Catholic Charities' Msgr. Kevin Sullivan described the immigrants selected to meet Pope Francis when he visits East Harlem on Sept. 25 as part of "the fabric of New York" while introducing them Thursday.
Among those gathered at Saint Cecilia's Parish in East Harlem were immigrants here both legally and illegally: children who traveled as unaccompanied minors from Central America; mothers and grandmothers still struggling to learn English; and asylum applicants who fled poverty and persecution.
They will be the face of the church when the pope visits Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, said Sullivan, who heads the New York archdiocese's Catholic Charities network of social service organizations that assists immigrants and refugees.
"In this gateway to America" that is New York, Sullivan said, "Catholic Charities has welcomed and integrated immigrants and refugees into their new home. We think that this is the perfect place for Pope Francis to visit."
Sebastian Thomas, an immigrant from the South Indian state of Kerala, clutched a Bible translated to Malayalam as he stood with about two dozen immigrants and refugees who also will meet the pope.
That Bible and the clothes on his back were often all he had as he journeyed from India to Brazil, and through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico -- to finally wade across the Rio Grande in Texas.
He said he fled his country after he was beaten and his life threatened because he was in the minority Catholic population.
Now he waits for his asylum request, or for legal status to be granted to unauthorized immigrants, and he said he continues to draw strength from reading the book of Exodus, which he completed 11 times in his two-year migration.
When he meets the pope, he said, he will bow before him.
"I would say, please bless me," said Thomas, 43, now a Bronx resident. He's glad the pope will speak for people "in South America, some Asian countries, some African, where there's very many poor, so they come here because they have nothing."
There was also a group of Garifuna immigrants from Honduras at the event, who said their church in the Bronx has given them a sense of community.
"We've been given the blessing of having our Mass in Garifuna," Yolanda Solorzano, 45, said in Spanish. "We needed that help to keep our culture . . . and worship from our hearts."
Kimberly Ramírez, a New York-born Latina of Dominican heritage, said she has gotten requests to carry rosaries and even hand a letter to the pope by people in her immigrant family.
Everyone who's heard about her meeting Francis, she said, was impressed that the pope was taking time to be with immigrants and the children of immigrants.
"I am actually still in shock," said Ramírez, 18, of the South Bronx. "It's really nice . . . because a lot of immigrants feel like they are not welcome in America."