Accompanying migrants at the border enriches our spiritual life

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Settled in a small meeting room at the Church of the Sacred Heart in El Paso, Texas, with the Jesuit priest who leads his order’s ministry in 12 states, Puerto Rico and Belize, I patiently await his response regarding his personal experience linked to the theme of tonight’s event: tracing the footsteps of God through the spiritual accompaniment of migrants.

Prof. Tom Green, the head of the Central and Southern Province of the Jesuits, came to the Sacred Heart as the last stop of a year-long Ignatian pilgrimage to visit the parishes in his territory. Along with Jesuit pastor Fr. Rafael Garcia and Bishop of El Paso Mark Seitz, they chose to focus during an evening Mass and gathering on May 14 on the rich possibilities of spiritual accompaniment for the poor. immigrants.

I came tonight because as a volunteer at local host homes, I want to hear about the spiritually rich experiences of others. And remember mine.

Greene is clearly humbled when he considers the impact of his past work as an asylum attorney in Chicago, practicing immigration law with unaccompanied minors and providing legal advice at refugee centers. detention. He should be able to express himself easily on this subject. But it’s a common answer. Whenever I asked people who accompanied migrants and asylum seekers about the impact, they became pensive, sometimes emotional, as they reflected on their experiences and tried to find words.

“It was deeply spiritual and evangelistic work,” he finally says, “but I have to say that I was the one who was evangelized most of the time.”

Grounded in the Ignatian spirituality of finding God in all things, Greene credits young migrants teaching him what it means to profess his faith by how they saw God in their perilous and uncertain journeys. Their overwhelming faith and hope made him wonder how he couldn’t have hope in his own life, no matter the circumstances.

“The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to see the world through Christ’s eyes and have his answer,” Greene said. “So, to see these people beaten, abandoned, raped, extorted, treated as criminals, how not to try to help them?

Still, Greene says he was drawn to this ministry because it helped him so much in his faith. “I was trying to be Christ to them and yet they were Christ to me, he says, acknowledging that it may sound selfish.

I smile in recognition. I’ve heard this so many times, from so many volunteers, that I know it’s not a flippant comment. From migrant shelters, one of which is on diocesan property, to courtrooms, from the El Paso airport to the detention center, local volunteers walked by and understood firsthand how the Christ is present before the migrant and the refugee. And, in my personal journey, no one has taught me more about what it means to live the gospel.

Even Seitz, with years of prayer and scripture study, says he accompanies migrants because he learns so much from them. “There is incredible faith in these people who have nowhere else to put their hope,” he told me. “And when they put their trust in God, amazing things happen, and they can see that God is their source in answer to their prayers.”

A controversial figure among some for his outspoken support for immigration reform and migrant care, Seitz’s personal experiences of walking alongside people inform his commitment. He shares that he became a strong advocate for immigrants because “the more you get to know them as human beings, the closer you feel, the more you share their pain, and then you are brought to speak firmly without fear.” .

A very good start, he says, is recognizing them as human beings. “Then you can go further and recognize them as guides in your journey,” he said.

If the accompaniment of migrants has touched these two clerics who dedicate their lives to God so much, imagine the impact they have on lay volunteers like me.

My friend Janet Kincaid comes to mind. When Kincaid began accompanying migrants in the summer of 2014, she was going through what she would call a kind of crisis of faith. By listening and allowing those she accompanied to share their suffering with her, she learned the sanctity of being present to one another, and went from doubting God to having her most powerful experiences of God within. others.

As she considers the hundreds, if not thousands, she has accompanied since then, Kincaid is comforted by their strength and faith. “I don’t think I’ve met a single one who didn’t want to be a big contributor to our country,” she says. “They would only stimulate our economy.”

Debbie Northern, a Maryknoll lay missionary who has served in El Paso since August 2021, previously lived in El Salvador, where she learned about the circumstances that drive people from their homes. Accompanying them on this side of the border has made her more grateful and aware of the gifts and privileges she has received. She tells me that just being born in the United States is one of those undeserved gifts.

It is also a gift that I appreciate more.

But I realize that some will no doubt argue, as one participant will later in the evening, that this gift should not be wasted by opening our borders. Seitz disputes the use of the term, noting that it is not about “open borders”; it’s about tackling outdated laws and creating policies that respond to the current situation. He cites the huge labor shortage in the United States, how the migrants he knows work hard, and how unfortunate it is to have these kinds of negative images associated with immigrants.

It seems fitting that tonight’s Gospel reading is taken from John 13, the one in which Jesus gives his disciples a new command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, you too will love one another.

In his homily, Seitz points out, “We have no written exceptions. The way Jesus challenges us to love is how he loved us.”

But he also knows that loving like this is impossible without the grace of God. A human being is not capable of loving others like that alone. This is the simplest and most difficult of Jesus’ teachings. And the best teachers that I and my fellow volunteers have had on this journey are the migrants at our border.

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