(November 11, 2020)
“In You, Lord, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your justice rescue and deliver me; listen to me and save me! Be my rock of refuge, my stronghold to give me safety; for You are my rock and fortress.” (Psalm 71:1-3)
There are many in Latin America who have these words on their lips as they embark on a treacherous journey to the US, only to experience more treachery. They come to the US for refuge, but they are abrasively turned away.
If the US cannot be their refuge, then the US cannot be considered a godly land.
The Psalmist cries out to God from the depths. There is palpable danger and fear. The Psalmist finds refuge in God.
The migrant also cries out to God from a place of palpable danger and fear. The migrant is seeking refuge, but does not find it. The US sends the migrant back to a land of danger and fear.
There are those who assert that America is not for “illegals.”
(But America was taken from the Indigenous People illegally.)
Those same people follow a rhetoric that the “illegals” ought to come to this country legally.
This rhetoric fails to recognize that when one is in real danger, one is not concerned with paperwork and timelines. One could be murdered or die hungry by the time an immigration form has been rejected.
As Pope Francis stated, “When we talk about migrants and displaced persons, all too often we stop at statistics. But it is not about statistics, it is about real people! If we encounter them, we will get to know more about them. And knowing their stories, we will be able to understand them.”
While I was a Jesuit Novice, I went on a pilgrimage as Ignatius of Loyola did, visiting places of inspiration and trusting in God for the means along the way.
One of the places on my pilgrimage was Nogales on the US-Mexico border. On the Mexican side of Nogales, I spent time at a Catholic work called El Comedor, or the “dining room.” This was a place for people turned away from the US border to receive food, care, and compassion.
I did not encounter rapists and murderers. I did not encounter bitter individuals. I did not encounter con-artists looking for a way to prey on US social services. I encountered people who were just trying to live another day.
And despite the pain from the treacherous journey and the shame of being turned away from the US, I encountered people who were happy, because for many of these people, it was the first time anyone had ever cared for them. The meal these people received may have been the best they have had in months or years.
But even more than filling the stomach was filling the heart: the people who came to El Comedor realized that they mattered. El Comedor offered them dignity that these people were robbed of at the US border and in their homeland.
As Gustavo Gutierrez noted, “The poor and marginalized have a deep-rooted conviction that no one is interested in their lives and misfortunes.”* US immigration policy affirms this conviction. Therefore, reinstating the lost dignity of these migrant people is a necessary Gospel work.
As a Novice, I also spent three months in Honduras working at an orphanage and a nutrition center for malnourished babies.
I lived in El Progreso, and never saw a smile on the face of a passing person. During my stay, I learned why: violence and murder from the drug trade stole the souls of the people in Honduras.
Everyday I encountered both native Hondurans and visitors who were held up at gunpoint. Everyday I heard stories of someone’s friend or family member being stabbed or shot. Everyday I encountered not just the orphans I worked with, but an entire country of orphans who were in desperate need of a safe home.
Also during this time, I accompanied a high school service trip comprised of students from the Midwest.
We were traveling to a remote village, and the students were in a pickup truck behind the one I was in. I did not learn until we reached the village that a suspicious vehicle had pursued the other truck. A pickup bed with White teenagers was an easy target. Thankfully the driver outmaneuvered the pursuer, and the students eventually returned to their safe homes in the US. But the Hondurans remained in their unsafe homes.
I encountered people who were seeking refuge. Their refuge is in God, and a godly nation would accept them. The US is not a godly nation until it accepts refugees.
Our call as Christians is to promote refuge for those seeking safety.
To those who hold onto the belief that people shouldn’t come illegally, Brené Brown said it best: “I pray to God (literally) that you never have to flee violence or poverty or persecution with your children. And, if the day comes that you must and your children are forcibly removed from your arms – I will fight for you too.”
* Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), 24.