“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”Leviticus 19:33-34
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land…” Thus began my scripture passage I had found during my Lectio time the morning we began our journey to the Rio Grande Valley aka…the Border Trip.
For those who don’t know, I was blessed to spend 2 weeks with my Second Theology Classmates in San Antonio, Texas completing a workshop and cultural immersion on Hispanic Ministry in the 21st Century at the Mexican American Catholic College (MACC). Our time in San Antonio was extremely blessed and I truly treasure those memories and the bonding experiences my classmates and I had there. Besides our 5ish hours of class each day the middle of the trip included a visit to the Rio Grande Valley, known as the Border Experience Trip.
We began our journey to the border with a morning of reflection with one of the MACC faculty members on immigrants, refugees, and the experiences she had working in refugee camps for a very long time. We read and reflected on Scripture passages…one of which was that poignant passage from Leviticus that had graced my morning prayer time. After lunch we packed up, boarded the bus and drove south to the Basilica Shrine of our Lady of the Valley, where we would stay in their pilgrim hotel for our few nights there.
I am a huge fan when traveling of not judging others, their culture, their experiences, and the experiences I have while there with thoughts and preconceived notions from back home. I like to immerse myself in a place and experience life as a “local” of sorts. So, I prayed. Thanks to the great idea of my classmate, Brother Simon, OSB, we had a Holy Hour on Wednesday evening to pray for our experiences. And so we prayed!! I prayed that the Lord would bless this experience, that he would bless my classmates and I with open hearts, eyes, and ears, that we might listen to what the Lord was asking of us on this trip and that we would be able to leave the largely politicized language, and stories of the Border behind so that we could see what it truly was like. As I shared that Levitical text on my Facebook and Twitter, it so happened that President Trump was on his way down to the Valley at the same time and that our time there would overlap. Sure enough, I had a group of folks who began to comment and reply back about “pro-wall this” and “that.” As I responded to some of the claims being made, I found that I had to remind myself to be patient…quiet…kind…and to not let my ideas and pre-concieved notions get in the way. That was hard. My german-blood pressure was rising and I wanted to speak, but instead I chose to be silent…mostly.
Yesterday we celebrated the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Each of us no matter our walk in life, our relationship with the Lord, etc. is in need of daily, personal conversion. I experienced a conversion of sorts at the wall, and since that’s the point of this post, I guess I should get to it!
We had what I would call five “main” experiences at the Border. The first consisted of home visits with ARISE, (a group of immigrant women or others assisting them and working to make better, safer, and cleaner communities there in the Valley), several visits to pray and visit the Border wall, volunteering at a Respite Center, Mass at the Basilica, and a conversation with Bishop Daniel Flores, of Brownsville Texas.
The Arise visit gave us the opportunity to hear from local immigrant families about their experiences and lives in both the USA and wherever they came from in South/Central America. My home visit brought me back instantly to my time in Guatemala. I got to practice my spanish, enjoy the wonderful hospitality of an Abuela, and hear of the struggles, joys, and faith of a woman who was deeply invested in her new home, city, and country. It was a wonderful experience.
We also got to hear from a young woman who was a DACA recipient about her journey, the fears of being brought as a young girl to this country by Coyotes, the fear of losing her family…we cried with her as she shared with us the pain of not being able to go home for her Grandmothers funeral, her Uncle’s funeral, not being able to see family members who were instrumental in her young life ever again. I can’t begin to imagine what my life would be like if my parents had taken me and my triplets siblings as children to run to a foreign land just so we could have food on the table and a chance at a life of peace and joy.
When we went to the Border wall, I was struck by how unnatural it was. I was struck by the fact that beyond the wall was a beautiful texan/dessert America at times for several miles, but I as an American couldn’t go there because the wall prevented me. I was struck by the humor and the kindness shown by those we encountered there, the border agents getting into their vehicles to go home to their families after a long day. The ones who waved at us and smiled. This dichotomy of welcoming, hospitality, and refusal, denial was stark. The fence was cold. It was concrete, metal, and the top was covered in freshly installed barbed wire. It felt surreal. Almost like a war zone of sorts. I couldn’t wrap my mind around all of the emotions and feelings that I was experiencing. It just didn’t make sense.
As we saw a ladder fashioned crudely out of 2×4’s on the American Side of the fence, I thought of and I prayed for whomever used it the night before to climb the wall and come to America. I prayed for their family, for their peace, safety, for their faith. As we continued our walk around the border wall I couldn’t help but be grateful. Grateful for the life I’ve had, the privileges (and believe me… they are privileges) I enjoy as an American, grateful for being born in the family I was, in the land I was, the faith I was given. Let there be hope. Hope. HOPE. We just celebrated the birth of our Savior at Christmas into the world. We remembered the message of love of hope that he brought. For those families we visited with the USA stands still as a beacon of light, of freedom, of safety, of peace, and the one thing EACH person said: “of HOPE” for them, for their loved ones, for the world. And Hope I felt. Hope I encountered in the women working at ARISE. Hope, I encountered in the girl crying as she shared her story of seeking freedom. Hope, was found in the Stations of the Cross we prayed our first night at the Basilica. HOPE, was found in almost every moment, because our HOPE was not based in just our country, in just our world, but in the Hope of a Life eternal, where there will be no division, no sadness, no pain, no fear…a future of Hope, as Isaiah the prophet spoke. Christ, Jesus Christ brought, was, and IS that Hope.
Our visit with Bishop Flores was one of the highlights of the trip. He is a captivating speaker, doesn’t mince words, and was great at challenging us as future pastors to speak for those in need in our midst. He said many challenging things to us, two of which stood in my mind:
“The Church does not ask for legal documentation because Christ did not ask for it before helping the stranger. She asks Are you hungry? Are you cold? Do you need shelter? She asks and she provides care. She asks and she acts. She asks and is the feet and hands of Christ”
“Your job as future pastors is to invite to the Eternal Banquet everyone, in a society which sadly prefers to eat alone.”
I’ll reflect on these in a couple paragraphs at the end…
After our visit with the good Bishop, we headed to a Respite Center to volunteer. This center was opened by Catholic Charities to assist those who have come into the Rio Valley seeking asylum with food, showers, clothing, and help in boarding their bus to wherever they are headed. Each person (except for the children) has a tracking device locked around their leg. That was unnerving. I understand the reasons the Government had placed it on them, (so that they could make sure they show up for their immigration court date) but it seemed cruel, cold, and inhospitable.
As I walked at the back of the line through the old Nursing Home turned respite Center I came outside the back door where my classmates were walking around handing out “carritos” “Hot-wheels” and stuffed animals to the little children. I started to cry. Seeing these men, my brothers many of whom don’t speak a lick of Spanish besides “Hola” reaching out and encountering these people filled my heart with such joy. I remarked later to them that in that moment I saw them each as priests and I was filled with such joy thinking of the good they were going to do in the future as pastors to a world so in need of the Lord’s love and mercy.
I met a gentleman who was my age. MY age. 24 who had brought his 4 year old son from Guatemala…left his wife and daughter behind so that he could live without fear and danger with the hope of one day having them reunite and be able to live in peace. We laughed. We joked with one another. And we reflected on the beautiful country and family he was pained to leave. I spoke with several other gentlemen there about life in the states, their lives and families they left behind, and gave them weather updates for where they were going. One of them asked me where I learned to speak Spanish. I explained my summer immersion in Guatemala. With tears in his eyes he thanked me. He a non-Catholic (who was quite surprised when I said I didn’t have a girlfriend or wife) thanked me for taking the time to learn his language so that I could share with him the love of God in that moment and bring a moment of peace and joy to him and the others there.
That made my entire summer worth it. To encounter one man and be able to listen, to joke, to share with…That made my entire summer experience and the struggles of learning Spanish incredibly, wholly, worth it.
I prayed for those folks every day I was in Texas and I still pray for them now. The words of thanks on their lips to Catholic Charities for reminding them of their dignity, of their creation in the image and likeness of God, of sharing compassion, food, comfort, with them broke my heart. Listening to children…little children under 8-11 years old tell you thank you for a hot wheel car, tell you how glad they are to have food, warm clothes, and to be with their families in a warm place after being detained in the giant “refrigeradores” (refrigerators) for days touches you and it moved my heart with pity and love. Misericordia, the sorrow of the heart was felt. But yet, there was HOPE. And for that I am grateful.
At Mass on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Rector invited some of my brothers who are instituted Acolytes to assist with the distribution of Communion, after the Prayer after Communion, welcoming us again, he and the parishioners and visitors applauded for us as they promised prayers for our Vocations, and the communities we will one day serve.
Is there a solution to the Border?
You might be wondering what my thoughts on the Wall and the border and immigration are. I’d like to go back to the two comments Bishop Flores made that stuck with me:
Bishop Flores reminded us of our job as pastors is to invite ALL to the Eternal Banquet table. I don’t get to choose who I invite to the Heavenly Banquet. I as a future priest of Jesus Christ HAVE to serve ALL. Specifically, like Christ, I have to serve those in need. I, like the Church do not ask for legal documentation before helping someone in need. I ask, what do you need? Food? Shelter? Clothing? And I strive to meet that need. No questions asked. Why? Because my job is the care of souls. I am called daily to make Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross my own. I am called to deny what I want, for what Christ asks of me. I am called to daily conversion. Which for me, includes welcoming the stranger and seeing them as friend. I am called to be the hands of Christ to a broken world, to help each person to know that they are loved, that they are valued, in whose image they have been created, and by who’s blood they have been purchased and redeemed.
My job, my role, my calling is to welcome the stranger-for in the Church, ALL have a home. Not just a select few. Not just those born in this land. Not just those with a passport or green card. Not just those who have a job. ALL. EACH and EVERY person has a home and is welcomed in the Church as if they’re Christ-himself. Because… they ARE. Our Theologies of Incarnation, elevate the human person. Because Christ, the living-God humbled himself and became man, he raised our human flesh to the dignity and honor due to God. We are the people he has claimed as His own. And because of that we MUST strive to always uphold the dignity of every person.
It’s common knowledge that we have a broken immigration system. It is under-funded, under-staffed, and does not always honor the dignity of each human person. At the same time, neither does our healthcare system, education system…the list goes on and on. For us…this side of Heaven we have to strive to build up a better world each day. That means a lot of reforms. Our country is incredibly blessed and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but…but that doesn’t mean that we still can’t and still shouldn’t do better!
Should we have a wall? I honestly don’t know. Part of me says yes. Part of me says no. I don’t think it is my place to get into that argument in depth here. If you want to know, feel free to ask me my mixture of thoughts in person. However… as a Seminarian and God-willing future priest I think, I believe, I know that the Church has the ability, authority, and mandate to speak on the basic topics of immigration and immigrants. Her job is to safe guard and help us recognize the dignity of others.So what does she say? The Catechism lays out two main points on this topic meant to balance each other.
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.CCC 2241
“So, the Catholic view is that a prosperous nation such as ours should be generous in receiving immigrants, especially refugees and the poor, but that there are legitimate limits the nation can apply. In particular, the receiving nation has a right to expect things of immigrants: that they follow its laws, respect the country’s way of life, and contribute to the shouldering of civic responsibilities. (A nation also has the right and duty to defend and promote the common good of its citizens — see CCC 1910.)”Mons. Charles Pope
Yes, that’s right it’s the good old Catholic “Both-And.” Nations have the right and duty when able to assist those in need, to require something of them, and to defend themselves. It’s a balance and truthfully, it will be very hard to find a solution that fits both perfectly. But we must try to do such.
Monsignor Pope puts it well in the above linked article:
“Do you want the wall to be built? Fine, but be sure that your support is based on national security and the common good of our citizens rather than a rejection of the generosity required of a prosperous nation such as ours.
Do you oppose the building of the wall? Fine, but be sure that you can articulate the conditions on the right to immigrate so that “the common good” is protected. Be certain that your plan ensures that immigrants fulfill their “duties toward their country of adoption” (“respect[ing] with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, … obey[ing] its laws, and … assist[ing] in carrying civic burdens”).”
My experience at the Border was one of joy. One of sorrow. One of hope. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. There’s a lot of humility that needs to be received by both sides of the discussion. And there’s a lot of conversion of our hearts that needs to take place…mine included! May the Lord bless us with the grace to welcome the stranger, the immigrant, those in need as if we were welcoming himself…the Christ child, into the world on that Christmas night. May he, the child of immigrants, who showed us in his lowly birth how he came for ALL, help us to serve all, to love all on this walk of beauty, so that at the end forever we might be with Him in Heaven.
We’re all on this journey together. The immigrant walking their own way of the Cross to a better life. The natural born citizen walking toward racial equality. The woman walking toward equal pay. The man walking to find a job to put food on the table for his family. Our life can be a living set of the Stations of the Cross if we let it. If we let Christ in… If we let Christ walk with us… IF we let Christ lead us to Calvary with him, will we have the courage to stand up, to speak peace, love, mercy, and forgiveness as he did? Will we have the courage to defend the widowed, the orphan, the stranger, the naked, the hungry? If we won’t be the hands and feet of Christ on this walk of ugliness, of sin, but yet of beauty, of human fleshiness, of messiness, who will?
It’s up to us as future pastors to deal with the care of souls. To welcome all to the Eternal Banquet of Heaven, to build community among a culture which prefers to be detrimentally-individualistic, and to help others to see the face, the hands, the feet, the heart and body of Christ in each person we encounter.