Have you ever had a moment when you just knew the Holy Spirit was at work right in front of you? When your spine tingles and your eyes grow wide? I experienced one of those sacred encounters in a Catholic school basement in Cherry Hill last year, and I’ll never forget it.
I was moderating a panel of folks who work for our Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program. They welcome individuals and families who are fleeing violence and persecution around the world and help them adjust to their new lives here in South Jersey. Two of the panelists were former refugees themselves who now work for the program, including a lovely man named Francis, who is originally from Burma (now called Myanmar).
At the start of the program, I told the crowd that the refugees who move here are living and working and going to school right alongside us, whether we knew it or not. The panel’s goal was to help raise awareness of the work Catholic Charities is doing and share with attendees how they could get involved. How might we all be good neighbors to these newly arriving members of our community?
We took a short break in the middle of the event, and I made small talk with Francis.
“So, where do you live?” I asked.
He told me.
“Wait, where?” I replied. My spine tingled and my eyes grew wide.
It turned out Francis and his family lived right around the corner from me. They were my literal neighbors. I drive past their place every day. I had no idea.
Read the rest of this column at the Catholic Star Herald.
When she was eight years old, Widian Nicola moved to the United States from Israel with her Palestinian-Catholic family. She has an incredible, inspiring story of facing the challenges of life as an immigrant in this country with faith, hope, and love. She’ll share parts of her story with us at our annual Life & Justice gathering, which is set for Saturday, October 22 at St. Charles Borromeo in Sicklerville. The theme for the day is From Stranger to Friend: Called to Welcome. Learn more and register at camdendiocese.org/mercyministry.
In anticipation of her visit, she played a fun round of “Fill in the Blank.”
Name: Widian Nicola
Hometown: Mi’ilya, Palestine and Vancouver, WA (Currently Titusville, NJ)
One thing I love to do is: listen to podcasts!
One person who inspires me is: my spiritual director, Sharon Browning, who has undoubtedly helped me to grow in my faith more than anyone.
My favorite place is: my home. I have several plants on every window ledge and lots of space to rest and relax.
Job: Assistant Professor of Social Work and Licensed Clinical Social Worker
I’m a social worker because: I’m inspired to connect with and love those who are most vulnerable; there seems to be no clearer path to the Divine.
One cool fact about me is: When I arrived to the USA at eight years old, I knew only the numbers 1-10 and “yes” and “no.”
If I had a meeting with Pope Francis, I’d tell him: Thank you for your faith and for representing our community with such great love.
Catholic parishes could more effectively be agents of welcome for migrants and refugees by: creating opportunities for intentional dialogue to foster connection. Why not host a multi-cultural event or potluck? Or perhaps an “adopt-a-family” program? Invite newcomers to holiday gatherings at your home and ask if they wouldn’t mind sharing a dish from their native country, offer tutoring to help your new neighbors learn English, or create a community pamphlet that lists all the stores where a family might get all their household supplies. In all things, to welcome means to be intentional and extend oneself for the sake of the other.
There are three things I heard over the past week that are stuck in my head.
First, “We are the pro-life generation!” Thousands of young people chanted this refrain at last Thursday’s March for Life in Washington.
Then, “We’re not asking – we’re demanding! Give us the vote!” This was a masterful Daniel Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King, Jr., in the film Selma, which I saw on Saturday. In the scene, the minister and civil rights leader is speaking to a church congregation of African Americans who had systematically been blocked from registering to vote in Selma, Alabama.
Finally, “La iglesia está con ustedes,” or “The Church stands with you.” This was the message delivered by Bishop Sullivan and pastor Fr. Vince Guest at an information session on President Obama’s immigration executive action at the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton on Sunday. At the gathering, which drew over 500 people, experts from the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice described the president’s order, which could make thousands of undocumented South Jersey residents eligible for a type of temporary permission to stay in the United States.
Taken together, these lines and the events where I heard them offer some interesting points about discipleship. Here are three:
1) God takes sides; we should, too.
I once heard a conference speaker tell the story of an older brother, a younger sister, and a dad. The brother often picked on his sister, she would call out for Dad’s help, and he would intervene on her behalf. The son complained, “You always take her side! You love her more than me!” The father replied, “It’s because I love you both the same that I take her side. If someone ever picks on you, I’ll take your side.”
This anecdote gets at something crucial about God’s love. Of course He loves all his children the same amount. But like the dad in the story, that doesn’t mean he remains neutral in all conflicts. Instead, as we see over and over again in Scripture, he sides with the oppressed and suffering. Think of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt who Moses leads to freedom, the exiles in Babylon who God’s prophet Isaiah comforts, and the woman caught in adultery who Jesus defends from the angry, judgmental mob. To imitate God’s love in our own lives, we must be on the look-out for similar instances of the powerful targeting certain groups of people, and raise our voices with and for those in harm’s way. What incredible examples of this sort of faith in action I witnessed on the National Mall, at the movie theater, and at Holy Cross.
2) As we do our best to take the side of the poor and vulnerable consistently, we will find that we don’t fit neatly into the American political left/right binary.
I love the consistency of the message woven through my recent experiences: pro-life, pro-racial justice, pro-immigrant family. It reminded me of something Cardinal Timothy Dolan said during a speech a couple years ago. We are called to be comprehensive in our care for “the uns,” he said: “the un-employed; the un-insured; the un-wanted; the un-wed mother, and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb; the un-documented; the un-housed; the un-healthy; the un-fed; the under-educated.”
I imagine a Catholic advocate phoning her Congressman four times in a given week, calling about various issues that the Catholic Church in the US is speaking up about. On Monday, she urges the representative to work toward the legal recognition of the unborn as human beings. On Tuesday, she asks him to protect social safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid. On Wednesday, she voices opposition to physician-assisted suicide. On Thursday, she calls for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the US. And on Friday, the congressman’s receptionist wonders aloud, “What party does that woman belong to, anyway?”
If we truly let our faith inform our politics, then that’s the question people might be asking themselves about us.
3) Siding with those who are vulnerable is risky.
In Selma, King gives a sermon in response to the racially motivated murder of a teenager in the town. “Those who have gone before us say, No more! No more!” he says. “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”
I think of the hundreds of parishioners who gathered at Holy Cross on Sunday – many of whom, who, despite the risk of deportation, keep working to provide for their families and secure civil rights. I feel for the young pro-life marchers whose peers look at them with suspicion or condescension. Selma invited me to remember those in who were beaten and killed because of their race, and to lift up those who continue the ongoing hard work of racial reconciliation across the country.
After the March for Life, I made it to Lindenwold just in time for our diocesan Respect Life Mass, hosted at the Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Gospel passage selected for the Mass was Matthew’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me,” Jesus tells his followers. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
As risky as faith can be, Christ reminds us that he is with us always. There’s no finer solace – and no finer call to action – than that.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.
The following story by Peter Feuerherd appears in the July 24, 2014 edition of the Catholic Star-Herald, and it is reprinted with permission.
It’s one of the big stories of the summer: As tens of thousands of migrants from Central America made their way to the U.S. border, the American public watched with a mix of compassion and sometimes scorn at their desperate plight. Meanwhile, most political leaders focused on sending them back as quickly as possible.
Brian Wagner, 48, a Catholic Charities worker in Vineland, reacted differently: he offered to help. A military veteran schooled in logistics he used to assist New Jerseyans affected by Super Storm Sandy, Wagner spent much of July in a resettlement center in McAllen, Texas.
It’s about “sharing God’s love,” he said about his experience in a phone interview during a short break. He was accompanied by Nancy, his wife, who also volunteered. They responded to a call for help sent out by Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brownsville, located on the Mexico/U.S. border.
The work was all-purpose: Brian alternated as counselor, security guard, tent cleaner, driver, media chaperone, coffee brewer – whatever was needed to assist. Nancy compiled data, provided orientations, and served breakfast, among other duties.
While attention has focused on unaccompanied children who made the long journey through Mexico to the border, the McAllen facility processed children accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Sometimes the center, located next to a Catholic church, served as many as 200 people a day. Other days the numbers went down as low as 40.
The families were issued new clothes, offered food by the Salvation Army, shelter tents, and then a shuttle bus to the local Greyhound station. There they would be sent as far away as Washington State to Rhode Island, where a family member or friend lived who had purchased tickets for them. Each migrant was given a court date that would determine their legal status.
Almost all the families came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but others came from disparate places such as Brazil, Albania and Cuba.
The center was filled with children, said Wagner, mostly with their mothers, sometimes with their fathers.
Why did they undertake what has been documented to be a perilous journey, where so many have been victims of accidents, extortion and the unscrupulous who take advantage of their vulnerability?
“Most are saying it’s because of the violence, poverty and fear for their children’s lives,” said Wagner. Why the migrants made it to Texas was peripheral to his task. Wagner focused on what had to be done to smooth their transition to wherever they eventually end up.
Wagner’s experience – eight years in the military combined with leadership in Sandy storm relief and knowledge of Spanish – has trained him to “seeing the task at hand and getting it done.”
By July 25, he was prepared to leave Texas and return to his duties with Catholic Charities in Vineland. Still, the influx of migrants remained unabated. “I don’t see any end in sight,” he said.
Asked how he would advise President Obama or the leaders of Congress about handling the crisis, Wagner said his time in Texas provided no easy solutions. “I have no idea. I don’t know what the answer is.”
He does know, however, that Americans sharing God’s love through the work of agencies such as Catholic Charities will be essential in resolving the crisis.
What’s happening in McAllen is a small witness to that effect.
Because of Catholic Charities, Wagner noted in an email, the migrants “start to see the true compassion from everyone here and that we really are here to help them and not take advantage of them, as so many people were in their journey.”
To mark the end of their nine-day, 130-mile journey, our NJ pilgrims for citizenship will gather with supporters (that means you!) for a closing prayer service.
During Thanksgiving week, we will thank God for the journey and pray for increased strength and courage as we continue to work for just immigration reform that includes family unity provisions and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million aspiring Americans. Pilgrims will share testimonies from their time on the road.
Please plan to join us:
Tuesday, November 26, 7:30 pm
Pope John Paul II Retreat Center
414 S. 8th Street, Vineland, NJ 08360
In 1889, an Italian Catholic nun named Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini went to visit Pope Leo XIII to ask for permission to go to China as a missionary.
“Not to the East, but to the West,” he replied. Pope Leo wanted her to go to the United States to serve the Italian immigrants there, who were struggling with poverty and persecution. Accepting his invitation, Mother Cabrini took six of her sisters to New York City almost immediately. The bishop in New York wasn’t expecting them so soon, and suggested they return to Italy. Mother Cabrini refused; the Pope had sent them, after all. They spent their first night in a dingy tenement in an Italian ghetto.
It didn’t take the sisters long to get started. They opened an orphanage in 1890, which is still in operation as a youth treatment center today. They followed that up with a free school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the poorest Italian immigrants lived. Mother Cabrini was just getting started, and ended up founding 65 more organizations throughout the United States, South America, and Europe, all dedicated to serving those who were poor, sick, abandoned, or uneducated.
Canonized in 1946, the first US citizen to become a saint, Mother Cabrini’s Feast Day is this week: November 13. Because of her work with marginalized, immigrant communities, she is the patron saint of immigrants.
There is no better time, then, to announce an exciting project about to begin that is meant to carry on Mother Cabrini’s legacy.
On Monday, November 18, a small group of pilgrims will embark on a nine-day, 130-mile pilgrimage through South and Central Jersey to advocate for just, comprehensive immigration reform. They will stay at partner churches and meet with congressional staff members.
But mostly, they will walk.
Our Catholic tradition of pilgrimage dates back to the church’s earliest years, when disciples would undertake long, physically challenging journeys meant to honor God, and sometimes to request a particular blessing. So this immigration reform pilgrimage, organized by PICO New Jersey in collaboration with Catholic leaders, is an opportunity to use an ancient form of faith expression to raise awareness about one of our most pressing contemporary crises.
The pilgrims departing on Monday will use their journey as a way to pray for our leaders, entrusted with the care of all. They will pray for immigrants here in our country, those with documentation and those without it. They will pray for our church, and that we might always be people of welcoming and healing, as Mother Cabrini was.
There are plenty of ways you can get involved in the effort:
- Join the team of pilgrims. Walk all nine days, a journey you will never forget.
- Walk just a leg of the journey. For more information, email email@example.com, or…
- Fill out the prayer pledge form below. Include a prayer greeting, which will be delivered to the pilgrims as they travel.
- Come to Mass on Monday, November 18 to bless the pilgrims and send them off. Here’s a flyer announcing the Mass:
As this year’s legislative session approaches its end, it’s essential to keep up the momentum and do all we can to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality.
Call your congressman in the House of Representatives and urge him to pass immigration reform. Here is contact information and a basic script you can use:
Congressman Rob Andrews: 856.546.5100
Congressman Frank LoBiondo: 609.625.5008
Congressman Jon Runyan: 856.780.6436
Script: “Hi, my name is n., and I’m from (name of parish and city). I’m calling to urge the congressman to support comprehensive, compassionate immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants here in the country. It should also include strong provisions to preserve family unity. Please let the congressman know that Catholics across his district are calling for compassionate reform. ”
It’s that easy to make your voice heard.
Don’t let these chances to put your faith into action pass by. Honor the legacy of Mother Frances Cabrini today.