On Sept. 27, Pope Francis launched “Share the Journey,” a two-year global campaign supporting refugees and immigrants. This week (Oct. 7-13) is the segment of the campaign called the “Week of Prayer and Action.” This is a week to join the Holy Father and bishops around the world to express our support for migrants and refugees. We are called to pray for migrants and reflect upon the reasons why people leave their homelands (economic betterment, safety, freedom) and what the Church teaches about migration. It is also a time when local churches are being asked to provide opportunities for people to get to know immigrants and refugees.
What is it like to be a stranger in a strange land? When I try to put myself in the shoes of immigrants, to understand their struggles, I often look back on my own experiences living in other countries. I had two such experiences in my life. The first began 36 years ago when I was a seminarian studying for the priesthood. In 1981, I left the United States to study theology in Innsbruck, Austria. I arrived in the country knowing very little German, and spent my first semester in language studies. I have many wonderful memories of my years of study in Innsbruck, but I also remember moments of frustration, especially in the beginning of this experience. I remember clearly instances when I simply could not find the words to express myself in the German language. I recall, too, moments of homesickness and loneliness once the novelty of being in another culture waned, and I began the hard work of adjusting to living in a strange land under cultural norms foreign to me.
My second experience of living in a different country took place after I had been ordained for six years. I went to the Dominican Republic to serve in our archdiocesan sister parish, La Parroquia Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Parish). When I began my ministry there, I was able to speak Spanish fluently, but there were other challenges that I encountered, which were more difficult than learning a language. I was often overwhelmed by the poverty of the people. In my ministry there, I often found myself jumping from one crisis to another with limited resources at my disposal. Adding to my challenges, at least in the beginning, was the fact that I had a hard time understanding some of the cultural differences. For example, I was often frustrated that parishioners and even staff members would rely on me to do all of the decision making when it came to parish activities. The people were very reticent about making decisions and relied on me to decide on what seemed to me to be minutiae. It took me a long time to realize that this was a part of their cultural conditioning.
My experiences of living in foreign countries have given me at least some insight into the lives and struggles of immigrants, and have certainly made me more empathetic toward them. However, even more important than those experiences are the instances in which I have gotten to know people who have migrated from other countries and made this land their home. Throughout my priesthood, I have had the privilege to meet and form relationships with immigrants. Because of my role as pastor and spiritual guide, many of them shared with me their fears and longings, their struggles and joys.
I know a couple, Juan and María (not their real names), who came from Mexico a number of years ago. He is a machinist and she is a homemaker and cleans houses part-time. They live in a modest home that they bought with their hard-earned money. They both came from impoverished backgrounds, and they truly understand themselves blessed to have employment. Their four children were all born in the United States. The eldest just finished his education in a technical college, the next in line is a senior in high school and the other two are in grade school. Juan and María value their faith above all other things. They are active in their parish, and they are raising their children to understand the importance of following God’s commandments and living a sacramental life. Over the years, they have come to regard me as a spiritual guide. They often consulted me about family problems, sought my spiritual advice and looked to me as a help in their life of faith. As their pastor, I shared with them at the Table of the Lord, and I shared meals with them at their own table as well.
Juan and María, like many other immigrants, worry about their legal status in this country. It is a fear that is with them constantly. Yet, they live with great hope. They are building a better future for their children. They are passing on their faith and their cultural values to them, and guiding them as they navigate the norms and values of this great country. I pray for them, that they may be strengthened in their struggles and find joy in their family life. During this “Week of Prayer and Action,” I ask that God watch over them and continue to bless them with a strong faith. I also ask for the grace to continue to “share the journey” with them and others like them, who have come to this land to seek a better life.