In July of this year, Jodie Evans—one of the founders of the activist group Code Pink—was invited by Bolivian President Evo Morales to an audience with Pope Francis. But Evans couldn’t go, so she sent Felipe Sousa-Rodríguez in her place. And thus set into motion a chain of events that will likely echo in the Pope’s remarks to the United States Congress on Thursday.
Sousa-Rodríguez is both gay and, until recently, undocumented. He was raised by a single mother in the slums of Brazil, who sent him at age 14 to the United States, and he finally got his papers through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. And in 2012, he married his longtime partner in activism and life, Isabel Rodríguez. Sousa-Rodríguez’s own advocacy has often focused on the LGBT rights and immigration reform. His trip to Bolivia to meet the pope was no different.
Sousa-Rodríguez carried with him a letter from the members of United We Dream, the most prominent immigrant youth-led organization in the United States. The letter had three simple requests: that Pope Francis meet with undocumented immigrants during his trip to the United States; that he speak out against detention centers; and that he also speak out against a lawsuit conservative state attorneys general have filed to block a version of DACA that would apply to undocumented parents.
“When I was first invited I thought I was going to meet with Pope Francis in a small setting,” Sousa-Rodríguez says. “Well, that didn’t happen.” In fact, Sousa-Rodríguez was just one of about 1,500 people including leaders from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Paraguay who would all be in the room with the Pope, too. If he was going to deliver his letter, Sousa-Rodríguez needed a Plan B.
“I had to organize the entire conference to get the letter to the pope,” Sousa-Rodríguez says. He painted a beautiful picture of the process in an email to me:
I’ve never shared my story so much in my life. I told everyone about the abuses happening in the United States, I read the letter to them in Spanish and in Portuguese. Because of coming out both as queer and as an immigrant I was able to add immigrant rights, opposition to state violence against black folks, and LGBTQ rights in the official document delivered by movements from Latin America to the Pope. This is a document now called the ‘El Documento Santa Cruz.’ This was not an easy process for me because I was coming out to Bishops and priests from all over the world, we all know the Catholic Church doesn’t have a great stance on LGBTQ issues. The more I came out the more others would also come out. In the end of the meeting, we had a solid queer group and the youth groups from Brazil were chanting anti-homophobia slogans. It was incredible to learn about the pain, resistance, and resilience from the people in Latin America and to know they had my back.
But what about the letter? “I found my greatest allies in a Kurdish leader from the women’s liberation movement there, the Cuba delegation, and a domestic worker organizer from Mexico. The plan was simple: Whoever got closest to the pope during his speech had to deliver the letter.” Sousa-Rodríguez had brought 10 copies with him, just in case. It turns out he needed every one. (You can watch Felipe read the full text of his letter here.)
It was the Kurdish leader who ended up seated right next to the pope during the audience. When the pope went to shake her hand, she handed him the letter. “It was an epic moment,” says Sousa-Rodríguez. “She looked back and I was on top of the chair with the Cuban delegation to give her moral support. She made eye contact with us and she gave him the letter.” The Kurdish leader told Pope Francis, “This is a letter from immigrant youth in the United States, please read it.”
Sousa-Rodríguez was blown away by the experience. “She had the opportunity to lobby the pope to do a million things for her people,” Sousa-Rodríguez says, alluding to his Kurdish ally—and certainly anyone who’s read the news lately could think of several such requests. “Yet she chose to read him our letter. True solidarity is love shown through action,” Sousa-Rodríguez adds.
Will Pope Francis directly reference the letter or its contents in his speech to Congress on Thursday? All of us who will be watching the speech today, including 100 immigrant women walking 100 miles from a detention center in Pennsylvania to see the pope in Washington, will soon find out. Certainly, that was Sousa-Rodríguez’s intent—that the pope directly cite the letter in his speech or otherwise fulfill the activists’ requests.
At the airport leaving Bolivia, Sousa-Rodríguez got an encouraging sign. “I saw the pope’s plane in the runway, then a person who works at the Vatican approached me,” says Sousa-Rodríguez. “He gave me a little leather bag with a rosary inside and said, in Spanish, ‘The Holy Pope wants to give you this.’”
Startled, Sousa-Rodríguez asked why. The Vatican official replied, “He wanted you to know he loves you.”
It’s a compelling message Pope Francis could also send in his address to all of America’s undocumented immigrants. And a message that activists from around the globe already helped deliver, loud and clear.