HERNDON, Virginia, August 21-It took only a few hours for the tension to blanket our neighborhood. Only two miles from Dulles Airport, it has become predominantly Hispanic over the last decade. My husband and I, both Teutonic types, have enjoyed our neighbors and attempted to get to know many of them.
About 45 minutes south of Herndon is the quiet, unincorporated town of Bristow, Virginia. Many of its 18,940 residents hit I-66 each weekday for round-trip trek to work in Washington, DC. On good days, they can manage one way in an hour. So can commuters in Herndon.
Along Linton Hall Road in Bristow sits St. Benedict Monastery, home to 31 Benedictine nuns who run Linton Hall School, a high school in Richmond and other charitable activities. Until August 1, 2010, relatively few residents of the nation’s capital area had ever heard of them.
Life changed for these nuns – and for my family – on that bright, sunny Sunday. Three of the Sisters assigned to Richmond were driving to Bristow to attend mass and join the other nuns for an annual retreat.
About 10 minutes from the monastery, the nuns’ Toyota Corolla was struck head-on by a vehicle allegedly operated by an intoxicated Carlos Martinelly Montano, 23. The impact killed Sister Denise Mosier, who had been asleep in the back seat. Sisters Connie Ruth Lupton, the driver, and Charlotte Lange, a passenger in the front seat, were airlifted to the Inova Fairfax trauma center.
My husband and I, Benedictine Oblates, were at the monastery when this occurred. The reaction was swift in the nation’s capital and in our neighborhood. The arrest of Montano, an alleged illegal immigrant with several prior DUI convictions, focused on the ongoing undocumented alien debate like a laser hones in on a kidney stone.
Of all the facts associated with this young driver, the media seized on the probability that he was an illegal immigrant. Politicians at the local and state levels vowed to take action, whatever that means. Somehow, illegal immigration and alleged drunk driving had instantly melted and then fused into one solid blob.
As soon as we returned to our home, we noticed the strained expressions on our neighbors’ faces. Several who always stopped to talk darted quickly into their homes or vehicles each time we emerged from ours.
Sister Denise would have been upset about this. I share the published position of the Sisters: the focus of this tragedy should be on the consequences of drinking and driving. Automatically linking it to an immigration debate is clearly a political action. It’s a move that has cast a heavy cloak of tension over nearly every predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in the Washington area.
Weeks after the accident, I still note the lack of conversation when I approach the neighborhood mailbox. The struggle to make sense of this tragedy and how it’s been politicized is lived out on two fronts. As an Oblate, I’m part of the Benedictine community struggling with dividing life into “before” and “after the accident.” As a resident of the Washington, DC area, I’m struggling with how to convince my neighbors that they don’t have to run if I approach.
At least tragedy has brought out the best in the Benedictine world. The Sisters were quick to forgive the young driver. Their charity is a model for all of us as as we carefully ponder whether these events should be linked to illegal immigration in the DC area.