Opening our eyes and our hearts to the Stranger among us
By Elena Segura
This is an abridged version of a talk given at the fourth annual Celebration Conference on Effective Liturgy, “Eucharist without Borders,” held April 11-13,2012, in Rio Rico, Arizona.
I was born in Peru in a very small rural town called Talavera. At age 7, I was brushing my teeth and looking at the mountain that faced my house, when I saw several little people moving from one side of the mountain to the other. In about an hour and a half they arrived in town. Later I realized that these girls were my classmates, who walked that distance without shoes to come to school. Here I was with running water, comfortable at home, a few blocks from school and wearing shoes. I asked my parents about this, but their answers were not satisfactory to me: “The Church is involved in spiritual things, not in material things. The government is the one who has to build roads and hospitals.”
At age 17 in high school, I remember vividly how hundreds of peasants carrying their farmer tools singing and shouting for agricultural reform came from the mountains and assembled at the central park of town. Well the answers to my questions came in this scene with the farmers shouting for justice for agricultural reform. The plantation owners feared their power. This was the beginning of my involvement in the socialist movement in Peru. Although I was not affiliated with a specific group I was involved in social change. Some of my friends literally gave their lives for structural change.
Although I came from a religious family, I first encountered God in 2005. I became Catholic in 2006.
Encounter with God and encounter with society
I believe that being a Christian is more radical than being a socialist. Why? Because as a Christian I’m called to be transformed daily as an individual and to be connected with society and God’s creation in order to bring the reign of God to the world wherever I am. In my opinion, transforming society without transforming myself is not complete.
Since I became Christian I’ve been learning how Christ invites me daily to be freed from the chains of self-righteousness, the chains of power, the chains of individualism and so many other chains I keep discovering in myself.
For me the Eucharist is an exhilarating experience. My daughter has Down’s syndrome so I need to be very concrete when I explain things to her. On Sundays when we go together to church, I remind her that we’re going to the large sanctuary and when we leave after having received the Eucharist we’ve become little sanctuaries for all the places we go.
I carry my Magnificat (an aid for daily Mass) all the time. “What are you saying to me today, Lord? What are you saying to your little ones, the undocumented community? To our society?” These are usually my words to God before I go to Mass or when I read the Scriptures of the day early in the morning or at night. To my undocumented immigrant brothers and sisters I keep asking, “Did you read the scriptures today? Did you read the Psalms today?” They are words of hope. God is encouraging us to continue with the journey. God’s voice is fresh and alive.
One of the final blessings is “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” To me, these words summarize the purpose of the Eucharist. We go to Mass to encounter our God. To renew our baptismal call so we can take to the world the Christ who lives through us.
The Chicago archdiocese's Immigrantto Immigrant Ministry I Pastoral Migratoria program was born after the DREAM Act did not pass in 2007. Immigrants asked, "Now that the immigration reform we hoped for has not materialized, what can we do to assist each other?"
Agentes de Pastoral Migratoria is a leadership ministry through which immigrants are writing their own psalms, reflecting on the scriptures from their personal experience. Leaders of Pastoral Migratoria organize workshops on immigration, labor, domestic violence, substance abuse, housing and more, and bring resources to the community; such as legal clinics and health fairs. They accompany families that are separated because of detention or deportation.
We have a Hispanic parish called Blessed Sacrament that has been saying Mass for immigration reform on Fridays since 2006. We also have held a prayer vigil at the detention center every Friday at 7:15a.m. since December 2006, whether it's 10 degrees below zero or 100 degrees outside. We have 30 parishes that have made a long-term commitment to pray for immigration reform until the law passes.
Forty Hispanic and six Polish parishes are now involved in the Pastoral Migratoria ministry. We're developing this model within the parish structure to share with other dioceses.
Just recently, our senator who voted against the DREAM Act suffered a serious stroke. I challenged our Pastoral Migratoria leaders to organize prayers for his recovery. A grou of us are praying and fasting for him. During Lent I sent him a card.
Juan Diego – Guadalupe and Mary of Nazareth
Our Lady of Guadalupe was introduced to me in 2006. Since then, I have been reflecting on the amazing story of Juan Diego. Guadalupe appeared during a time of darkness politically, economically and culturally. The indigenous people of Mexico were invaded by the Spanish conquistadors, forced to learn another language, another religion. Our Lady of Guadalupe appears to Juan Diego while he was going to Mass. From the oppression and darkness of the invaders, the gift of the Eucharist was given to him.
This situation is very similar to the oppression the Jewish people endured under the Roman Empire. It was in this context that Gabriel appears to Mary, a young woman of a small rural town, but with a strong faith in God.
Today I believe that our undocumented community is also experiencing the impact of oppression and unjust realities.
- Anti-immigration laws are growing: See the ones in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Indiana for example.
- In the last two years, deportations have increased around 400,000 a year: From the detention center in Chicago, 50,000 immigrants were deported in the last 5 years, and we estimate that around 80,000 children were separated from their parents.
- In Mexico, 50,000 people had been killed in violence blamed on organized crime in the last five years.
- There is a threat that employers on a national level might be required to check the social security of immigrant workers (known as E-Verify).
It seems there is no light in these figures, but I continuously remind my undocumented brothers and sisters that God is at work even in the darkest times. Maybe our faith tested by this darkness is our gift to this country.
Another story I keep repeating to my immigrant brothers and sisters is the story of Joshua. God promised that the people would enter into the city of Jericho. But Jericho was surrounded by walls. How could they enter this city that had a fortress around it? Joshua and the people of Israel went around seven times. On the seventh time they sounded their horns, and the walls fell. God gave them victory!
A case in point is Sheriff Mark Curran of Lake County, Illinois. He was our state's equivalent of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona. I remember Sheriff Curran hiring a new police force and buying new cars in 2006-2007 to enforce an ID law in a town where 70 percent of the population is Hispanic. He came to one of the archdiocesan pastoral council meetings and talked so badly about undocumented immigrants that one of the leaders of our Priests for Justice for Immigrants network was embarrassed that this sheriff called himself Catholic.
Early last year, we learned that Sheriff Curran had a conversion. He began reading the Justice for Immigrants website and meeting with a couple of priests. He decided to do a personal immersion experience for a week in the detention center of his jurisdiction. He was transformed. Sheriff Curran is the Paul of our days. He shared his testimony during a Tea Party assembly, and now talks openly about the connection between pro-life and pro-immigrants. You can find Sheriff Curran's testimony through YouTube videos on our website: www.archchicago.org/Immigration.
What to do
Let me share with you potential ways you can be engaged in the plight of undocumented immigrants:
• Know your neighbor. If you are living near immigrants, try to know them as individuals. I have been working with immigrants since 1986, and since 2005 with Justice for Immigrants, but I was so busy that I never had the chance to spend time with individuals until last year. Of course I supported their cause, but when I met Marisol, Emanuel, Paco, Gabi and Victor, the issue became personal. The issue was not in my mind; the issue was in my heart.
• Worship together. What a great gift we already share: our faith. Even being present at an immigrant Mass in their language (Spanish, Polish, Korean, Vietnamese) is already a sign of your open spirit to honor their culture, their faith and their traditions.
• Anti-immigrant legislation. If your community is exploring anti-immigrant legislation at the municipal or state level, raise your voice. They need to know that you oppose it. Catholic Relief Services has developed a very good system to support your efforts through their regional office. You can also reach out to the national Justice for Immigrants organization for ideas.
• Elected officials. Target federal elected officials who are against immigrants. Organize prayer vigils at their local offices. Be in their face until they grant you a meeting or respond to your request. Prayer vigils are powerful because they create consciousness as long as they are consistent, with a clear message and expected outcomes. Interfaith vigils are good strategies. Always try to work with the media, especially if you want to highlight something.
• Letters to the editor. The antiimmigrant community has been well funded and their voices are strong, especially with elected officials. Write an open letter to your newspaper. The separation of families caused by deportation is one issue that people of faith should address. Also, ICE released data last year saying that 55 percent of people deported were criminal cases and 45 percent minor cases. I can tell you based on our experience that in reality at least 70 percent of people are minor cases. How many times I've heard cases in
which a minor traffic violation was the cause of deportation. Civil cases should not be treated as criminal cases.
Pastoral care for detainees
In Matthew 25, we read that we need to welcome the stranger and visit prisoners. We meet Christ in them.
• Push legislation. In Illinois, undocumented immigrants in detention did not have the right to be visited by a priest, rabbi or imam. They did not have the same right as other criminal offenders. Two Sisters of Mercy; Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch, who started the Friday prayer vigil at the detention center, took the leadership in putting forth a state legislation that now allows us to visit undocumented immigrants being held in the detention center. We have around 80 interfaith pastoral care workers who participate in this ministry: Every Tuesday; a team of about 10 visits around 90 detainees. On the very day of their deportation, we provide pastoral care at the facilities that hold them before they go to the airport. We also provide support to families who come to say goodbye to their loved ones. To find out if the detention centers in your state offer pastoral care to undocumented immigrants, visit www.detentionwatchnetwork.org.
• Visit detainees. In detention centers, people cannot talk face to face with their family or anyone who visits them. Join with the prison ministry in your diocese or find out if you can visit them in another capacity:
• Prayer vigil. Organize a prayer vigil at your detention center once a month during the liturgical year, especially in Lent or Advent. I believe this act of solidarity says a lot to detainees, their families, ICE and jail administrators.
• Court watch. Did you know that court hearings for detainees are held without their families present on many occasions? And that during their hearings, detainees are interviewed by the judges using video cameras? Once we learned this, the interfaith committee on detainees developed a daily program where anyone could go to a hearing and "represent" a detainee being interviewed. This way the judge is more likely to show some respect, seeing that the detainee has someone who cares and is watching over the proceedings on their behalf. It is lonely and frightening to be interviewed in court without someone who is on your side. For the majority of folks in detention, their families are undocumented. Their family members are not able to go because you need to show documentation to enter the federal building.
Educate your community
• Sunday bulletin announcements. If your parish has a justice and peace or human concerns committee, work with them to create a group dedicated to immigration issues, or begin one on your own. One of our newest networks in Chicago is called Immigration Parish Contacts, currently in 127 parishes. One of their responsibilities is to make sure that bulletin editors in their parishes print the monthly announcement we send them. We began this strategy in 2005, but just last year we changed from a "data" approach to a "human story" approach. We send short personal stories of faith from immigrants, with great success. We found that parishes are printing more because they are more personal. Visit our website to see some samples.
• Invite an immigrant music group. A lot of immigrant parishes have youth music groups that are ready to share their music in other parishes. They could also share their personal stories during announcement time, or at a coffee hour after Mass.
• Book reviews and videos. The PBS series "Frontline" has an outstanding documentary called "Lost in Detention" that is bringing to light the current realities of immigrants in detention centers.
• Liturgy. Make sure your parish prays for immigration reform, for separated families, human rights in detention centers. Wouldn't it be great if religious education programs highlight the "journey of undocumented immigrants" as a present-day example of the journey of the Israelites leaving Egypt for the Promised Land?
• Visit. Organize a visit to a detention center. Even if they don't allow you to go inside, just being close to the physical space will open people's hearts to learn about the reality of immigrants in our midst.
• Migration Week. Every year, the pope releases a statement on migrants in the world, and he asks all bishops' conferences in the world to observe Migration Week the first or second week in January: We promote the pope's message as well as our local bishop's message, and we ask our Immigration Parish Contacts to visit the detention center in January as part of Migration Month.
An image of the Eucharist
One particular image of the Eucharist was the beginning of my conversion. John Paul II, in his 2000 Exhortation Ecclesia in America, said the Eucharist expresses two dynamics that are alive and real: the host and the guest.
Christ is the host in the Eucharist. We are the guest. When we receive the Eucharist, we become the host.
That is why the Mass means "to be sent." We are sent to the world to be the host to all people.
So when we host undocumented immigrants, we are hosting Christ, and they themselves are becoming host to others. This is the amazing presence of the reign of God in our society.
Elena Segura is the founding director of the Affairs and Immigration Education. Contact her at .
For the full version of this talk, visit: celebrationpublications.org/conference.