I live in a village in the middle of the City of St. Louis. My village is multi-national, multi-cultural, and multi-generational. It is held together by string – a string of relationships. This is the story of “the day I became string.”
It was a usual cold St. Louis day in December. My neighbors from Nepal were out and about enjoying the days but my neighbors from Ethiopia were inside away from the cold. I usually measure really cold-snowy weather by whether or not the Nepalese families are wearing flip flops or tennis shoes. They usually only wear tennis shoes if there is some measurable snow on the ground.
When my doorbell rang I was happy to see Debesa from next door. I have come to know him and his family from Ethiopia over the past several years. He and his wife Senknesh and their twins arrived here from a refugee camp in eastern Kenya when the twins – Kananifto and Moses – were about 2 1/2. Debesa was bringing his friend Mazagnia to meet me. Mazagnia and his family were newly arrived in the US from the same camp where the families first met. Mazagnia is from Ethiopia originally, but his wife Adol is from Sudan. They have 3 boys – ages 8,6 and 2. He explained that his wife is Catholic and he wanted to know about a church for her to attend. pointed in the direction of St. Pius V, only a block away. I told him they would be most welcome, gave him the Sunday Mass times, and suggested they stop by sometime in the next week to register and meet the staff. It was only after the two men left, that I realized that although it was a cold day, Mazagnia had no coat or sweater.
I decided to watch for their return and ask about the lack of a jacket. When they came back, I went out on the porch and motioned for them to come over. When I asked Mazagnia if he had a jacket, or did he not need one in this weather, it was Debasa who spoke up and said he had none; he and his family had nothing. They were new here and had very little, and no coats or warm clothing. I invited them into my house as I hurried upstairs to get a jacket for him. When I returned they were still standing on my porch. Mazagnia was most grateful to put on the yellow windbreaker that had been hanging, unused, in our closet. I asked him, “What size is your wife? Is she my size?” He smiled and gestured. “No. She is big woman,” gesturing with his hands to indicate taller and wider than I.
As I watched them go inside next door, I wondered what I could give to keep her warm. I found hats, scarves and gloves and 4 yoga blankets. I was feeling almost a panic. The weather reports promised that the December weather would drop by the end of the week, into single digits. They would be sold cold. They would most likely get sick. They would not be able to get out for anything.
I took my armload of things next door and was greeted with hugs and smiles. Mazagnia hugged me and said “we do not know jacket” as he touched the sleeve of the jacket he was wearing. “In Kenya it is always warm. We know 110 or more in the summer. In winter maybe 80. Nothing like what it is here. We do not know coat or jacket or sweater.”
I told my new friend from Ethiopia, that somehow, I would be sure they had some things to keep them warm. That was when he took my arm and looked into my eyes and said to me, “you are string.” I am sure the look on my face told him that I did not understand. He said it again. “You are string. My friend brought me to you and you will bring me to others who will help.” As I walked back home I wondered how I would be string.
That same night I went to a service that was part of a retreat for the parish where I have worked for over 10 years. In that time I have gotten to know a lot of people and I could look around the room and see many folks I can call by name. And that is what I did. I looked for women with boy children. There was Tara with her boys. Did she have any used jackets for the boys from Ethiopia? And there was Linda. Had Jake outgrown some things she still had, and would she share with these new immigrants? Yes!, they would look! “I need the clothes this week,” I told them. “They are cold and the temperature is to drop soon. They have nothing.”
Tara would bring some things Monday. Linda had a few things and she would get more. What was needed? She came on Sunday. Monday morning, I took what I had to Senknesh and Debesa next door; I didn’t know where Mazagnia lived.
While I was there, talking with Senknesh and giving her the things for Mazagnia I heard someone talking just outside on the front porch. It was Eyersalem. I knew she was also from Ethiopia and lives below Senknesh and Debesa. She was speaking with a young woman I had not seen before. She was slight, had a baby on her back, and a small girl at her side. I introduced myself. Eyersalem interpreted for us. “This woman is from Ethiopia and she and her family are here only a month or 2. She has a husband and 5 children. They have nothing.”
The woman had not coat or sweater. Her children had only light summer clothes. I went to my house and hurried back with a coat of mine she could wear. I found a couple of throws to wrap around the baby. “What sizes do they need? It is going to be very cold in a few days. I will find things for them.”
I emailed Linda. “We need to do more!” I told her. I gave her ages and sex of the children. “What can we do? We have to move quickly. The temperatures will be 5 or below by Thursday. They are cold.”
Linda is amazing. By Wednesday she had donations from many others. She had clothes, blankets, and bedding – even toys for the children – two to three van loads and drivers to help her. Her husband left work to meet us and deliver things. Eyesalem came with us to interpret.
What happened then was amazing. I watched as we carried bags and boxes into one home and then another. I saw the little children’s faces as they snooped among the things and found trucks and teddy bears that they cuddled immediately. The smiles on their faces were mixed with the tears in our eyes. I saw mothers who could not speak words to one another exchange looks of love for the children among us.
Linda then began making lists of other things they needed – chairs, a rug for the floor, a couch on which some could sit and sleep, a shelf to hold the kitchen things, drawers for the clothes.
She went back to her email and in a week another caravan came to the City, to the streets where many are afraid to come. But this was for her new friends. And she brought other drivers and people to help unload and to meet the families.
This time we sit down on the furniture we deliver and we have tea and a loaf of sliced white bread that our hostess serves to us on mismatched cups and plates. It is a feast! We cannot speak with more than gesture and smile and hug, but we are connecting in love. One of the men who has been able to learn English tells us a bit of his story. They were many years in the refugee camp in east Kenya. That is where they all met. That is where the children were born. But there are here, now. They are in a country that is free. They desperately want to find work so they can support their families. They go to the International Institute to learn English. The children go to school (I see them every morning waiting for the bus). They are learning English quickly. They are curious and very smart. They interpret for their moms who have little opportunity to take classes since they must be home with their babies.
When we leave, we are different. We have met strong families and strong parents who are raising strong children. They are a gift to each of us.
I continue to meet my neighbors. They trust me, and I trust them. They tell me their stories. They invite me to eat with them and I am learning how to enjoy eating with my fingers and using the spongy Ethiopian bread as a spoon. I hear the stories and hold the babies and hug the little children.
They call me “Mama” and I feel proud to be called by such a special title. Truly I could be the mama or the grandma. They look out for me and I for them. We are community. They are my village. I am string for the village. What a blessed role I have! I pray I can be faithful to it. When I walk out my door and hear my named called – Mama, not Cathy! – and see the smiles and waves, I know that our God of the universe is bringing us together to make a world of love and joy, of compassion and peace. We are one family, one Body of Christ.
Written by Sister Cathy Vetter, CCVI.
On the header picture: Sister Cathy Vetter and Eyerusalem.