Toward Fullness of Life: Olivia Builds A House
Olivia is the oldest of 10 children. When she was 5 years old, her family moved from the rural Bolivian highlands, to the outskirts of La Paz. They shared a makeshift dwelling with relatives from their village in a place called El Alto, situated at 13,125 feet above sea level.
Olivia attends school whenever she can, though the cost of the necessary uniforms and books is a heavy burden on her family’s budget. Her attendance is irregular, as she often needs to help her mother by looking after her siblings, especially since her father died at an early age.
Olivia never finishes grade school; she gets married in her 20s and has three sons, who want to pursue professional careers. The family is able to purchase the property they have been living on for two generations, and it dreams of building a comfortable three-story house with separate larger apartments for each of the sons as well as a small dwelling behind a storefront for Olivia and her husband. To do so, they need to send at least one member of the family abroad. Their construction project would require regular remittances in hard currency coming from outside Bolivia.
Olivia goes to Switzerland
In order to send her children through high school and college as well as to pay for the project, Olivia agrees to join several members of her extended family who have already migrated to Switzerland and found domestic employment there. She is told that even if her husband or one of the sons were willing to rise to the challenge, they would have little success, because there are few jobs for men in this sector.
Olivia is well over 40 years old when she arrives in Europe. At first she stays with her relatives, sleeping on a mattress in their tiny living room until she finds employment that offers lodging. She regularly attends worship at the Latin American Methodist congregation that provides a spiritual home for her. She soon starts working for Elvira, an elderly Spanish woman whose health is failing and who needs additional assistance.
Her live-in caretaker, Linda, an acquaintance of Olivia’s family, offers to share her room with Olivia, who gratefully accepts and does most of the housework. Her talents as a seamstress allow her to earn extra income by working for Elvira and other clients.
Olivia is accused of stealing
Linda convinces Elvira to entrust her with most of her jewels, some of which are family heirlooms. Each time Linda receives items from Elvira, she takes them to the pawnshop, exchanging them for cash, which she sends to her relatives at home. Since Olivia speaks no French, she is an easy prey to Linda’s scheme: Linda instructs Olivia to bring her passport with her to the pawnshop and sign for the supposed safekeeping of the goods. Linda plans to return to her home country as soon as possible, thus framing the unsuspecting Olivia.
When Elvira is hospitalized after a fall, her daughters notice the absence of the jewels and accuse the two employees of theft. By that time, Linda is nowhere to be found. Olivia is arrested and undergoes interrogation, and isn’t released until 3 days later.
The next Sunday she tells the congregation that these were the worst hours of her life. Right from the start, though, she was determined to tell the truth, confident that she would eventually be freed, because she put her trust in a Bible passage: John 8:32, which says, “The truth will make you free.”
Olivia is rescued
More than two years later, Olivia has not yet been sentenced, but during the entire time of the judicial proceedings, she has benefited from legal protection. She was given a work permit and allowed to stay in the country as an essential witness. The state is paying for her Spanish-speaking lawyer. An international police warrant has resulted in Linda’s arrest overseas, and many of the jewels have been recuperated.
Olivia would like to return to her family at the end of 2013. Her aging mother is ill and needs her care. Olivia’s dream house has been built on solid ground, and her sons are finishing their education. She has been given the desires of her heart (Psalm 145:16-19). We thank God for having given Olivia the chance to reach her goals, and we pray that she will be allowed to leave Switzerland as planned.
Migration is a challenge for churches all over the world: Countless men and women from poorer countries live and work as undocumented workers, so-called illegal aliens, in industrialized nations like the United States and Canada, as well as throughout Europe. Many of these migrants are Christian. The Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Switzerland, France and North Africa has a special calling to provide this type of spiritual home away from home, with circuits formed by migrants from Cambodia, the Congo and Haiti, as well as from Central and South America.
“God of life, lead us to justice and peace” is the theme of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Pusan, South Korea, October 30-November 8, 2013. This prayer also concerns undocumented workers like Olivia, who are employed in the domestic sector: “May the God of life accompany them, and all of us as Christian communities, on the journey to a life of dignity and equal rights for all.”
All names and some facts have been changed in order to protect the identity of the persons mentioned.
Roswitha Golder is an ordained pastor of the Protestant (Presbyterian) Church in Geneva, Switzerland, and holds a doctorate of ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She is currently responsible for Witnessing Together in Geneva, a program of the John Knox International Reformed Center, uniting some 70 migrant churches.