For Lisa Kremer, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - the chance to travel to the Vatican, come face to face with Pope Francis and have a brief conversation.
“I still can’t believe it happened,” she said. “It’s like a dream.”
Despite what the encounter meant to her personally, Kremer was ever mindful that she was there as a representative of others who couldn’t make the trip - Worthington’s immigrant families, and especially the children.
Road to Rome
Kremer is the project coordinator of Familias Juntas (Families Together) - previously called Abuelos y Nietos Juntos (Grandparents and Grandchildren Together). After working in Worthington with the immigrant population at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, it was Kremer’s idea to take U.S. citizen children of Guatemalan ancestry to visit their extended families in their parents’ home countries. While the parents cannot visit their homeland due to documentation issues, the children were born in the United States and can travel there freely.
The Familias Juntas website provides this description:
Familias Juntas or Families Together is an organization that helps children meet for the first time their families in Guatemala, their family's country of origin, while shedding light on the issues of our broken immigration system through the experiences and lives of those affected - the children here in the U.S. and their families in Guatemala. Inspired by Guatemalan families in Worthington, Minnesota, and the parents’ deep desire for their children to know their family members in Guatemala, a group of volunteers brought 14 of United States-born children to Guatemala to make their dream come true in July of 2013.
On that first trip, the Worthington contingent was joined by a crew of filmmakers led by Luis Argueta. A Guatemala native who has achieved success as a documentary filmmaker, Argueta wanted to document the experience of the children as they met their grandparents for the first time.
Almost a year later, in June 2014, his documentary, called “Abrazos” (“Embraces”) was premiered during a gala event at the Worthington Event Center. Since then, it has been translated into Spanish. (www.abrazosthefilm.com)
In October, Kremer made her first expedition to Rome at the behest of Alfonso Matta Fahsen, the Guatemalan ambassador to the Holy See. Fahsen hosted a screening of “Abrazos” as part of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, a conference called by Pope Francis to discuss the vocation and mission of the family in the church and the contemporary world.
“(Fahsen) wanted to show the film to (the bishops) because it had so much to do with the family,” explained Kremer. “I received an invitation, and I had never been to Rome. Luis was there, too, although we just saw each other at the showing.”
On that first trip, Kremer also visited Assisi and took in other sights around Rome, guided by John Fredy Borrero, a seminarian from Colombia who spent a couple of summers working in Worthington.
“He told me, ‘Before you leave Rome, you have to throw a coin in the Trevi fountain the night before you leave. Then you will come back to Rome.’”
Neither Kremer or Borrero had any idea that wish would come true far sooner than they expected. In early November, Kremer received a call from Argueta, asking if she wanted to return to Rome, and this time meet Pope Francis.
“When I found out I was coming back and had the opportunity to meet the Pope, (Borrero) said, ‘How much money did you throw in the fountain?’” Kremer related with a laugh.
The second invitation was a direct result of the first, as there was a lot of positive feedback from the ambassadors, priests and bishops who attended the October screening.
“It was so positive that they thought we should present the Pope with a copy of the film,” said Kremer.
In addition to the film, Kremer wanted to offer the Pope something that would be a direct gift from Worthington’s Guatemalan immigrants.
“We started thinking about what we could present to him to make their story more real,” Kremer explained. “We came up with the idea of the children writing letters to the Pope, and we compiled them into a book.”
The book, titled “Querido Papa” (“Dear Pope”), features the letters, translated into Spanish, along with photos of the children.
On Dec. 10, Kremer and Argueta were seated in the very front row of a Wednesday general audience outside at the Vatican. Per protocol, they were both dressed somewhat formally - Argueta in suit and tie, Kremer in a dress - in dark colors. Their first views of the Pope were as he was driven around the square in his ‘Popemobile” - of which Kremer took a photo on her October visit. But this time she would get much closer.
“We were part of a delegation from Guatemala,” detailed Kremer. “But the pass has to come through your own ambassador, so I had to ask the U.S. ambassador for a pass. His assistant had come to the showing, so I contacted her, but they don’t get the passes until the day before, so we weren’t sure if it was going to come through or not. But I wasn’t too worried - whatever happens, happens. I couldn’t believe God would take us that far and not let it happen.”
Following the general audience, Pope Francis came around and spoke to each of the special guests individually. Argueta gave him copies of his films while Kremer presented the book.
“I had to speak in Spanish, which made it a little bit more nerve-wracking. My fluency in Spanish is lacking,” related Kremer. “I don’t remember a lot about it. It’s kind of a blur. He received the book, and I told him in Spanish that I was from the U.S. and I had a gift for him from the children. He opened the book and looked at it and seemed delighted. He came across as being a gentle person.”
The Pope’s address that day - given in Italian but translated into all the other languages of those present - resonated with Kremer and her mission.
“He announced that he was going to be giving a series of talks on the family,” she said. “There were lots of connections. He spoke on the importance of family and addressed some of the issues.”
Two days later, Kremer attended Mass at St. Peters Basilica for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and heard Pope Francis speak for a second time.
“Everything was so grand, and then his voice was so gentle,” she described. “Looking into his eyes, he comes across as a kind and loving man. He resonates with people.”
As she returned to her rural Iona home and family preparations for Christmas, the papal encounter was a lingering source of joy.
“After our visit, I wrote him a letter,” she said. “It was recommended that you do so, to remind him of your meeting and say all the things you didn’t get to say. Through the ambassador, it will be given to him. I did, in my letter, invite him to come to the Midwest next summer, when he visits the United States. So far, Philadelphia is the only official visit that has been announced.
“It was a highlight of my life, obviously,” continued Kremer. “It’s not as much a high as it is a sense of peace, of what’s really important. There’s this guy who is so close to God, and to have the opportunity to shake his hand was really incredible. It’s given me a sense of renewed mission, that we all have to be a part of this. It’s our responsibility as Christians to participate and help these good things to happen in our world. It’s all a God thing.”
Even a couple weeks after her visit to Rome, Kremer is still energized by the experience.
“I never could have imagined when we thought three years ago, ‘Hey, let’s take some kids to Guatemala,’ that something like this could happen. Never in my wildest dreams.”
Kremer is hopeful that her visit with the Pope, as well as President Obama’s recent executive order on immigration, will bring good things to the immigrant families she has grown to love through her work with Familias Juntas.
“The thing that was on my mind constantly was the families back here, that this wasn’t my opportunity - it was their opportunity,” she reflected about her Vatican trip. “I kept thinking about the families back here. It was really their visit, but they couldn’t be there. It was very much a sense of being there for them.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers may be reached at 376-7327.