When Pope Francis visits the United States next week, he will undoubtedly meet some very important people. He will address Congress. He will speak before the General Assembly of the United Nations.
It is a reasonable assumption that no one will be more important to him than the 150 or so people he will meet in an East Harlem gymnasium at about 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon.
In the midst of a crowded itinerary during a whirlwind 36-hour visit to New York City, the Holy Father will take time to visit with and bless a group of immigrants and refugees that have been helped by archdiocesan Catholic Charities when he goes to Our Lady Queen of Angels School on East 112th Street. Among them will be a Muslim human rights activist from Pakistan, a mother and hairstylist from Guerrero State in Mexico, a group of Central American teenage boys, part of the influx of unaccompanied minors who arrived on America’s southern frontier last year, and a visually impaired women’s and disabled rights activist from Guinea.
“Reflective of Pope Francis’ desire to meet with immigrants and refugees, the Holy Father asked to meet with those whom Catholic Charities is helping and assisting,” explained Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities, in an interview with CNY at his office on the 11th floor of the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan.
“We wanted to provide a very simple opportunity for Pope Francis to meet with about 150 immigrants and refugees. We hope to show him that his desire that the Catholic Church be a Church of and for the poor is represented in New York so very strongly by the work of Catholic Charities.”
The school gymnasium was selected as the site where the extraordinary meeting would take place, rather than at a more typical Catholic Charities site that services the poor and immigrant population, primarily because the pope will also be visiting with students in the school building. Another papal wish was to see an example of the archdiocese’s diverse school system. Combining the meetings into one location, it was decided, makes the best use of an extremely crowded Friday schedule of official events. The Holy Father will celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden at 6 p.m.
Msgr. Sullivan said the gymnasium would be a simple backdrop for Pope Francis to meet, pray The Lord’s Prayer with, and bless the people there to greet him. Some of the guests will also present the Holy Father with gifts, reflective of their work and dreams for their lives in America. A group of day laborers, some of the craftsmen who built the altar he will use for the Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden, will present him with a tool belt. Some young people will give him a book containing stories of their hopes and dreams. Some of the women who worked on the altar cloth will present him with examples of their handiwork.
“He’ll certainly meet as many of those people as possible who’ll be there in the room,” Msgr. Sullivan said.
One of those eagerly anticipating the opportunity to see Pope Francis is Mamadou Drame, a partially blind, married father of three from Guinea who lives in a shelter in the Bronx with his family. An advocate for women’s equality and the rights of the disabled in his homeland with a bachelor’s degree in international law, he originally came to New York to attend a conference at the United Nations.
His guide abandoned Drame, a Muslim, in a Brooklyn mosque. He recalls his first week in New York, alone, hungry and homeless until someone at the mosque suggested he get in contact with Catholic Charities.
“I had nowhere to live and nothing to eat,” Drame told CNY. “But someone told me about Catholic Charities and Catholic Charities helped me find food, helped me find a lawyer. I was lucky!”
Elika Nerette, Catholic Charities’ supervisor of case management, told CNY, “He came to Catholic Charities within one week of being in the U.S. He also had a hearing impairment at the time. Basically we supported him through that time.” Catholic Charities helped to obtain computer training and got him into English classes.
“Elika is my helpful friend,” Drame said. “My immigration lawyers fought really hard for me and my family to receive asylum. I feel blessed. I had surgery to fix my hearing impairment and I am learning English and working part time. I hope to go back to school and continue my work for the rights of the disabled.
“I’m a Muslim and a refugee and immigrant,” he continued. “Meeting the pope will be the happiest day for me!”
Martha Pastor, a 40-year-old mother of two from Guerrero, first came to the United States in 1997 as a single woman with no children. Forced to leave the country, she returned in 2000. Ms. Pastor, now a professional beautician, is proud to say she has been paying her taxes as long as she has lived in the United States. Her husband works hard at a local dry cleaner. She is a leader in ComUnidad Juan Diego, a Catholic Charities-affiliated community outreach program for Latin American immigrants in East Harlem that offers educational support, English lessons, financial education, social services support and family education for Latin American immigrants and their families.
“I have been here for 18 years in this country,” she told CNY. “I feel excited and blessed to meet the pope.” As for Catholic Charities, she said, “They help me in a lot of things. They help a lot of the mothers in this neighborhood.”
Those are just some of the people Pope Francis will meet in that gym in East Harlem on Friday. Ultimately it is not just about a chance to meet the popular pope, as exciting as that might be, Msgr. Sullivan explained.
“It’s about the values and the message that he has articulated and has spoken, which is a call to everyone, to us at Catholic Charities, to those of us in New York, those throughout the nation, that we need to be an inclusive people, a people who welcome, a people who value diversity, a people who say every single individual is made in the image and likeness of God and is worthy of compassion, dignity and respect.
“That’s what we do at Catholic Charities,” Msgr. Sullivan said.