Finding my refuge at Church



My whole world was turned upside down in a blink of an eye when, on a summer morning, I was told that in a week’s time we would be leaving to be with our dad “en el Norte” (in the North). My dad had been gone for a couple of months by then, and I understood it was for his safety.

I was aware that things in our life had changed for the worse. My dad had sold all of our farm animals and property we owned. I had also seen a man holding a gun to my dad’s head; then he had moved away.

That summer morning, my mom told my four younger siblings and me that we had to say goodbye to our entire family because we might never be able to come back. I never asked a question or requested an explanation because I could sense the pain and fear in mom’s voice. I had watched her cry almost every night, and I knew we had no other option.

Being an 11-year-old girl from a rural area in Jalisco, Mexico, who had never left the state and was so sheltered from the world, I could have never imagined or anticipated what lay ahead for me and my family “en el Norte.” But I was excited that we would be with my dad.

After a long journey to Los Angeles California, we spent the entire day on the fourth of July at a nearby park while my dad went to work because we had been informed that the apartment we were moving into was being painted and not ready for us. When the sun was setting, people started coming out of their homes and setting up beach chairs all around us.

My mom got scared because she didn’t know what was going on, so we grabbed whatever we had and walked back to the apartment. The Mexican lady who was also the manager at the apartment complex told my mom that it was Independence Day and that there was going to be a fireworks show. We were relieved and went back to the park to watch fireworks and take part in the celebration.

A few weeks later, my mom found out about a Catholic church where we could go to Mass in Spanish. I still remember the first day I walked into Nativity Catholic Church in Torrance, California, at the 11 a.m. Mass. How at home I felt to be in such a familiar environment celebrating Mass almost exactly as we did in Mexico! How comforting it was to see so many other people who looked like me, who also spoke my language. It brought me peace and made me feel welcome.

Nativity became my home and the parishioners, my family. Jesus’ words had become my reality: “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt. 25:35). I quickly offered to help take up the collection, and then joined the choir. Eventually, I became a lector, and at 15, I was coordinating a youth group in Spanish. I had found my calling – to live a life of faith and to help others do the same. Fast-forward and at 22, I became the parish’s Director of Religious Education for the next 12 years.

This newly found family, who had accepted and believed in me, also helped me realize that my God was with me through the journey. Now I know that the USCCB calls this process the “integration/inclusion developmental process.” It moves from welcoming to belonging to ownership. This has happened in my own life, not only once, but twice, both in California in 1989 and just four years ago here in Indiana. I have always felt at home when I am at church, where I find my refuge.

“Through communion with Christ, Head of the Mystical Body, we enter into living communion with all believers. This communion, present in the Church and essential to her nature, must be made visible in concrete signs” (St. John Paul II, “Ecclesia in America” 33).

Bertha Melendres serves as Director of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Evansville.