NIJFON volunteer testimony on the importance of local church community

pr-mapBy Jossy Gelpi, shared with St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square on January 31, 2016

In October 2007 I was 41 years old, I made a decision and left all my family and friends in Puerto Rico to live in the Poconos, Pennsylvania even when I had no idea how to live in a cold weather and having never seen snow in my life. Why? Because I fell in love with a wonderful man, Rich, and I agreed to start a new life with him as his wife.

I made that decision. I chose and accepted the new challenge to be a housewife. Probably you will say that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country and I made the decision willingly, therefore I am not an immigrant. And if I heard someone saying this I would also come to the same conclusion.

On February 10, 2013 I was in Puerto Rico visiting my mother when I received a phone call from a hospital in the Bronx to let me know that my lovely Rich died due to a massive heart attack. My life totally changed, and this time I did not made the decision.

Even with that situation, I never lost my faith; though at some point people closer to me thought that I was losing my mind when I said, “It is God’s promise that He will take care of the orphans and the widow and He made me both (my father died on February 8, 2006), so He will take care of me.”

Almost immediately, friends and family, especially my mother, were making plans for me because the most “rational” decision under those circumstances was to go back to Puerto Rico with my family, find a job and continue with my life. Well, that is easier said than done. The economic situation in Puerto Rico was not the best at that time, and people were leaving the island looking for better job opportunities.

Rich always was very proud of me, and he also bragged about his professional wife and the decision she made leaving everything to start a new life with him. But he also bragged that his wife was a very determined, independent woman that knew how to take care of herself. Remembering that, I made the decision to move to Chicago to continue my life.

I will say for most of the people who leave their country it is because they are looking for better opportunities that unfortunately they could not find at home. And most of them make the decision based off the good and easy life friends or families have had when they made the first move. I am not the exception. At that time a “friend” who lives in Chicago, told me to come here because “this is a beautiful city, you will meet a lot of friends and will find a job soon.” In other words you will live “happily ever after.”

I accepted the challenge, but before I actually moved here I needed to have a church to assist me and in this case trusting in the Internet was worth it, I found St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square. Once I saw the picture of Pastor Erik at the church on Francisco, I, the determined woman, said I would be okay, I found a church.

On June 27, 2013, after driving 12 hours from the Poconos to Chicago, I became an immigrant. Not because I crossed the border illegally or because I had fake papers in order to try to find a job or I was afraid because of my political beliefs, sexual orientation or because I had a restraining order against my husband. I was an immigrant because I moved to a totally new place, with no family, no job, English as my second language, being the first time without a car since I got my driving license at age 16. The only reason I moved to this big city was because my lovely Rich died and I needed a place to continue my life. That Thursday I became an immigrant and that very next Sunday I was at St. Luke’s. From that point on, St. Luke’s became my refuge.

Almost immediately I started meeting with Pastor Erik on a weekly basis. There were too many things happening at the same time and even with my faith, that weight was too heavy for me. I spent many days alone thinking and praying God for show me a way to understand my situation.

It did not take long before the only friend I had in Chicago told me that she had a busy life so I needed to go out and make friends. “Take the train and enjoy this beautiful city,” she said. Once again I went to Pastor Erik for help. I remember saying that I was not mad at God, actually I understood that in spite of my situation, I was a blessed woman and I needed to share my blessings some way. I asked, “How could I help in church?”

I started at Elijah’s Pantry. For months I was waiting for Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that I could volunteer to talk with people, especially because I was able to speak Spanish. Most of the clients probably thought that I was helping them by distributing groceries on a weekly basis. But the truth was that they helped me every time I saw their faces when I was able to communicate with them in Spanish. Now weeks of loneliness were short because twice a week I had Elijah’s Pantry and on Sundays, church. But that wasn’t enough for me and I wanted to do more. Then one day Pastor Erik asked if I would able to help with the readings. “I would love to, but I don’t feel comfortable reading in English.”

“No problem,” he said. “You can read in Spanish and we all can follow the reading in the bulletin.” Another sign for me that I was in the perfect place and St Luke’s was my church. Soon after, Bev asked if I could play any instruments and I started with my “Puertorrican Maracas.”

During Lent of 2014, Stephanie Berkas, approached me and asked if I will help her and the other seminarian with organizing and co-directing weekly prayers after the Community Dinners. And the key to all of this was, that most of the people that attend to the dinner are Spanish-speaking people and they wanted to do a bilingual service. Once again, the goal was to help them, but I was the one blessed by seeing people every week, enjoying the service and grateful not only because St. Luke’s had given them food for their stomachs but also for their souls and especially in a language that they understood. When St. Luke’s continued the tradition of mid-week bilingual services in 2015 I was happy to return and continue serving in this way.

One Sunday during the announcements, Chris Elmore asked for volunteers to help at the Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) clinic, an immigration clinic that operates the 4th Saturday of the month at Humboldt Park United Methodist Church. The best part of that announcement, at least for me was “you don’t need to speak Spanish, but if you do, that will help a lot.” SOLD! Since March 2014, I am the “official” St. Luke’s representative at the JFON clinic every month. Every case worked at the clinic is unique and not all have the expected result, but at least I am able to help in any possible way to make their situation feel less painful.

For months I was so focused on starting my life again that I often wondered if I made the right decision when I moved here. Even when I had a job, a church, and new friends, I kept asking God if this was the place He wants me to be, just because I was not happy. One day the same friend that told me that I needed to go out and make friends, also told me, “If you are not happy here then leave, because every time you say that you are not happy I feel bad because I asked you to move here.” I guess that was my wake-up call and I seriously asked God for a sign if He really wanted me here.

A wise man told me that I was so focused on continuing with my life the way it was in 2007 that I forgot that my reality changed and it was time to continue with my life, but by creating a “new Jossy” that will be the combination of the life I had before, with and after Rich, and adding the wonderful new experiences. As soon as I started to work on this “new Jossy” my life changed. For me, this was the sign I asked God for. In case you are wondering who was this “wise man,” his name is Pastor Erik.

February 10 is Ash Wednesday and it also will be 3 years since Rich’s death. I want to share with all of you that I AM CONTENT. This new Jossy has the opportunity to serve and help others and, because God does everything perfectly, I am no longer an immigrant; Chicago it is my home, now I have friends and a family here in St. Luke’s.

I am a blessed 50 years-old woman.