“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In April and May, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Give Drink to the Thirsty” and “Shelter the Homeless,” respectively. These months’ profiles will highlight examples of those who experience these corporal works of mercy in their daily lives. View the full series listing here.
The Marrero’s knew that they were going to be evicted, and they feared they were going to become homeless. Rafiesel Marrero had always worked two jobs to keep the family — himself, his wife Jaclyn and their three daughters — afloat. When he lost his full-time job, they were left with only the income from his part-time job. They started to fall behind on rent.
It was a particularly stressful time because the Marrero’s oldest daughter, now 8-year-old Lillyana, was due to have another surgery right around the time of the looming eviction.
Lillyana was born with a rare version of a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis, which causes usually-benign tumors to grow on the body’s nerves. Lillyana’s tumors were growing on her optic nerves. The condition was combined with bone structure issues — part of her skull was missing at birth and she had an enlarged eye.
The conditions went undiagnosed until Lillyana was about 5 years old and growing up in Puerto Rico. She began to complain of headaches and dizziness. Her mother brought her to the best hospital in San Juan where her condition was partially diagnosed and doctors told the family there was nothing they could do.
So Rafiesel and Jaclyn started doing their own research. They called dozens of hospitals in the U.S. and finally found one that told them they thought they could help their daughter: the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
“They had seen different cases of different things but not everything at the same time on the same person,” Jaclyn said.
To get to the U.S. quickly, both Rafiesel and Jaclyn became full-time fundraisers. They sold cakes and popcorn. They made appearances on local television. Jaclyn lost 30 pounds while she worked feverishly to raise money. In the early fall of 2014, when Lillyana was 7, she and her mother finally were able to fly to CHOP for a consultation.
They learned that Lillyana would need surgery to remove two tumors growing on her optic nerve and to begin to repair her skull. Back in Puerto Rico, the family continued fundraising: they raised close to $25,000 in total, enough to fly them all to the U.S. in December 2014. Lillyana had surgery and was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve.
The family had not planned to stay in the U.S., but they soon learned that recovery from the surgery would take longer than expected and that more surgeries would be needed in the future. Lillyana’s condition has no cure and puts her at risk for other medical issues. It soon became clear that their only option if they wanted to secure adequate medical care for their daughter would be to stay in the U.S.
“We didn’t think we’d be moving here permanently. We had raised enough money only to cover a couple weeks in the hotel,” Rafiesel said. “When we found out that she needed more surgery there was no point in going back home. There was nothing they could do for her in Puerto Rico.”
Rafiesel found a full-time job in the U.S. From the beginning, finding housing was a challenge. The Marreros had no family or friends in the area to support them. For the first several weeks they lived in a motel without access to a kitchen, then moved to a cramped, unsafe apartment complex. Finally they found an affordable house to rent.
It was a year later that Rafiesel lost his job and the family faced eviction. At the same time, their lease was up for renewal and the landlord informed them that rent would be increasing by 50 percent.
Not knowing where to turn, the family decided to ask for help at a church —Saint Mary of the Lakes in Medford, part of the Diocese of Trenton. The pastor referred the family to several agencies and to the Diocese of Camden, where the family resided, for help. Through the Diocese of Camden they were referred to Catholic Charities and to caseworker Michel Acevedo who assessed their situation.
Covering the family’s back-rent so that they could stay in the house and avoid eviction would not be enough — the increase in rent had made the living arrangement unsustainable. So Catholic Charities started by putting them up in a hotel for a week while they searched for new housing.
The biggest challenge was to find an affordable place to rent that would accommodate the family’s pets. They own two dogs that they purchased while Lillyana was recovering from her first surgery. She had been heartbroken to leave behind her other dogs in Puerto Rico. The family couldn’t imagine leaving the dogs behind again.
While the family lived in the hotel, Rafiesel slept in the car with the dogs. Finally they found an affordable house in Camden that would take them and their pets. Once they had found the house, Catholic Charities helped them with a security deposit and the first month of rent, while providing support throughout the process.
“When everybody turned us down, when everybody didn’t want to help us, even when we explained our daughter’s sick — they were there for us,” Rafiesel said of Catholic Charities.
He now has a full-time job again and still works the same part-time job. They still struggle with outstanding medical bills, but they have a roof over their heads and their daughter has access to the medical care she needs.
“If I had to I would do it all again for her,” Rafiesel said. “My faith keeps me going. I think when you got faith in your heart, nothing is impossible.”
The mercy of sheltering the homeless
During his visit to the U.S. last September, Pope Francis made a stop at a soup kitchen for the homeless at a church in Washington D.C. There he spoke to the homeless men and women, relating their struggles to those of Saint Joseph.
“The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head. We can imagine what Joseph must have been thinking. How is it that the Son of God has no home? Why are we homeless, why don’t we have housing? …
“Joseph’s questions are timely even today; they accompany all those who throughout history have been, and are, homeless. Joseph was someone who asked questions. But first and foremost, he was a man of faith. … Faith sustained him amid the troubles of life. Thanks to faith, Joseph was able to press forward when everything seemed to be holding him back.
“In the face of unjust and painful situations, faith brings us the light which scatters the darkness. As it did for Joseph, faith makes us open to the quiet presence of God at every moment of our lives, in every person and in every situation. God is present in every one of you, in each one of us.
“I want to be very clear. There is no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing. There are many unjust situations, but we know that God is suffering with us, experiencing them at our side. He does not abandon us.”