In the Bull of Indiction for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year,… Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage.”
In this Year of Mercy, I don’t think many of these children, the families, or the incarcerated parents will have a chance to make the pilgrimage and walk through one of the designated holy doors and churches.
On the other hand, the Get on the Bus events really are an opportune Year of Mercy Pilgrimage for the many involved, one that encompasses dedication, sacrifice, and mercy. And the participants will be walking through a door of mercy of sorts, which leads to the prison visiting room, and to a very powerful experience of grace and love.
It is a pilgrimage for the incarcerated parents who decide to make family contact their priority. They fill out the application, risking that no one may respond, that their family members might not want to come or make the effort. They must avoid any written disciplinary action, which would make them ineligible for the visit. It means growing in conscientiousness of being a good parent, as the visit will be an opportunity for them to model to their children, listen, give advice, as well as open a door for follow-up dialogue though letters and phone calls.
For the children, the visit is a literal pilgrimage that often begins in the middle of the night, or the night before, from their house to a pick-up site to a long bus ride to the prison. But the journey also begins months before as they are told of the visit and deal with mixed emotions, especially for older children or for those who have not seen their parents for a long time. There is excitement, anticipation, nervousness, wonder, sometimes hesitancy, or even resentment or doubt.
The pre-visit process is a pilgrimage for the caregivers of the children, who also deal with mixed reaction to the possibility of the visit, some with joy for the opportunity and a few with hesitation. They have already taken on the loving responsibility of raising the children without their spouse, or of raising children who are their grandchildren, or nieces or nephews.
And finally it is a pilgrimage of sacrifice and dedication for the many volunteers, churches and people of good will, on whom the program depends. There are actually volunteers who make a huge commitment of being the Bus Coordinator, which involves meetings, receiving up to 35 family applications, contacting families and processing the paperwork, leading the fundraising of several thousand dollars to pay for the bus, as well collecting many in kind donations needed for the trip. And behind these Coordinators are many other volunteers who collect items, donate money, provide a meal, and other functions. And of course there are the local churches and pastors who allow collections or donation drives, allow for use of meeting rooms, provide for bus receptions, and allow the use of their parking lot as a pick up site.
The sacrifices made by all above remind me of a quote that Pope Francis cited in his new Exhortation: For “when speaking of children who come into the world, no sacrifice made by adults will be considered too costly or too great, if it means the child never has to feel that he or she is a mistake, or worthless or abandoned to the four winds and the arrogance of man.”
All of this sacrifice and dedication of the participants in the pilgrimage pays off in the end and leads to an experience of love and strengthening of the family.
Last year there was a six-year-old girl on one of our local buses who had never met her mom. Lisa was an infant when her mother went away. After some attempts by a volunteer to reach out to the family were ultimately unsuccessful, a volunteer chaperone was found and cleared, and a Public Notary from the local parish volunteered to finalize the needed paperwork.
Again, some last minute complications nearly prevented the visit, but Lisa finally came to the crux of the pilgrimage and crossed the threshold of the visiting door, ready to see and meet her mother, as she had so many times seen other children interact with their moms at school. The young girl immediately recognized her mother in the crowded room and ran to her, before her mom even saw her. Her mother asked her how she recognized her, and she said she knew her from pictures.
They passed the next four hours in smiles, hugs and conversation. During the face painting, a volunteer artist asked Lisa what is her favorite thing to do and she quickly replied that it was being with her mom. I once learned that the first tangible experience of God’s existence and of God’s love for a baby is the embrace, gaze and smile of the mother. And so love was the experience that day, that of a mother and child, that of family, that of the church and community, and ultimately, that of God.
Steven Gomez is the Regional Get on the Bus Coordinator for San Bernardino and Riverside counties.