Most of my ESL students at Cabrini Immigrant Services are Chinese, but every year I seem to have one from somewhere else in the world: Bangladesh, Mexico, Thailand, Ukraine, Brazil, Guatemala. This fall it was a woman from Haiti, whom I’ll call Marie, to protect her privacy. There are two parts to her story.
Part I: Marie trained as a doctor, and worked for several years in Europe. When her work permit expired, she came to New York, where her mother and sister had immigrated after the earthquake. But they were living in an apartment shared by eleven people; there wasn’t even room for Marie to sleep on the floor. She found temporary accommodations in a shelter run by the Sisters of Charity for “street people.” There were rigid institutional rules designed to help prostitutes and drug addicts, which left Marie little time to look for an apartment or study English. She nevertheless radiated a cheerful attitude and an unwavering faith in God, which was apparent to all. She joined my class with enthusiasm and contributed a great deal.
Meanwhile, the Chinese ladies found out when my birthday was, and insisted on taking me out for dim sum to celebrate. They even ordered a cake, an extraordinary cross-cultural gesture, since Chinese people generally don’t eat sweets. On the appointed day, Marie came up to me before class and said, “I have nothing to give you, but I am going to offer my rosary today for your intentions.”
Part II: I told this story at the next Ignatian Volunteers meeting, as an illustration of the generosity of the poor. After the meeting, one of the volunteers, whom I’ll call Cecilia, came up to me and said “I have an extra room in my apartment.” The social worker at Cabrini arranged a meeting, and Cecilia and Marie hit it off immediately. Marie moved into Cecilia’s extra room on a month-to-month basis while actively searching for an affordable permanent apartment that she can share with her mother and sister. Meanwhile, she is enrolled in a “certified” English course so that she can qualify to take the medical licensing exams, and a friend of Cecilia’s found her a weekend job taking care of a homebound Alzheimer’s patient. The patient, who was unresponsive, is said to light up when Marie arrives.
Grace upon grace, poured out, filled up, running over.
Barbara Lee has been an Ignatian Volunteer in New York since 2000. In 2011 the New York region honored her with the Madonna Della Strada award, which honors “lives that reflect the Ignatian values of direct service to the poor, and working and educating for a more just society.”