Documentary Illuminates ‘Invisible’ Community
Published: April 17, 2008
ATLANTA—In San Diego, Calif., not far from neighborhoods full of well-appointed homes that cost millions of dollars, live hundreds of migrants, mostly men, who have come over to the United States from Mexico. These men struggle to earn a living and support their families back home, and they live in very basic conditions, residing in shacks and tents.
Over 20 years ago, the parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel learned about this hidden community and began a ministry dedicated to helping the men. They started celebrating a weekly Mass near the settlement and eventually built a tiny chapel in the woods near where the men lived. The Sunday gathering provided a weekly meal, fellowship, English tutoring and a medical clinic for the migrants.
The simple effectiveness of this ministry, as well as opposition from the San Diego Minutemen, a militant group that targets illegal immigrants, is chronicled in the documentary film “The Invisible Chapel,” directed by John Carlos Frey and produced by Gatekeeper Productions, LLC, which specializes in documentaries and features on the subject of immigration.
The film was shown in Atlanta at an interfaith ecumenical event on Jan. 15 at Agnes Scott College, Decatur. Organized by Shelley Rose of the Southeast Anti-Defamation League, the event was sponsored by over 20 faith-based groups and included a screening of the film and a question-and-answer session with Frey. In addition, Rev. Kate Colussy-Estes moderated a panel discussion on immigration that included Rabbi Mario Karpuj, of Congregation Or Hadash, Dr. Marie Marquardt, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Agnes Scott College, and Rey Morales, Savannah diocesan director of Hispanic ministries.
The screening played to a standing-room-only crowd, and the discussion that followed demonstrated an intense interest in the issue of how immigrants are treated in society. The Minutemen organization was also represented, and their presence guaranteed a spirited dialogue. Most importantly, the event advanced the issue of immigration among a diverse audience, and the film itself served as a starting place for action. According to Susan Stevenot Sullivan, director of parish and social justice ministries for Catholic Charities Atlanta, the film “helps people understand the human dimension” of immigration and “puts a face on the issue and shows what all of this is doing to the lives of people in a context that speaks to our faith.”
“The Invisible Chapel” is a short film, running only 31 minutes, but it packs a strong emotional message. It opens with a narration taken from the oral history of the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, spoken in the indigenous language of Juan Diego, explaining how the Virgin appeared to a “poor and dignified person.” The narration gets to the very heart of the film, which effectively displays the dignity and the devotion to faith of these men who live in very tenuous circumstances.
The men are shown both at the weekly Mass and in their dwellings, always with a great sense of respect. The pace is slow and peaceful as the filmmaker pans over the humble homes the men have fashioned in the woods, and traditional Nahuatl music is used as a background to reinforce a connection to nature and to the men’s ethnic background. Viewers see a typical week’s gathering: Mass, a hearty meal, English lessons, medical examinations. The ministry is obviously addressing, in a very simple yet efficient way, the needs of these men and providing an important spiritual dimension to their lives in a way that is full of the utmost respect.
In addition to demonstrating the work of the ministry, Frey included interviews with some long-time volunteers. They each speak to how vital their work is to the men, both spiritually and physically. According to Father Frank, the pastor, the ministry works for the men because “they are so demeaned in this society, that coming to a place where they are accepted for who they are and loved for who they are—they want to experience that.”
The volunteers make the point that the ministry should—and does—look beyond any legalities of immigration. They believe, simply, that it is the role of the Catholic Church to help these men.
According to Terri Trujillo, the migrant outreach coordinator interviewed in the film, it is “our responsibility as a Christian to take care of the hungry and cold, and we’ve fallen very short here in the United States.”
The volunteers also explain how important the ministry has become to their own lives, and how it has deepened their faith. Christauria, who has been a migrant catechist for over 15 years with the ministry, explains, “I need to work with them. I need to learn from them. I need to be around real authentic people with real honest values. These people are very close to God.”
Not everyone takes such a positive stand. “The Invisible Chapel” explains how the ministry came to the attention of a nearby activist and the Minutemen and how they raised the pressure on the community and on the landowner sponsoring the chapel. Ultimately the ministry was forced to abandon the chapel. The scenes of the simple yet peaceful chapel being torn down by volunteers and worshippers are heartbreaking.
The film highlights one of the men who worships at the chapel and portrays him in an almost saintly way. Described by Father Frank as an “extraordinary man of faith,” Generoso came to Catholicism through the ministry. He is shown assisting at Mass, and he is the one who carries away the plaque of the Virgin when the chapel is demolished. When he is asked about the people who have forced the destruction, his response is a model of Christian charity: “What can you say to those who hate us? Let them be. God is the one who cares for us. … I won’t say anything bad about them.”
Indeed, Generoso takes a positive step forward and donates $1,000 to the construction of a new chapel—a staggering amount considering he works at a minimum wage job and lives in poverty hidden in the woods. When asked why he gave the money, he says simply, “What is meant for God, should serve God.”
As the film ends, the ministry is continuing as best it can, meeting in a field beside a busy road. According to Father Frank, “We may have lost a chapel, but we still have the church.”
While things may seem bleak for the ministry at the end of “The Invisible Chapel,” the spirit of the men and the volunteers still shines hopefully.
As it turns out, the hopefulness is justified. An update from Trujillo indicated that the program has settled in a new permanent home on private land that is “a peaceful, quiet place.” She reported that she has received much positive feedback from people who have seen the film, including several offers to volunteer and contribute money. The best way to help the ministry, she said, is to donate or volunteer through the parish, and any contributions would come to them through the church.
“The Invisible Chapel” is an important film to watch for any community struggling with the issues connected to immigration. Sullivan believes that it allows viewers to see the consequences of hate speech alongside real personal faith.
Although it does not provide a solution to the problem, this film does open the dialogue about how Catholics can respond to this issue.
More information about this film is available at www.invisiblechapel.com.