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BY TIM SEVERYN | May 17, 2018 | EN ESPAÑOL

At six and a half years old, Roberto* enrolled in kindergarten, a year behind his peers. Over the last 8 months, when he ought to have been learning to read and playing on the playground, he had instead been on the run with his papa, mama, and four year old sister, Marian—from the gangs in his home nation of El Salvador, from the human traffickers on the Guatemala-Mexico border, from the paid contractors on the Mexico-U.S. border looking to capture him and return him to the violence he had fled from months prior. He, like so many in similar situations, has experienced trauma.

[Sarnil Prasad via Flickr]

His first day in Cincinnati, Ohio, he spelled mama ven, mama come, on the refrigerator in magnets. Stretching his spelling skills across time and space, begging for safety and security for his family. But it would be more than four weeks before ICE would release her and 4-year-old Marian to our care. Mama with an ankle monitor and Marian barely recovered from the chicken pox she caught while incarcerated in the euphemistically named “South Texas Family Residential Center,” a prison in all but name, where they had to prove “credible fear” before a hostile ICE officer. After a night spent in the airport, they finally arrive—a tearful reunion—holy.  

On Good Friday, the many faces of Christ crucified today covered the cross during veneration at Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati. 

So here we are in 2018: Our government actively separating families like theirs for the sole purpose of discouraging other immigrants from coming, from fleeing violence in search of a better life. 

Here we are: okay with locking up a 4-year-old child and her mother in an isolation ward, a shared solitary confinement; okay with a child sleeping on a tax-payer funded slab of a cot in a dark room without electricity.

Okay with so many families fleeing death threats for the better part of a year, only to be locked up by the designated “safe” country like they had committed a crime rather than been the victims of one.  

We, the American people, have decided we are okay with this—so long as we’re secure.

But we, the Catholic Church, have decided we’re not okay with this.

In 2015, Pope Francis stood before some of the most powerful people in the world, the U.S. Congress, and declared: “Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”  

Bellarmine parishioners and members of the local immigrant community from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador participate in a Share the Journey potluck meal.

Last fall, Pope Francis invited all Catholic congregations across the world to join him in doing precisely this, launching a two-year campaign with Caritas called Share the Journey. In partnership with the Jesuits, the Ignatian Solidarity Network has launched a complementary effort known as the Campaign for Hospitality, with roots going back to an intercontinental Jesuit social ministry conference in the Dominican Republic last year. Among the attendees at that conference was Fr. Dan Hartnett, S.J., a longtime missionary in Peru and the current pastor of Bellarmine Chapel on the campus of Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.  

He returned from the conference on fire, quickly convening a group of parishioners and staff, including this author, a licensed social worker—around a simple question—What can we do? He wondered how we might begin to change the narrative around immigrants in our nation, or at least our community, to move from a story of criminalization to one of humanization.  

At Bellarmine’s Share the Journey retreat for parishioners, Xavier University Theology faculty, Dr. Marcus Mescher, provides Biblical grounding for welcoming the stranger.

As one parishioner remarked, “We can’t continue to treat trauma survivors like criminals, to treat preschoolers like enemies of the state. If we throw people away, label them disposable, the excluded of the earth, we spit in the face of God. Jesus reached out to the most vulnerable, and said, I love you—let us eat together, let us have table fellowship.” Bellarmine’s table has grown, and we’ve gotten an inkling of the table size Jesus imagined, that God crafted to feed us all.

A member of Bellarmine’s Immigration Team welcomes attendees to a screening of the documentary Human Flow.

 

From that initial gathering, we have rapidly expanded encounters between our primarily white, university-bound, middle and upper-middle class parish with our immigrant neighbors. We have formed a parish Immigration Team that meets on a monthly basis and has sponsored a number of events in the realms of 1) Hospitality/Relationship Building; 2) Education; and 3) Advocacy. We’ve held a story-sharing event with 250 in attendance, listening to immigrant women and Dreamers share their trauma and triumphs. We’ve accompanied five women and their families as they have launched a catering business—with their first event our Feast of St. Ignatius Picnic for over 200 parishioners with fresh tamales, empanadas, and papusas—and much fellowship. We held a Share the Journey retreat with 100 parish leaders present. We’ve helped launch a new nonprofit in the city, Casa de Paz/House of Peace for Latina survivors of domestic violence. And we’ve recently helped the Ignatian Solidarity Network establish an Ohio-wide coalition of Jesuit works lobbying Senator Portman on the Dream Act.  

But perhaps our deepest encounter, the one where we’ve truly shared the journey, expressing hospitality in the most radical sense of the word, of actually identifying with the suffering and becoming vulnerable ourselves in the process, has been with Roberto, Marian, Ella, and Luis, the family of four from El Salvador. We met them through the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit project in Nogales, AZ. KBI had contacted Bellarmine some months earlier with a simple request: We’ve got a family coming from El Salvador, could your parish take them in?  

Father Dan wanted to do this, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone—his time in Peru meant he had a command of the language, but that wouldn’t be enough to carry a family from suffering to safety. Could our community move beyond the protected pavers and well-manicured lawns of Xavier University, beyond our own class privilege and white skin, towards true encounter? An informal survey of the parish, 750 households in total, revealed a smattering of Spanish-speakers, no more than 10 families. Was that enough? Could we make this work? Father Dan stood before the parish one Sunday, and directly said: “Bellarmine, we’ve been asked, can we respond? We’ve been called, how will we answer?” He put the question before each of us—and the response was tremendous, sacred, blessed.

Having gone through the Spiritual Exercises as a community, we were primed for discernment and ready for real encounter. We wanted to be a field hospital like Pope Francis urges, a church abounding in mercy and love. Within weeks, we received an outpouring of generosity. Solidly ¼ of the parish actively relayed a desire to be involved, to support financially, assist with medical or legal counsel, educate, provide meals, and more. When a bilingual family stepped up to host in their own home, we knew we were moving with God. In Fr. Dan’s five years with the parish, it was the greatest single activation he’d seen. And so we said yes: yes to God’s call, and yes to accompanying our migrant neighbors through trauma to health.

It has been a lot of work to support this family’s transition, and we’re still early in the process (pray for us!), but we are as far as we are because we made a conscious effort to work together in a move from the culture of indifference towards the culture of encounter, towards radical hospitality. When we strive to make ourselves vulnerable, God abides. When we strive to become painfully aware, and our fortresses begin to break down, we become something better than we were before conversion. When we hear our neighbors’ heartbeats’ distress in our own chests, and realize the blood they spill is our own blood, the abuse they endure is, in some part, our own—we can no longer turn a blind eye to their suffering. When this happens, we know in our depths that the Body of Christ is real, and everything is connected in God, shining like the sun. When this happens, we know the tears of a child are the tears of our own children, crying out mama ven, mama come—the call of God. And we do our best to respond, to surround them with the same love we do our own. I am glad our church is one of thousands across the nation trying to live out this call to love, striving to Share the Journey.  

*Names have been changed for privacy.

BY CAITLIN WRIGHT | May 17, 2018

My brother Zachary was never the most athletic player on the field. In fact, for a decent portion of his childhood, he appeared as the exact opposite. Zach was the first kid to get glasses in elementary school, contracted asthma at a young age, and had allergies so extensive that, at age nine, he endured a series of painful shots once a week to combat his sensitivities to the environment. He looked like a blonde Harry Potter with a red ring around his mouth due to habitually licking his lips. Nevertheless, Zach got contacts, overcame asthma and his allergies, started using chapstick, and became a pretty talented soccer player.  But, Zach’s best friend Jhony? Jhony was always picked first for the team.

Jhony entered our lives in 2007 when he and Zach started playing soccer together. They were both in the sixth grade. As a pre-teen, Jhony was lightning fast and had foot skills that made all coaches in the league salivate. In any game, you could hear parents guffaw at his finesse. And as he grew up, he only got better. He was one of two freshmen to make the varsity soccer team at our high school. He was also a varsity track star. The cross country team wanted him to quit soccer in favor of their sport. He didn’t. His heart was with the beautiful game.

Jhony with the author’s father and brothers at a World Cup qualifier game.

Even with all of the fawning and praise, Jhony remained humble, hardworking, and unbelievably kind. He, Zach, and the rest of their club soccer team played together for years and grew to become best friends. They were known around the town, too, as a group of boys you could rely on. Together, they worked on school projects, coached younger players at camps over the summer, and went to church functions at our local parish. They ate dozens of Chipotle burritos, explored abandoned buildings they thought were haunted, and drove around our small Minnesota town in used cars. When people say “boys will be boys,” I can only hope they mean the kind of boys that comprised the group my brother and Jhony were a part of.

Jhony and Zach with friends.

And even after they left high school, the friends remained close. So did their families. In 2015, Jhony asked my dad to be his RCIA sponsor. Upon Jhony’s confirmation at the Easter Vigil, my parents became Jhony’s godparents, solidifying his status as not just a friend of Zach’s, but a member of our family.

Jhony and the author’s parents (his Godparents) at the Easter Vigil Mass celebrating Jhony’s initiation into the Catholic Church.

Since the day I met his family, I knew the lives of Jhony, his mom, his dad, and his younger brother were inherently different from my own, even if I wanted to convince myself that we were the same. Back then, in 2007, I didn’t know what it meant to celebrate what made humans different from one another. I thought it was better to pretend everyone was a fake kind of equal, that it was better to assimilate. For fear of appearing offensive or ignorant, I felt embarrassed and refused when my mom asked me to speak Spanish with Jhony’s mom in the bleachers at the soccer games. The first couple of times Jhony and his brother, who was the same age as my youngest brother, came to my house, I avoided asking about their cultural identities because I thought it was rude. But in this manner, I never knew anything.

Fortunately, as I grew older, I became privy to the beauty in cultural awareness and understanding. And gradually, the family I had known for nearly half of my life became even more familiar to me, as if a flower I did not properly water finally began to bloom. They never closed themselves off from me—I secluded myself from them. This is why I never knew the details of their residence in the United States, the details of how and why they moved from a country stricken by war, poverty, violence, and natural disaster. The reasons they left El Salvador.

The author’s father with Jhony and his mom, Juana, at his confirmation.

Jhony and his parents are recipients of Temporary Protected Status, or TPS—a form of relief provided to residents of certain countries designated by the United States. Typically, these are countries that have faced significant natural disasters, have ongoing armed conflicts, or meet other extraordinary circumstances. When Jhony was a young boy, his parents left a damaged and ransacked El Salvador in search of safety and security. Under TPS, they were able to enter and live legally in the United States. They have resided in Minnesota for nearly twenty years. Jhony has never known a home outside of the United States. He has never traveled to El Salvador since fleeing in his early childhood. Essentially, he is an American. He is just as American as me, my brothers, or any person I know. And now, he must leave. Not because he wants to but because he has to.

On Monday, January 8, 2018, President Donald J. Trump and his administration announced the decision to rescind TPS for the people of El Salvador. Jhony, his parents, and over 200,000 people receiving TPS from El Salvador will be forced to leave the United States by September 9, 2019. There are no direct pathways to citizenship or permanent residency for TPS recipients, regardless of their legal entry and residence. There are no options.

Jhony, his family, and over 200,000 other Salvadorans present in the United States under TPS will face deportation away from a place where they were once welcomed, from a place they were given relief, from a place that has become their home. And they will be deported to El Salvador, a nation very much unprepared for the influx of people, and a country where young men like Jhony could, quite likely, die. I don’t wish to enforce the commentary of our president that El Salvador and other countries designated for TPS are “sh*thole countries.” Clearly, El Salvador has and continues to offer enormous amounts of beauty; in its people, its culture, its landscapes. But the poverty, oppression, and violence remain, and must not be overlooked. The injustices are rampant.

[tweet_box design=”box_07″ float=”none”]We’re returning the tired, poor, and weary. They are no longer welcome. There’s no longer room at the inn. #JVReflects[/tweet_box]

Temporary Protected Status for people of El Salvador only guaranteed what the very title intended: temporary protected status. Since 2001, Salvadorans have lived in the country under the guise that they would be safe. For 17 years, Salvadorans learned, worked, raised children, laid roots, and, eventually, fell in love with the people, culture, and landscapes of a new place: the United States of America. The U.S. took in the migrants and gave them not only a shelter, but a home. But now, we’re returning the tired, poor, and weary. They are no longer welcome. There’s no longer room at the inn.

The author’s family and Jhony.

My family and I have always been people who feel we can find a solution to any problem. We can come up with an answer, we can work something out. I especially feel a responsibility now, as a Jesuit Volunteer, because I work in migration legal services. I have the knowledge, I have the resources. But this…I can do nothing but shrug my shoulders and shake my head. “I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. I’m sorry, Zach. I’m sorry, Jhony. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do.” I’ve never felt this sort of helplessness. I can only imagine how migrants must feel.

These are the moments in which it is imperative to be men and women for and with others. Otherwise, we will never escape the feeling of helplessness. When there is no room at the inn, we have the capacity to provide the manger. The hearts of people like my parents, people like the attorneys I work with every day, people I see advocating in front of City Hall: you will find them on the way to the manger. When I meet with my clients, they say, “thank you, baby,” and squeeze my hand, because even though the system tries to beat them down, they continue to seek and extend compassion. They are searching for the manger. We must continue to pave the way there, to serve as the guiding star, particularly in times we feel helpless. Our efforts are not simply for them but beside them, with them. Until there is no longer a “them.” Until there is only an “us.”

This story was originally published as part of the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s #JVReflects series, which explores the intersection of faith and justice from the perspective of JESUIT VOLUNTEERS serving as long-term volunteers both domestically and internationally with Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest.  Reflections specifically focus on the cornerstone values of the Jesuit volunteer experience: spirituality, simple living, community, and social justice.