By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published October 3, 2019 | En Español
ATLANTA—On Sept. 29, the Catholic Church recognized the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, an occasion to express concern for vulnerable people on the move and increase awareness about migration.
In his message for the day, Pope Francis challenged the way society views migrants, refugees, displaced persons and victims of trafficking.
“The presence of migrants and refugees—and of vulnerable people in general—is an invitation to recover some of those essential dimensions of our Christian existence and our humanity that risk being overlooked in a prosperous society,” he said.
To learn more about the plight of immigrants, 19 priests from various dioceses joined Catholic Extension for a mission immersion program for pastors Sept. 16-18, traveling to the Diocese of Brownsville in Texas and a migrant shelter in Mexico.
After a personal invitation from Catholic Extension, Father Mark Horak, SJ, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, invited two other Atlanta priests to join him for the experience. Father Victor Galier of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta, and Father Bryan Small from Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Decatur, accepted the opportunity to learn more about what is happening at the U.S. and Mexico border.
I wanted to “go down there and see it for myself,” said Father Small.
Since its founding in 1905, Catholic Extension has provided funding and resources to dioceses throughout the United States and other countries. The program supports poor and often isolated Catholic communities through various means, such as building and repairing church facilities, providing education for men and women religious and supporting campus and outreach ministries.
In 2018, Catholic Extension launched the mission immersion program for pastors, which allows them to experience the church in poor areas of the country. This opportunity allows clergy in impoverished communities to share their stories and reminds visiting priests that the church is larger than their own parishes.
This immersion program included priests from the Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and Louisville Archdioceses, as well as pastors from the Cleveland and Providence Dioceses. Catholic Extension financially supports ministries in the locations visited.
Sisters on the ground
The Diocese of Brownsville is home for more than one million Catholics who worship in 71 parishes and 44 missions. There is only one priest for every 9,300 Catholics. Brownsville is in the southernmost part of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico, very close to the United States and Mexico border.
While in the Brownsville Diocese, the delegation of pastors visited La Posada Providencia, a shelter in San Benito, Texas founded in 1989. Sister Zita Telkamp from the Sisters of Divine Providence has served as the permanent director of the La Posada shelter since 2009, expanding not only the grounds but also resources to support clients.
La Posada is a ministry for people in crisis from around the world who are seeking legal refuge in the U.S. The shelter staff provides a safe and welcoming home, mentors to promote self-sufficiency and cultural integration, and imparts values which witness God’s providence in our world, according to the Sisters of Divine Providence.
Proyecto Desarrollo Humano, The Human Development Project, operated by the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was another stop on the immersion experience. Started in 2004, Proyecto is a non-profit in a poor neighborhood, providing classes, social services and Sunday Mass. They also have a community garden so people can grow vegetables and learn about nutrition.
The pastors also visited the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the center is a place for migrants with temporary legal status to find food, shelter and support.
“What I see is the need to respond to the dignity of the people that we see coming to our border and that need our help,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, leader of the center and executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
The group also visited a migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, operated by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. The shelter “has seen tens of thousands of people pass through its doors, either hoping to enter the United States or having been recently deported,” said Dr. Tim Muldoon, director of mission education for Catholic Extension.
Father Horak was full of admiration for the “wonderful work that religious women are doing on the border on behalf of the poor,” he said. “They were full of joy,” even though they are doing difficult and frustrating work.
The witness of many women religious and others who are involved in these places is profoundly powerful, said Father Small.
“They really are representing the best face of the church,” he said.
The pastors also visited a chapel called La Lomita, meaning “little hill,” in Mission, Texas, founded by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate over a century ago.
Due to the church’s location, the Diocese of Brownsville and the federal government are involved in a dispute regarding use of some of its land to build a border wall.
“Such a structure would limit the freedom of the church to exercise her mission in the Rio Grande Valley, and would in fact be a sign contrary to the church’s mission,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville in a diocesan statement.
This religious liberty issue in the Brownsville Diocese “should be concerning for people of good faith that the government would come in … and take land which Catholics have been worshipping on for well over a century,” said Father Galier.
A Gospel call
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security works to secure the nation in various areas, including cybersecurity, emergency response and border security. The department enforces laws and regulations on the border of the United States, which change on a continuous basis.
The immigration and asylum issues are interrelated but not the same thing, explained Father Small.
“There is also a profound lack of understanding of how the asylum process works,” he said. “These are very complex situations, and there’s no singular answer.”
Father Galier noted that current U.S. policies are having people line up on the other side of the border, causing centers in the United States to be underused.
“There were a number of places we went that were somewhat empty,” he said.
A few weeks prior to the trip, some U.S. centers were overflowing with migrants, explained Father Horak.
“Care of immigrants and refugees is a Gospel call,” said the priest. “Many Catholics see this as a political matter instead of a Gospel response, he said.
“These are our sisters and brothers,” said Father Galier. “They’re in dire need of a much better response from the American government and the American people.”
The immersion experience for pastors renewed my desire to be more engaged with the poor, said Father Horak, who previously worked as an immigration lawyer, primarily in Baltimore, Maryland. After serving in a parish for more than the last fifteen years, Father Horak realized he missed direct service to the poor in remote areas.
“The trip reopened my heart to that population and my desire to care for them,” he said.
Many Catholic organizations help people support families at the border. Catholic Extension, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are committed to helping immigrants and refugees. Their websites provide resources and ways to help.
The Share the Journey, campaign launched by Pope Francis in 2017, encourages a “culture of encounter” with migrants and communities to come together and share stories to strengthen bonds. Led by Caritas Internationalis, the campaign includes various resources and ways for Catholics to understand and support migration.
“We’re a universal church, we’re not a national one,” is what Father Small hopes Catholics will remember. “To see so many people treat this as a humanitarian issue and not strictly a political one was very heartfelt.”
It is through migrants, Pope Francis said, that “the Lord invites us to embrace fully our Christian life and to contribute, each according to his or her proper vocation, to the building up of a world that is more and more in accord with God’s plan.”
Learn more about Catholic Extension at www.catholicextension.org.