In Harlem, the Enduring Power of a Personal Encounter

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Participants in Pope Francis’ visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem await his arrival in the school’s cafeteria. (Kerry Weber)

The basement cafeteria of Our Lady Queen of Angels School at 113th St. and 2nd Ave. in Harlem is warm for a September afternoon. Large metal fans—seemingly standard-issue for Catholic schools without air conditioning—blow from several corners of the room, as dozens of people roam back and forth between seats at long cafeteria tables to a buffet of cakes, cookies and bananas. The tables are covered with white table cloths and the centerpieces are yellow and white mums, the Vatican colors, in honor of the man for whom everyone is waiting. And waiting. The crowd has been gathered hours before Pope Francis will make his scheduled arrival, but neither the wait nor the temperature seems to dampen anyone’s spirits.

From one corner of the room, Yolanda Solorzano begins to sing in a soft yet strong voice. Seated at a table near the entrance of the cafeteria, Solorzano, who is from Honduras, has come from Cyprus Ave. in the Bronx, where she now lives, to see Pope Francis. Wrapped in a traditional Garifuna dress made of soft cotton in yellow, white and black, to reflect her heritage, she says she is singing to Jesus, singing “you do not leave us alone.”

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Yolanda Solorzano, who is from Honduras, is a volunteer with Catholic Charities. (Kerry Weber)

For the past year, Solorzano has volunteered with Catholic Charities, who is sponsoring a meeting at the school between the pope and migrant families and refugees, because she knows the organization offers assistance to other immigrants. “I want to help my people,” she says. “A lot of people from Honduras were exiled last year and some Garifuna people don’t have family here so they need a lot of assistance.” She says she feels blessed and “very excited” about seeing the pope. “I pray for him,” she says. “He gives us, Como se dice esperanza?—hope.” Solorzano says she hopes Francis will inspire the United States to work to improve the immigrant experience here.

Rosario Dawson, at a nearby table, also said that Pope Francis had given her a feeling of hope. Dawson says she was invited because she is a volunteer with the Dorothy Bennett Mercy Center on Willoughby Ave. in the Bronx, and that she, too, was an immigrant, having arrived in the United States from Nicaragua 32 years ago. “We need to hear what the pope says to us,” she says, “because we need the blessing and we are immigrant people. I admire him because he transmits to us peace, love and hope for the young people.”

Students from St. Charles Borromeo School in Harelm.

Students from St. Charles Borromeo School in Harelm.

Indeed, even the youngest members of the crowd are in good spirits as they wait for Francis, cheerfully walking through security and wondering aloud if the instruction to empty their pockets meant getting rid of their rosaries (it did not). One 7-year-old from St. Charles Borromeo School describes her feelings as the “best excitement” and says she was glad “God put Pope Francis to the next level and the next level.”

Table decorations at Pope Francis meeting with migrants and refugees in Harlem.

Table decorations at Pope Francis meeting with migrants and refugees in Harlem.

Then, slowly, the crowd is called, group by group, up to the auditorium, where Francis will speak. The tables in the auditorium are also covered with white tablecloths, and a custom-made, bright blue seat cushion with the Catholic Charities logo and the words “Pope Francis Meeting with Immigrants and Refugees” emblazoned across it sits on each folding chair. At each place is a simple wooden cross with the same message, and in the center of the tables are crepe paper flowers in rough wooden boxes that would not be out of place at a country-chic barn wedding.

The auditorium in which the crowd waits is directly adjacent to the classroom he will visit, and a woman announces that the crowd must wait as quietly as possible once he arrives in the next room.

The crowd waits in anticipation of Francis' arrival. (Kerry Weber)

The crowd waits in anticipation of Francis’ arrival. (Kerry Weber)

At the front of the room, two television screens flank a makeshift stage in front of a bright blue curtain. A wooden chair sits flanked by two of the custom seat cushions as well as a wood carving of the blessed mother and child. New York politicians and government officials begin to filter in and find their seats. Then Francis appears on screen, and the crowd, seeing he is nearby, erupt in cheers. Some begin to film the televisions with their cellphones; the entire group chuckles as he takes a selfie with a young person on the street. And then, suddenly, he is inside the building and the crowd claps again before obliging the earlier request to be quiet. We watch as he meets with school children who show him projects about how they care for the earth, symbols of the Eucharist and first communion photos, and two children from St. Charles Borromeo school instruct him on how to use a smartboard.

And then a pause, and he is no longer on a screen but he is not yet here. And movement can be seen behind a curtain and he emerges from behind the curtain and is met with more cheers and applause. Smartphones are lifted high into the air as people try to capture the moment.

Then, there he is, catching a soccer ball tossed to him by a member of a Catholic Charities soccer team made up of unaccompanied migrant teens, then grinning as they show off their ball juggling skills. There he is, accepting a hardhat from a group of migrant workers, and accepting a book of greetings from another table, where a little girl yells, “Hi!”

Francis offers his own greeting, standing at the microphone and only going slightly off script, reminding the young people, as they stand not far from Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to remember to dream, to watch out for “el Diablo,” and offers a small homework assignment: pray for him.

Francis finishes his talk and is thanked by Msgr. Kevin Sullivan of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. But others in the crowd want to thank him as well. A Garifuna woman dressed in yellow, black and white stands and begins to sing in a loud clear voice. Solorzano quickly makes her way through the crowd to stand by the woman’s side. Together they sing out songs of gratitude as the room, Francis included, listens intently. Their song seems to tell Francis, to tell everyone in the crowd: You are not alone. And then, Francis makes his way back through the curtains and out into the streets and the room erupts in an excited buzz, everyone energized by the visit.

Lessons for Life

Essa Nahshal and Kayla Osborne are the third graders who schooled Francis on how to double click on the Smartboard.

Essa Nahshal (above) and Kayla Osborne (left) are the third-grade students who schooled Francis on how to double click on the Smartboard.

Sitting in a classroom following Francis’ departure, Essa Nahshal and Kayla Osborne, the third graders who schooled Francis on how to double click on the Smartboard, are still grinning. “When I saw the pope and showed him how to use the Smartboard, I felt like I was somebody special,” said Nahshal. “I felt like I was a teacher to the pope.” Kayla adds matter-of-factly, “I said, ‘Would you like to try?’ and he said ‘Sure.’ I feel pretty excited because most of my family has been cheering me on to do this.”
IMG_7490At a nearby table, Victor Franco, an 8th grade student at St. Paul’s School, sits beside symbols of the Eucharist and First Communion photos that were shown to Francis. He is still moved by his meeting with the pope. “I got so emotional I actually started tearing up for a while,” Franco said. “The pope talked personally to me, and the only thing he kept saying was to pray for him. It made me feel wonderful because you don’t always get that chance for somebody to tell you to pray for them. It’s just incredible. I made kind of a deal with him: I’ll pray for him and he prays for me.”

While at the school, Pope Francis also blessed 150,000 prayer cards, many stacked in boxes below a table. The cards will be given to each Catholic school student in the archdiocese. Francis also blessed blue rosaries, which each school in the archdiocese will frame. The symbols will serve as a reminder to students and staff of the hope that the effects of Francis’ visit will last longer than the excitement of the moment.

Victor Franco was very moved by his meeting with Pope Francis.

Victor Franco was very moved by his meeting with Pope Francis.

Aleeya Francis, principal of St. Charles Borromeo school, says that actually seeing the pope seemed unreal, but she still managed to enjoy “every single second.”

She says while that after Francis departed her phone was filled with dozens of missed calls and texts from friends and family and colleagues saying, “Oh my goodness, Miss Francis, you’re with the pope!”

“I told just about everyone my kids would be meeting the pope but to actually see it,

Aleeya Francis is the principal of St. Charles Borromeo School.

Aleeya Francis is the principal of St. Charles Borromeo School.

the reality of it, it’s amazing,” Francis says. “Pope Francis speaks of acceptance and love, and I know that’s what we already do in our Catholic schools, but I want us to be a little more open to understanding that all

families of all ethnicities and all backgrounds and every economic background deserve and should have the opportunity to have a Catholic education. After meeting our children and meeting some of our donors, [Pope Francis] knows the importance of making Catholic education affordable to all. So I hope that is a message that continues to spread.”

Joseph Muscante is the principal of St. Paul School.

Joseph Muscante is the principal of St. Paul School.

Joseph Muscente, principal of St. Paul school, says he hopes the students heard his message loud and clear. He admits to feeling nervous before Francis’ arrival, but said his jitters melted away when Francis entered the room. “Immediately you felt this warmth and kindness,” Muscente says. “He hung out with the kids and talked to the kids a little bit and I hope they realize his message is one of acceptance and tolerance and love and they take that with them for the rest of their lives.”