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Javeline Castuciano

Javeline Castuciano, 74, demonstrates a yoga pose. Photo by Anita Anton

How do we welcome the stranger in our midst? Do we live as Christ wanted, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Or are we only faithful and kind to those we see as family and friends?

My dear friend Javeline Castuciano is 74 years young. On a good day, I willingly meet her at the gym and take the body combat and yoga classes. On bad days, when the arthritis in my hips, knees and toes (who knew you could get arthritis in your toes!) acts up or the damaged disc in my back is tormenting me, I just want to just crawl back in bed and feel sorry for myself. But I know that Javeline, with her enigmatic smile, is patiently waiting for me to show up and stand next to her and battle through two classes. How do you stand up to a tiny, smiling 74-year-old?

Javeline was born in the Philippines, in Pasay, near Manila. Living conditions had changed drastically in her homeland. At the end of World War II, America gave the Philippines their independence. The country held democratic elections. Then President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and oversaw national referendums allowing him to hold power indefinitely. Human rights violations took place. Basic necessities like milk, bread and sugar were hard to come by. The impetus for leaving came after Javeline and her husband had to drive two hours to buy medicine for their sick child. Unable to easily access medicine was the last straw. The decision to move to America went forward.

When Javeline graduated from college with a business degree, she went to the U.S. Embassy and filed papers for immigration. Her papers arrived 14 years later. By that time, she was married with two small children. She had to refile noting her marital status. This reprocessing took another two years.

Once her paperwork came through, Javeline and her husband decided she should go ahead and make the journey to America to begin establishing a life for their family. They agreed it was safer and more economical for him to stay and care for their children while Javeline traveled and stayed with family.

Javeline first lived with her aunt and uncle in Michigan and then moved in with cousins in Los Angeles. She landed a job within one month. The small Philippine community in LA, family and faith kept her going as she waited through two years of separation from her husband and children before they could reunite with her in America.

A job opportunity arose in St. Louis and she and her family moved here.

We have talked about our shared Catholic faith several times. Some things are the same around the world. The prayers, which guided and sustained her, do the same for us today. We are blessed. We started out as strangers and became dear friends. I wonder, though, do we, as a nation, truly welcome strangers in our midst?

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:1-3.

James Martin, S.J., editor at large at America and the author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” wrote, “Then listen to the voice of God in the Book of Exodus, speaking to the people of Israel: ‘You shall not oppress the resident alien [i.e, the refugee] for you were aliens yourselves once, in the land of Egypt.’ Every American heart should be stirred by that. Other than the Native Americans, all of us are descendants of immigrants. We were aliens ourselves once. Jesus himself is speaking to you from the Gospels. It is Christ whom we turn away when we build walls. It is Christ whom we reject when we slash quotas for refugees. It is Christ whom we are killing, by letting them die in poverty and war rather than opening our doors.”

I am in awe of parents around the world who sacrifice so much for their children when making the decision to travel to another country to achieve a safe haven for their loved ones. They willingly become a stranger in a strange land.

I cherish my friendship with Javeline. We started out as strangers and now she gets to (gently) push me around to keep up with her. Javeline is one of the bravest women I know. She is my hero.

Anita Anton has a doctorate in educational studies from St. Louis University and lives in south St. Louis County, where she is a member of Mary, Mother of the Church parish. She is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor on STLtoday.com/religion.