During the university spring break, a group of Rowan and Stockton students, accompanied by Greg Coogan, the director, Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministries for the Diocese of Camden and I, journeyed to the Texas-Mexico border in order to answer our call to be missionary disciples. This pilgrimage is part of our response to Pope Francis’ invitation to all Catholics to share a journey with all our neighbors in this world, and especially to encounter migrants and refugees in support and solidarity.
While in Texas, we volunteered with Catholic Charities at the Humanitarian Respite Center. In this center we welcomed families from all over the Americas who have left their homes with their children, risking their lives in search of a better world. The Respite Center provides a welcome to the families who have been detained and released while they wait for a court date, during which they will have a chance to ask for a path to citizenship. Our role as compassionate caregivers was to provide food, clothes, a shower, toiletries, but most importantly, a smile and a warm welcome to these families.
In addition to volunteering at the respite center, our group had a chance to visit the border fence, as well as the communities impacted by the proposed wall on the border.
We learned that the bridge where many people cross seeking entry into the country is sometimes affected by human and drug traffickers. We learned that sometimes people with permits, visas, and other documents can still be barred (and have those documents ripped up in their faces) simply because someone might arbitrarily decide they should not enter the country.
We also learned that Border Patrol agents are not the bad guys either. Catholic social teaching holds that a country has a right to regulate its borders, but that it must do so with justice and mercy. The respite center actually has a great relationship with most of border control. As the U.S. bishops remind us: “Immigration policy that allows people to live here and contribute to society for years but refuses to offer them the opportunity to achieve legal status does not serve the common good. The presence of millions of people living without easy access to basic human rights and necessities is a great injustice.”
All of our pilgrims learned a lot about immigration. Most importantly, however, we all learned a lot about empathy, compassion and about our role as missionary disciples. We are all called to encounter the other, and to share their journey. As Saint John Paul II reminded us in his message for World Migration Day in 2000, “The church hears the suffering cry of all who are uprooted from their own land, of families forcefully separated, of those who, in the rapid changes of our day, are unable to find a stable home anywhere. She senses the anguish of those without rights, without any security, at the mercy of every kind of exploitation, and she supports them in their unhappiness.”
The church’s hospitality and services should never be conditioned by legal status, and we are all called to solidarity with our neighbors, whomever and wherever they may be.
Ivan Soares is campus minister at Rowan University, Glassboro.