Have you ever had a moment when you just knew the Holy Spirit was at work right in front of you? When your spine tingles and your eyes grow wide? I experienced one of those sacred encounters in a Catholic school basement in Cherry Hill last year, and I’ll never forget it.
I was moderating a panel of folks who work for our Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program. They welcome individuals and families who are fleeing violence and persecution around the world and help them adjust to their new lives here in South Jersey. Two of the panelists were former refugees themselves who now work for the program, including a lovely man named Francis, who is originally from Burma (now called Myanmar).
At the start of the program, I told the crowd that the refugees who move here are living and working and going to school right alongside us, whether we knew it or not. The panel’s goal was to help raise awareness of the work Catholic Charities is doing and share with attendees how they could get involved. How might we all be good neighbors to these newly arriving members of our community?
We took a short break in the middle of the event, and I made small talk with Francis.
“So, where do you live?” I asked.
He told me.
“Wait, where?” I replied. My spine tingled and my eyes grew wide.
It turned out Francis and his family lived right around the corner from me. They were my literal neighbors. I drive past their place every day. I had no idea.
Minutes before, I had told the room about the importance of neighborliness. Now, it’s as if God was gently but clearly asking me, “Do you practice what you preach?”
That moment reminds me of a theme that comes up over and over again in the Bible: God calls us to be good neighbors through our actions, especially to newcomers in our communities. In the Book of Exodus, God commands the Israelites to treat foreigners well, for they themselves had been mistreated as foreigners under Pharaoh in Egypt. God says, “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (23:9).
When God criticizes unholy behavior of the Israelites through his prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, one of their most egregious offenses is failing to welcome the stranger among them.
Jesus picks up on this same idea throughout the Gospels, most poignantly in the Last Judgment story found in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel. He tells his disciples that on the last day, those who will be welcomed into heaven will be those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner, and, yes, welcomed the stranger.
Jesus says whenever we welcome the stranger, we welcome Jesus himself. In other words, if you’d like to see the face of Christ in the world today, look into the face of a refugee fleeing the civil war in Syria, or into the face of an undocumented immigrant fearing deportation. Inspired by this challenging, powerful teaching of Jesus, our Catholic Charities agency (along with scores of other faith-based organizations nationwide) welcomes refugees. In no uncertain terms, this is the Lord’s work.
It’s no secret that there’s some fear and controversy connected to the worldwide refugee crisis we are experiencing right now. Unfortunately, there are lots of misconceptions about who refugees are and about the process of coming here. Here are just a few of those and some clarifications. (Go online and find a Catholic Relief Services article titled “11 Things You May Not Know About Refugees” for a more detailed summary.)
Isn’t it good to be vetting refugees now?
The United States has been vetting refugees for years. Individuals and families who come here can’t apply to be refugees, but they are selected through screening processes conducted by the United Nations. There are about 20 steps in the screening process, including fingerprinting and an iris scan. They are interviewed numerous times. The process can take two years or more. We have admitted more than 3 million refugees to the United States since the 1970s. The vetting process is strong.
Shouldn’t we care for those Americans who are in need first, before concentrating on other countries? And couldn’t they be dangerous?
The Catholic Church in the U.S. helps those at home and those abroad because both are important. We are called to care for those who are vulnerable, no matter where they are from, since we are all children of God. The church teaches that wealthy countries like ours have special obligations to welcome those who are fleeing their own homelands in fear.
“In Syria, people are left with almost no possessions as bombs destroyed their homes, shops, and hospitals,” the article by Catholic Relief Services mentioned above says. “It’s ironic that at the same time refugees are trying to flee terrorism in their lives and homeland, we confuse those same refugees with being terrorists themselves.”
Most of the refugees coming here are Muslims. Why don’t Muslim countries take them instead?
According to the United Nations, about 6.8 million Syrian refugees are currently living in predominantly-Muslim countries. By comparison, the 12,587 Syrian refugees who were resettled in the United States in 2016 is a small number.
Aren’t most refugees men who left their families behind?
Nearly three-quarters of the Syrian refugees who came to the United States in 2016 were women and children; about half were under the age of 14.
Why bring refugees here? Wouldn’t it be better to help them stay in their own countries?
Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian aid organization of the U.S. Catholic community, does work with refugees where they are, in countries like Turkey and Lebanon. But so many Syrian cities and towns have been utterly destroyed in the six-year civil war. It could take decades for those places to be rebuilt. Resettlement is one part of the long-term solution to the refugee crisis.
Some people say “immigrants” while others say “refugees.” Are they the same thing?
“Immigrants” is an umbrella term about anyone leaving their country for another. A refugee is a certain type of immigrant that has a particular legal status and level of protection because of their vulnerability. There are certain eligibility requirements that potential refugees need to meet. Once that status is attained, refugees gain certain protections from governments; most importantly, they cannot be returned to the country from which they fled.
Maybe you’re wondering how you might get involved in this important work. Here are two quick ideas:
Visit the website for Catholics Confront Global Poverty, a legislative advocacy network sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.confrontglobalpoverty.org). You’ll find a link on the front page that will enable you to contact your senators, congressional representative, and president with a pro-refugee message.
Also, check out our Catholic Charities refugee resettlement website (www.catholiccharitiescamden.org/refugee-immigration). There, you can learn how to build a welcome kit for a refugee family and read more about how you can use your time, talent and treasure to help in the essential work of radical hospitality.
As people of faith, now is the time for bold action. Don’t let this big chance to welcome Jesus by welcoming refugees pass you by.
Mike Jordan Laskey is director, Life and Justice Ministries, Diocese of Camden.