By John DeCostanza
It has been a difficult couple of years in my ministry at a small, Catholic university with a mission-centered commitment to undocumented students. It has been an excruciating period for those I love who are vulnerable and targeted because they are alternately documented in this age.
I live and work and accompany students who are undocumented and many more who have immediate family members at risk. They are my neighbors. When I first wrote some of these reflections in early 2017, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) had just been rescinded. There were public raids in highly visible locations in Chicago, where I live and work. The crisis of family separation had not yet occurred. In short, the hell that was 2016 for immigrant peoples in the United States would grow even worse.
What sparked my own theological reflection was the intercessory prayer of a student before a routine prayer. Someone I know well prayed through tears, “I am so afraid that my cellphone is going to ring, and it’s going to be my sister telling me that Mom or Dad didn’t come home.”
To be fair, many immigrant advocacy communities across the country were decrying President Obama’s tactics, too. It does not take sophisticated math to be able to see that the executive branch has been ratcheting up removals since 1996, the year of the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
The Trump administration’s translation of campaign rhetoric that criminalizes immigrants into concrete policy action is also not new. The Naturalization Act of 1790 confessed the original sin of racism, limiting applicants to “free white persons.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the exploitation of labor under the bracero program in the 20th century are just a few moments in the fraught history at the intersection of immigration, culture, capital and labor.
The current administration did not invent xenophobia, but it uses it to communicate falsely to every U.S. Catholic that the human being sitting down the pew from them is a threat. These politics, Francis writes, lock in “a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.”
Being committed to the common good requires us to get to know our neighbor, but we often do not have opportunities to do that. While I am in daily contact with persons who live at the heart of the immigration bull’s-eye, I am also aware that many well-meaning and passionate Christians in the U.S. are not. We need to find more creative and open venues for the alternatively documented to tell their stories.
But I feel some apprehension about this. I know that sharing stories can change minds and hearts, but right now the safety and security of our undocumented friends is the priority. We all need to think critically before we share news or stories — we run the risk of amplifying the fear in vulnerable communities or, even more egregiously, stealing the voice of immigrant sisters and brothers by appropriating their narratives.
We are called to be both responsible citizens and responsible Christians by caring about our neighbors, but we are called to do it responsibly. As Francis wrote to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in 2017, “Jesus teaches us a different path. Do not classify others in order to see who is a neighbor and who is not. You can become neighbor to whomever you meet in need, and you will do so if you have compassion in your heart. That is to say, if you have that capacity to suffer with someone else.”
Becoming a neighbor requires compassion, which originates from the Latin roots to suffer with. Most of us in pastoral ministry have received a special call to work across difference (even immigration status) to become a neighbor through the exercise of compassion. Yet what does suffering with mean for me as a minister and theologian when I benefit from the privilege of my own citizenship? I believe there are four priorities (among others):
- Listen: Good immigrant advocacy groups are led by people from the alternatively documented community or have their ear very close to the experience of targeted peoples. We have to be able to listen and follow their direction, especially in regard to action. We cannot “steal shoes” or step in front without permission and reason, which is why relationships are so important.
- Connect with a community of value and action: If we believe that immigrants are human beings and not criminals, we need to find others who believe the same and who act from the same roots in faith and put their bodies on the line.
- Speak and share with wisdom: Let us work to be discerning in what we share about the current enforcement activities (always seek verification from the communities that this affects directly) and, as my colleague said to me recently, seek to empower through our information sharing. The sure sign of truth and love is when our actions and words give away power in order to build it.
- Learn and change the long arc of history: We cannot see and bring about God’s future if we respond to new times with old formulas and broken ideas.
“The grave danger is to disown our neighbors,” Francis said. “When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realizing it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, the dehumanization. But here we also find an opportunity: that the light of the love of neighbor may illuminate the Earth with its stunning brightness like a lightning bolt in the dark; that it may wake us up and let true humanity burst through with authentic resistance, resilience and persistence.”
Suffering with people means taking the beating, and it feels as if there are plenty of opportunities to do that these days. If we are not willing to put our bodies and our resources on the line, then we’re really not regarding our neighbors as ourselves.
John DeCostanza is the director of university ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. This piece appeared in longer form as a blog entry on Daily Theology.