The Importance of a Suitcase

[Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; I Corinthians 15:20-28, 28; Matthew 25:31-46]

Fr. Michael Reding

The Feast of Christ the King, Year A

Well, I have to admit that I was disappointed as I was leaving their apartment… So many people had worked so hard. So many people had given hours and energy and money and emotion to make this happen. And it almost seemed like they weren’t grateful. I was expecting this to be the happiest day for them, and instead, she, in particular, seemed distant, not very caring… I felt like maybe what we had done wasn’t really appreciated…

It had all started two years before, right after I was ordained to the priesthood and began my ministry at Transfiguration parish in Oakdale. In my first week there, the pastor was away on vacation, and I got a phone call from a guy in Eagan asking if we could help – if we could make a commitment to help a young couple who had just immigrated here from Sierra Leone…I checked with a few people at the parish, and I told him yes.

I got to know the Junahs pretty quickly. I learned that they were both educated, and that their English was excellent. And literally by the luck of the draw, they had received permission to immigrate to America. They had planned to come here along with their four-year-old son, and the mother, Miriam, was pregnant with another child.

But for the last several years, Sierra Leone had been home to some of the most horrific warfare going on anywhere in the world… Rebel forces had overthrown the government and had begun a campaign of terror. In order to keep the people down – to terrorize them into submission – they’d raped women and girls constantly, and they’ve gone through villages chopping off the hands and arms and legs of people… Much of that country is now maimed – missing one limb or another…

The Junah’s were grateful to be leaving. But because of circumstances beyond their control, they had to leave suddenly. They had to leave behind their four-year-old son, Samir. Once they got here, the first thing they wanted to do was to bring Samir over.

Upon arrival in Saint Paul, Miriam had malaria. She was hospitalized. She recovered. The Junahs moved in with her cousin for a short time.

Our first order of business was to find a job for the father, Abdi. Very soon he went to work in nursing, along with many of the West Africans who have settled on St. Paul’s East Side.

Soon, it was time for the baby to be born, and one of our parishioners at Transfiguration suddenly found herself acting as a surrogate grandmother and labor coach, standing by Miriam’s side in the delivery room as she gave birth to a healthy baby boy… named Jacob.

Meanwhile, we’d been working to find the Junah’s housing that they could afford. With Abdi working, we were finally able to find a subsidized apartment, and we helped them with moving and with furniture. Finally, they had a home to call their own.

Both Abdi and Miriam were working as much as they could to make their way. She also started working in health care.

We started giving Abdi driving lessons. And, man, did that prove to be a challenge. For some reason, he just couldn’t get the hang of it. He’s a bright man, very capable in many ways, but driving was not his forte. One parishioner after another taught, and coached, and practiced with him. He took the written test and passed with flying colors. He took the behind-the-wheel test once, twice, three, four, maybe five times before he finally passed.

One of our parishioners – not a wealthy family – decided to give their car to the Junahs. So once Abdi got his license, he was ready to go.

In the early months, I spent a lot of time with the Junahs – explaining how leases and utilities and phone systems worked. We learned where to find the markets that sold the foods that they were accustomed to. But as the months passed, they quickly became self-reliant. They didn’t need my help. They were doing just fine for themselves…

All except for one thing. Samir was still back in Sierra Leone…

You see, once the Junahs arrived here, they were told that they would not be permitted to bring Samir over separately. The window of opportunity had passed once they arrived without him. The folks at Immigration and Naturalization admitted that yes, the Junahs were here legally, and yes, the original permission had included their four-year old son. But now, given the current situation, they would not be permitted to bring him in. At best, it might be permitted… five or six years from now.

Well! Imagine yourself in such a situation – not only separated from your son, but knowing that he’s been left behind in a war zone.

Samir was being cared for by his grandmother. She was elderly. Her health wasn’t so good. Their village was bombed several times. And each time that happened, they would run off into the bush to hide, sometimes fleeing into the neighboring country of Guinea, where, as refugees, they were taken advantage of financially.

I soon learned how to wire money into Guinea through the black market so that the grandmother could get the medications she needed… Sometimes weeks would pass, and the Junahs wouldn’t hear from their son. They didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Miriam, a slim woman to begin with, would go days without eating – worried sick… about Samir…

Meanwhile, we pressed on. We hired an immigration attorney. We wrote letters. We appealed to both of Minnesota’s Senators to step in… Everywhere, we had doors shut in our face.

And then, finally… finally, it happened. One parishioner – not particularly educated, not particularly experienced, but a woman who refused to give up, caught the attention of one of Congressman Bill Luther’s aides. He was moved, and he came to our help. The paperwork took some time, but eventually, it was all in place… Samir could come… It would be impossible for him to leave from Sierra Leone – far too dangerous – but he could be brought out through Guinea.

Now we just had to make the logistical arrangements to do that. Miriam was ready to go. I started working with travel agents in Boston. The tickets were expensive, but we found the money. And by cobbling together the purchased tickets with some Northwest “buddy passes,” …we were in business.

I set up a time to meet the Junahs at their apartment, to explain the complicated travel arrangements and to give them the papers they needed. I asked on the phone if they needed any suitcases. They said yes, so I brought a couple of my own…

Two years had passed since the Junahs had arrived in St. Paul – Miriam with a fever and pregnant with her second son. Two years of constant worry and fear… At last she was going to get her firstborn.

I expected to find them happy… They weren’t… I asked them which suitcase would they like to use – a medium-sized one or a very large one? She explained that she wouldn’t be bringing anything back except Samir, but she was bringing lots of things over there for family members. Lots and lots of essential things that they simply couldn’t get because of the war… She chose the very large suitcase.

I explained to her – in a somewhat “fatherly” tone – that I needed my suitcase back, and that on her return trip, a couple of the connections would be tight. It might be hard for her to hassle with such a large suitcase when she needed to move through the airports quickly… She said that was okay, she’d deal with it somehow.

So I got up to leave. I picked up the other suitcase, and Abdi walked me out to my car. As we were walking, this beautiful, gentle, humble man felt the need to explain… He said, “I know you’re expecting us to be happy. But you have to understand…

“I work double shifts so that I can earn as much money as possible. Every month, I send at least $500 to our family in Africa. And still I feel guilty, because I’m here, and they’re there.” He said, “You have to understand. This… is heaven, and Miriam is about to go back into hell. And when she gets there, she has to explain to our son why we left him there these two years. And then she can bring him back, but only him. The rest of her family she has to leave behind in that hell… Others of our countrymen who have gone back to visit, wished they hadn’t because it was so disturbing.”

He said, “I know that the best thing I can do now, is to try to bring more family members over here so that there will be more of us to work to send money to support those that remain in Sierra Leone and Guinea… Miriam and I still don’t have all that we need here, but we’ll do all we can to help those who are left behind.”

I was silent… I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say… This man had humbled me beyond words. I thanked him for explaining it to me…

I got into my car, and as I drove north on McKnight Road to go home, the tears fell down my cheeks, and I thought to myself, “How could I possibly tell this woman that she had to worry about bringing back my 15 year-old suitcase?” I had become one of the goats… in the story of the Last Judgment…

As soon as I got home, I called the Junahs. I told Miriam, “Don’t you dare bring that suitcase home. You leave it behind in Guinea.” …She thanked me, and she said goodbye…

Ten days later, she was back. A whole group of us met her at the airport. And in that moment, Samir –a very shy six-year-old – was the most treasured little boy in the world…

As long as I live, I will always remember that drive north on McKnight Road, and the shame that I felt when I realized “How dare you ask that woman… to bring your suitcase back?!”

…I reflect now on this extraordinary couple – working double shifts, earning low wages, sending a minimum of $500 a month – sometimes more – back to their family living in hell… I reflect on the parishioners who gave their automobiles, their furniture, their time, their money, their emotional investment, and their undying commitment to restoring this family.

And when I hear the words of Jesus in our Gospel story today – when I hear this account of the Last Judgment – I pray that the good work that all these folks have done might atone for my failure on that afternoon in the Junnah’s apartment… I pray that I will always be able to see Jesus Christ in the least of my brothers and sisters. And that, when it comes time to separate the sheep from the goats, that I might hear the Lord say – that all those good folks from Transfiguration might hear the Lord say – that all of us gathered here at St. Thomas the Apostle – might deserve… to hear the Lord say,

Come… come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me… For I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me… Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… from the foundation of the world.