A priest friend of mine who immigrated to this country from Jordan back in the 1970s is often asked, “Where are you from?” He humorously answers, “I am from my mother’s womb.”
True enough! There is an even more fundamental answer, rooted in Scripture, which speaks to the origin of every human person: You are from the loving will and heart of God. Before you were ever formed in your mother’s womb, God knew you and thought about you (see Jeremiah 1:5). He set into motion everything necessary to create you. He didn’t just get your parents to meet, but your grandparents and great-grandparents, going all the way back. All of this so that you could exist just as you are. Having thought of you and conceived you in greatest love, He knit you together in your mother’s womb. You were skillfully wrought in that secret place of the womb and you are wonderfully, fearfully made. Every one of your days was written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be (See Psalm 139).
This biblical answer is true of every one of us. Whatever our nationality, ethnicity, or race, our truest origin is from God, from His heart and His loving “yes” to our existence. This means that I am your brother and you are my brother or sister. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:
Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self,’ above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” … [F]ears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness … will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a “neighbor,” a brother.
The duty of making oneself a neighbor to others and actively serving them becomes even more urgent when it involves the disadvantaged, in whatever area this may be. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (CCC # 1931-1932).
This is Catholic and biblical teaching. One day we shall have to account for how we recognized and treated the Lord in others. God is our Father; you are my brother or sister. Christ the Lord is our brother, too, for He joined our human family; He is not ashamed to call us His brethren (Hebrews 2:11). Wherever you’re from in this world, this origin from God is deeper and older than any earthly origin.
Here on this earth, human movement is constant. We emigrate and immigrate, as individuals, families, and groups. Wars, famines, persecution, economic conditions, the desire for freedom, and educational opportunity all play a role in this movement. Although the phrase seems clichéd, we really are a nation of immigrants. Most of us are from somewhere else, often only a couple of generations back.
Catholics bring a significant experience and witness to immigration to the United States. Many came here during a huge wave of immigration that lasted from about 1880 to 1950. When we came in those years, we were often coming from troubled lands and were extremely poor. There was famine in Ireland; economic and political turmoil in Poland, Lithuania, Italy, and parts of Germany. Many came here not knowing English and at first lived in tenements in large cities. With that poverty went many of social problems: crime, drinking, and so forth. The work of those first generations was anything but easy: laboring in coal mines, laying railroad tracks, working in steel mills, tedious work in textile factories mills. The jobs paid poorly and required long hours; they were jobs that no one really wanted. Additional scorn was heaped upon Catholics due to our faith. The Protestant majority of the time was troubled to see the country suddenly teeming with Catholics, whose religion they often scorned and whose loyalty to the United States they doubted. Slowly, that first wave of Catholics took its place and moved up into better paying jobs. They moved into more slowly into positions of political leadership. Yes, Catholics have endured great scorn in this land, both on account of their religious as well as their status as European peasants.
Prior to 1865, most African-Americans in this country had been brought here against their will. They then suffered great disdain and racism at the hands of the very country that brought them here in chains. The many Black Catholics I have known over the years, especially the older ones, remember well the double scorn they felt for being Black and Catholic.
The most recent wave of immigration into our country is largely from the south. Similarly, poverty and/or persecution are often part of what draws them here. Most of them are Catholic, and like so many immigrants before them, they perform essential services and often take jobs that no one else wants. As was the case during the 19th and 20th centuries, there is crime. And yes, some immigrants are successful, and others remain trapped in poverty.
It is alleged that recently our President, in a moment of anger, said some unacceptable, hurtful things. He spoke not only of nations, but implied that certain nations bring us better immigrants than others. I am not so sure that we have the scales to say who is “better.” Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart. It is true that people with technical, scientific, or academic knowledge contribute a lot to our country, but it is also true that we need immigrants at every level of the economy. We need those willing to do all sorts of work, and those with all different kinds of practical know-how.
Personally, I am quite happy with the immigrants who have come to the United States in recent decades. I think that they have added a lot to the economy and to the Church. They are hardworking and want to share in the American experience. By the second generation, most of them speak English well. While I cannot countenance those who enter the country illegally, I am perhaps more willing than many to view their illegal entry as stemming from desperation rather than flippant disregard for our laws.
I recognize that immigration reform is needed. It is a complex issue and concerns for border security are legitimate. We cannot take the whole of the world’s poor or be overrun with every refugee crisis, but we also cannot ever forget that these are our brothers and sisters. Whatever dysfunctional countries or economies they come from, remember that many of us came from similar ones. People don’t typically leave an idyllic environment.
I do not know all the possible legal and social solutions, but something of a picture emerges in Catholic parishes of what things could look like. Cardinal Wuerl paints this picture:
The sight from the sanctuary of many a church in our archdiocese offers a glimpse of the face of the world. On almost any Sunday, we can join neighbors and newcomers from varied backgrounds. We take great pride in the coming together for Mass of women and men, young and old, from so many lands, ethnic heritages, and cultural traditions. Often we can point to this unity as a sign of the power of grace to bring people together (The Challenge of Racism).
Indeed, our parishes are ethnically and racially diverse. The rich beauty of diversity in the unity of our faith is manifest everywhere. “Catholic” means “universal” and it could not be more obvious in Washington, D.C (as in many other regions) that Catholics come from everywhere! This diversity is from God Himself, who has not only created the rich tapestry of humankind but also delights to unite us all in His Church.
“Babylon and Egypt I will count among those who know me; Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, these will be her children and Zion shall be called ‘Mother’ for all shall be her children.” It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples, he writes: “These are her children,” and while they dance they will sing: “In you all find their home” (Psalm 87:1-7).
Dr. Martin Luther King remarked on the role of the Church back in the days of the civil rights movement:
There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood (Letter from Birmingham jail).
We are currently locked in many fierce debates. Our discourse grows ever more contentious, our language ever coarser. Anger (some of it quite understandable) reaches new levels. In the midst of the ugliness, consider this reminder:
Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are members of one another. … Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen. … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, outcry and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you (Eph 4:26-32).
We who are Christians should lead the way in helping to lower the temperature. We are past the boiling point now and we are getting scalded more and more.
Maybe the answer begins in asking this simple question: “Where are you from?” Know the answer to this question theologically and religiously rather than nationally. The truest answer is this: “You are from God and so am I.”
If what I have written angers you, I am sorry. If you think me naïve, I ask you to remember something else about me: I am Charles, your brother.