Hispanic immigrants – many undocumented – celebrate Good Friday despite deportation fears

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Javier Santa María struggled to drag a 15-foot wooden cross while being flogged by four Roman soldiers. He was mocked as the “son of God” and given a coronet of thorns.

Dripping in stage blood an hour later, the bear-chested Santa María screamed in agony as the massive cross he was attached to was lifted toward a crowd of over 300 faithful onlookers Friday evening in Bensalem. The overwhelming majority were Hispanic immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador — many undocumented.

Despite recent reports of raids in Pennsylvania and President Trump’s vows to crack down on illegal immigration, hundreds of immigrants showed up at Our Lady of Fatima Church to celebrate Good Friday through a reenactment of the crucifixion.

“They come because their love for Christ is bigger than their concerns for an ICE raid,” said Santa María, 40, who is from Mexico and has been in the United States since 2000.

It’s the fifth time the house painter from Bensalem has played the role of Jesus, which he does to “remind the community the sacrifice Jesus did for all of us.”

Faith leaders in Bensalem have described a growing anxiety among the undocumented families who since the 2016 presidential election increasingly fear deportation.

“It has many of the people nervous regarding what their future could be,” said Bishop Edward Michael Deliman, an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Parish, also in Bensalem, 10 minutes away from Fatima.

Deliman blessed the 25 mostly Hispanic actors before the beginning of the Stations of the Cross.

Social workers from the archdiocese noted a recent spike in the number of immigrants seeking legal advice.

“Definitely from February to March, there was a jump in numbers of immigrants looking for information from our immigration attorneys. It doubled,” said Terri Mitchell, program director at the Catholic Social Services (CSS) center in Bensalem, which provides social services to people of all faiths and ethnicities.

But Friday, the Spanish-speaking Catholics gathered in Bensalem seemed unwavering in their faith and devotion.

Dozens of families marched slowly around the parish’s parking lot and green lawn to the strum of guitars and ecclesiastical songs in Spanish.

They stopped to pray and reflect at each of the 14 stations, each depicting a different scene in the passion of Christ: Pilate condemning Jesus to death, Jesus carrying the cross, Jesus falling three times while carrying it, Jesus being nailed to the cross.

“They’re hitting him so hard,” a boy told his sister, wincing, as they watched actor-soldiers lash Santa María with whip props.

Also known as Via Crucis, the procession is considered a dark prelude to Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar, which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus.

“It’s a way for people of any ethnic background to connect with the humanness of god,” Deliman said. “He was human and divine, and this humanness reminds us that there will be suffering required of us as well.”

Vanesa — who requested her last name not be used — said she always celebrated the Stations of the Cross in her home country of Guatemala, but Friday was the first time she worshiped on Good Friday in the United States.

Her husband was murdered last year, she said, and, fearing for her safety, she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last Christmas Eve. Vanesa, 33, was detained by the Border Patrol in Texas, but claimed political asylum and was later released.

“Just imagine how many families are here. To deport them is to leave behind orphans. We have the faith and confidence that God won’t abandon us,” said Vanesa, who wears an ankle monitor as she prepares to defend her claim for asylum in court.

Despite mounting fears within the immigrant community, Deliman said he had not noticed a decline in church attendance. Peoplefeel safe in church, he said, but their concerns haven’t gone unnoticed.

“One of my parishioners once told me, ‘You know, Father, I could walk off the property, the church, and be apprehended.’ I didn’t have an answer,” said Deliman.

The Hispanic population in Bensalem has continued to grow since 2010. At 4,443, Hispanics accounted for 7.4 percent of the township’s population in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Deliman has been in Bensalem since 2011, serving as a leader of the growing Hispanic community. He offers two Masses in Spanish at St. Charles every weekend.

Ordained in 1973, Deliman has catered exclusively to Spanish-speaking communities in the region since 1978. In May 2016, Pope Francis named him an auxiliary bishop of the approximately 1.4 million-member archdiocese. Yet he asked to also retain his duties as a pastor in Bensalem.

“I have one foot in the daily life of the people and the other foot at the diocesan level,” said Deliman, who is fluent in Spanish. “It helps me bring to the table a great perspective.”

Committed to making immigrants feel comfortable in his parish, he added:

“The regular routine here at the church gives them a sort of assurance that they haven’t been abandoned.”

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