I come to this text as a daughter of immigrants. My father’s family came to the United States in the 1800s, crossing the Atlantic from Germany, Ireland and Wales. La familia de mi madre immigrated from Bolivia several generations later, their four small children in tow, seeking economic opportunity and a better life in Southern California. As I’ve shared with my Latinx Theology students, my Mamita, as we called my maternal grandmother, loved to tell the story of coming to the United States. Whenever anything big happened in our family—if someone graduated, began her career, was married, gave birth—she would remind us that none of it would have been possible, had she not convinced my Abuelito that they should bring their family to the US.
I situate myself in this way to demonstrate that context matters. We don’t leave behind who we are when we interpret the Gospel, but rather, we bring these experiences with us in our encounters with the text. Far from a blank slate, I come to the text in my particularity. Methodist theologian and historian Justo González calls on us, in this process, to read the Bible in Spanish—to interpret biblical texts in ways that acknowledge the contexts from which we come, that are attentive to the power dynamics at work in the text, that discern what is Good News today and how we are implicated in bringing it about in the here and now.
Turning back to Luke 4, the adult Jesus we meet there is also a child of immigrants—more aptly put, he was the son of refugee parents, an asylee himself. Raised in the shadow of the Roman Empire, Jesus was born in a place that made room where there had been none. And soon after, his family fled the threat of state-sanctioned violence, hid in Egypt, only returning to the backwater town of Nazareth after the threat of violence against the boy children of his community had ended. Just before we meet him in today’s Gospel, Jesus had done battle with evil in the desert, which, in turn, prepared him for preaching in Galilee.
A faithful Jewish man, he honored the custom of his faith community in attending synagogue, and he proclaimed the words of Isaiah we heard a moment ago. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring Good News to the poor.” Having returned from being tempted in the desert, where he had rejected earthly power, he begins to speak what is true, ready to face the consequences. At first, those who had gathered at the synagogue spoke highly of him, but the conversation quickly sours. “Isn’t this that carpenter’s son? Who does he think he is?” We see the consequences of telling the truth. We see how community responds to his announcement of Good News to the poor when he narrowly escapes being hurled off a cliff, a slightly tamer foreshadowing of future events in his life.
This passage describes a key moment, I think, in Jesus fully stepping into his vocation. It is the beginning of his public ministry. And it makes a claim on those of us who aim to follow in his footsteps, seeking to step fully into our own vocations, preparing to begin our own public ministries. That claim is this: Our vocations must include work for justice alongside those who are poor and oppressed. We must speak truth in public ways, even if the consequences cause our communities to attempt to throw us off a cliff. This is Good News, sisters, brothers, and siblings. It is Good News for those of us gathered here. It is Good News for the communities to which we belong. And it is good news to those who are poor and those who are oppressed.
Reading the Bible in Spanish, we must ask ourselves who is poor, who is oppressed. Before they were members of the caravan, the asylees of Guatemala and Honduras currently making their way through México to the United States were among the poorest of the poor, the most desperately oppressed. And they are in urgent need of our focused attention. These are the poor to whom we are called to bring Good News, and they, in turn, speak what is true to those of us who have the privilege of papers, who enjoy the benefits of documentation, who have US American citizenship.
With the Feast of All Saints in my tradition drawing so near, I cannot help being reminded of the members of the cloud of witnesses who teach us about our vocations. While Dom Hélder Câmara has not been canonized, I see him as a prophet of his times whose actions echo the words of our Gospel today. He stepped fully into his vocation, speaking and acting on what is true, regardless of the consequences. The Catholic Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, from the mid1960s to the mid1980s, Câmara accompanied the poor and the oppressed of that community in the context of violent repression from the Brazilian dictatorship that had taken over the government of his day. He was an outspoken advocate and practitioner of liberation theology as it was articulated in Latin American contexts. A small man in stature, Câmara had a booming and powerful voice, which he used to critique—openly and pointedly—the military dictatorship that aimed to keep the poor and oppressed of his archdiocese and their country mired in their suffering. Derided by some as the Red Bishop, Câmara is often quoted as having said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
Following his lead, I am compelled to ask of the asylees of the caravan: Why are they poor? What is happening in Central America that is prompting them to leave everything they know, facing violence at the hands of the Mexican police at the bridge at their southern border, waking up to clouds of pesticides the Mexican police turned on them in Chiapas? Members of the caravan come from across Central America, but I am going to focus for a moment on Honduras, one of the most economically poor nations in the Américas. As our government did in several Central American nations in the 1980s, the United States intervened militarily in Honduran affairs, continuing to provide military aid through the present day. Further, our government supported the overthrow of democratically elected President Zelaya as recently as 2009. The justification for these actions has to do with protecting US American economic and political interests, especially as those interests relate to “free trade” through policies like CAFTA and NAFTA, as well as “the drug war.” Those whom these policies affect most directly are our Central American brothers and sisters who are already economically poor, especially Indigenous women and children. These poor and oppressed people are fleeing their homes and facing such violence in the slim hope of a safer and more economically secure life because US foreign policy leaves them no choice. Fully aware of the risk of their families being forcefully separated if they survive this journey to the United States, these poor and oppressed people become refugees and asylees as they join the caravan.
Like the Jesus of Luke 4, many of us gathered in this space are preparing to step more fully into our own vocations. Some of us already have. To do so, we must ask ourselves, as leaders in our churches: What does living out our vocations look like, in light of our shared context, a context in which the economic privileges of our US American lifestyles are so closely related to the economic suffering of our Central American brothers, sisters, and siblings?
If we are to speak truth in our churches about these realities, we must first discern what is true. In our current political moment, discerning what is true is no small feat. However, we can take a cue from Reformed theologian Karl Barth, who knew of the need for the Bible and the newspaper to be read alongside one another. If we apply González’s advice about reading the Bible to the way we read the newspaper, as well, we will ask ourselves about how news stories portray the poor and the oppressed, in what colors they paint refugees and asylees, about whose interests the perspectives presented in these news stories serve. And we must invite the Spirit of the Lord to be upon us, too, that she might guide our discernment of what is true, that we might have the courage to speak that truth to the church communities of which we are a part.
As this Gospel passage reminds us, we can encounter resistance from members of our communities when we speak what of what is true. Some among us will tell us that we should leave politics outside the doors of our churches, that we must not politicize the Gospel. However, remaining neutral in the face of the suffering of the poor and the oppressed is, in fact, a political act. It is a political act that ignores the wise counsel of today’s Gospel. It is a political act that prioritizes our economic comfort over the needs of others—namely, the refugees and asylees currently on the move in the caravan. It is a political act that turns our faces not only from their suffering, but also from the truth of a Jesus who suffered similarly—as a child whose safety was threatened by the political circumstances into which he was born. This turning away fails to recognize that the Gospels of our shared traditions are, in and of themselves, political texts. Just three short years after we meet the Jesus of Luke 4, he was put to death, in part, for being a political dissident. This is the Jesus of history. This is the Christ of our faith. His example calls on us to resist the temptation to turn away from the economic and political suffering of those who are like he was.
As many of you certainly are aware, Pope Francis recently canonized Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was archbishop of San Salvador during the civil war that nation endured in the early 1980s. Saint Romero was intimately familiar with what it means to step fully into his vocation, to speak truth to power, and to risk dire consequences. When Romero was early in his ministry as archbishop, members of the Salvadoran military assassinated Fr. Rutilio Grande, who had encouraged economically poor people living in rural areas to interpret the Gospels in light of their lives. When Romero went to be among those whose lives Grande’s ministry had touched, he was so moved by their suffering. That movement of the Spirit among them led to his conversion—a turning from comfort and toward suffering, a realization of the connections between the two that would not allow him to return to his former ways of being.
The Salvadoran Civil War largely was fought between two sides—the military who aimed to protect the economic interests of the wealthy and paramilitary groups who fought on the part of the economically poor. During regular broadcasts of his homilies on public radio, Romero called for justice that would bring about peace, begging those who had taken up arms against their neighbors to lay them down, calling on those in power to broker a just peace that prioritized the needs of the economically poor who continue to make up the majority of the Salvadoran population. They failed to listen, and he was gunned down while celebrating Mass with a community of vowed religious women there. He embodied the ideas to which our Gospel points today. And the wisdom he spoke with his life continues to ring true for we who see ourselves as church leaders today. Romero said,
The church must suffer for speaking the truth, for pointing out sin, for uprooting sin. No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.”
This is Good News, sisters and brothers. It is Good News for those of us gathered here. It is Good News for the communities to which we belong. And it is good news to those who are poor and those who are oppressed. Stepping fully into our vocations, let us have confidence in who and whose we are and whom we serve. Let us go forth to treat our sores. Let us believe in Christ the asylee. Let us be converted from the sins that prevent us from working on the part of justice for asylees today. Amen.
“The Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner.
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.
This morning, I woke up to the news of ICE having released hundreds of migrants on Christmas Eve without having alerted local shelters of their decision. In addition, I learned of the untimely passing of Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala; he died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection on Christmas Day. During these days of government shutdown, what can we do to honor the wise counsel of theologian Howard Thurman, who reminds us of the call of the Gospels to do the work of Christmas?
Continue to pray.
Continue to educate ourselves about the realities to which these news articles point.
If you’re not already connected to organizations who are on the front lines of this work, start researching them now. I recommend PICO California, with chapters all over the state; Annunciation House in El Paso, TX; HOPE Border Institute in El Paso, TX; Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, TX, and the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, TX. Learn more about the good work these organizations are doing and support them in whatever ways you are able.
Raise awareness in your faith community. If you are Catholic, talk with the folks at your parish about participating in National Migration Week, January 6th-12th, 2019. Download the toolkit here.
If you don’t know who your Senators and Representative are, find out now. Call them daily to request that they defund ICE and do not allocate funds for the construction of a wall along the border with México.
In this passage, we meet a pregnant Mary, who has traveled alone to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who also is expecting a child. As they greet one another, the Holy Spirit moves, and the child within Elizabeth recognizes the child within Mary. Elizabeth shares with Mary a blessing: Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.
I see parallels between the young, pregnant Mary of Luke’s Gospel and the young women of “the mobile congregation.” Mary traveled on her own, in a vulnerable situation, to visit her cousin, to share with her the good news of her new life as a mother. I imagine there are many young women in “the mobile congregation” who are traveling alone together, so to speak, also in vulnerable situations, believing that a new life in the United States is possible.
Especially at this time of year, Christians praise Mary for her celebration of new life and acting on her desire to be in relationship with her cousin. As we transition from a time of anticipation to a time of celebration, let us refrain from standing in judgment over the members of “the mobile congregation” who seek new life, some of whom are coming to the United States not only to flee life-threatening circumstances in Central America, but also to be with family in the United States. As Christmas nears, let us seek out reasons for celebration of and protection of our common humanity.
This weekend, I had the privilege of accompanying a group of Austin Seminary students to McAllen, TX, where they would become more intimately acquainted with the human impact of our broken immigration system. Led by one of their classmates and a local leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA), they listened to the wisdom of women like Sr. Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities and the Angry Tías and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley. They volunteered at a local relief center for those recently released from detention. And they held a public prayer service on the US American side of the International Bridge, where they lamented the injustices done against asylees in our name and committed themselves to telling the stories of the borderlands, as they encountered them, upon their return to Austin. In the wake of the death of seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, they grieved her loss.
As I sit with today’s Gospel, I am struck by the ways in which these students are beginning to live into the Good News of right relationship that John the Baptist proclaims to those who seek it out. Like the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers of Luke’s Gospel, I hear them asking, “What should we do?” I hear them asking this question of God, of themselves, of faith leaders like Sr. Norma, of their fellow students. I see them discerning a way forward that honors the experiences of this weekend, sharing their belongings with those who have little, like the crowds, and taking stock of how they might use their power as ministers in formation for good, to refrain from abusing it, as John the Baptist exhorts the soldiers in the passage to do.
Tonight, I feel privileged to walk with them as they begin to grapple with what it means for them to be in right relationship with migrants and asylees, to be faithful ministers of the Gospel. If you feel similarly called, click here to support the urgent and much-needed work of Catholic Charities. If you would like to engage in a similar public witness, click here to download an adaptation of the prayer service the students and their community partners designed and shared at the International Bridge.
From the start of this Gospel passage, the Evangelist is sensitive to political and religious power, telling his reader who is in charge. In the midst of the everyday workings of what Paul would call the powers and principalities, John the Baptist receives the word of God while praying in the desert, that place the ancients went to do spiritual warfare against evil. Duly equipped, he makes his way about the Jordan, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” urging all who would hear him to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Presbyterian theologian and historian Justo González invites us to read the Bible in Spanish—to interpret biblical texts in ways that acknowledge the contexts from which we come, attentive to the power dynamics at work in these texts, discerning what is Good News today and how we are implicated in bringing it about in the here and now. It is clear to me that the Good News of this Sunday’s Gospel involves this call to repentance; these Good News have everything to do with preparing the way of the Lord. Especially as we interpret the Gospel in light of the First Reading, we see that God’s desire for justice in the here and now is an integral part of making ready our hearts and the world for the coming of the Christ child.
In praying with this passage, I cannot help but consider the needs of “the mobile congregation.” During these holy days of anticipation, many Christians are discerning their roles in the struggle for justice on the part of these asylees, asking ourselves what it means to prepare the way of the Lord in light of the reality of injustice for our brothers and sisters on the southern border. How might we prepare our hearts and the world for Jesus this Advent?
(1) Continue to pray. Lift up the safety and security of our brothers and sisters in “the mobile congregation” in intercessory prayer. Ask God to protect them and to keep them safe. If you’re struggling to find words in your prayer time, try praying the Immigrants’ Creed.
(2) Continue to educate ourselves. Read and listen to the news of what is happening on the southern border. Be discerning in evaluating the perspectives you hear—about whose interests they serve, in what light they paint asylees, what words they use to describe those affected by injustice most intimately.
(3) Share what we have with those who are serving asylees and those recently released from detention. If you are local to Austin, the Seminary is collecting the following items through this Thursday: Zip-Lock baggies in gallon and quart size, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrushes, sealed snack food (e.g. granola bars, peanut butter & cheese crackers), reusable shopping bags, baby bottles, shoelaces. Regardless of your location, consider making a donation to Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center in the Rio Grande Valley or Annunciation House in El Paso, TX.
(4) Advocate for policies that honor the human rights of asylees. Begin to build relationships with your legislators that honor the common good and respect human dignity, the fundamental building blocks of Catholic social teaching. With permission, I'm amplifying a message from PICO/Faith in Action here: This week, call your legislators (1.855.656.7426) to encourage them to (1) send judges and aid to the border, (2) end catch and release at the border, (3) vote no in Congress on an expanded budget for ICE, and (4) ensure due process for all asylum seekers. This phone number will connect you with your Representative and your Senators. Whether you speak to a staffer or leave a voicemail, be sure to leave your name, your phone number, and your email, as well as a reminder that you are a constituent in that legislator’s district.
The movement of “the mobile congregation,” as my colleague has called those who endeavor to seek asylum from the death-dealing circumstances of countries like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, has been on my heart in recent weeks. In light of the events of Sunday afternoon, I imagine this is true for many of us the world over as reports of the use of tear gas against the mobile congregation, many of whom are children and adolescents, emerge. These are frightening and uneasy times.
This was no less true for the Jesus of Luke’s Gospel, who warns us today of the anxiety times such as this will evoke for those who draw near to him. Further, he accompanies his warning with wise counsel, telling his hearers, “…when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.” What I hear him saying to us, in plain language, is this: Pay attention because these signs of the times have everything to do with your redemption. Just as important as what Jesus says is what he does not say. His advice discourages us from looking the other way. His assessment of the situation does not dismiss the signs as other people’s problems. He does not advise us to sit idly by and watch as these things comes to pass. Rather, Jesus calls us to vigilance and to prayer, which Simone Weil described as the art of paying close attention.
Taking a cue from the Jesus of Luke 21, I have compiled below a list of resources to which we must pay close attention, especially if we are unable to accompany these asylees in more direct ways. On this first Sunday of Advent, I invite you to read them, to sit with them, and to pray with them. To what is Jesus inviting you, in light of the reality of the mobile congregation?
“White House approves military to use lethal force at southern border” by Bart Jansen, John Fritze, and Alan Gomez
“Mexico confronted Central American migrants with new severity. It cost one man his life.” by Kate Linthicum
“US Agents Fire Tear Gas at Migrants Attempting to Cross US-Mexico Border in Tijuana” by Huff Post UK and News Agencies
“The Debt We Owe Central America” by Miles Culpepper
This is one of two YouTube videos from the Catholic Women Speak Symposium at the Pontifical University Antonianum, the only pontifical university to have a woman rector. The panel of theologians and practitioners of which I was a part, “Sharing Our Stories: Culture and Catholicism,” runs from approximately 0:25:00 until 1:19:53. Do consider subscribing to the Catholic Women Speak YouTube channel. And you can purchase a copy of the book on which the symposium is based, Visions and Vocations (Paulist Press, 2018), here.
I have been feeling like there is no room for me in the Catholic Church. The feeling ebbs and flows, but it has been persistent for more than a few years now.
Having moved to a new city in the wake of the Pennsylvania Report, I tried attending Mass at a local Catholic parish. In making my way there, I was keenly aware of my need for community with other Catholics, as well as my need for someone in a position of leadership in the church “to bring a word,” as my formerly American Baptist and more recently Episcopalian friend is fond of saying about poignant and challenging preaching that connects with the hearts of those who hear it. I went to Mass, in the hopes that the priest who was presiding would “bring a word” about sex abuse. I wanted him not to ignore it, to speak about it in a way that acknowledges its impact on the Catholic community, especially those who have lived through its horrors, to preach about it in a way that truly repents not only for the initial wrongdoing, but also for the system that enabled and perpetuated its hiddenness.
I encountered no such word at Mass that day. When the homily ended, I looked around the church to see that it was packed. I had arrived during the proclamation of the psalm and had snagged one of the few open seats in the wings. I saw children sitting with their parents and crawling around the pews in the very back, as well as young people in their college sweatshirts throughout the congregation, and I saw how racially diverse the parish was. I felt encouraged by the diversity I saw among the laypeople at Mass, but I could not help but wonder whether or not any one of the people sitting in those pews felt as disheartened as I had by the homily, which had had more to say about 2nd-century Corinth than it did about how what had happened in the Christian community there might equip us to deal with the challenges of the present day.
As I walked back to my car, hot tears started to sting as they formed in my eyes and threatened to roll down my cheeks. I was disappointed, and I was angry. I had needed something I hadn’t received. What I had needed had not even been put on offer.
Not long afterward, I traveled to Rome to be a part of a panel for the symposium that the leadership of Catholic Women Speak had organized in honor of the release of Visions and Vocations (Paulist Press, 2018). Both the release of the book and the event itself had been timed to take place just ahead of the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, which would take place at the Vatican later that week. I spoke about my essay in the book very briefly as part of a panel that included women from Scotland/Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Jamaica, South Africa, Poland, and the United States. As importantly, I listened to the comments of the other members of that panel, as well as the speakers who presented throughout the day, the vast majority of whom were women. Here was this group of women who had come from literally all over the world, and over and over again, I heard what became a refrain: I struggle to find my voice, and when I use it to speak on my own part and on the part of others who are being oppressed in the church to which I belong, rarely do I encounter an adequate response.
As I built community with the women who had gathered for the symposium, I started to realize that I was beginning to encounter the kind of ecclesial community I had sought in Austin. Halfway across the world, in the defense hall of the Antonianum, and later over rich pasta in a restaurant around the corner, I had “heard a word,” as my friend might say.
Had hearing that word been the sum total of my experience in Rome, it would have been more than worth the resources spent for me to attend the symposium. But the Holy Spirit had more to show me during my travels abroad.
A friend who is a Jesuit priest studying at the Gregorian offered to show me around a few of the churches in his neighborhood later that week. I happily accepted and followed my friend around the stone streets near the Pantheon, into the parish where he works, through the rooms of Ignatius of Loyola, including the one in which Ignatius convalesced and died, and into the Church of the Gesu, where Ignatius is buried.
Wholly unplanned, we landed not far from the Basilica Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which holds the tomb of Catherine of Siena. On we went, past where the Inquisitors had questioned Galileo Galilei, past Bernini’s last sculpture, and into the basilica, the white walls of which are nondescript from the outside. As we entered the basilica, I felt calm and quiet and small. My friend shared with me how powerful it had been for him to pray next to her tomb, and he showed me the place where she is interred. The church on its inside was just as ornate as any other we had been in that morning, but all I could take in was the statue of her likeness, which was softly lit and lying prone behind the glass.
A gentleman was kneeling at her tomb, his fingers moving gently over his rosary, the familiar words of its accompanying prayers coming from his mouth. He looked so earnest, I remember asking my friend, “Do you think it’s ok for me to kneel a little further off to his side?” I was moved by what I saw, but I was unsure of the etiquette of this place that was so new to me, and I didn’t want to disrupt this man’s prayer. My friend said it would be quite fine, and each of us climbed the steps to the kneelers on opposite sides of the man with his rosary.
As I kneeled down to pray, I made the Sign of the Cross and finally shared my wounds with God. Without a rosary to guide me, I confided in God about the pain I have felt for so long—the pain of feeling that there is not a place for me within the church to share the gifts He has given me; of feeling pushed out from ministerial work I had cherished; of feeling that what I do with my brain as a Catholic theologian should not be shared too broadly, out of fear that it could be viewed as more of a liability for my future employment than an asset to my ecclesial community. I told Him about how curious I am about what might happen if I had access to an ecclesial community that could nurture the gifts He has given me, that could give me a place to practice skills I’d like to develop to be of more use to His people.
In weeping and kneeling alongside the place where Catherine was buried, I began to feel a kinship with her. I remembered the bits and pieces I knew of the story of her life, a life that was deeply committed to God and the church in her efforts to reform the latter, a witness that was not recognized fully until after her death. And I realized that, like many women doctors of the church, she did not wait for someone else to make room for her gifts to shine. She created the space she sought. In those moments of kinship with her, I felt God inviting me to follow in her footsteps, in my own small way, to make the space I need, the space in our church I am called to occupy.
It is difficult to estimate the number of migrant and refugee children whom the Trump administration has directed be separated from their parents at the southern border of the United States with Mexico. As of June 19th, 2018, National Public Radio estimated that U.S. government agencies had separated 2,342 migrant and refugee children from their parents. More recently, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar estimated “under 3,000.” It is also difficult to estimate the ratio of racial and ethnic backgrounds of these migrants and refugee children and their parents, but one can speculate that many come from Latin American countries. Family separation is part of what the Trump administration has called its “zero tolerance” policy on immigration. For the first week after the practice of separating families at the border became public, the administration alternately argued that there was no policy calling for such a practice, that the policy was a legacy of the Obama administration, and that Democrats were the only ones who could change the practice by changing existing immigration law. On June 21st, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order that promised to end the practice of family separation of migrants and refugees along our southern border. One week later, it was unclear whether or not accurate records of who and where these children are exists, despite a recent order for reunification from San Diego federal judge Dana Sabraw. Further, reports from sources in the Pentagon say that the Trump administration is calling for space to be made for family detention of 20,000 more migrant and refugee parents and children on military bases around the United States.
Some have argued that the only way the separation of children from their families can be tolerable, the only way the mass detention of migrants and refugees can be possible, is for the population in question to be dehumanized. Everyday Americans would not allow their government to call for children to be forcibly taken from their parents if they saw those children and their parents as human, their argument runs. In recent months, Trump has warned that immigrants will “infest” this country, comparing migrants and refugees to “snakes” and “animals” and decrying the “shithole countries” from which migrants come to the United States. He has criminalized migrants and Latinxs more broadly, making misleading claims about gangs like MS-13 and the wider Latinx community.
As he has spoken favorably of immigrants from Scandinavian countries like Norway, I do not believe his concern is actually related to xenophobia, in spite of his inflammatory rhetoric. His fear has to do with economically poor people of color, especially poor Latinx folks. Because of his racism and his disdain for the working class, Trump is unable to see them as fully human. And because he cannot see them as fully human, he creates policy that erodes their basic human dignity. How we think about members of marginalized groups affects how we interact with them.
These events bring to mind the Latina Catholic women in the Los Angeles area among whom I have done my dissertation research. It urges me to consider what the women whom I have interviewed might teach members of the Trump administration about conflict resolution, about justice, about what it means to live in community. Many of them mothers and grandmothers, these women know that there is another way to confront gang and police violence afflicting our neighborhoods. They know that each member of their parish and of their neighborhood is a child of God, worthy of consideration and care.
In the face of the lies and the half-truths of this administration, these women say what is true. The truth they speak is not an abstract concept, but rather, as it is for all Catholic Christians, truth is a person. Truth touched the earth as a refugee little boy whose parents were forced to protect him from an empire that sought to kill him before his second birthday, as a prophetically faithful Jewish man whose witness was so indicting of those in religious and political power that he was murdered at the hands of the state. These women know truth because they know his mother, especially as she grieves the loss of her son. These women see Mary of Nazareth and Our Lady of Guadalupe as one and the same, and they know her intimately. She walks with them in their own suffering and they, in turn, walk with those who suffer. In doing so, they humanize those whom some among us would have us believe are less than human. They speak to the truth of our basic goodness, calling to conversionthose who do not acknowledge that goodness.
 Camila Domonoske and Richard Gonzales, “What We Know: Family Separation And 'Zero Tolerance' At The Border,” National Public Radio, June 19, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/19/621065383/what-we-know-family-separation-and-zero-tolerance-at-the-border.
 Philip Bump, “The Children Separated from Their Parents, by the Numbers,” The Washington Post, July 9, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2018/07/09/the-children-separated-from-their-parents-by-the-numbers/?utm_term=.65ebc9a748dd.
 Maya Rhodan, “Here Are the Facts About President Trump’s Family Separation Policy,” Time, June 20, 2018, http://time.com/5314769/family-separation-policy-donald-trump/.
 Salvador Rizzo, “The Facts About Trump’s Policy of Separating Families at the Border,” The Washington Post, June 19, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/06/19/the-facts-about-trumps-policy-of-separating-families-at-the-border/?utm_term=.00208b4a635e.
 Kevin Johnson, David Jackson, Jessica Estepa, “Trump signs executive order on immigration, but says ‘zero tolerance’ will continue,” USA Today, June 20, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/06/20/homeland-security-drafts-plan-end-separations-border/717898002/.
 Jonathan Blitzer, “The government has no plan for reuniting the immigrant families it is tearing apart,” The New Yorker, June 18, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-government-has-no-plan-for-reuniting-the-immigrant-families-it-is-tearing-apart; Kristina Davis and Alene Tchekmedyian, “San Diego federal judge orders separated children reunited with parents within 30 days,” San Diego Union Tribune, June 26, 2018, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/courts/sd-me-judge-ruling-20180626-story.html.
 Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Katie Benner, “US Prepares to House Up to 20,000 Migrants on Military Bases,” The New York Times, June 21, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/21/us/politics/trump-immigration-border-family-separation.html.
 DeNeen L. Brown, “‘Barbaric’: America’s cruel history of separating children from their parents,” The Washington Post, May 31, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/05/31/barbaric-americas-cruel-history-of-separating-children-from-their-parents/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.a8ffa93def70; Anthea Butler, “Separating families and calling it Christian is an American tradition,” The Huffington Post, June 16, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-butler-sessions-sanders-immigration-christianity_us_5b2513b7e4b0783ae1298e5d; Charles M. Blow, “White Extinction Anxiety,” The New York Times, June 24, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/24/opinion/america-white-extinction.html.
 Betsy Klein and Kevin Liptak, “Trump ramps up rhetoric: Dems want ‘illegal immigrants’ to ‘infest our country,’” CNN, June 19, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/19/politics/trump-illegal-immigrants-infest/index.html; David A. Graham, “Trump Says Democrats Want Immigrants to ‘Infest” the US,” The Atlantic, June 19, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/06/trump-immigrants-infest/563159/; Dan Merica, “Trump reads ‘The Snake,’ repurposed as anti-immigrant poem, at CPAC,” CNN, February 25, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/23/politics/trump-the-snake-song/index.html; Maya Oppenheim, “Daughters of man who wrote ‘The Snake’ tell Trump to stop using poem to smear immigrants,” The Independent, February 27, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trump-the-snake-lyrics-immigration-policy-daughters-anger-us-president-a8230771.html; Julie Hirschfield Davis, “Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants ‘Animals’ in Rant,” The New York Times, May 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/16/us/politics/trump-undocumented-immigrants-animals.html; Jessica Taylor, “Trump Tests Midterm Message on Immigration, MS-13 ‘Animals,’ during Tennessee Rally,” National Public Radio, May 29, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/05/29/615355282/trump-tests-midterm-message-on-immigration-ms-13-animals-during-tenn-rally; Josh Dawsey, “Trump derides protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries,” The Washington Post, January 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-attacks-protections-for-immigrants-from-shithole-countries-in-oval-office-meeting/2018/01/11/bfc0725c-f711-11e7-91af-31ac729add94_story.html?utm_term=.d88d1acde985.
 Jen Kirby, “Trump wants fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and more from places like Norway,” Vox, January 11, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/1/11/16880750/trump-immigrants-shithole-countries-norway.
Los pollitos dicen
Pio, pio, pio
Cuando tienen hambre
Cuando tienen frio
La gallina busca
El maiz y el trigo
Les da la comida
Y les presta abrigo
Bajo sus dos alas
Hasta el otro dia
Duerman los pollitos
I have fond memories of my mom singing this lullabye at bedtime when my brother and I were small. We said our prayers, asking God’s blessings on each member of our family, near and far. As she brushed the unruly curls back from my face with her hand, she sang “Los Pollitos” to us, and its sweet melody and that intimacy with our mom accompanied us to sleep. The imagery of the song surely is familiar to many, and it is comforting: A mother hen feeds her little ones as they call to her, and they find rest beneath the protection of her wings.
Jesus refers to himself with a similar image in the Gospels. After he denounces the unjust actions of the Pharisees, we hear, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37, NRSVCE). For generations, the passage preceding his lament over Jerusalem was interpreted in ways that support anti-Semitism, but more recently, New Testament scholars have come to understand Jesus as a faithful Jewish man who aimed to root out religious and political corruption. In Matthew 23:37, he judges not all who lived in the Jerusalem of his day, but any religious or civic entity that rejects its prophets and makes of them martyrs. Jesus, the mother hen, calls to accountability the community that shaped him.
These two images of the mother hen—the one that provides and protects with gentleness and the one that calls the community to accountability—need one another. And I think they have something to say to people of faith and to Catholics in particular during these troubled times. Rooted in Scripture and part of our tradition, the principles of Catholic social teaching call on us to provide and to protect with gentleness, as well as call to accountability our religious and civic leaders. Drawing on Rerum Novarum, the USCCB outlines three further principles that can guide the consciences of Catholics on the issue of migration:
“People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.
A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration.
A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.”
If you are a Catholic who is concerned about the growing numbers of children and families whom the US has begun to detain as they cross the southern border with Mexico, I encourage you to reflect on the rights and responsibilities our bishops have outlined, as well as to what you are called. In recent days, I have spent time in prayer and reflection on these issues, and these are the actions to which I feel called.
I feel called to pray for protection of those children who were separated from their parents, in the hopes of reunification; for gentleness to touch the lives of those parents who have been separated from their children, as well as those families who are in detention together; for those who construct and enforce the policies that affect the lives of these migrants and refugees, that they would be converted from practices that oppress the stranger among us to the practices of welcome to which we are called as Catholics and as Christians; and for the rest of us, that we would take a stand for justice and for mercy on this and other issues affecting our nation and our world.
I feel called to inform myself and to do the work of consciousness raising, or sharing what I have learned about this issue, those it affects most deeply and most directly, and the resources Catholic teaching brings to bear on it.
I feel called to act in a way that reflects my conscience. I have begun to reach out to my elected officials to encourage them to support just and humane immigration reform, and I have taken part in two public witnesses calling for an end to detention for migrant and refugee children and families. I also intend to donate to PICO California to show my support for the work they are doing on this issue.
Last weekend, over 1,000 people marched alongside Pastor Ben McBride of PICO California and Bishop Robert McElroy of the Catholic Diocese of San Diego to Otay Mesa Road in San Ysidro, CA, where migrant and refugee children and families are being held in detention. As we marched, we chanted, “No están solos! No están solos!” (“You are not alone! You are not alone!”) Almost as soon as the chant died down, we heard, from the other side of the barbed wire fence, the voices of children shouting back to us, echoing off the high walls of the detention center. The chorus of little cries brought tears to my eyes as I walked in the heat of the afternoon, weeping for the little ones who would not hear the lullabyes of their mothers that night and in the nights to come, weeping for those in our country who have yet to heed calls to accountability for the policies that cage these children and families. Today, our faith calls on us to be mother hens—to provide comfort and protection to these little ones and to call to accountability those who threaten that protection.
I have compiled a list of resources about the separation of migrant children from their parents that have been helpful to me in discerning steps forward on this issue. In the list below, I follow the model of the pastoral circle, which has its roots in Catholic social teaching and social movements. Wrote John XXIII in Mater et Magistra,
“There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice. First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: look, judge, act (#236).”
In seeing, we learn about the reality of the situation. In judging, we make a discerning assessment of how to respond to that reality. In acting, we take steps to address it. For my own part, I am making a commitment to urge my civic and church leaders to bring the weight of their positions to bear on this issue, that we would bring an end to this practice of separating families at the border and atone for this national sin.
A Los Angeles Times piece about the conditions in a shelter for migrants on the border
A PBS piece on these conditions
A CNN piece about the circumstances under which children are being separated from their parents
NPR coverage of the impact these separations are having on the health of these children
CNBC coverage of Sarah Sanders discussing how separation of children from their parents along the border is biblical
The Washington Post’s coverage of Jeff Sessions’ biblical justification for the separation of families along the border
UPDATE (Monday, 25 June 2018): New York Times article on preparations being made to detain up to 20,000 migrants on military bases
UPDATE (Monday, 25 June 2018): NYT opinion piece "What My 6-Year-Old Son and I Endured in Family Detention"
A Washington Post piece on America’s history of separating children from their parents
The National Catholic Reporter's series on this issue
The Hill’s coverage of the president of the USCCB’s take on this reality
The USCCB’s description of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching
St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer to Know God's Will
UPDATE (Monday, 25 June 2018): NYT Opinion Columnist Charles M. Blow on "White Extinction Anxiety" and the immigration debate
UPDATE (Monday, 25 June 2018): PICO California needs donations to keep its community organizing efforts on these issues thriving; consider making a donation today. Continue calling your Reps and your Senators to urge them to pass just and humane legislation like the Keep Families Together Act (see below for more information).
UPDATE (Wednesday, 20 June 2018): Families Belong Together has information about public witnesses happening around the country on Saturday, 30 June 2018. If you can't march in Washington, DC, but feel called to do something public, click through their website to find a solidarity gathering in your area. Keep calling your Reps and your Senators (see below for more info about how) to register your concern about what is happening on the border.
UPDATE (Tuesday, 19 June 2018): Hope Border Institute and NETWORK Lobby are encouraging us to call our Representatives to discourage them from supporting HR 4760 and Speaker Ryan's bill because this legislation does not effectively reunify separated families, nor does it adequately meet the needs of DREAMers. Call your Reps today at (202) 225-3121; this number will connect you to your Rep's office. If you're not sure what to say, here is a suggested script.
Professor Neomi De Anda’s suggestions of tools for action
Suggestions for action from the Editorial Board of the New York Times
Petition that will be delivered to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
Jim Martin, SJ's America piece on five things we can do to help immigrants at the border
Text of the Keep Families Together Act in the Senate
List of cosponsors of the Keep Families Together Act in the Senate
The phone number for the Capitol Switchboard is (202) 224-3121. Calling it will connect you with your two Senators, even if you aren't sure who they are. If your Senator supports the Keep Families Together Act, you can call to thank her. If she doesn’t, you can call to encourage her to express her support for it.
Text of the Child Citizen Protection Act (H.R. 2508) would allow judges to decline any order separating a non-citizen parent from a citizen child.
Text of the HELP Separated Children Act (H.R. 5950) would require states to provide separated children with foster care through welfare agencies or community organizations and require DHS personnel to undergo child welfare training.
Call your Congressional House Representative about these two bills. If you don’t have her name and number handy, call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 225-3121.
Donation page for the National Immigration Law Center
RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education Legal Services)
“You’re coding your way into freedom,” she said. “Not just yours—all of ours.” My colleague and I were co-working in the library, and she had noticed that I had begun to weep at my keyboard. The more closely I attend to my work with the words of the Latina women I interviewed for my dissertation research, the more their words work on me. Many of them mothers and now grandmothers, these women have shared with me hard-earned wisdom about matters of daily living in their barrios and in their parish, as well as their relationships with Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The coding I do is not the kind that builds websites, but rather, this coding is a means of interpreting the data I spent two of the last three winters collecting. Using participant observation and in-depth interviews, I aimed to learn more about the spiritual practices of Latina women at a Los Angeles Catholic parish, especially as they relate to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I am learning that their relationships with la Virgen permeate every aspect of their lives, but I am focusing my research on implications for gender and for faith-based community organizing. Gang violence and more recently police violence have afflicted the neighborhood in which the parish sits for generations, and the women of the parish engage these realities in creative ways. Since my field work ended, I have taken up the tasks of coding several of these interviews and synthesizing my field notes into a dissertation.
Coding is one of the tools I use to listen attentively, especially to the voices of grassroots Latina women. This process of coding allows me to sit with their words, to interpret their meanings. And it shares with me insights to bring back to members of the community, encouraging me to ask, “Am I hearing you right? Does this interpretation resonate with your meaning of these words?” My charge as a mujerista theologian in formation is not only to amplify the voices of the Latina women of the grassroots, but also to place their lived realities in dialogue with the teachings of our Catholic tradition, all in the hopes of constructing new and more life-giving theologies in the shell of the old. Some teachings in our tradition shape attitudes that lead to practices that are not life-giving. In fact, as Marcella Althaus-Reid has illustrated, they are death-dealing, with dire consequences. It is to those in-between spaces, where life-giving practices, attitudes, and theologies are crying out to be born, that I feel called.
The insights these women have shared with me—about the myriad of ways one can be a faithful Catholic woman, about the ability of nonviolence to root out violence, about the capacity of restorative justice to heal the deepest of wounds—challenge me to think, to pray, and to act differently. Their words invite me to keep at the front of my mind the question, “How might my next step lead to liberation—not just for me, but for all of us?” and to act accordingly. And perhaps most importantly, these insights are not empty words; they are the fruits of wisdom gained in their homes, in their workplaces, on the streets of their neighborhoods, and in their parish. They are working toward their own liberation and the liberation of all of us as they tear down oppressive structures, provide services to the most marginalized among us, build up the Kingdom of God.
As I sat at my keyboard this afternoon, coding interviews I am breaking down into themes, which will construct categories and perhaps a grounded theory, I wept at the weight of injustice and of evil, at the hope la Virgen provides these women, at the hope she provides me. “You’re coding your way into freedom,” my colleague said. “Not just yours—all of ours.”
Alongside Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone is one of the fathers of liberation theology. The publication of Black Theology and Black Power in 1969 marked the founding of a theological movement in the United States. Honorifics such as these point to the work that has had an impact on so many and for such good reason.
Cone’s work affected the ways we understand US American Christianity and write theology in this context. His impact was so profound that we cannot un-see what his pulling back of the curtain has revealed. To engage in such an un-seeing is an act of willful ignorance; it is dishonesty dressed up as objectivity. Reflecting on this phenomenon in the introduction to the 1997 edition of God of the Oppressed (1975), Cone discussed the different social locations from which he and his White colleagues came, which, in turn, influenced the way they interpreted Scripture and wrote theology. He wrote,
“We both read selectively—they from a liberal white dominant viewpoint and I from a radical black perspective of the marginalized. I was willing to acknowledge the hermeneutical difference and suggested that my view was closer to [that of Martin Luther] King and the Bible than theirs. But white theologians argued that my reading was subjective and ideological and theirs was objective and correct.”
Cone’s recognition of this difference and consequent indictment of such willful ignorance and intellectual dishonesty is particularly prescient in our contemporary US American context, when many among us draw moral equivalence between racist attitudes and practices on the one hand and anti-racist attitudes and practices on the other. Cone’s work places the experiences of our Black brothers and sisters at the center of theological construction. Reading it invites us to join Cone in his condemnation of the structural sins so evident in 45’s America, structural sins that endeavor to prevent people of color and their children from living into the fullness of human flourishing in the churches and in the world. Grappling with his writing urges us to consider the nature of our own responses to these injustices, in word, in prayer, and in deed.
Although I never studied with Professor Cone, I consider him my teacher. His work shapes the way I see. It flouts the alleged authority of anemic claims to “objectivity” of White theologians like those he mentions above.
Rise in power, Professor Cone. Rest among those on whose shoulders you stood. May we work with the tools you have fashioned toward a more just future.
Watch Prof. Sharon Fennema, Prof. Valerie Miles-Tribble, Prof. Rita Sherma, and I present on our research related to the theme of "Raising Our Voices in a Turbulent Time."
The impetus to write an agapic love letter to the Catholic Church, a letter that grieves the loss of so many young people from our ecclesial communities without pretending to know what’s best for them, prompted this workshop. I wanted to write a love letter that calls our church to account. This agapic love sees young adults as gifts instead of liabilities, is curious about what their witness might have to teach the rest of the church, practices non-judgment, and ultimately casts out fear.
Given that this particular workshop was geared toward sabbatical students with ample experience in ministry, I felt concerned about how the material might be received. How would a room full of seasoned priests and vowed religious men and women respond to the research and recommendations I would share? We agreed early on that we would keep our minds open to the insights that emerged from our conversation together, and we committed ourselves to seeing the young people whose experience was represented in studies on generational identity and shifts in religious practice as teachers from whom we could learn. What might their choices teach us about how we do ministry, about how we construct church?
As one of the participants in my dissertation research has taught me, love is more than sentimental. Love, especially agapic love, calls us to ongoing conversion. It invites us to let go of our investments in practices that do not serve the ecclesial communities of which we are a part in favor of developing practices that liberate in their affirmation of our human dignity and contribution to the common good. In light of love's invitation to conversion, the workshop participants and I began to consider how the witness of young people, especially those who have left traditional Catholic practice behind, can encourage us to be church in a more agapic way. Where might this curiosity about the witness of young adults lead us as a church? How might we be converted by practicing non-judgment? What would it be like to be freed from fear in our practice of love?