Editor's note: Parts of this column were used as content in a panel discussion at Rosemont College in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, on April 8.
Our sisters of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus had been rotating two-week periods at the San Diego Rapid Response Network shelter, and I recently did a two-week rotation there, working with refugees and migrants.
As I reflected on my experiences, it was like looking through a prism. You have seen the light caught by a prism: The white light catches the faces of a prism and the different colors of the rainbow appear. The prism I found myself looking through was the prism of Catholic social teaching, and what I saw coming out of the prism were the principles underlying it.
I'd like to say they are catholic principles — with a small "c" — because they are universal. After all, we worked at the shelter under the umbrella of the Jewish Family Service of San Diego. But I found Catholic social teaching embedded in my experiences with the staff and volunteers of all faiths or no faith. Examples:
The dignity of the human person
When we watch the evening news or read about current events, we often see the human person treated simply as an "economic unit," for their economic worth. Their value depends on money, the value of their labor, or something that can be used to serve the interests of another more powerful human being. But Catholic social teaching shows us that human persons' value lies simply in the fact that they are children of God, no matter what they have to contribute to a nation's economy or another person's entertainment or use.
At the San Diego shelter, this became evident when we first entered the building. We were told the people served here were "guests" and they were consistently referred to as guests, never migrants or refugees. They were valuable just because of who they were.
The common good
According to this principle, individuals contribute to and benefit from their community — local, national, global. No section of the community is ever to be excluded. I saw this in the actions of the citizens of San Diego, the staff and the many volunteers, some of whom came for a few hours and then left for their "day" or even "night" jobs. Some were drivers to the airport or bus station before they left for work in the morning. One of the most needed times was 4-8 am. Local citizens stepped up. Nurses and doctors came and left for their second or third jobs. Volunteers from different parts of the state and country gave of their time to help the guests get to their sponsors' homes. The guests benefited from the gift of time and labor and — in some cases —money from those who could assist, but they themselves helped out where they could.
Solidarity implies we all have a mutual obligation to promote the human rights of all people. It points to a fundamental bond of unity; in my own writing, I've called it the "bondedness of humanity." It helps us to see that we are one, that we have common needs and hopes, that war and persecution are contrary to who we are as human persons.
At the shelter, this came through to me particularly when I was given the task of bringing a family of two parents, a baby and a small boy of about 10 to the airport and escorting them to their gate. After getting tickets, going through security with them and arriving at the gate, I found the plane would be two or three hours late. What to do? They had to eat something before going on a trip that would take another four hours.
We found a restaurant and got enough food and drink for them — needs we share in common. Then we returned to the gate, but I needed the parents to be in line with the gate personnel who, of course, were not yet there. I asked a man sitting with a good line of sight with the gate if he'd move for these people. He was most ready to do so. Solidarity! We called the family's sponsor to tell him what was happening and how late they would be; the brother-in-law would make sure he and his wife would be there to meet them. He knew what they needed. Solidarity! And then I had to leave them to pick up my companions at the center.
I was able to follow their flight on FlightAware on my iPhone all the way. Because I had the sponsor's number on my phone, I could text him the time and terminal where they would land and even the baggage area. I waited several hours until I thought they would have landed and texted again. The brother-in-law texted back, "They are here," and sent with the text message a photo of them actually in their new room! I rejoiced in the solidarity of working together with persons I did not even know — both in meeting their needs and reassuring me of their safe arrival.
According to this principle, there is to be a balance of power coming from above, vertically, and from the same level, horizontally. Martha shines out as an example of this principle. Of Mexican origin, she has been a U.S. citizen for decades. She was our cook, our nurse and mother. She oversaw everything concerned with food at the shelter. She organized us all to get the right amount of food for about 50 at each seating, then to clean up the tables and reset them so that each group of guests could come in quickly for their hot meal. There was no waste of food or napkins or silverware. When the meal was over, she could be seen sitting down with guests, sharing their experience — consoling and commiserating with them.
Option for the poor
For Christians, the option for the poor implies seeing Christ in the faces of suffering and wounded people. In our own time, the most vulnerable include all people on the move, fleeing their homes to escape violence, hunger or the absence of human rights. Among our guests, Christ's face was ever-present.
One of the most vivid experiences for me was the face of a boy I will call Jacob.
Jacob — about 3 or 4 years old — and his father were my first passengers to the airport. I had to take them and simply leave them in the hands of the escort who would see them through ticketing, security and boarding. But my iPhone directions took me to the opposite end of San Diego! I stopped as soon as I realized what was happening, and found the airport directions on the web. I made a U-turn, texted the escort (already at the airport) and told him what had happened.
About five minutes later, I heard Jacob whimpering in the back seat. One small tear was running down his cheek. His father realized what he needed — a bathroom. Alas! What to do. There were no stores, no gas stations, no one on the road. I pulled over. "No baños?" the father asked. "No baños," I responded, and we managed to find an appropriate place.
When Jacob returned, he was smiling and all was well. I taught him thumbs-up and OK. When we finally arrived at the airport, he gave me the thumbs-up sign. All would be OK.
That was the greatest gift my San Diego experience gave me. I felt as if I were accompanying the Holy Family to a new — albeit temporary — home in Egypt, only it would be Texas. Jacob was truly the face of Christ, the Holy Child, to me.
[Marcia Sichol is a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, ministering in various teaching capacities at the elementary and college level for about 50 years. She also served on two provincial administration teams, as province leader from 1999 to 2005, and two terms as executive director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters.]