A coffee cup, a bowl, and a letter are all we have to remember our great good friend, Kewei Chen, but they speak volumes about Divine Mercy and the triumph of love.
Several weeks ago on These Stone Walls, I had a post in three unrelated parts that I now wish I had written differently. Parts two and three were about the state of our polarized politics, and because they are so polarized, those parts of the post eclipsed the first and far more important part. That section was entitled, “Shanghai Knights.” It’s brief, so if you go visit it again, don’t forget to come back.
Most TSW readers know that about two years ago, Pornchai “Max” Moontri and I were abducted by aliens. Well, okay, it was a single alien, and we weren’t beamed aboard a UFO or anything. We stumbled upon Kewei Chen on our path – a stranger and an alien in a strange land called prison. A 19-year-old from Shanghai, China who spoke little English, Chen was in no way equipped to cope with an American prison. The stress and emotional isolation that would await him here would be the least of his problems. The reality is that there are some here who would lie in wait to cruelly exploit the challenges he faced.
We had a choice then of either turning away or standing our ground as a buffer between Chen and the evils of this exile. To make a long story short, we chose the latter. For the past two years Chen has been a central part of our daily lives.
Having never in his life played American sports, Pornchai recruited Chen into his intramural softball team, the Legion of Angels, and simultaneously onto his football team. The team won both championships in 2016, an unprecedented event here. Somehow, Pornchai-Max transformed Chen into a gifted athlete and valued team player. “Shanghai Knights” has a team photo with Chen in the front with Pornchai next to him holding up the championship banner. We’ll post part of it again below.
When we were moved from that place of relative calm in which Pornchai and I lived for many years – a move that I described in “Can Your Vision Pierce the Darkness?” – we pulled Chen along with us. We managed to rescue him from a cell full of strangers, and he became one of our cellmates.
THE ICE DEPORTATION OF KEWEI CHEN
In January, Chen was moved again, and it was traumatic for him. That night after he was moved, he called to us from outside our cell window. The stress had overwhelmed him, causing a physical reaction that made him ill. From then on, we arranged to both spend time with Chen every day to support him.
A large part of his stress was that he was moved to a one-year program that would have extended his prison sentence and delayed his return to his family in China by another year or longer. Chen’s language barrier meant that he would have struggled to complete that requirement as a condition of parole. He should have been in that program two years earlier, but that didn’t happen, and requiring it at that juncture meant a much longer stay in prison.
Like many stranded young men in prison, Chen felt powerless, and avoided facing painful and uncomfortable events. So one day Pornchai asked Chen to let me see the court orders from his trial and sentence. Chen was skeptical that anything could be done, but when he finally showed the documents to me, I discovered that the judge in his case placed a condition in his sentence. If, due to his language barrier, Chen was unable to meaningfully comply with the requirements of his sentence then he could petition the court for an evidentiary hearing.
We drafted and filed that petition in February, and a hearing was set for March 13. We also petitioned for a court-appointed attorney and a Chinese translator to help argue the case. The judge granted both. In “Shanghai Knights” we asked TSW readers to pray for a good outcome for Chen at that hearing.
A week later, on March 17, Chen received word that the judge agreed with his arguments and suspended the remainder of his sentence effective March 24. Three years were cut from his maximum sentence. That gave us one week to prepare Chen for the next ordeal. On March 24, with his prison sentence now ended, he was handed over to ICE agents – Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to start the process of deportation to China as a “criminal alien.”
Chen just wants to go home. He came here on a one-year student visa and now hasn’t seen his parents in three years. They would gladly just purchase a ticket to have Chen board a plane and leave, but the bureaucracy of deportation does not allow for that. Now he is sitting in a cell in some other jail as an ICE detainee.
Before leaving, we helped Chen write to the Chinese Consulate in New York for the issuance of travel documents that could speed this process along the way. We also coached Chen to be patient and strong through this ordeal, and to keep his mind on the other end of it, his reunion with his family. The steps we helped Chen take should shorten the wait. We have learned a lot about this process since I wrote a post about what happened to another friend in “Criminal Aliens: The ICE Deportation of Augie Reyes.”
IN PRISON WITH KUNG FU PANDA
When Chen learned on March 17 that his sentence is hereby suspended effective a week later, he was absolutely elated. He called his mother in Shanghai. He told me that they both cried. Then in the days to follow leading up to March 24, the reality that Chen would be leaving us sank in – for Chen and for us. Both Pornchai and I were able to meet with Chen all that week. On the day he was taken away, he left us a gift with very symbolic meaning: a plastic coffee cup and a bowl.
Okay, that needs a little explanation. When people come to prison, among the first necessities that must be purchased are a plastic thermal coffee cup and a covered “Rubbermaid” bowl for food. Also of necessity, the cup and bowl must be somehow distinguished from all other cups and bowls. So all prisoners find a way to personalize them.
My coffee cup has a very nice icon affixed to it, one that I described several years ago in “Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed.” The icon of Saint Michael has held up well. Pornchai’s cup also has an image with special meaning. His nickname here is “Ponch,” so many years ago I endowed his cup with a picture of the motorcycle driven by another “Ponch” from the 1970s television show, “CHiPs.” No matter where in this prison we may leave our cups, everyone knows they are ours.
Chen had a hard time assimilating the basic idea. He decorated his cup with the label from a bottle of strawberry-scented shampoo. I explained to him that our cups require tougher, bolder statements. His exasperating blank stare told me that it was on me to fix this. So I found an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that had a terrific graphic: a striking fierce dragon in chains and the caption in bold letters, “CAGING CHINA.” We cut it out, sealed it in waterproof plastic, and affixed it to his cup. It made a powerful statement.
Then, a day later, Chen ruined the moment by adding to the cup cartoon image of “Kung-Fu Panda.” Then for his bowl he chose a puppy, a baby seal, an otter, and a baby fox. I said to Pornchai, “Hey, he’s your project. Do Something!”
On the morning of March 24, I had hoped to see Chen before ICE came to take him away. We ran into each other as I was on my way to work in the library. Prisoners here cannot stop to talk so we had only a moment. I gave Chen a blessing, tracing the Sign of the Cross on his forehead, and assured him that we will always be friends. Chen cried, and it broke my heart. I watched from the stairs leading up to the Library until Chen was gone from my sight. The weight of my sadness was heavy.
BEYOND THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
Later that day when I returned from work to our cell, Pornchai had Chen’s cup and bowl in his hands and said “look what he left us!” We both laughed. He had added something new to his cup: “Hang on to your dream!” There was also a letter that Chen left for us both. It must have taken a full day to write it with his Chinese-English Dictionary open. Here is the letter just as he wrote it:
“To my friends Ponch and Gordon: I know I am leaving. You guys are maybe having party somewhere. But I also know that you will miss me too. Man, what you guys going to do without me? At the same time, I do not know what I will do without you. Today someone ask me, ‘What do you fear most?’ I say ‘I don’t fear anything.’ But truly, I fear for a future I do not know, and most of all I fear my life without the two of you. I have only been here two years, but you are my family. I know I will never see Gordon again. I will do my best to come to Thailand to visit you, Ponch. I hope and I pray that you may go back there soon. Gordon will be alone then. I will cry if I think about that.
I promise I will write to you both as soon as I am back in China. I will tell my family all about you, and all that you did for their son. When I came here I just wanted it to end, but then I met the best friends I ever had. I love you guys and I will miss you so much. I wish the sky would rain hard today so no one can see me cry. Your very good friend, Chen.”
In the days to follow for me and Pornchai, our world suffered a collision of sadness and joy. Most people in prison will not invest themselves in the lives of others. It is just too costly and too painful. We live in a place where the majority of those we meet remain islands unto themselves, apathetic and uninvolved, unaffected by violence, unscathed by hate, but also unmoved by love.
TSW readers tell me that in this respect, life out there is not so very different from life in here. That is profoundly sad. To never risk sorrow requires that we also never risk love. That is a great tragedy, not only for us, but for all of humanity.
Pornchai and I hope Chen is home soon. We hope his family knows the trials he endured to come to more appreciate the great gift of family. We hope Chen treats his freedom with the love and respect he has shown to us. I guess the fact that we hope at all is itself evidence of the triumph of love.
We were inconsolable all day on March 24. Then, as often seems to happen just as it is needed, I received in the mail that night a most unusual letter. The fact that I received it at all is a small miracle. The envelope addressed me as “Father,” a title that would cause most mail to be rejected without my seeing it. It also contained an Easter card which is forbidden here. The letter inside was from Sister Clare, Novice Mistress of a Poor Clare Monastery. Her message to me is now my message to you as we prepare to enter Holy Week:
“Dear Father Gordon: Several years ago, one of our sisters in the Poor Clare monastery in Los Altos Hills, California shared with our community a newspaper article about you, and it moved us deeply. I have been praying for you since, and over the years had wondered how you were, and what direction your life had taken since you were imprisoned so unjustly. Part of my answer came when Sister Ruth Marie sent a photo from the Marian Helper magazine showing you and Pornchai Moontri making your consecrations to Jesus through Mary – and I realized that you are safe.
“Now she has sent an article by you from the same magazine, ‘The Doors That Have Unlocked.’ Cloistered nuns don’t usually write letters – we usually limit our “outreach” solely to prayer – but I have been getting a little nudge from the Holy Spirit for some time, suggesting that I write to you, just to tell you that you are remembered before the Lord. I pray for and with you, the prayer of the innocent man, crying out to God for justice from men – and receiving it from God Himself with an abundance of grace.
“Your path has been a very suffering one, but it speaks of transcendence and freedom and a call to genuine sanctity through your vocation to be a missionary of God’s mercy. Thank you for your response of love and for the example that you give of its triumph in your life. Most Gratefully in the Lord, Sister Clare.”
Now let us prepare for the collision of sadness and joy in the great adventure of faith. The Hour of the Lord is coming in Holy Week for us to witness the enthronement of Christ the King upon the Cross, “the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of all Creation,” the triumph of the Cross, the triumph of love! Come, let us adore Him.
Editor’s Note: Here is an article from New Hampshire about the facility for ICE detainees where Kewei Chen is now being held. Whether it will be weeks or months depends in part on how quickly the Chinese Consulate will approve travel documents. “New wall has opened door to more illegal aliens at Strafford County jail” by Jason Schreiber (Union Leader). It is to this same facility that Pornchai Max will go when he leaves prison to await deportation to Thailand.
Prepare for Holy Week and Easter behind These Stone Walls this week with these special Holy Week posts: