This series of teaching editorials focuses on the Church’s approach to immigrants and refugees, especially in light of Pope Francis’ invitation to “Share the Journey.”
“The idea was to come to the U.S. to study to provide for my family. In that journey, I never realized how difficult it is to be in a land where people don’t want you.”
An active parishioner of a Louisville parish spoke these words last week. She was sharing the story of her own immigration from a Central American country. She fled her native land more than 20 years ago for opportunities and a future without violence.
Her story is apropos as Advent approaches. The church season centered on preparing for Christ’s birth begins on Sunday. Already the radio is airing Christmas music, including that triumphant hymn that often concludes Christmas Masses — “Joy to the World.”
One line in that hymn of joy stands out from others as we consider the millions of people classified as immigrants and refugees around the world. It’s the fourth line of the first verse: Let every heart prepare him room.
We are reminded in those six words that we — living 2017 years after his birth — must make room for him in our hearts.
Of course, we know from Scripture that no one prepared a room for Christ that night in Bethlehem. Pregnant, without friends or relatives, the Holy Family wandered homeless until they were offered the humblest shelter. Were they here with us in the 21st century, we might offer the Holy Family space in the garage, if that.
Sometimes immigrants today do live in garage-like structures. And refugees spend decades in makeshift camps.
Pope Francis has called on us directly to “prepare him room,” by sharing our journey, our lives with immigrants and refugees.
It’s easier not to know who these statistically anonymous immigrants and refugees actually are. The Nov. 9 edition of The Record shared the stories of young adult immigrants, who know little of their countries of origin and want nothing more than to learn and join in American life in the United States.
In this editorial, we encounter that parishioner mentioned above, an active Catholic living in Louisville who spends most of her time caring for other immigrants.
She grew up in poverty with her mother, sister, brother and an abusive father — he molested his children and battered his wife. He abandoned the family when she was a preteen.
A few years later, her brother was robbed and murdered on his way home from work. He left behind two young children.
The murder devastated her and her family, but “murder was a day-to-day thing,” she explained. Poverty — and a lack of opportunity to overcome poverty — foment violence.
It was a tipping point for her: She decided to come to the United States on a student visa.
“The only thing we heard was that this is a land of opportunity, where people will welcome you and you will find a decent job,” she said. “Where you can achieve ‘the American dream.’ A lot of us, that’s the reason that we leave. Half of the kids I grew up with are either murdered, in jail or they are delinquents back home because they lack any opportunity.”
But in the U.S., she encountered another reality — a pervasive nativism that shuns immigrants. Very quickly, she felt compelled not only to help her family but also help the immigrants she encountered around her.
“There were so many injustices, so much oppression toward the immigrant in the land of immigrants,” she said, expressing a deep knowledge of Louisville’s vast immigrant roots — especially German, Italian, Irish and French.
Here in the United States, she said, “I have witnessed women that have crossed the border with their sick babies. They bring them to the land of the free to get help.
“I have witnessed people working three jobs and getting paid a third of what other people make,” she said.
“I have also witnessed unaccompanied minors, young people whose options are to become a part of a gang and get murdered or decline (to join) and get murdered.”
“I have been told in my face by Catholics, ‘When are you going to have your own immigrant church?’ You are not welcome here.
“I have been told by my fellow Catholic brothers and sisters, ‘You, go home.’
“This makes you reflect, when Pope Francis talks about the journey, when he talks about looking on one another with love and compassion, it goes beyond the politics of any one country.”
For Catholics, immigration is not a political issue first. It is a moral issue.
Not all of her encounters have been bad. She has found a welcoming parish and developed a host of supporters who accompany her in her work.
“I have witnessed love and generosity from people who are willing to open their hearts, even if they don’t understand the struggle, the anguish and the fear people bring to them.”
Let every heart emulate theirs and prepare him room.