Jesuits at Loyola Marymount University are moving from their current residence, Xavier Hall, into anew building, and I'm organizing a garage sale to clean house. I've been busy pushing a cart down Xavier's corridors, rounding up the goods the 50 other Jesuits in Xavier are donating to the sale. The proceeds will go to our scholarship fund, so I don't mind the pushing at all.
One corridor led me to the room of Fr. Robert McChesney, who works with immigrants at a detention center in Los Angeles. "I'm a prison chaplain," Rob will usually say. He does not work at Loyola, so naturally, as with any Jesuit who does not work in a "traditional" apostolate, there is a mystery to his ministry. But his job is not mysterious at all. He directs the Jesuit Refugee Service Immigration Detention Project here in Los Angeles. Those who work on this JRS pilot project (and two others, one in New Jersey and another in Texas) offer pastoral care and social services to asylum seekers living in detention.
Rob came to Loyola two years ago to oversee the project; he works with people from all over the world who flee their countries because of the threat of violence. They come to the United States hoping for a life free from persecution. But those refugees who seek asylum are detained until a hearing can take place, and the system is backed up.
Rob talked about Livinus Mbanefo, a 31-year-old Ibo man who barely escaped with his life from Nigeria, his homeland, where he had been involved with the democratic movement. One day while he was waiting for a bus, state security guards seized him and jailed him. No charges were brought. Mbanefo spent ten months being interrogated and tortured. When he escaped he made it to the States, seeking political asylum.
Arriving at LAX, he went through the immigration process, a lengthy procedure, but was denied political asylum. Many such cases are heard, but few end in success for the refugee, according to Rob. Fortunately, Mbanefo got legal counsel from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC). His attorney, Carolyn Perkins, filed an appeal. Rob offered Mbanefo support during the whole time, listening, talking, and praying with him, and also got him in touch with members of an Ibo Catholic community. After sixteen long months the Immigration and Naturalization Service granted Mbanefo political asylum.
Rob finds that his clerical identity serves as a touchstone for many refugees. "I am their priest," Rob says. "They understand that role, and many take comfort in that." He prays with them, offers the sacraments, and finds ways to convey the fact that God will not abandoned them.
Rob was probably away at work that afternoon when I stopped by his room. There was no pile marked "sale items" outside his door. I peered in to see if there was something I could get him to donate.
He is a child of the '60s, so I was half expecting to find love beads and peace posters. Instead, I saw a beautiful cloth hanging, an illustration of the Good Samaritan story. It visually reinforced many conversations I had with him about his work. "It's enormously satisfying; we're doing what the gospel calls us to," I've heard him say.
Rob always wanted to work as a missionary, but for heath reasons he was unable to go abroad. Ironically, all he has to do now to experience different cultures is to go to his multicultural "church," the detention center on Terminal Island, right off Long Beach.
I continued looking around his room. There were books on missionary work, pamphlets from refugee services, and postcards from many countries, many revelations of how involved Rob is in his work.
Rob once told me how wonderful it was that I was working in television and film production. "Few Jesuits go there," he said with a smile. He called it "the front lines," a paraphrase of the early Jesuits' understanding that they were to be in places the Church could not. It was an apt description of his own work.
I ended up not finding anything in Rob's room for the sale. But I did push my cart back down the hall with a pride in his ministry to those in need and the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service.
Fr. Edward Siebert, SJ, is a filmmaker living at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.