As the passengers of bus nine from Brownsville disembarked at St. Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Church in Chinatown, there was the usual mix of emotions; some happy to see relatives there to meet them, others confused or suspicious of the strangers moving toward them.

That was understandable, since it was strangers who placed them on the bus in Texas on Aug. 20, sending them on a near-30-hour trek to Los Angeles where they arrived on Aug. 21.

But the people who met them at St. Anthony’s — mostly affiliated with either the Archdiocese of Los Angeles or the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) — were welcoming, offering food, clothing and, in one case, balloons and flowers.

The bearer of both balloons and flowers was Filiberto Cortez, or rather, Father Filiberto Cortez, a fact lost on many that evening. After all, that particular day was the priest’s day off, and he wasn’t wearing his usual Roman collar. Instead, “Father Fili,” as he’s known among his brother priests, was wearing his civilian duds and looked very much like “a guy who was going to a Dodger game,” recalled Yannina Diaz of the archdiocese’s media relations team….

Cortez knew about the young mother because the group that meets the buses has become “a very efficient operation,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera of CHIRLA. “At most, we get 24 hours notice that the buses are coming. We’ve gotten very good at quickly making arrangements to meet them at schools or houses of worship. Those are human beings coming on those buses, brothers and sisters, moms and dads, and we want them to know that there are human beings here for them who they can trust.”

It is not Texas state officials who tell them of the bus departures; instead the information comes from contacts the consortium has developed in Texas, contacts who not only tell them when buses are leaving but who is on them. Bus nine contained 37 people, including 16 families with 14 children, the youngest of which was 3 weeks old.

There is, of course, always special concern when children are on the buses — and they usually are. That concern was ramped up this time since bus nine was headed toward Southern California just as Hurricane Hilary was. Also, less than two weeks before, a 3-year-old child had died on a bus en route from Texas to Chicago.

“It’s impossible to see that child and her mother and not think of Mother Mary,” Cortez said. “I mean, that was Mary and I’m not talking about a story, this was real, this was happening right now, a call from God to act..”

“I can tell you, when I see these immigrants each time getting off the bus, I see Jesus coming to us,” Cortez said. “And, again, I’m not talking about metaphors or symbols, I mean Jesus is literally there. I’ve never had a feeling, an epiphany like this, to feel what the saints must have felt, to serve Jesus, to recognize it is him you are receiving.”

From Angelus News