Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees – September 2007

Today, I fear, many immigrants in our nation feel some of the same alienation described by Ezra in today’s first reading.  Here is a man who feels the pain of exile who ashamed and confounded raises his face to God.  And each of us knows the stories.  Last weekend, here in Orlando the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Coalition met and there I heard people like Juan, a 19 year old young man with a 4.0 average certainly confounded by his inability to enter a university because his parents brought him here “illegally” when he was six years old.  And there are so many other stories, the shame of an immigrant woman – in an abusive relationship – but feeling powerless to do anything about it.

As I have said so many times, these people are not breaking the laws, the laws are breaking them.

More important than ever are our efforts to effect the needed policy changes that will give these people who because they are already blend in families of US legal residents and citizens touched each one of us personally.  Certainly they touch us – and we touch them every day in our own ministries.  We have to work hard, in the words of Ezra to “turn the good will of the King of Persia towards” them so that they will know that God has not abandoned them.

Like those disciples in our gospel reading, we are sent out to preach the Kingdom of God and to heal.  And as the disciples learned, as they went forth without staff, bag or money, we have to do this relying not so much on human resources but on God’s providence.

To preach the Kingdom of God, that is, to give the good news, and to heal.  This could be a rather succinct mission statement for everyone involved in PCMR, because that’s what pastoral care means.  And pastoral care is as important – and perhaps when viewed. from the lens of eternity, much more important that our advocacy efforts

I remember in my past life when I was working with Haitians, I came across a group of nuns working in Migrant Ministry up in the Carolinas.  Haitians began to enter what was called the East Coast stream – from Homestead to Rochester, New York.  They did admirable work in providing legal services, social services not only to the Mexicans but also to the Haitians.  But on Sunday morning, the Baptists came and took them to Church.  What’s the lesson?  It is not enough to care of people as “clients” – we also have to empower them to become subjects, protagonists of their own destiny.  And I think that is what pastoral care is all about.  Of course, there can be an approach to pastoral care that would treat “newcomers” as clients.  A wrong approach –and an ineffective one.  The whole aim of pastoral care is to enable a person be a subject before God.  That’s really the good news.  That we count where it’s really important that we count – in our relationship to God, in our sense of belonging to his family, a family in which he calls all his sons and daughters by name.

And to do that, as you know, pastoral ministry among newcomers of whatever ethnicity, requires sensitivity to language and culture.  To be a good Catholic, you don’t have to change your language, your customs, your culture, your color.  To be a good Catholic, you just have to change your heart.  That’s the real good news – especially in a broader culture that can disparage your difference – and because of that marginalize you.  Pastoral care has to attend to a people’s culture – because evangelization to be successful must necessarily mean enculturation.  Faith has to become culture.  And every culture is fertile ground, good soil, for the gospel to take root; and every culture can be redeemed by the leaven of the gospel.

I referred earlier to Ezra’s shame and his confoundedness.  Culture for a people is like the skin for a body.  The skin protects the body from germs, from disease.  A skin that is diseased or injured can allow microbes to infect the body.  And let’s go back to the gospel:  the disciples were told to heal as well as to preach.  We cannot not assume that the culture of people who have been uprooted because of poverty, civil war, persecution, of people who face humiliation, discrimination, etc…We cannot not assume that the skin of these people have not been subjected to great stress.

And this is the importance of your work:  you know the cultures.  Without your ministry, these diseases, the pathologies would go unnoticed, undiagnosed, and untreated.

This is what you do so well.  And as you compare notes, you will find this is what you do with so little resources.  We rely on the providence of God – and this and every Mass God does show us how provident he is – for he has not abandoned us – from his fullness we have all received.  And we do so yet again, as we approach his One Table.