Book review by John Gillman
Deirdre Cornell, Jesus Was a Migrant. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014. Pp. 133. Softcover, $20.00.
While the national debate on immigration policy in the United States continues to heat up, the probability for meaningful reform seems to diminish as the midterm election draws closer. The U.S. Catholic bishops have reiterated the stance they took, together with Mexican bishops, in the document Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope (2003), namely, that persons have the right to immigrate and that nations have the right to secure their borders. The rub comes in balancing these two, often competing rights. Poignantly highlighting the plight of immigrants, the bishops on April 1, 2014, celebrated mass at the border in Nogales, AZ, distributing communion through slats in the steel fence that painfully divided the body of Christ.
Deirdre Cornell provides a valuable resource for reflecting theologically on the migrant experience. She supports the title to her book by framing Jesus’ journeys in the context of being a migrant. Jesus’ travels, some forced, others voluntary, are prompted by various circumstances: a mandated census (Bethlehem), life-threatening circumstances (escape to Egypt, and later, escape from Nazareth), and religious expectations (Jerusalem). She also names metaphorically the incarnation, Jesus’ “journey” from the heavenly sphere to life on earth, as a migrant-type experience.
Throughout her narrative, Cornell weaves in stories spanning over 20 years of her experiences living among and advocating for migrants, largely in upstate New York. She relates moving vignettes of visiting those imprisoned, serving as a catechist, and facilitating Posadas. Like her grandparents, who started the Catholic Worker house in Cleveland, Cornell not only embraces but also lives out Catholic social teaching by standing with the homeless and displaced, the poor and the marginalized.
Not limiting herself to Jesus alone, Cornell considers how several other Biblical characters have been displaced, deported, or disenfranchised. These include Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph (the son of Jacob), the Magi, and Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary. She invokes the forty years of wandering in the desert, the exile of the Jewish people, and the status of early Christians as “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 1:11) as paradigmatic events for interpreting theologically what contemporary migrants experience.
In only mentioning Hagar in passing, Cornell missed an opportunity to name how she, as an outsider, was abused and forced into homelessness (Genesis 16). It is well known that many single women from minority cultures can identify with her experience.
Cornell’s reflections can serve as a launching point for spiritual care departments and parish pastoral teams to reflect on how their respective communities provide hospitality for and address the needs of migrants in their midst. Is a prophetic voice to be exercised on their behalf?
John Gillman is an NACC and ACPE supervisor at VITAS Innovative Hospice Care in San Diego, CA.