Welcoming Strangers and the Power of Stories

Three people who moved to South Jersey from other countries shared their stories at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Collingswood a few weeks ago, and there were a few moments from that night I’ll never forget.

Moustafa, who grew up in Iraq and now helps resettle refugees for Catholic Charities, described being kidnapped and tortured as a teenager. He told the audience that he was released when his parents paid $20,000 ransom. Moustafa’s father, seated in the front row, said something to his son in Arabic. “My father just said he would’ve paid $100,000,” Moustafa translated. A quiet murmur went around the room.

Moustafa and his family after the presentation.

Moustafa and his family after the presentation.

David is originally from Liberia and came to New Jersey as a refugee. Now, with Moustafa and others on the team, he helps to welcome those from around the world who are facing similar circumstances. I asked David what he says to newly arrived refugees, whom he often sees in their most desperate hours. “I say, ‘That bag you are carrying now, I carried the same one.’” David’s empathy, radiant smile, and expertise give hope to the hopeless.

Fabiola came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child to live with her father, who had made the journey several years before. While her English today is strong, she didn’t know the language when she moved to New Jersey. Her first school here had no idea what to do with her, and put her in a class for students with developmental disabilities. “But I don’t have any disabilities!” she told the audience. “It really hurt my self-esteem.”

These stories, told at a Matthew 25 Project special event on October 29 called “Welcoming the Stranger,” remain vivid in my memory; I can quote all three without notes. On the other hand, I remember almost no other details from that week. I don’t know what my wife and I ate for dinner in late October, what sporting events I watched, or what errands I ran. Why such a discrepancy? Because stories have a special power.

“Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving,” said the writer Madeleine L’Engle, whose own A Wrinkle in Time novels have touched millions of readers. Stories surely have a privileged place within our Catholic tradition. Just think about the Mass: We hear the same Scripture passages over and over in a three-year cycle. The homily and general intercessions connect the story of the Mass to the stories of our lives and the life of the world. The Creed calls to mind the most important details in the love story of God and his people. The Liturgy of the Eucharist includes the story of the Last Supper. As we hear these stories of compassion and mercy over and over again, they can shape us into more compassionate and merciful people.

Just like the stories that we share within Mass, stories like the ones shared by Moustafa, David and Fabiola can open our hearts and change our perspectives.

A recent article from Oregon Catholic Press’ “Today’s Liturgy” publication described this sort of a perspective shift in a really compelling way. Fr. Ronald Raab, CSC, describes a conversation he had with a retired bishop as Fr. Raab was preparing to serve a parish as pastor. “When you speak about ‘the poor,’ simply tell your people to switch out one word,” the bishop told him. “Tell them to take out the ‘the’ and replace it with ‘our.’”

In the case of the thousands of people who come from around the world to South Jersey, the phrase might be “our migrants and refugees.” And, as we have the chance to get to know individual people and their stories, we can take it one step further: “our migrants and refugees” become “our friends” Moustafa, David, Fabiola, and so on.

"Welcoming the Stranger: A Panel Discussion" on October 29 at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish.

“Welcoming the Stranger: A Panel Discussion” on October 29 at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish.

Peter Henriot, SJ, a Jesuit priest who was a pioneer in articulating the intimate connection between faith and social justice, says that as we become friends with those who have experienced oppression, our love for them inspires us to work to change the structures that oppress them.

In the spirit of this movement from friendship to action, participants at the October 29 event were encouraged to contact elected officials in the following days, urging them to enact policies that grant relief to so many of our immigrant families who are living in fear. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ suggested message for Catholics to send to President Obama is clear: Protect as many immigrants and their families as possible from deportation. When I called the White House last week and delivered that message, I had Fabiola’s story in my thoughts and prayers.

The only way to overcome polarization and division is to hear stories and build friendships across society’s boundaries. Where are there opportunities in your own life to start or deepen this process?

To learn more about opportunities for building friendships across boundaries, email michael.laskey@camdendiocese.org.

The Catholic Church works with both migrants (like Fabiola) and refugees (like David and Moustafa). Learn about this work, and the difference between migrants and refugees, at www.justiceforimmigrants.org/immigration-basics.shtml.

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