Pope Francis’ visits to the United States in September and to Mexico in February have drawn the attention of Congress, Church leaders, Catholics in the pews, and regular citizens to many concerns that he holds dear, including those that immigrants and refugees face.

Welcoming the Stranger

By Mary Baudouin

Pope Francis’ visits to the United States in September and to Mexico in February have drawn the attention of Congress, Church leaders, Catholics in the pews, and regular citizens to many concerns that he holds dear, including those that immigrants and refugees face.

In his address to U.S. bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC, on September 23, he praised the bishops and the U.S. Catholic Church for their care of migrants and refugees through Church agencies.

“From the beginning, you have learned their languages, promoted their cause, made their contributions your own, defended their rights, helped them to prosper, and kept alive the flame of their faith,” he said. “Perhaps you will be challenged by their diversity. But know that they also possess resources to be shared. So do not be afraid to welcome them.”

Pope Francis especially urged to church to offer immigrants “warmth of the love of Christ.”

Pope Francis recently spent a full day in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, where he again called the world’s attention to the plight of those fleeing their homelands in search of safety, security, opportunity and welcome. His message to welcome migrants is one which has already been taken to heart by different works in the Central and Southern Province, probably none more than Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas.


Sacred Heart Parish, El Paso

Since 1893, Sacred Heart Parish has been a cornerstone for El Paso’s Segundo Barrio. Situated just two blocks from the United States-Mexico border, the parish is immediately adjacent to the Santa Fe Bridge leading to Ciudad Juárez. With nearly 14,000 people crossing over this Rio Grande bridge daily, the parish area is a bustling, busy intersection of commerce and humanity.

While the Segundo Barrio maintains a culturally rich and socially vibrant community, it also faces financial challenges. High unemployment rates and low educational and literacy rates create critical barriers to well-being.

To address many of the alarming challenges in the neighborhood, Sacred Heart utilizes its old elementary school as the Centro Pastoral Social. The parish provides a wide variety of community services and ministries, which touch the lives of more than 3,900 individuals and families each year.

“Although we never, ever ask, we estimate that at least half of those whom we serve through sacramental, educational and social ministries are undocumented migrants,” says Pastor Ronald Gonzales, SJ.

“The beginning of our mission statement is that we strive to turn fear into hope. Many of the people who come to us are fearing for their very lives, having escaped from violence and extreme poverty in Ciudad Juárez and Central America.”

In addition to pastoral and sacramental ministry, the parish offers a variety of services to migrants, including:

  • Adult education programs assist more than 650 students to adapt and integrate into U.S. culture. Instructors encourage students to participate in the political, social and economic issues within the community.
  • The parish food pantry last year provided 2,834 households (7,924 family members) with nutritious staples to assist them in times of distress.
  • The Emergency Assistance Fund provides rent, utilities, clothes and furniture to families in crisis. Last year, 467 individuals and families received aid.

Fr. Rafael García gives First Communion to a young girl at St. Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City.

St. Francis Xavier Parish and Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Missouri

When Fr. Rafael Garcia, SJ, arrived in Kansas City two years ago, he became acquainted with a mainly Mexican immigrant community in the rural Lexington, Missouri area. For many years the Migrant Farmworker Project of Kansas City has provided supportive services to families who work in the apple orchards in the area, but Fr. Garcia discovered that pastoral care was needed. Many families expressed their desire to have their children receive the sacraments.

In response to this need, St. Francis Xavier Parish organized a 10-person “mission team,” including Rockhurst University students who wanted to work with Hispanic immigrants. The team travelled to Lexington for six consecutive Sundays, a time commitment of about five hours each day. While Fr. Garcia worked with the parents, the Rockhurst students taught the students.

In the past two years, 35 children and youth ranging in ages from two months to 22 years were prepared for and received one, two or all three Sacraments of Initiation. Each of the six Sundays was a celebration of community, with Mass in Spanish and potluck dinners, culminating in two joyful October masses at the parish to celebrate the sacraments. During the rest of the year, Fr. Garcia, parishioners and students go out to the community once a month for a Spanish Mass on Sunday and on special feast days like Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Megan Jeffries, a junior at Rockhurst University, served for two years in the project and found it to be both enriching and eye-opening. “Being a part of this ministry is very special to me because I never would have expected to find a community so close to home that is so underserved and facing so many injustices. Migrant farm workers and their families face many problems with poverty, access to food, healthcare, and other services.

“This ministry helps to ensure that their spiritual needs are being met. The children in my classes have a huge thirst to learn more about their faith. The community accepts us, and the message of God’s love that we bring to them, with so much excitement.”

Saint Louis University Law School Clinic

Housed in the Saint Louis University Law School Clinic, the Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry (CLAM) provides direct legal representation to clients in many immigration matters. This program is a collaborative effort between Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and the SLU Law School. Each semester CLAM, working in coordination with a full-time faculty member of the law clinic, offers the law students of Saint Louis University the opportunity to extern with practicing lawyers at CLAM. There they represent clients in many immigration matters, including family-based petition, refugee and asylee relative petitions, naturalization, and visas for victims of crime and human trafficking.

Students also assist with outreach and “Know Your Rights” programs throughout the St. Louis area to help educate immigrant communities about current issues that impact them. CLAM is one of the few agencies in St. Louis that will represent undocumented clients in both the areas of immigration and family law. The clinic has been working with a number of Central Americans who migrated within the last few years, as well as with an increasing number of Afghani, Bhutanese and Cuban refugees seeking asylum or family reunification in the United States.

Fr. Brian Christopher helps parishioners prepare Courage Kits for journeying families.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, San Antonio

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church was founded in 1911 to serve San Antonio’s Spanish-speaking population, many of whom fled the 1910 revolution in Mexico. Since its founding, the parish has served a primarily Mexican-American community, many of whom   are now second or third generation immigrants. Recently, however, the parish galvanized to meet the needs of immigrant women and children who were being released from immigration detention centers in Karnes and Dilley, Texas.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio rallied the churches in San Antonio to help with the grave situation families were facing. “Bus tickets in hand, these detainees have been dropped at the Greyhound station with no idea how to read their tickets, how transfers work, or how to communicate their concerns to the employees at the bus station,” said Fr. Brian Christopher, SJ.

“Some of them have tickets to leave the very day they are dropped, but others have to wait a day or more. Most are women and children left to fend for themselves on the streets of San Antonio, facing the very real threat of falling prey to robbers or human traffickers.”

Working with other churches and organizations, Fr. Christopher, parish staff and volunteers began identifying places that could host released detainees for a few nights. Two parishioners who run non-profit organizations offered an empty house normally used for volunteers. They also introduced Fr. Christopher to San Antonio District Councilwoman Shirley Gonzalez, who responded immediately, calling the hotel association to see if they would accommodate some of the families.

The partners in San Antonio have created a network of resources that can be utilized as needed to respond to the needs of the men, women and children being released. Our Lady of Guadalupe has been organizing to provide support to Catholic Charities and to a newly formed Interfaith Welcome Committee. The parish hosted a volunteer registration drive to line up people willing to sit in the bus station and welcome the released detainees as they walked in; drivers who transport them to their accommodations and then back to the bus station to catch their bus; and volunteers to be present in the various shelters and parish halls to assist the detainees and help them feel comfortable.

The parish also collected toiletries and other items to assemble “Courage Kits” – small care packages to provide women and children, many of whom show up at the bus terminal with nothing, with the bare necessities to hold them over until they reach their destinations.

Jesuit Social Research Institute, New Orleans

The Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI), a joint project of the Central and Southern Province and Loyola University New Orleans, takes a different approach to meeting the needs of immigrants. Instead of direct assistance, JSRI sponsors teach-ins and dialogues to help change the hearts and minds of Catholic parishioners and high school students about the realities faced by recent immigrants to the United States.

The purpose of these events is threefold:

  1. to listen and learn from immigrants about their real experiences;
  2. to learn what the Catholic Church teaches about migration;
  3. to discern how individuals are being called to respond to our nation’s immigration crisis.

JSRI has sponsored nine of these events to date, and has recently shared the model with the Archdiocese of St. Louis who will be sponsoring a high school teach-in in late April 2016.

The highlight of each dialogue or teach-in is a small group session during which immigrants tell their story: their experience in their home country, their often perilous journey across the border, their life in the United States, and their hopes and fears. This session gives participants a real-life glimpse into the life of one migrant, which helps to dispel many of the misconceptions and myths about undocumented people.

A Jesuit High School New Orleans students described how the teach-in impacted him: “After the meeting, I was brought into a whole new perspective on the subject; it was no longer a group of immigrants. I could now put a face to that group.”

The sessions are not just eye opening for the U.S. participants, but healing for the immigrants who tell their stories. As a 16-year-old immigrant boy explained, “I learned that it’s not bad to be an immigrant.”

His mother described her feelings at the end of the evening: “My heart is feeling loved by everyone in the room.”

This Year of Mercy is an ideal time for each of us to find a way to reach out to those people on the margins whom Pope Francis holds so dear. And with the many projects going on within our own province, there are ample opportunities to do so.

Mary Baudouin is provincial assistant for social ministries for the USA Central and Southern Province. This article first appeared in the winter issue of Jesuits magazine, the mission publication of the US Central and Southern Province. Please contact us if you would like to subscribe to Jesuits. 

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