A Present for
Over thirty years ago, The Milton Erickson Foundation of Arizona put on the first of a series of conferences for psychotherapists from all disciplines - - - coming together to share their new ideas for the "helping" professions. Our reporter was there, and this was what he found late in the afternoon of the third day of the conference.Thursday night, on my way back to the hotel, I fall in alongside a white-haired lady who tells me that she is working with prisoners.
"Where do you work?" I say.
"In Mexicali," she says. "We're from Our Lady of Fatima in El Centro. We cross over the border every day to work with the women in prison on the Mexican side of the border."
"How long have you been doing that?"
"Summer and winter?"
"Summer and winter," says Sister Angelica.
That has special meaning for people who know the Imperial Valley. Winter means 40 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer, especially July and August, means day after day of billowing heat, often up to 120 degrees. For ten hours a day, weeks in a row, it's Oven City. It's a place where you look on one of those television weather maps, or on the back page of USA Today, and they show those colors: not green, or yellow, or orange; no, it's blood red. That's how hot it is. And Mexican jails have no air-conditioning.
"Some people criticize us, say we should be working with the poor over here or over there," she says. "But I think the ones in prison . . . they need help. We get clothes for them, and food. Try to help the ones who are pregnant, or sick."
"She's a trench worker," I think: "It's the Flanders Fields of social work." Anyone can service the nice, clean, proper middle-class families of Houston or Portland or Chicago. There are thousands of Ph.D.s and M.S.W.'s who will "intervene" with the rich of Hillsborough, or Cambridge, or the Upper East Side. Problems in yuppie Atlanta, San Francisco, Seattle? Let me at them!
But the poor of Mexico? Perish the thought. It's too hot and smelly in there. We have another weekend workshop to set up in Boulder, Cedar Springs, Airlie. We're just too busy to help out - - - sorry, we have some clients flying in from Hawaii. And we just raised our rates last week. And then in a month we'll be skiing in Vail. We might be able to do something later, maybe next year or the year afterwards.
Mexicali Jail! It's the place where the knowledge gleaned at this conference will be placed in the crucible, maybe even shown to be wanting. What can the theories of Freud mean to the malnourished of Northern Mexico? How are the genteel interventions of Satir, Masterson, Polster or Carl Rogers going to be meaningful to those who live in the poorest jail in one of the poorest areas of the world? Who are the "clients" in a society that lives on the hillside, in shacks with no water, no electricity, no Social Security, no food stamps, no AFDC, no medicine, nothing but dark, stinking, putrescent poverty?
Those on the battlefields of Northern Mexico are there taking care of those who no one else will take care of. María, who got caught shoplifting at the Calimax. Juana, whose husband Miguel came home drunk, and beat her for the hundredth time, and she couldn't take it anymore, so she knifed him. She didn't mean to kill him. And oh yes, bony Alicia. They caught her smuggling. But they also say that she has eight (or is it nine?) children, and the youngest have no clothes, no food, three of them sick with the dysentery.
I suppose what Sister Angelica needs probably cannot be found at this conference. No, nor in this state. Perhaps not even in this country. We should write a letter to Sister Angelica's boss. Tell him how lucky he is to have someone like her, working in heat that would fell an ox, working without complaint, every day, journeying to Mexicali Jail, where the sour-faced guard lets her in, for the umpteenth time. She gives him a little of the bread, too, because he's not so well-paid either, and because he always lets her in. He doesn't have to.
Yes - - - it's time to send a letter. To see if we can get a few more clothes, some more food for the dispossessed, some more help for those at the bottom of the bottom of the barrel. Get Sister Angelica another car, so the 1975 Gremlin she's been using (terrible transmission! It's a wonder that she makes it!) can be replaced. Get some more medicine for all the sick patients there in the Mexicali jail. "I know you get requests all the time, for help and such," I'll tell her boss. "But this is a very special project to me, as it might be to you, too. You might say that Sister Angelica is out on the front lines, trying to keep some of the poorest, most miserable, most wretched people in the world from absolute starvation, starvation of spirit, starvation of hope . . . "
I know it's a touchy subject but I'll bring it up anyway: "They say that you have there, in the most holy of cities, some ancient jewels, of centuries past. It would be something, wouldn't it, if we could take just one of these (a small tiara, say, from the seventeenth century or so), cash it in (I know a museum or two that would pay a pretty penny for an artifact from the reign of Pope Innocent X), and then we could turn the money over to Sister Angelica, so she could get a little extra help in what is, after all, a hot, tiring, and thankless job. She could buy some extra medicine. She might be able to take off an extra day each week (if we can persuade her!)
She could hire an assistant or two, social workers or teachers who could instruct her wards on how to take up some trade, so they'll have something, so they won't have to return to Mexicali Jail again and again. I'm sure you can trust her; she won't waste or squander the money, whatever we're able to come up with. And I don't think that your museum will be any poorer - - - considering what the money will be going for. I'll bet that visitors to your city fifty or a hundred or five hundred years in the future would agree that by helping the poor of Mexicali Jail we might be creating something just as important as a bejeweled artifact from so many years ago, hidden in some dark storage room. I'm sure that they, the future visitors, would forgive us our trespass of helping the poor, the very, very poor."
I don't tell Sister Angelica about my letter-writing project on her behalf. I don't want to get her hopes up. But I do tell her that she's a star. I tell her I get to her neighborhood every now and then, and that I'd like to have a chance to travel over to the jail with her, see how she's doing, maybe lend a hand. And - - - just like that - - - she gives me a shy and motherly hug. "It's the first time I've been hugged by a nun," I tell my friends later.