Our Daily Bread column allows us to share timely engagement with events in our world today from a eucharistic perspective. This article creatively raises the question, “In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, ‘who is my neighbor?'”
During a recent trip to the town of Tapachula on Mexico’s southern border, I was blessed to break bread and share stories with migrant families, on the move amid life-threatening challenges. As we huddled in an outdoor chapel through a heavy thunderstorm, we were inspired by the homily of local bishop Jaime Calderon, who spoke about our faith in a God who loves unconditionally, and Christ who calls us to do the same. Bishop Calderon refers to himself as a “migrant servant.” His congregation that stormy evening was made up mostly of migrants seeking refugee status. The chapel was a seminary structure transformed into a shelter for homeless migrants, mostly women and children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. The bishop wore a simple wooden cross around his neck, a sign of his humble commitment to service. Since coming to Tapachula, he has spoken about migration and service in his weekly local newspaper columns and homilies.
After one homily, a migrant mother nursing her newborn while holding her 2-year-old toddler in tow, slipped into the offertory procession behind the humble bearers of local bread and wine. As she cuddled her baby in one arm, she also carefully clutched a dirty handkerchief with something apparently very valuable inside. As Bishop Calderon bent down to bless her baby and toddler, the migrant mother motioned to her hand, indicating she wanted him to take her handkerchief. He did so and inside was a “pollito” — a live newborn chick. The bishop accepted the tiny offering and blessed the woman with a gentle kiss on her forehead with tears in his eyes. This “pollito,” gift of hope in new life, was all this migrant mother had, yet she gave it freely with all her heart.
This is just one of the many memories imprinted on my heart from the Encuentro of Bishops and Pastoral Ministers from the “Northern Triangle” of Central America and Mexico to discuss how the Church can best accompany migrants. The Tapachula Diocese stretches nearly 250 miles, across coastal plains and mountains on the Guatemalan border in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico. Recently the Chiapas border has become increasingly militarized by the Mexico National Guard yielding to U.S. government pressure to block points of entry from people migrating north. Media has reported the results of efforts to stop legal and illegal immigration. These “results” include children being separated from their parents and forced into overcrowded detention centers. Thousands, young and old, are being deported to dangerous border areas. Even some who entered the U.S. legally with medical disabilities or serious illnesses received deportation letters saying they have 33 days to leave.
Each migrant is a eucharistic invitation to share the word of their story and break bread with them for the journey.
There are many real human stories behind the media images. For example, at the Tapachula shelter I heard the story of a young man from Honduras named Miguel. He left his job, home, loving wife, and four children to flee gang violence and seek asylum in the north. Months before, his brother had also fled gang violence in Honduras, but he was deported from the U.S. after seeking refugee status. Three days later, back in Honduras, the same gang threatening Miguel and his family murdered his brother. Miguel now hopes to receive permission to migrate his family to Mexico for a life of safety and security, plus continue serving in parish family ministry as they had done in Honduras. Equally memorable are the inspiring responses of Tapachula residents opening their homes, hands, and hearts to accompany migrants seeking a more peaceful, hopeful future; young Mexico doctors, lawyers, psychologists offering free services to refugees; parishioners gathering before dawn and working until after dusk to cook and serve meals as part of their mission to encounter God in accompanying the vulnerable. These are also examples of migrant servants.
Eucharist and the Kino Border Initiative
In celebration of the Vatican’s 2019 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis called all to “encounter God at the margins.” In response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops organized a weeklong pastoral visit, “Encuentro Con Migrantes,” along the U.S.-Mexico border. Encuentro participants visited a migrant center in Juarez, Mexico, already overwhelmed with refugees fleeing violence from Central America and Mexico. The U.S. and Mexican bishops blessed migrant families as we watched many of them fearfully grasping their only possessions (water bottles, stuffed toys) before boarding buses for the grueling trip back to the southern Mexico-Guatemala border. With tears in his eyes, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, asked the refugees pardon for the current U.S. migration policy. Just weeks before, Bishop Seitz held the hand of a 9-year old girl as he protested U.S. policy by accompanying her across the border bridge with her parents and seriously ill 2-year old sister who were fleeing violence in Honduras. Bishop Seitz, like Bishop Calderon, also converted diocesan facilities into welcome centers for migrants, providing hundreds of parish volunteers the opportunity to encounter God in sharing migrants’ vulnerability and transforming it into the strength of hospitality.
Transforming vulnerability through hospitality is a eucharistic experience in many of the border migrant centers. The Kino Border Initiative in Nogales was founded and is served by volunteer Catholic laity, nuns, and priests from both sides of the Mexico-U.S. Arizona border. Every day, volunteers arrive before dawn at the Kino “Comedor” right on the Mexico border to prepare meals for those facing the journey back to their countries and the horrors of violence, famine, and poverty. They set the tables and welcome hungry, weary, downtrodden deportees with hot food, new clothes, and free medical and legal aid. This eucharistic “encuentro” begins with “los volunatrios laicos, las Hermanas de la Eucaristia and los Jesuitas” greet all with a heartfelt “bienvenidos.” All are asked to share their stories as they break bread together.
Particularly inspiring are the responses of Tapachula residents opening their homes, hands and hearts to accompany migrants seeking a more peaceful, hopeful future; young Mexico doctors, lawyers, psychologists offering free services to refugees; parishioners gathering before dawn and working until after dusk to cook and serve meals as part of their mission to encounter God in accompanying the vulnerable.
A young man from Honduras spoke of losing a cousin to murder by gangs and then losing both his legs below the knees when he tried to jump on a train to escape the violence in his hometown. Now with the help and nourishment of Kino volunteers, he is hopeful to achieve refugee status, gain employment, and perhaps one-day walk again with the use of prosthetics. Three indigenous women being deported back to their Guatemalan villages shared stories of finding security in each other during their time at El Comedor where they decided to travel home together rather than risk rape and death by themselves. A homeless Mexican man arrived late with flies all over his wet rotting rags. He was bathed by hand and clothed by Kino volunteers. Then he was sent to the hospital for care and counseling. The volunteers share the migrants’ vulnerability to the daily dangers from human traffickers. Together they struggle to live the Eucharist by sharing and transforming vulnerability with migrants suffering on the margins.
Breaking Bread and Sharing the Journey
Pope Francis has spoken of shared vulnerability when he met with migrants during his historic visit to Morocco. “Dear migrant friends, the Church is aware of the sufferings that accompany your journey and she suffers with you. In reaching out to you in your very different situations, she is concerned to remind you that God wants us all to live our lives to the full. The Church wants to be at your side to help you achieve the very best for your life. For every human being has the right to life, every person has the right to dream and to find his or her rightful place in our ‘common home’! Every person has a right to the future.”1 And as Pope Francis has stated elsewhere, “for Christians, it is not just about migrants…” because, “…it is Christ himself who knocks on our doors.”2
There are almost one billion people on the move in the world today, including persons internally displaced within countries, international migrants, and millions of refugees. Vulnerable persons on the move make up a major portion of the world’s population. How is the Church walking with them on their journeys? How can we not only make them feel at home but feel at home with them when they reach our borders or our seashores? Each migrant is a eucharistic invitation to share the word of their story and break bread with them for the journey. The very existence of the vulnerable on the move is both a gift and a challenge. Pope Francis says we need to be a Church on the move; we must go to places on the margins, to accompany the vulnerable where they are and where we are most needed and need to be. We also need to be a Church “without borders” which welcomes strangers, embracing arriving migrants and those in transit. Each migrant we welcome represents an opportunity to experience God by sharing and transforming our vulnerabilities together through hospitality; becoming bread broken and wine poured out with each other, a eucharistic encounter with God at the margins. Gracias a Dios.
This article contains material previously published in the Hawaii Catholic Herald.
1 Pope Francis, Meeting with Migrants, March 30, 2019 http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/march/documents/papa-francesco_20190330_migranti-marocco.html
2 Pope Francis, World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2019, September 29, 2019 http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/migration/documents/papa-francesco_20190527_world-migrants-day-2019.html and Pope Francis, Homily, February 15, 2019 http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/fr/homilies/2019/documents/papa-francesco_20190215_omelia-sacrofano.html