“For more than 30 years,” said Vision pastor Patti Paris in her introduction, “Mother Antonia has lived in a small, cold cell in Tijuana’s La Mesa prison, where she ministers to some of the most maltreated inmates on earth. But before she received her religious calling” — a calling that arrived in a dream wherein she promised Christ she would never leave Him — “this Catholic nun was a blonde, Beverly Hills socialite who had been married and divorced twice and raised seven children.”
An appreciative gasp went up from the congregation.
Paris continued: “With the tragic events that are unfolding, Mother Antonia hasn’t had much sleep.... I invite you to listen to this courageous and inspiring servant who answered the call of God.” And with that, the 82-year-old sister took the podium.
The tragic events Paris mentioned began on September 15, when a riot broke out at the La Mesa penitentiary; at least four inmates died in the ensuing melee. Mother Antonia was not inside at the time. “I said, ‘Let me go in,’” she said from the podium, “‘I know I can do something to stop the violence.’ But they wouldn’t allow me in.... They were afraid for my safety. But the prisoners wouldn’t have hurt me. I’m not afraid. When you love, you don’t have anything to be afraid of. Love casts out fear, the Bible tells us, and I love the men there.... I can go into the cells and cellblocks, see the men, pray for them, bring them hope.”
But, she added, “That doesn’t mean I’m in accord with them. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to show them what’s wrong and try to calm something down that’s evil and wrong. It just doesn’t stop me from loving them.” She lamented the loss of the prison’s kitchen, laundry room, art room, classrooms, music room, library, and computer room — all burned in the riots. “Rage takes love completely out of your heart. Everything that was destroyed was for them, for the very men themselves.”
The tragedy continued two days later, on September 17. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Female inmates began to riot just before 1 p.m. More than a dozen women climbed on top of the prison’s building no. 7, where they are housed, and began to break lights and scream to a throng of people on the sidewalk outside. They shouted that they were being beaten and that there were dead and injured inmates inside. Rioting then spread to other buildings.”
This time, Mother Antonia was inside. “They bolted my door. They were firing shots against the outside of my wall. They were firing to frighten everybody, making noise with guns, the helicopters overhead. I don’t know how many bullets were shot over three and a half hours of shooting, but there were 17 dead after this, and only two bodies have been claimed. The sisters, God bless them, bury the dead that are not claimed. But why? Mexican families always come to claim their dead. Why? Because they were deported. They didn’t live in Tijuana. About 300,000 people were deported from the U.S. into Tijuana since 2006. What do you do when there are 300,000 people in a city without jobs, without credentials, without families? I’m hoping that the riot will move the government to take deported people and send them to their homes, all over Mexico. It’s better than to have them live in rage and murder people...and murder themselves. Self-hate is terrible.”
Mother Antonia’s mention of political policy was born of personal events — the unclaimed bodies of the dead — and her talk hewed close to the personal and to the prosaic. She begged the congregation not to shame anybody — “It’s a terrible thing to do to people. People will forget many things, but they do not forget being shamed.” She called the tongue “a deadly weapon” and said that “the tongue caused this riot to start again. The men had calmed down, and the women were yelling, ‘Help us!’ and nothing was happening to them. Then the men broke through walls and started more fires, and pretty soon you had 17 dead because of the tongue. The tongue destroys; it takes away hope.... Jesus said, ‘Don’t worry about your hand being dirty. Worry about the dirt that’s on your heart; that speaks through your mouth.’”
She had some notion of what caused the women to cry out. “They’ve been victims of rape, of beatings, of pornography. Of being bought and sold. Of being treated like trash. They had a chance to explode themselves, to say, ‘Now I’m going to be in control. Nobody’s going to take me and do what they want with me.’ So have pity on them.” (This came in the midst of a cry against pornography: “Many good people, especially men, have become addicted to pornography with the Internet. Porn is satanic; it’s evil. It enters the brain and it doesn’t leave. The devil never sleeps. Evil doesn’t sleep. But neither does good, and good is much more powerful than evil.”)
Against all this, she set love. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Those two things — patience and kindness. There are three ways to get to heaven. ‘Be kind’ is the first one.” It was also the second and third. She told a story about a priest talking to an old woman who said, “‘I’ve lost my faith in God. You must convince me that there is a God and that He loves me.’ The priest said, ‘I can’t tell you that. But I’ll tell you who can. Go out and do acts of mercy, and you will know that there is a God, and you will know that God loves you.’” She urged her listeners to love. Listening to a gabby relative was “a holy hour.” So was visiting the old and alone. “As long as you have to do something for somebody, you’re blessed. Give thanks to God that you can do that.” — Matthew Lickona