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‘Shattered’ and ‘Strengthened,’ Postville Church Continues Caring for Those Affected by the Raid
The scene at St. Bridget’s Church in Postville isn’t so much different from what might be found at any facility where people in need gather for help. Children build forts out of rocks from the flower beds in front, knock them down, laugh and build again. Young adults chat on cell phones while waiting. Adults, also waiting for their turn with volunteers, sit in chairs lining a front hallway or on the front porch. Despite the best efforts of the children, the mood is tense and somber.
In the kitchen, Sister Mary McCauley, pastoral administrator for the region, stands next to the table and begins emptying a tote bag of notebooks, papers and the mail she picked up from the post office. Her eyes play briefly across the small envelope before she flips it and uses a finger to break the seal. One by one, she opens the few pieces of handwritten mail. Any checks inside the envelopes are placed in a stack on the table. In addition to the donations, most envelopes also contain personal notes. Without fail, she pauses to read each one, often smiling while doing so.
The nearly four weeks since the May 12 federal immigration raid at Agriprocessors have been difficult for the small Postville parish, which boasts about 100 members.
“We had been hearing rumors that there might be an immigration raid for a few days,” Sister McCauley, who serves parishes in McGregor and Monona in addition to St. Bridget’s in Postville, said as she recounted the day of the raid. “About 10 o’clock that morning I got a call and was told that it was no longer just a rumor and that the helicopters were here. I came and went to plant, although it was all blocked off. I remember talking to the chief of police and telling him that when the families were worried and concerned, he should tell them that they could come and connect with one another at the church. Well, as it turns out, they came and connected for six days.”
Although Sister McCauley laughed at the end of the statement, the initial situation, just in terms of physical space, was nearly overwhelming for the church.
“We have this little office here,” she said. “I thought we could allow people to come, see their friends, communicate with one another and answer a few questions. We had about 400 people here that first night.”
Many of those who came to the church were Guatemalan women and their children. The vast majority of those detained on possible immigration violations were men who served as their family’s backbone. The men and 48 women in federal custody had already been relocated to the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, more than an hour away by car.
“At first we just said, ‘Wow! What’s going on here?’ Then we realized that this was really needed,” she said. “The women, in particular, needed a place where they could let their anxiety level lower and be with people they knew. Many of the Guatemalan women had never been alone like that. They came with their little children, and they worried what they would do if one became sick. Their husbands had always been the family member that interacted within the community in those situations. So they had to be with one another, and we knew that being together would finally empower them to get back to their apartments.
“Each day we would kind of say: ‘We’ve been together. We’ve played together. We’ve prayed together. We’ve been nourished together. You are getting stronger. ICE is gone. You can do it.’ As we saw them gaining more and more strength from one another, we would talk to some of the community leaders and let them know that if they took steps to leave the church and get back into their own homes, the others would follow their example.”
When those taking refuge in the church did return to their own homes, the church and its congregation knew its role had changed, but was not complete.
“That first week? I refer to it as sandbagging,” Sister McCauley said. “The river was overflowing and we had to make an immediate response, which was food, shelter and presence. Then the river was beginning to lower, but things had been destroyed. Lives had been shattered. We still had a lot of cleanup to do.”
“Cleanup” has been an administrative response that includes financial, medical and legal assistance, as well as continuing to be a “compassionate presence” within the community. Last week the church hosted a legal clinic that provided residents access to about 15 immigration attorneys. Those who wished to speak to an attorney were given opportunity for private discussions that Sister McCauley hopes provided the people of Postville some direction as they move forward. The most pressing need, however, remains monetary.
“I’m here today and I was here every afternoon last week … approving bills for payment,” she said. “If someone comes to me with a rent or a utility bill — first of all, we’ve done intake interviews, so we know the status of the family and any money that might be coming in. For most of the families that amount is is absolutely zero. There has to be a decision on how much of a rent bill, for instance, we can pay. Rent bills range from $400 to $1,000.”
Sister McCauley’s eyes turned again to the pile of roughly 10 personal checks on the table. The church is currently helping about 120 people, but volunteers are well aware that there are others within the community that have not yet come for assistance. As news and pictures of the immigration raid have faded from the headlines, donations have dwindled.
“If you take the rent amounts and multiply them by the 120 we are serving, you can see that what we take in doesn’t go very far,” she said. “The current need is just tremendous, and we know that there will be future needs for legal assistance and other items like that.”
Sister McCauley said she’s been asked many times how the raid and its aftermath have affected the community and the congregation.
“I’ve thought about it and there are two words that describe it. This has shattered us, and it has strengthened us,” she said. When she opened her mouth to continue, at first no words came. Her eyes filled with tears, and she apologized as she reached into her pocket for a well-worn tissue. Her voice was soft but also resolute when she continued.
“When I say ‘shattered,’ I mean that it shattered the families. It shattered the children who were running around and asking, ‘Where is my mother?’ or ‘Where is my father?’ Then there are the poor mothers who are left to care for their children. What is she going to do? How is she going to get back to Mexico? She doesn’t have any money. Should she go back? Should she remain? She is wondering how long her husband is going to be in jail. So, they are shattered, they are afraid, and they are filled with anxiety.
“At the same time, they have found strength and love, and they are giving it to one another. Our St. Bridget’s community and the Postville community and, really, the entire United States community have given strength. When we receive a letter, for example, from Los Angeles, that says that the writer is praying for us, with us, supporting us and concerned about us, then we know that we can go on another day.”
Readers wanting to contact the church should address mail to: St. Bridget’s Hispanic Ministry, St. Bridget’s Church, P.O. Box 369, Postville, IA 52162. Any donation checks should be made out to St. Bridget’s Hispanic Ministry.