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Immigrants Make Pilgrimage to See Pope in Philadelphia

Immigrants Make Pilgrimage to See Pope in Philadelphia


Alfredo Flores and Jose Contreras, Mexican immigrants from Indiana, are certain that God provides.

Consider their 750-mile pilgrimage to Philadelphia, a trip fraught with problems and providence.

Flores, a sanitation worker, as was his father, is a permanent U.S. resident with a green card.

Contreras, a golf course landscaper, is undocumented and vulnerable to deportation. Passing by some border patrol agents in the huge security detail Saturday, he said, made him “a little nervous.”

Their group of 150 mostly Mexican immigrants from St. Mary Parish near Gary was to arrive in three buses and camp out in Philadelphia. Then, on Sunday, they learned that camping was out. Their pastor placed an urgent call to a priest he knew from their student days. That priest put him in touch with the Rev. Doug McKay at Our House Ministries, which works with recovering addicts in Grays Ferry.

McKay’s connection to the St. Gabriel parish school opened some vacant classrooms There, the pilgrims bedded down on carpeted floors Friday — after startling the neighbors with rousing rounds of mariachi music and singing.

When free tickets to hear Pope Francis on Independence Mall were made available online a few weeks ago, Flores, 36, snagged a pair in the few seconds before they were gone.

“Lord,” he thought, “it is obvious you really want me there.” Landing a roof over his head after all had seemed lost, he said, upped the ante on his Catholic faith.

For a time, that commitment was in jeopardy, at least in part because every pope elected in his lifetime was white and European, he said, “even though so many Latinos are great Catholics.”

After Pope Benedict XVI retired, Flores said to himself, “If they elect one more white European, I’m going to take a break” from the church.

“When they announced, ‘Bergoglio won,’ I thought, ‘Great, another European.’ Then I saw him walk out. He was from Argentina and speaking Spanish. He rode the bus; refused limousines. That was a pope we could identify with. And he lets people know that immigrants have dignity, too,” as he did Saturday on Independence Mall, bringing tears to Flores and sending hair-raising chills down Contreras’ arms.

“I’m a wuss,” said Flores, a mountain of a man, as he wiped his eyes. Contreras looked blissed out.

Both Flores and Contreras are from Aguascalientes, the central state in the heart of Mexico.

“My parents came (to the United States) for the same reason as everyone: to search for work,” said Flores, who was 3 when they brought him.

As a child, he lived in a basement apartment: “When we looked out the window we saw feet going by.”

Now, he said, “I walk behind the truck, picking up cans. I am a garbage man from Gary here to see the pope.”

Contreras, 33, lives in Hammond, just west of Gary on the Illinois state line. One of six children, he went only as far as the ninth grade in Mexico, and his struggles here are raw and visceral.

He was 20 when he came illegally to the U.S. in 2002, primarily to earn the $20,000 his family needed to pay for kidney transplants for two of his siblings. There is some belief that environmental factors in Aguascalientes seriously aggravate health problems there.

In Hammond, he lives with one of his sisters and her husband. His other siblings live in Mexico.

Fearing arrest if he tries to travel internationally, Contreras has not been back to Mexico, even for the funeral last month of his 58-year-old father, a truck driver, who died of a liver ailment.

When Contreras hears people denigrate undocumented immigrants, he said, he believes that they see only half the story.

“Some Americans say we are bad persons (but) we take the hardest jobs,” he said. His starting pay at the country club where he works was $7.25 an hour for a shift that began every day at 4 a.m.

“I pay my taxes. I have my ITIN (individual taxpayer identification number),” he said. “I donate blood three times a year. I’m on the list to be a bone marrow donor.”

Delivered in Spanish, the pope’s address on Independence Mall led with a strong call for religious freedom. He greeted the immigrants in the crowd “with particular affection.”

“Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. … Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which … you can bring to enrich the life of this American land.”

The reference to elders made Contreras wistful for his father.

He is sad that he didn’t get to go to the funeral. The sister he lives with couldn’t go, either. But that was OK, he said, because the money they sent home paid for his final rest.

Contreras, who has begun studies that he hopes could one day lead to the priesthood, said his strong Catholic faith helped ease the pain of his father’s death, as did FaceTime conversations in the final month of his life.

“It’s hard because, for 13 years, I didn’t see him,” Contreras said.

“But like I told him,” he added, looking skyward. “one day I will.”


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