An opportunity to say ‘yes’ to those in need

My friend Ruth wrote to all of us who belong to a small Jesuit-inspired group called Ignatian Associates. She said she had an “impossible question.”

I braced myself because I know many of my friends do amazingly good things and sometimes they ask for help. It’s a great blessing and example, but sometimes a challenge.

Ruth did not disappoint. First, some background.

Ruth is involved with a ministry here in Omaha called “IDAP,” or Immigrant Detainee Accompaniment Program. Undocumented people end up in jail from all over the world and their only “crime” is that they have no papers. The system doesn’t know what to do with them, so they languish, alone and unsupported, in a jail cell. It’s a nationwide problem.

Mercy Sister Kathleen Erickson started this simple ministry of presence. Even if they speak no English, people appreciate a friend coming to see them on a regular basis as their cases stumble through the justice system. It may be the only friend they see for months.

Ruth has been visiting a Somali man for three months. He’s about 40, a computer whiz with perfect English. He’s been incarcerated here since June, awaiting a review of his plea for asylum. Ruth and her husband found a donor to underwrite his attorney’s fee, and he went before a judge in early December.

“In a small Christmas miracle,” Ruth said, “he was granted asylum, which is very hard to get.”

Asylum is tricky. You must submit the proper forms, attesting that your life is in danger in your native country for one or more of five reasons: religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a threatened group.

“Like most asylees, he’s been through hell,” Ruth said. “El Shabaab killed family members. He’s been attacked eight times, had his shop burned and was shot in the leg. Back in Africa, his wife is a street vendor trying to support three kids while he made this desperate attempt.”

Now, the “impossible question.” He will stay with Ruth and her husband until a court date is set for the government to contest the granting of asylum. But months ago, they had committed to babysitting their grandchildren in California during Christmas.

Would anyone in our group be willing to host this man Dec. 11-30?

As I considered that, I realized that I was looking at Ruth’s email a couple of hours after she’d posted it. And already, there had been a response. Fifty-seven minutes after Ruth’s initial request came a note from Ruth saying a family in Ignatian Associates had said, “yes.”

I wasn’t surprised that generous friends had stepped up. But 57 minutes? I was humbled. Saying “yes” had been an automatic response for them, while I had immediately catalogued my excuses.

With three kids, the mom in this family is a leader at a university; Dad is a high school theology teacher. No doubt, Christmas vacation presents time for their hectic family to take a breather. Yet, they didn’t hesitate to welcome a stranger.

As I pondered their “yes” I noted that we were still in Advent, when we are asked to contemplate Mary’s “yes.” Oh, yeah, and that “no room at the inn” thing?

Alaskans may remember our own Polish seamen asylum crisis of the 1980s before the Iron Curtain fell. The labor union movement, Solidarity, was under siege in Poland and sailors arriving at Alaskan ports were jumping ship and asking to stay. Catholic Social Services played a major role in helping them. Every generation has its own heroes and opportunities to say, “yes.”

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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