Grace Among Us

As advent approaches, it gives me joy to share with you something small but extraordinary – something that was almost impossible, yet it came to pass! Something for which we give thanks…

Michael Holman, a young volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, began his year of service at Joseph’s House this past September. He had not been here much more than a month when he happened to be the person who opened the door and welcomed Irma on her first visit to the house. Irma had come on urgent, and seemingly hopeless, business.

Mike and Irma sat in the living room to wait for her to see her ex-husband Etefu, a hospice patient who had arrived the day before. Irma startled Mike when she poured out her anguish that Etefu, who was suffering from terminal cancer, would not be able to die at home.

They had immigrated from Ethiopia years before. In time, they separated, but remained in touch. Irma knew that Etefu was very sick and was also suffering from dementia related to his illness. A former cab driver, he had been unable to work for some time. He lost the room he rented and became homeless.

Irma worked two jobs. Even so, she had been unable to save enough money for them to fly home to Ethiopia while he was still able to travel easily. Not only that, her jobs didn’t give paid leave and she couldn’t afford to take leave without pay. Etefu was too confused to travel alone. Still more, Etefu needed travel documents. Irma did not have the option of taking time off work to get them. In fact, Mike could tell that Irma didn’t exactly know how to secure all the documents Etefu would need even if a miracle happened and he became able to travel. But she did know that if Etefu died in the U.S., she would never be able to save enough money to transport his body home. This troubled her greatly.

Mike shared all this at our staff meeting later that day. Etefu could still walk, but perhaps not for long. We had a short window to help Etefu make it home to live until he died. As a student, Mike had travelled to Ethiopia for a work/study program. “Mike, you run with this,” I said. “If you take charge, I think it can happen.”

So Mike took charge. He went with Etefu to doctor’s appointments and worked with our nurses and Etefu’s family to make preparations for his care in Ethiopia. The two of them went to Social Security and the State Department to replace lost documents. It wasn’t easy. Agency officials interviewed Etefu while Mike sat nervously in the waiting room hoping they would be understanding. They were! The day Etefu secured his passport, Irma bought him a one-way ticket to Addis Ababa for the next day.

Mike had been keeping his family and friends back home in Mississippi in the loop and now things were moving fast. They raised the money to buy him a round trip ticket to Addis Ababa. He would be traveling with Etefu tomorrow.

After their long flight, Etefu’s family met them at the airport and took them to his sister’s home. Mike told us that, once home, Etefu was a different person, not so confused, not passive. “Eat!” Etefu insisted to Mike. Now Etefu was the host! He was the brother who came back, the uncle the children had never met; he was the one that friends and neighbors came, crowding the house to see and to welcome him home. Already, Etefu was healing. Soon after, someone drove Mike to the airport and he was on his way back to Washington, DC, and to Joseph’s House. Wow.

When we can allow ourselves to trust, Grace will take us beyond the strictly necessary (Etefu did need end-of-life care and he could have received it at Joseph’s House). But Grace was moving amongst us and something more was becoming possible. It was Grace that guided us to help Irma help Etefu to make his way home to family who have loved him all his life and will care for him when he dies. And it was a young man who wouldn’t stop until he had gone the distance with a near stranger who became a brother. Mike made it happen.

We give thanks for what has been entrusted to us! For the hard work of dying and for the deep challenges of living, we give thanks. For our friends and for our extended community, we say, Thank You! For the times when we can open our hearts and be guided by Grace; for the times we are stretched and the ways that we grow, we give thanks. Surely so much thanksgiving is a sign of hope!


  1. Barbara Gratto says

    Joseph’s House is a blessing for those it helps. Our God has a wonderous way of working through we humans.

  2. I lived at Joseph House. I am very grateful for that House. It save my life it restored my body,soul,and mined. It allowed me to understand that life is worth living.It also taught me to fight for what I want even when the odds are againist you.

  3. Bettina del Sesto says

    This is a good story and one to be sure is grace. how I wish that our own American elders could be treated with reverence and respect in our own nursing homes,care facilities and in or own homes.
    There seems to be no room at the inn for those of us over 70, with education, decency, and knowledge of sheer betrayal of our own American neighbors.
    Joseph’s House has always been a place of comfort and home to me on my visits…but the decency and rights of Americans themselves has been forgotten.
    ” Irma” has run ravages in the world but Francis,the Jesuit is the light that,I think we must follow at these times to hopefully be laying the groundwork for American civilization first…as we have no clue to who are our neighbors.

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