunts that they did not understand as they walked to school. Sometimes they had to dodge the rocks that hurtled dangerously close to their bodies. They did not understand why they were despised and they complained to their father, but he urged them to hold their heads high and be proud because they were citizens of the greatest country on earth. He assured them that hard work would one day change their fates. He reminded them again and again to love the United States in spite of those who wanted to chase them away.

They grew into a fine lot. They earned diplomas and served in the military. They worked as hard as their parents had taught them to do. Nobody noticed that they were the children of immigrants once they left home. They blended into society as though their ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. They married and had children of their own. Those children became college graduates and climbed even higher up on the economic and social ladder. Their grandchildren knew nothing of hard times or being shunned. The dream that had sprouted in the hearts of their immigrant ancestors had burst forth in full bloom. It was a beautiful thing, the American way.

Those were my people. A grandmother and grandfather from Slovakia who risked all that they had ever known to find opportunity. Never again did they see their homeland or the people that they had known there. They had mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends whom they left behind. How frightening it must have been. How courageous they were even as they sometimes found prejudice and lack of understanding in their new home. What a precious gift they gave to their children and ultimately to those of us who descended from them.

Surely we owe that man and that woman some kind of payback. Perhaps it should be in welcoming the newest immigrants from foreign lands to America. If we can’t understand the people who are searching for the same freedoms that our grandparents sought, then who will? How can we deny them a new start? Why should we assume that they will not work as hard or be as devoted to the country as our ancestors were? How can we see them as less than the rest of us? Once before it was believed that people like my grandparents would ruin the United States with their ignorance and questionable habits. No such thing occurred. In fact we have contributed to the good of the country in remarkable ways. History demonstrates that in most cases those that we allow to join us enhance our society rather than tearing it down.

Houston, Texas where my grandparents settled before World War I has become the fourth largest city in the nation. It is also the most diverse. No race holds a majority position. We have people of many colors from all over the world. They have made our city vibrant and exciting. We are the future whether the rest of the nation realizes it or not. No wall will erase the fact that we are living in harmony and demonstrating to the entire world what it means to be generous of spirit and talents. Ours is the kind of place that my grandparents wanted for their children when they traveled across the ocean in a steamboat so long ago. Today there are others who are longing for the same chance. Such people have always made this country great. Perhaps it’s time for the children of yesterdays dreamers to extend a hand of welcome to the dreamers of today.

They Just Set Women Back

St Frances Cabrini

For many years in my adult life I was a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. I spent some of my happiest times there, making lifelong friends who literally changed me for the better. At one point I even became one of the Directors of Religious Education which was a groundbreaking move for the parish which had before only employed nuns in such positions. I was honored to have been chosen, but always felt humbled and a bit lacking in the ability to fill the shoes of the two inspirational religious ladies who had come before me. Not everyone in the community was happy with having lay people in charge of such an important program but the times were changing and it was incredibly difficult to find nuns willing to work at such jobs.

My co-leader and I met with a great deal of opposition and worked for an abysmally low salary. The Parish Council had yet to realize that they needed to balance out our pay with the reality that they were not furnishing us with a house, car and food as they had done for the religious women who before had literally lived at the church in a makeshift convent. Because I was able to make four times more working as a teacher I eventually left that job and upon my departure recommended my dear friend Pat as a replacement and that they actually pay her more than the four thousand dollars a year that they had given me. They understood and deferred to my wisdom in both choosing Pat and providing her with an income that was worthy of all of the hard work that the job required.

While I was St. Frances Cabrini Church I was always a bit too busy to learn much about the woman for whom the parish was named. It was not until much later that I took the time to read about her and that is when I understood that I should have made more effort to unravel her story while I was still in charge of the religious education of so many children. Indeed her life should be an inspiration to people of all faiths.

St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy the last of thirteen children near the midpoint of the nineteenth century. The times were quite difficult for her family which was hardworking but barely able to live adequately due to grinding poverty. Most of Mother Cabrini’s siblings died before reaching adulthood and she herself was always in poor health. Nonetheless she possessed a great faith in God and decided to dedicate her life to helping others by joining a religious group.

At first St. Frances was rejected by several orders because she was deemed too weak to handle the routine and rigors of religious life, but she persisted and finally found a place to begin her religious life. She proved to be incredibly dedicated to helping the poor. So much so that her work caught the eyes of the bishops in her country. They asked her to travel to the United States of America where millions of Italians were going in hopes of finding a better way of life. Unfortunately they rarely moved beyond New York City itself and the conditions in which they lived there were almost as bad as those they had left behind. Mother Cabrini agreed to lend her compassion and abilities to get things done for them.

While in New York City she worked tirelessly to help not just Italian immigrants but those of all kinds who were pouring into the country from all over the world. She founded schools, hospitals and orphanages that made a stunning difference in the lives immigrants struggling to get a foothold in the new land. She found time in the midst of her work to become an American citizen and before long she was taking to her talents to other cities and states like Chicago and places as far away as Colorado. In spite of recurring illnesses she was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden and by the time of her death at the age of sixty eight she had accomplished wondrous things for the poor. Eventually she would be named a saint by Pope Pius XII and be known as the patron of immigrants, the first ever American citizen to have such an honor.

Recently the wife of the mayor of  New York City headed an effort to honor women who had contributed to the development of the metropolis in a drive called She Built NYC. The intent of the program was to choose a group of women who would have statues erected in their names to correct the unbalance of male versus female icons. A committee was formed to determine who the outstanding women might be. In order to include the voice of the people of NYC a contest was held and not so amazingly St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the unmatched winner. Sadly the committee chose to ignore the votes and instead choose four women who did not even appear on any of the ballots that people sent to them. This was done with no explanation and has thus infuriated many of the people who had supported St. Frances Cabrini, particularly because she was such an advocate of the immigrant. Instead of honoring the peoples’ choice the committee decided to go with an abortion activist and two drag queens whom they deemed to be more in keeping with the intent of the project. 

I am saddened that the work of a woman as dedicated and giving as St. Frances Cabrini would somehow be considered less important and perhaps less woke than those with more radical contributions to the city. If the committee had always been looking for only those women who had upended traditions then that should have been made clear from the outset. Instead the title of the the drive is She Built NYC, and it is impossible to argue that building schools and hospitals for immigrants is not as meaningful as being a rebel. Thus a furor has arisen within the city of New York and across the country.

I have no problem with honoring unconventional women but I would argue that leaving one’s native country and traveling to New York City in the early years of the twentieth century to work in the bleak conditions of Italian ghettoes was as challenging a task as one might ever accept. To deny Mother Frances’ contribution to the City of New York because she was not audacious or minority enough is certainly to miss the essence of her work. This was a woman whose character was made of steel and she should be serving as an inspiration to women all over the world. It would have been courageous and proper for the committee to choose her, especially given that so many thought of her when considering who best deserved the honor. I’m sorry to say that the committee blew it in some contrived way of appearing to be progressive. Their efforts will forever be tainted by the kind of stereotyping that has challenged women for all time. They just set women back.

Discovering a Remarkable Story

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I loved my maternal grandmother, Maria Bartacovik Ulrich, but never really knew her. She was a sweet presence in my life, but because she spoke little or no English and I had no knowledge of her Slovakian language we communicated mostly with facial expressions. She was a short, round woman filled with the wrinkles of old age. She kept her hair in a long braid that trailed down her back, at least until she became seriously ill and her daughters cut it to make the task of maintaining it easier. She seemed to be of another world, another century and I always longed to be able to ask her questions and learn more about the girl she had once been. Instead we exchanged smiles as she called me “pretty girl,” and while I loved the simplicity of her greeting I wondered if she actually knew my name or those of my many cousins.

Grandma Ulrich padded around her home in her bare feet which were tiny but often appeared swollen. At gatherings she prepared cups of coffee for all of her guests, bringing the watery brew proudly in enamel cups filled with more milk and sugar than java. I loved that gesture which she repeated hundreds of times when the members of her family filled her home with raucous conversation. I saw her as an exceptional hostess who wanted us to feel welcome in her domain, and we always did.

Grandma Ulrich had lovely blue eyes, and as I gazed into them I wondered what thoughts were behind them. It would not be until long after she was dead that I would do enough research and ask enough questions to learn a tiny bit about her. It amazed me to find that this shy and unassuming woman had traveled alone from her hometown in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary to Bremen, Germany where she boarded a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. She came to meet my grandfather who had arrived before her to pave the way of their new life together. Somehow it almost seems inconceivable that such an unassuming woman would have the courage to embark on a journey to a world of which she knew very little. She must have been very much in love, and perhaps she was guided by the exuberance of youth as well.

She arrived not too many years before the outbreak of World War II and for all intents forever lost track of her family back home. My eldest aunt says that Grandma worked as a cook for the laborers on a large farm in an area of Houston on the east side of town. Later she tried a variety of jobs including laboring as a cleaning woman in a large downtown building. When her English improved she even found work behind the counter of a small bakery. This was a daring Grandma Ulrich that I had never known, and even now I have a difficult time imagining the woman who was frightened to leave her home as such a courageous person.

My grandmother was a woman of her times without benefit of any form of birth control other than abstinence, and so she had one baby after another. There were nine pregnancies in a row including one in which she carried twins. By the time my mother, the youngest of her children, was born Grandma had buried two of her babies. Her body must have been in a state of hormonal hell as she yo-yoed from conception into post partum depression again and again. Her tiny home and her life was dominated by rowdy children whom she dearly loved, but I can’t fathom that she ever had a moment to herself.

At some point my grandmother showed signs of a mental breakdown and she was taken away by force to the state hospital in Austin. It was a traumatic time for her and for her children who rarely spoke of it, carefully guarding a secret that was too painful to mention. Once Grandma returned home she would never again have enough trust to leave the safety of her house without putting up a fight. She was content to simply create a daily routine and quietly live out the rest of her days.

I am fascinated by the woman who was my grandmother. I suppose that if truth be told we, her grandchildren, took her for granted. She was someone who was just there, an almost invisible presence in our lives. She seemed simple and yet she was so complex. We thought her witless and yet she must surely have had thoughts and dreams. Like so many women her contribution to the world was unseen and under appreciated. We did not think to connect the dots of her existence and the incredible impact it has had on the world. We assumed that she would not have been interested in knowing that from her humble beginnings in America have come engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, business leaders, athletes, lawyers. Members of her now very extended family are brilliant and beautiful, and genetics tells us that her contribution to such success is present in all of us. Most importantly the lessons that she taught her children have been passed down through the generations. We may not have been able to communicate with her but her children knew and understood her messages of integrity and hard work. She modeled a steadfastness for them that they emulated often without even realizing how deeply her character had imprinted on them.

If by some magic I were able to see my grandmother again and actually speak with her without the restrictions on communication that once defined our relationship I would want to know everything about her. I have grown to understand how amazing she was and how worthy of my attention to her story should be. Like so many many women she was dutiful and in her role she built the foundation of a family and the future. Her contributions are incalculable but her legacy continues to blossom. Now I finally realize through discovery of her remarkable story that this tiny quiet woman was a tower of strength and I feel honored to be part of the world that she helped to build.

Do Not Be Dismayed

pexels-photo-414752.jpegDo not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.

All things break. And all things can be mended.

Not with time, as they say, but with intention.

So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.

The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.

      —-L.R. Knost

Just before Easter last week there were big storms in Texas. At the very moment that the rain began to come down in heavy bursts over our home an interior shower occurred inside the house. Water was pouring from the vents in our kitchen, laundry room and hallway. Of course our first thought was that we must have had a terrible leak in our roof since the timing of the incident corresponded with the rain.

As it turned out it was our hot water heater that was sending the torrent through the ceiling down the walls all the way to the bottom story of the house. Our upstairs bathroom was spouting moisture like a sieve and the carpet in the area nearby was saturated. Luckily we were able to turn off the gas and the water connected to the offending appliance and allay some of the damage. Nonetheless we will have a number of repairs ahead to insure that no mold grows inside the walls and to fix the door jam to the bathroom that is now so warped that the door won’t close.

Of course we have little reason to rejoice over the expense and inconvenience of this household accident, but the reality is that it might have been far worse had it happened while we were away from home or sound asleep. We actually feel rather lucky and, as my niece remarked, we may even get some nice changes to the house that we will ultimately enjoy.

An irony of the whole situation is that only an hour or so before the incident my husband had crowed about the fact that our health insurance had covered all but a pittance of a very expensive ultrasound that he recently had to check on an artery in his brain. We laughed that we will probably spend as much as or more than the cost of that test in getting our home back to normal. I thought of how my mother would have seen the situation in her characteristically optimistic way. I could almost hear her saying, “Isn’t this wonderful? Because you didn’t have to spend so much on the medical procedure, you will have enough to repair the house. Isn’t God good?”

The fact is that all things break. Entropy is a fact of nature, organizations, societies and humans. Each of those things can also be mended unless the damage is extraordinarily severe. We just need the will to take care of whatever problems we face, and if we do it with a smile rather than a grumble we feel a bit less of the pain.

One of my favorite books is Things Fall Apart, a tragic tale of pride, conquest, and man’s inhumanity to man. It is a lyrical story written by a gifted African author who outlines the effect of  arrogance in a clash between an inflexible man and political and economic forces too strong for him to overcome. It is a classic tragedy in three parts that speaks to our very human flaws. It’s theme of broken promises and spirits is all too often the stuff of the human experience. When things are left to simply rot there is a kind of darkness that descends.

Only months ago my city was literally under water. It felt as though we were engulfed in a situation from which we would never escape. There was billions of dollars of damage to people’s homes and schools and churches, but even more to their psyches. For a time I truly worried that it might be impossible to bring our gasping area back to life, until I saw person after person, group after group rolling up their sleeves to help perfect strangers. The love that was present in every corner brought a light of hope that was both miraculous and up-lifting. Somehow we all knew that we were going to be fine, and sure enough slowly but surely things are moving back to normal and we are basking in the intentional love that was showered on us by both friends and perfect strangers. In our moment of deepest tragedy we saw the goodness in mankind in all of its glory.

There is something truly wonderful about people when in times of dire distress. They generally find ways to come together to solve problems, repair broken dreams and get back on the right track. We are almost always more good than we are bad, but sometimes we get so busy arguing over how best to be that way that a kind of darkness descends over our intentions and we lose our direction. We seem to be in that state of mind right now.

We have many problems that we need to address, but we are so busy arguing with one another that we get nothing done. Our brokenness is impeding our efforts. We are forgetting to love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. We are bogged down with our feet of clay. Our inflexibility is making all of us unhappy. We are forgetting to focus on what we have in common rather than where we disagree. The broken world will stay that way until we are willing to spread light rather than shouting at one another.

We have citizens who worry about the next health issue, but we do little to ease their fears. There are young immigrants who live in the shadows wondering if they will be sent away to countries that they do not know. Our schools are not as safe as we had once hoped they would be. We have threats from around the world. There are far too many broken souls with addictions and mental illnesses. There are many questions that we must address, and that will only happen when we work together like people did in my city when it felt as though we were all going to drown.

We proved here that we can be all one people. Perhaps we need to try doing this on a truly grand scale. If our politicians can’t fix what is broken, then we need to begin the process of mending ourselves. It can take place one person at a time, one moment at a time. All we need do it stop our shouting and get to work.