Immigration part of Christian life ethic, speaker says

| October 12, 2011 | 0 Comments

Immigration is the defining civil rights issue of our time, a Holy Cross priest declared during an Oct. 1 theology of immigration conference at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.

“This is what some scholars define as the age of migration,” University of Notre Dame professor Father Daniel Groody told nearly 200 church workers, activists and others attending the day-long conference, titled “Justice for Immigrants: The Theology of Migration and Framing the Message.”

Approximately 212 million people around the world spend at least a year away from their homelands, he said, citing U.N. statistics. Add to that the number of internally displaced people, and the total skyrockets to a billion — one in seven people on the planet.

Some are refugees, others are victims of human trafficking, but the vast majority of migrants leave their homelands for economic reasons. Nearly half of the world’s population — 48 percent — lives on less than $2 a day, the priest pointed out.

Father Groody directs the Center for Latino Spirituality and Culture at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. A nationally recognized expert on immigration issues who has worked in Latin America and along the U.S.-Mexico border, he has authored numerous books and scholarly articles on the subject and produced documentary films, including “One Border, One Body: Immigration and the Eucharist” and “Dying to Live: A Migrant’s Journey.”

“This issue is comparable, I think, to civil rights issues of previous generations. So how we respond to these issues now I think will be defining and determinative of how future generations evaluate how to respond to people in this situation,” Father Groody said at the conference.

Among the event’s nearly two-dozen sponsors were the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Catholic Charities and several religious congregations.

Bishop Lee Piché also spoke at the event.

“The Catholic bishops of this country have been deeply critical of the immigration system currently in place,” he said. “The system is broken. In fact, it would not be unfair to say that the immigration laws currently on the books are designed to fail.”

“It is especially important for us as Catholics to be consistent and comprehensive in . . . our system of social morality based on inherent human dignity,” the bishop said. “In defending the right to life of the unborn, the rights of the elderly, infirm, disabled, the rights of workers in general, we cannot afford to remain silent on the rights of immigrants when their human dignity is threatened by an unjust system of laws.”

Challenging prejudices

To better understand the complexities of migration, Father Groody spent time with border patrol agents in Arizona, visited hospitals and schools, and spoke with migrants as well as “coyote” smugglers who transport people across the border illegally, vigilantes, government officials, business leaders and human rights activists.

“I wanted to challenge my prejudices,” Father Groody said. “To be honest, each of these groups has a truth claim that they can defend.”

The Catholic Church, however, treats complicated immigration issues more broadly, he said.

While Catholic social teaching recognizes a nation’s right to control its borders, it also maintains that people have the right to migrate when they cannot meet their basic needs.

Christians might disagree about how best to address problems of immigration policy, but to be anti-immigrant is inconsistent with the Christian faith, Father Groody asserted.

The church’s fundamental mission is “to break down all those walls and barriers that divide one human being from another,” he said. “The church is always seeking to help us interconnect with each other so that we can really rediscover what it means to be a family of God.”

According to Catholic teaching, a community should distribute its resources with consideration for the needs of its vulnerable members — including immigrants, regardless of legal status. This is called distributive justice, Father Groody explained. At the same time, individuals are charged with contributing to the common good to the best of their ability.

Migrants and undocumented immigrants contribute to their communities, but often are denied basic human rights and protections, Father Groody said. “Those who undergo probably the most injustices today and really suffer the fragmentation of relationships most acutely are those who are without papers, those who are the undocumented,” he added.

An estimated 10 to 12 million people live in the United States without government authorization, he said. “They don’t have any legal means to cross over generally, unless they marry somebody from the United States or they can prove their lives are in danger or they have a specialized skill.”

Christians should view immigration as a life issue, the priest said. “It’s really too bad when we reduce the life ethic or the right to life to just what’s happening in the womb. That’s an important piece of [Catholic social teaching], but it’s not the only piece of this.

“As [the late] Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin said, there is a seamless garment of life that goes through all of these issues, and you can’t really be against abortion but against immigration, too,” Father Groody said. “Somehow all of these are interconnected life issues, and they have to be understood accordingly. The fabric of life goes through all of them, and if you tear at one side, you actually tear at the other at the same time.”

Gospel truth

When people confront Father Groody with the question: “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” often he’s tempted to retort: “What part of the Gospel message don’t you understand?” he said.

The theme of migration is interwoven throughout the Scriptures: Abram obeys God’s instruction to leave his homeland, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, the Holy Family journeys to Bethlehem, and Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth.
God himself migrated from heaven to live among us, Father Groody said.

“God, in Jesus Christ, so loved the world that he migrated into the far and distant territory of our sinful and broken existence, and there he lay down his life on a cross so that we can be reconciled to God and migrate back to our homeland,” he said. “And so what we see God doing in Jesus Christ is constantly trying to overcome those walls, those barriers, those divisions and those obstacles that negatively affect and disconnect us one from another.”

“If we were to put in metaphorical language what following Christ means as a disciple, it’s about migration,” he added. “It’s a migrating with Christ as a pilgrim people.”

During his talk, Father Groody shared several stories illustrating the plight of immigrants, but the words of a migrant from Mexico especially impacted him.

When Father Groody asked the man what his greatest hardship was, he replied: “I’ve crossed the desert and almost baked to death. I’ve crossed the mountains and almost frozen to death. I’ve gone without food and water and stowed away in baggage compartments in buses. I’ve stowed away in train cars and almost suffocated.

“Those are incredibly difficult moments,” the man continued. “But that’s not the hardest part about being a migrant. The hardest part about being a migrant is when people treat you like you’re a dog, like you’re the lowest form of life on earth, like you’re no one to anyone.”

The challenge for Christians is to see Christ present in the immigrant, Father Groody said. “They’re hungry in their homelands, they’re thirsty in the deserts that they cross, they’re sick after having to drink even urine to survive, they’re imprisoned in detention centers, often they’re naked after being robbed at gunpoint even down to their own clothing, as they get here they’re often estranged and neglected. . . .

“For us, it really is a challenge to human solidarity,” he added. “It’s saying, what they are, we are; where they are, we could be. Therefore, we are not in it alone as independent individuals; we’re in it together as a community.”

Real faces, real stories

School Sister of Notre Dame Stephanie Spandl, a fluent Spanish-speaker, served as an interpreter during the conference.
As a social worker at St. Paul’s MORE Multicultural School for Empowerment, which provides educational, mental health and other services to immigrants and refugees, Sister Spandl is accustomed to hearing immigrants’ stories of crushing hardship.

“I sometimes just have to push [my emotions] down so I don’t get overwhelmed, and my heart kind of has to numb out a little bit,” she said after the conference. “But there are times, like here, when I get to reflect, when it opens up and the emotion comes again. So I think part of what I come away with is just that grounding and reminder of why I do what I do, the heart I want to bring to it.”

“Immigrants are some of the most vulnerable among us,” she added. “I think they bring great gifts to our society and richness. I suppose it’s because I’ve had a chance to know the real faces, the real stories, the real people that I care so deeply.”


Immigration resources

• Father Daniel Groody’s website:
• Justice for Immigrants, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:
• Justice for Immigrants Minnesota, a coalition of religious communities, dioceses and parishes working for comprehensive immigration reform:
• Minnesota Catholic Conference, includes statements from Minnesota’s bishops and other immigration-related materials:

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