In a week in which he met with world leaders and gave high-profile speeches before Congress and the United Nations, it was an event at an East Harlem parish school that felt most appropriate for Pope Francis.
The atmosphere inside Our Lady Queen of Angels School was radically different from the rest of the stops on Francis’ itinerary. The air was more relaxed, the vibe something of a family reunion featuring a beloved patriarch.
A couple hundred immigrant children and refugees sat at long white tables with bright pink and purple cloth flowers in the middle. People chatted mostly in Spanish while they awaited the pontiff’s arrival.
Among the flock: 11 members a soccer team called Union, made entirely of unaccompanied refugee children living in the United States. They brought a
gift for the pope: a Catholic Charities soccer jersey with his name, Papa Francisco, in Spanish and a soccer ball signed with all of their names.
One of the team members, Ariel Mejia, 18, from Honduras, hopes to be a professional soccer player one day. “Pray for my country,” Mejia said he wanted to ask Pope Francis. “Hopefully he can help with the issues of immigration.”
Teammate Lazaro us Baquiax, 17, from Guatemala, had an even longer list: “I would ask Pope Francis to pray for Honduras, Guatemala, and El
Salvador,” he said.
Other immigrant and refugee groups represented included day laborers from Yonkers and Staten Island, agricultural workers from the Hudson valley,
Middle East Christians, and and immigrant mothers groups.
A group of benefactors and community and interfaith partners sat on stage, while videos of notables such as Hillary Clinton and players from the New
York Yankees gave the crowd something to watch during the wait.
Finally, the pope arrived, exiting his small black Fiat flanked by reporters and TV crews. Before he entered the gym, he joined a small classroom where
children sang for him, his face beaming as he jokingly motioned for them to sing louder.
The children then showed him their projects, including dioramas of what they were thankful for. A touchscreen monitor surprised the pope with a
personal message: “We also thank God for the gift of having you as our pope,” it read. “Dios te bendiga Papa Francis.”
Francis gave the school an appropriately modest gift, a wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, handmade by Italian craftsmen. His
hosts then read from Matthew 25:34-38, with verses interwoven in English, Spanish, Creole, Chinese, Arabic, Wolof and French, a gesture at once both worldly and American.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat,” they said.
Reading from prepared remarks and adding extemporaneous thoughts, Pope Francis noted that many of the students at the school come from other
countries. In a plainspoken Spanish that was dramatically different in tone from his other public speaking on the U.S. Tour, Francis talked about
the difficulties and rewards of moving to a new country.
“They tell me that one of the nice things about this school is that some of its students come from other places, even from other countries. That is
nice!” he said. “Even though I know that it is not easy to have to move and find a new home, new neighbors and new friends. It is not easy. At the
beginning it can be hard, right? Often you have to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture, even a new climate. There is so much to learn!”
He then referenced Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Wherever there are dreams, there is joy, Jesus is always present,” he
said. Veering off script, he added that the devil wants to prevent us from feeling joy.
“Because Jesus is joy, and he wants to help us to feel that joy every day of our lives,” he said.
He ended by asking the children if they would mind “some homework,” earning laughter. Their assignment: to pray for him. And he asked them if
they would sing for him. After two songs, he led the group in the Lord’s Prayer. “Don’t forget the homework,” he added, in English.
And with that, the pope departed, heading for another high-profile event, a mass at Madison Square Garden. But it was the event here, in the school, that felt the most like Francis.