Lady of Sorrows

Queens Church Defies Deportations

At a nearly all-immigrant Catholic church in Queens, parishioners defy the threat of deportation with a message of inclusion and welcome.

Michael Daly

The figures appeared out of the early morning darkness, passing the street in Queens named after fallen Army Sgt. Alex Jimenez and continuing down the street named after fallen Army Staff Sgt. Jose Gomez, there coming to Our Lady of Sorrows Church for a 6 a.m. Mass that would be a measure of faith in the face of fear.

“SENOR DE LOS DELORES DA LA BIENVENIDA A LOS IMMIGRANTES,” announced a banner to the right of the church that went up the day before President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. “OUR LADY OF SORROWS WELCOMES IMMIGRANTS.”

The eight Sunday Masses at this church in the Corona section of Trump’s boyhood borough routinely draw as many as 10,000 people, all but a handful of them from Mexico, Ecuador, or the Dominican Republic. The big question as the 6 a.m. Mass approached was whether the fear of immigration agents would keep people in their homes as it has in other parts of New York.

The pastor, 65-year-old Rev. Raymond Roden, remembers that back when he first started working at Our Lady of Sorrows he had grumbled at the prospect of such an early Mass on what was a particularly unpleasant winter’s day.

“I said, ‘Who’s going to come at 6 a.m. on a cold and icy December morning?’” he remembered.

He had stood amazed when he stepped into the church.

“It was packed,” he recalled. “All the people who work restaurants. They go to Mass on their way to work.”

Masses at every hour had continued to fill the church in all weathers, until just 6 a.m. on Jan. 4, 2015. The early Mass was about to commence when an apparent electrical fire broke out in the choir loft and the structure was largely gutted.

“You could see through the roof,” Roden recalled.

The church was restored and then rededicated in October of 2016. The throngs of worshippers were undiminished and seemed sure only to grow until these recent days of Trumpian uncertainty. A dip on this most recent Sunday would have been particularly telling, as the weather was supposed to be especially nice.

“So it will be a test,” Roden told The Daily Beast on Saturday afternoon.

At 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, the first of the parishioners began to materialize on Army Sgt. Alex Jimenez Way and on Army Sgt. Jose Gomez Way and the other surrounding streets. Most were lone men, but an increasing number of lone women began to arrive, along with a few couples.

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Ever more people went up the stone steps leading to the three entrances, quickening their pace as the appointed hour neared. They pulled on the gleaming brass handles to the big wooden doors and the surrounding darkness made the inside of the church shine all the brighter.

Any men wearing a hat removed it as they entered. Guitar music played from the choir loft, joined by one of the parish’s seven choirs, the voices vibrantly sublime. One of the choir directors had been picked up by ICE officers on Feb. 8 outside the home he shares with his wife and child. He is 29, came from Mexico 10 years before, works as an assistant cook, and now faces deportation proceedings.

The man is lodged as an “immigration detainee,” but his case may have other legal complications. The incident nonetheless adds to the pervasive fear of what the immediate future might hold, most particularly with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly preparing to implement President Trump’s executive order, moving to hire 10,000 more ICE agents and 500 more Border Patrol officers and to generally expand the enforcement effort and expedite the deportation process.

Roden had definite cause to worry that the present climate of fear might do what icy cold could not on that earlier day and prompt parishioners to stay home. St. Roch Catholic Church on Staten Island was reporting a big drop in attendance in recent days and the pastor there ascribed it to “uncertainty.”

But when Roden strode into the 6 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows on Sunday, the church was as full as it had been on that wintry December morning. He had told The Daily Beast on Saturday that he intended to speak at all that Sunday’s Masses.

“Tell them they’re welcome here, they’re safe here, we will resist is best we can,” he had said.

After the reading of the Gospel at the 6 a.m. Mass, Roden stood in the aisle with a microphone and delivered that message in his most reassuring and loving tones. He is a New York City cop’s kid whose father was half Irish and half Jewish and whose mother was pure Sicilian. He spoke as the product of immigrants. He warned them about fake ICE agents who had been threatening people in the street with arrest and demanding cash. He also told a joke or two that got pretty good laughs.

“That’s the Jackie Mason in Spanish,” he later said.

Roden could not have been more serious—though he sounded not at all dogmatic—as he spoke to them about the virtues of patriotism and the evils of nationalism. He told them that patriotism is good when it leads you to love your country. But nationalism is wrong when it leads you to love your country to the exclusion of others.

“Patriotism is good,” he said in Spanish. “Nationalism is a sin.”

That message is personified by the two soldiers for whom streets outside the church are named. Both had served two combat tours in Iraq when the great majority of Americans their age served none. Both had returned in coffins draped in the American flag.

Alex Jimenez’s parents came from the Dominican Republic and they had been filled with the great hopes of immigrants when their first American-born child was christened in the white marble baptismal fount at Our Lady of Sorrows. He had continued to feel strong emotional and cultural ties to his ancestral home, but that had not made him any less an all-American patriot.

“I believe in the United States Army I can reach my goal,” Jimenez wrote in a letter to an Army recruiter during his senior year in high school. “Becoming somebody in this galaxy making a positive difference, giving peace to the innocent.”

In 2007, Sgt. Alex Jimenez was on his second tour in Iraq when his unit was ambushed in "the Triangle of Death," south Baghdad. He was declared missing for more than a year, but his family had refused to give up the dreams they had brought to his christening. Their most immediate and desperate wish was that he would show up at their door. The knock instead came from a casualty officer in July of 2008. He informed them that their son’s remains had finally been found.

The funeral was held at Our Lady of Sorrows. A cousin said in a eulogy that he had once asked Jimenez why he had enlisted in the army when there were so many other directions he could have gone.

"I can't put on a cape and fly through the sky, so I'm going to do the closest thing to that and join the United States Army and fight for those who can't fight for themselves," Alex Jimenez had told him.

A video was played on a screen that had been set up in front of the baptismal fount. The images showed Jimenez though the 25 years that followed the Christening, ending with a photo of him in uniform.

"A beautiful life," another cousin said.

In a perfect display of the virtue of patriotism without the sin of nationalism, the Dominican national anthem was followed by “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” as Jimenez’s coffin was borne from the church.

The funeral was wrenchingly similar to the one held at Our Lady of Sorrows two years before, for Staff Sgt. Jose Gomez. He was born in the Dominican Republic and had immigrated with his family as a child. He also had gone from high school to the Army. He was 20 years old and stationed at Fort Hood when he met 21-year-old Pfc. Analaura Esparza, who had been born in Mexico and had come to America when she was 7.

"I was about to cry when he proposed," Esparza wrote to a friend back home in Texas. "He was so nervous he could barely get the words out… I still have to get my ring and he has to ask my parents' permission… I can't imagine sharing life's most precious moments with anyone else. I look forward to marrying him, then later (much later) having his kids and getting old and fat together. I truly believe this was meant to be.”

In the spring of 2003, Gomez and Esparza were both deployed to Iraq, but assigned to different bases. Esparza had supply duty and managed to get detailed whenever Gomez’s unit was due for a delivery so they could steal a few moments together amidst the war.

In the summer, Gomez was shipped back to the states. He was again at Fort Hood when he was notified that Esparza had been killed by an IED.

In 2006, Gomez was again deployed to Iraq. His mother had been so worried during his first tour and no doubt spooked by his fiancée’s death that he told her that he had enrolled in a Texas university. The mother then came home from her job packing air fresheners and saw two Army officers outside her house just up the street from Our Lady of Sorrows.

"That can't be my son," his mother said when they informed her of her son's death. "He's not in Iraq. He's in Texas."

As it happened, Gomez’s death was officially announced on May 1, 2006, the same day that more than 1.5 million protesters participated in demonstrations across the country demanding immigration reform. The protests were called “A Day Without Immigrants.”

At the funeral at Our Lady of Sorrows, an Army officer read aloud a written account by a squadron commander about how Gomez and Staff Sgt. Bryant Herlem were killed: “On 28 April, 2006, the S3 security detachment was conducting reconnaissance patrol along route Bengal when it was hit by multiple IED. After the first IED blast, SSG Herlem and Sgt. Gomez moved their HMMWV forward to protect a damaged vehicle from the first blast. It was in the act of protecting their buddies that the second IED blast occurred and killed SSG Herlem and Sgt. Gomez. It was their perfect act of selfless devotion to protecting their buddies and the fundamental element of chance in war that killed these two brave soldiers.”

A general also spoke and cited an expression that had always kept the unit going when things went from tough to tougher to toughest.

“’Cause Gomez said so!”

The day before he was killed, Gomez made arrangements for his mother to receive a bouquet on Mother's Day. The flowers arrived as arranged, four days after the funeral.

"Happy Mother's Day," the card read.

By that time, Gomez’s mother already had the folded American flag from her son’s coffin. Jimenez’s mother also received one. They were two ladies of sorrows who knew too well the grief felt by another woman who lost her only son, the Lady of Sorrows whose visage now dominates the stained glass at the front of the church after the original windows that were damaged by the fire.

The names of the two soldiers were on the street signs as those who attended the 6 a.m. Mass poured out of a church. Some, no doubt, had come early just so they would have the rest of Sunday free. But many would be heading for restaurants where they would do low paying work many native-born Americans shun. They were laboring to take their place in the country for which Gomez and Jimenez fought and died.

The departing parishioners were all greeted warmly by their pastor as he stood out front. He hopes that by next Sunday he will have laminated cards to distribute to all who want them that will spell out their rights should they be stopped by ICE or anybody else. He also plans to put up two more banners.

“NO WALL and NO BAN,” he said.

Off to the side, some parishioners had set up a table for people to sign a petition in support of the choir director, who remained in custody.

In the meantime, the church was again filling to capacity for the 7 a.m. mass in another confirmation that faith was standing up to fear. Roden went back up the steps and under the stained-glass visage of the sorrowing Blessed Mother whose belief saves her from despair. He again strode into the aisle with a microphone to give them a little Spanish Jackie Mason and to tell them that he is with them and that we are all in it together, no matter what happens.

“Buenos dias,” he began.

“Buenos dias,” the packed church replied.