Being faithful Catholics as the world turns from God is not easy. What would Jesus do in such a time? He would lift His Cross and raise us up as He raised Lazarus.
As most readers know, the Church follows a three-year Liturgical Calendar. Three years ago this week, the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent were the same as they are this year. The passage from the Gospel according to Saint John is the long but Earth-shaking story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. I wrote of it three years ago in “De Profundis: Pornchai Moontri and the Raising of Lazarus.”
I want to recommend it to you anew for a deeper understanding of this powerful Gospel passage. Feel free to scroll down within it to read under the subheading, “I Have Come to Believe” for my Scriptural analysis of the story of Lazarus. If you read it either before or after hearing this Gospel proclaimed at Mass, I think you may see it, and perhaps even assimilate it, in a very different light.
But before you do that, I would like to revisit the first segment of that post. It was published on March 28, 2017. At the time, my friends Pornchai Moontri, Kewei Chen, and I were living in a difficult and stressful environment. We were still trapped inside, living eight to a cell. In one of my grittier prison posts, “Hebrews 13:3: Writing Just This Side of the Gates of Hell,” I described a few days of our lives there.
In that first segment of “De Profundis,” I wrote of something that happened in the midst of all that chaos. It began with an early morning dream:
- “It was about 5:00 AM. I was alone in the dark, walking in silent solitude through the dew laden grass of the New Hampshire State Prison Ballfield. There was not another soul in sight. The day’s first light was but a hint of gray barely visible above the walls and razor wire. A few birds were stirring with the dawn’s early light, their song one of hope and serenity. I could smell the grass and the early morning air. All was beautiful. Succumbing to the hypnotic scene, I lay down in the beckoning grass and fell into a deep sleep.
- “And then I suddenly awoke from that dream to the harsh reality that ushers in my real day. The soft grass instantly transformed into cold concrete, the melody of songbirds into the snores of grown men, the smell of grass and morning air into the stale and crowded confinement of what sometimes feels like a tomb.
- “A few minutes later, Pornchai-Max Moontri jumped down from his upper bunk and silently poured hot water into two cups on the floor with instant coffee. The other six denizens of our cell still slept as we prepared for a momentous day in prison. At 6:00 AM, Pornchai walked from our cell to a far wall with a bank of telephones to place a long awaited call. For the first time since he was taken from his home and country at age 11 – 32 years ago – Pornchai placed a call to someone in Thailand. And it was not just any someone.
- “It was 6:00 PM in Thailand, and his first call to his homeland was to Yela Smit, a founding member of “Divine Mercy Thailand,” a group that reached across the world to embrace Pornchai with something he had once given up all hope for – a life beyond this long sleep of death in prison. This moment had its origin in one of the most compelling accounts of faith at These Stone Walls, ‘Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand.’ It was like the raising of Lazarus from his tomb.”
Two weeks after I wrote “De Profundis” (Latin for “Out of the Depths”), our friend, Chen, was taken away by I.C.E. for his long awaited deportation to China. That story also recalls the raising of Lazarus from the dead. You may not know it yet, but readers of These Stone Walls were a part of it. I will explain how further on.
IF THE SPIRIT OF GOD HAS LIFE WITHIN YOU
There is a difference between a faithful Catholic and a faith-filled Catholic. I believe that I am a faith-filled one, but I am not always a faithful one. Complete fidelity to faith is a process, not an event. The one trait that I share in common with Padre Pio, one of our Patron Saints at These Stone Walls, is that I am short on patience with others at times. I take some solace in learning that Padre Pio was a little rough around the edges. It gives me hope.
But I have no doubt that Padre Pio was a faith-filled priest, nor do I doubt the source of the grace that made him so. It’s just that his tolerance level for BS was strained at times. Mine is too, but I too often offer the excuse that I live in a place where BS is parceled out in epic proportions. I apologize for the “BS” analogy, but there’s no dainty way to say it.
I am not always faithful in other ways as well. I procrastinate to the point of learning how to put even that off. I have had to blow the dust off my breviary a few times. I fall asleep praying from it, and not just often but almost always. It is not easy to pray here so it has to sometimes wait until late at night. I sometimes do not get past the first Psalm before falling asleep.
I wrote a post recently that asked a controversial question: “Can Christians Support a President Like Donald Trump?” It conceded to the public squabbles about some of this President’s flawed character traits, but it also raised a more important point that was first raised in The Wall Street Journal by Eric Metaxas: “It isn’t what one does that makes one a Christian, but rather faith in what Jesus has done.”
And what Jesus has done is carry His Cross for our offenses. Looking at the readings anew for the Fifth Sunday of Lent this week, I was especially struck by one I overlooked the last time I wrote of them. It’s the Second Reading, from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans in which he speaks of the difference between living in sin and living in the Spirit:
- “Those who are in the flesh [in sin] cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the Spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you … But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is alive” (Romans 8:8-10).
After I wrote the above post about the American President, it became highly controversial. It was posted on the Laura Ingraham Angle, a Facebook group with some 10,000 members moderated by the Fox News host. I was shocked to learn that it had 20 comments on TSW but 160 comments there. Many of the commenters read only the title of that post so they answered its question without understanding its depth. That is a sad reality of our current politics. So much of it is reactionary.
I am in no position to measure the integrity and spiritual life of our President. None of us are. I think we can only look at the results. “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). Do his judicial nominees, his regard for religious liberty, his support of traditional family values reflect your values? That is not only a valid question, but a necessary one. Those who did read that post beyond its title got the point. Many wrote that it opened their eyes to the fact that we are all flawed and we are all sinners, and like the words above from Saint Paul, “If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is alive.” For the Spirit of God to dwell in you requires sacrifice. It requires that you carry your cross, and like the brief presence of Simon of Cyrene in the Gospel, it requires that you share in the Cross of Christ.
OUT OF THE DEPTHS I CRIED TO YOU, O LORD (Psalm 130)
This is how the cross of my unjust imprisonment liberated Pornchai Moontri from “De Profundis” – from out of the depths. In a matter of months, he will be leaving me and this prison for his deportation to Thailand. We have been friends and roommates for fourteen years spent in tireless effort to transform both our crosses into grace.
I no longer have any doubt of this. Our Lord has taken the yoke of wrongful imprisonment and brought from out of its evil depths, and in spite of its evil purveyors, something wonderful. As Martha challenges Jesus in the coming story of the Raising of Lazarus, “Lord if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” As much as I disdain the cross of my imprisonment, I shudder to think of what would have become of Pornchai had I not been here.
That is the great paradox of Divine Providence. This story brings sobering perspective to whatever cross you bear. You can read of how profound that Providence was in my recent LinkedIn article, “Human Trafficking: Thailand to America and a Cold Case in Guam.” It bears this introduction:
- “In 1992, Thailand ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States never ratified it. The nightmares endured by this young Thai citizen all took place in America.”
The fact that America is now deporting Pornchai Moontri after that 35-year odyssey of victimization and imprisonment lays bare the hypocrisy of some of our politics and politicians. Before Governor Paul LePage was leaving office in Maine where much of the brutality in this story took place, he told the news media of his concern for victims of sexual abuse and violence. Then he declined to even hear about the story of Pornchai Moontri.
While we were both trapped in prison carrying our respective crosses and that of each other, along came Kewei Chen. There are so few Asians here that I spotted his name on a list of newer prisoners months before he landed on our path.
One day, an officer told Pornchai and me that there is a Chinese 18-year-old who speaks no English housed in one of the more difficult environments in the building where we lived then. The officer said the young man was having a traumatic adjustment and he was concerned about exploitation. The next day, Chen was moved into the overflow bunks just outside of our cell. He and Pornchai became fast friends.
Over the next two years we fed and sheltered Chen and taught him English. Pornchai brought him to the gym for workouts and taught him to play baseball and football in the ball field. He also attended Mass with us each week. Chen developed a strong familial bond and sense of trust for us. It seemed miraculous to me that Pornchai, who once trusted no one, could now teach Chen the value of trust. In just one year you would not recognize Chen as the lost and stranded teenager who showed up at our door.
DREAMERS OF HOME
Chen came to the United States to study English for just one semester at the University of New Hampshire. He had never before left home and was simply ill equipped for life in a co-ed dorm on a liberal American college campus. Naïve and easily influenced, Chen had been set up for an accusation, goaded by students to accept a co-ed’s invitation to her room. The next day the 18-year-old was accused of touching her once. Instead of simply sending him back to China, he ended up with a three-to-six year prison term for attempted assault, but comprehended none of it.
After two years with us, Chen was placed in a one-year offender program that he was required to complete before he could become eligible for parole. He would otherwise have to serve the entire six-year sentence. Chen’s ability to speak and understand English was such a barrier that he could never have completed that program. As with his trial, he understood none of what was happening to him.
So I assisted Chen by typing a letter to the court appointed lawyer who represented him. The lawyer told Chen that he would bring a new petition for release from that sentence, but wanted Chen to first have his family send $17,000. It was impossible. So I studied Chen’s court papers and found a clause in his sentencing report that his first lawyer either missed or never told him about.
In the small print of a judge’s footnote, it allowed for a petition to the court for an evidentiary hearing if Chen’s grasp of English was insufficient for his ability to complete the court requirements. I filed motions for a suspension of Chen’s remaining sentence based on his inability to complete the court’s and the prison’s requirements. The court granted the evidentiary hearing. Chen would have been on his own in court so I also filed a motion for a court appointed Mandarin Chinese interpreter. That too was granted.
After the hearing, the judge ruled that Chen has satisfied the Court that he is unable to complete the requirements of his sentence. Chen was ordered released immediately to the custody
of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation to China. I wrote of that in “Stone Walls Cannot Repel Our Sadness or Contain Our Joy.”
Chen was moved to an ICE detention facility. Because he was no longer a sentenced prisoner, he was able to communicate with us by mail and through a TSW reader nearby in Maine, Claire Dion, who arranged to visit Chen. The ICE agents who met with him informed him that he must contact the Chinese consulate in New York for travel documents before they can return him to China. However, the detention center telephone system did not allow for the required extension numbers to contact the consulate.
Charlene Duline, a TSW reader and helper in Indiana who is retired from the U.S. State Department, tried to intervene. The consulate officials told her that the required travel documents – which take 20 minutes to complete and print – would take up to a year. Meanwhile Chen would spend that year in virtual solitary confinement because no other ICE detainees spoke Chinese.
Chen’s father in Shanghai, who had not seen his son in three years, tried to call the Consolate but they hung up on him. Clare and Malcolm Farr, TSW readers and attorneys in Australia, also called the New York Consulate without success. So it came down to the power of the pen. I wrote “Dreamers of Home: The Slow ICE Deportation of Kewei Chen.”
From Australia, Clare Farr sent it to the Chinese Embassy there from where, in turn, it was sent to Beijing. Chen had his travel papers within a week, and was aboard a plane to Shanghai. We end this post with a photo of his airport reunion with his parents after his three-year ordeal.
I do not know for sure whether the Spirit of Christ dwells in me as Saint Paul describes as the source of our fidelity. But it does dwell in These Stone Walls, and collectively we have accomplished miracles. There are many Catholics who shun this site – and me – but I thank you for reading and lending us your prayers. From de profundis – from out of the depths – Jesus, through us, has raised up Lazarus.
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- De Profundis: Pornchai Moontri and the Raising of Lazarus
- Human Trafficking: Thailand to America and a Cold Case in Guam
- Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand
- Dreamers of Home: The Slow ICE Deportation of Kewei Chen
NEXT WEEK ON THESE STONE WALLS: NAVIGATING HOLY WEEK IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS