I heard the latest twist in the story at the end of our two hours of teaching English at the Catholic mission. We volunteers taught the Latin American students—six simultaneous classes at different levels—in one big, noisy room. The noise of our lessons subsided when Sister clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention then started making announcements in English for the volunteers. She wanted us to know that the little mission sold books at cost: picture dictionaries in English and Spanish, grammar texts. We shouldn’t think that none of our students could afford them because many of them had jobs.
One of the volunteers, a woman of 65, sauntered over. “They’re staying,” she muttered, glancing surreptitiously at the beautiful Colombian woman of 35 who stood ten feet behind me.
On the other side of the room, another staff member, a woman from Guatemala, took over the announcements, this time in Spanish for the students. Johns Hopkins, she said, had a gynecology clinic with Spanish-speaking staff and a sliding scale. Many of the recent immigrants weren’t used to having regular gynecological exams, but they were a good idea.
“Do they have permanent visas yet?” I whispered. The last I’d heard, the Colombian woman’s husband had been in the hands of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami. She and her two children had gotten into the sights of the INS as well.
“No, but they have an apartment. I put them up at a hotel.”
“You paid for it?”
“Just three days. I’ve been their taxi for a week.”
“Listen, don’t get yourself into trouble,” I said. “Don’t do anything illegal.” At the time I didn’t give any thought to giving advice to a woman many years my senior. The nun took over the announcements again, shifting into Spanish with a strong Baltimore accent.
While Sister talked, my friend muttered that she had taken the Colombian family to see a congressman, who said he was trying to pass a law to loosen the immigration rules for people from Colombia because of their civil war. I knew that the couple had a finca—a country home—outside one of the cities in the coffee region, but they had left without selling it because the husband was worried that the guerrillas would make him a target. He was an architect in Colombia; in the United States, he was painting houses.
“I’m exhausted from all this,” my friend said.
“There’s a bottomless pit of human suffering,” I said. “I understand you want to help them; just don’t jump into the pit with them.”
“I know,” my friend said with anguish. “But even his sister threw them out.”
“She doesn’t want to lose her visa. And she might if the INS catches her breaking the law.”
A tiny Argentine woman who taught English with the rest of us told the students that, before she retired, she had been a physician at Hopkins. She started talking about Human Papilloma Virus as a risk factor for cervical cancer. I smiled at her accent, so different from the Latin countries north of Brazil.
“They found an apartment,” my friend said, avoiding eye contact with the Colombian woman. The colombiana was watching us with curiosity, probably wondering why we weren’t listening to the announcements. “Can you imagine renting a place when you don’t have any documents?”
“A lot of people do it. You put down a big cash deposit,” I said.
“They got an apartment with all this trash. They carted out ten boxes of it. Now it’s spotless. They’re willing to work.”
The announcements ended, and the students started moving toward the elevator. My student for the day—a 50-year-old carpenter from southern Mexico with three years of education, who had struggled valiantly for two hours to learn the English alphabet—shook my hand and left. I found myself in a circle with Sister, the other volunteer, and the Colombian woman. The three of us kept two conversations going as we slowly worked our way toward the elevator. In the first, we three Americans—two Irish Catholic women and a Scottish Protestant—tried to advise the Latin woman about schools for her children. Since the Colombian woman didn’t speak English, she could not follow the other conversation. We didn’t want her to.
Sister asked the colombiana if her children had been attending school during the excitement. She dove into a complicated story about the children. Thinking I’d heard evasions from her before, I told Sister in English, “She didn’t answer you.”
“I know,” Sister replied cheerfully.
While I tried to explain to the Colombian woman the concept of living in the Baltimore City school district, as opposed to the one in Baltimore County, Sister listened to my friend’s story about spending hours each day helping this family.
“You can help them too much,” Sister warned my friend. “I need to send you to a course at Catholic Charities. Some of them, you give them too much and they just want more.” She was referring to the offices near the archdiocesan headquarters downtown.
“This runs in my family,” my friend confessed.
“All the more reason to worry about you,” I said.
Sister put her hand on my friend’s arm. “You need a course on social work.”
My friend, the colombiana, and I got into the elevator. My friend told me she was driving the Colombian woman home.
“I respect your wanting to be generous. That sort of thing can give life meaning,” I said.
“They’re in such a terrible situation.”
I looked at the Colombian woman. When I’d heard the last twist in this tale at the mission’s fundraiser two weeks before, my friend had commented on how beautiful this woman was. At the time, I’d thought about what models really looked like and decided this woman was too beautiful to be a model, too feminine. “If you were a man, I could understand your being getting over-involved with a beautiful woman,” I told my friend. She laughed.
I wished the Colombian woman good luck, and she got into my friend’s car. It was a bright Saturday noon, so I walked down Broadway toward the water, thinking about lunch and Catholic charity as I passed the Polish Social Club, the Love Zone, the Baltimore Boxing Club, and the psychotic panhandler who asked me for precisely four cents.
I went to a sandwich shop and thought about the three women as I ate lunch. Sister had dedicated her life to helping other people and had found that the best way to do it entailed saying no sometimes. I wondered if she voted for people who wanted to give money to teenaged girls to have babies. I had no doubts my friend did.
I decided there were quite a few more people who needed a good course on Catholic charity. These days, our charity is funneled through the federal government, which destroys everything it claims to help. We put unqualified people into jobs in the name of “compassion” and tell minorities lies that incapacitate: that they can’t succeed in life, that white hatred surrounds them. We give our money to strangers and hurt ourselves because our help in the long run leads to more violence and the destruction of our schools and other institutions. We hurt the people we claim to be helping, but we get to think ourselves generous and compassionate.
My generous friend, despite her experience with husbands, boyfriends, and jobs outside the Church, didn’t seem to understand what Sister, with a life that many might think sheltered and narrow, understood perfectly: that some things that people call “compassion” or “charity” are toxic. Sister needs to get her hands not only on my fellow volunteers but on our politicians as well. With her firm instruction, perhaps they could learn that, if we have a true compassion for other people, we will respect what is strong in them, avoid dwelling on their weakness, and avoid the pleasures of thinking ourselves virtuous as we undermine the strengths of others.
I don’t think Sister spends much time congratulating herself for her good deeds or feeling sorry for people. She’s too busy telling them how they can help themselves. She’s too busy loving people to try to impress herself and the world with the depth of her compassion, too busy making the people who come to her mission stronger than they were when they first walked in her door.