Letting Our Hearts Be Set on Fire

by Scott Wright

We are fast approaching the end of the year, a time when families gather to give thanks for the blessings they have encountered, and perhaps to mourn the passing of a loved one. For many it is a time of joy and hope, and for others a time of anxiety and depression. In a nation of so much abundance, we are also reminded of the many in our midst who are poor, those who are homeless on the streets or in prison, abandoned in nursing homes or separated from their families, those who are undocumented immigrants fearful of being deported.

It is perhaps fitting to reflect on Pope Francis’ invitation to the church to celebrate November 19 as the First World Day of the Poor, and to allow the love of God “to set hearts on fire” in such a way that we respond to the cry of the poor “with friendship and solidarity.” The end of the liturgical year reminds us that it is in “the least of our sisters and brothers,” those who are hungry and sick, the stranger and the prisoner, the poor and the abandoned, the suffering and those who are cast aside, that we encounter Jesus today. What response will we make in return?

I have just returned from the U.S. – Mexico border, having joined a delegation to visit our counterparts working in El Paso, Texas, and to join the School of the Americas vigil in Nogales, Arizona. The border is a special place, a microcosm of “the joys and hopes, the anxieties and the afflictions” that immigrants experience on both sides of the border, a place where “the cry of the earth” and “the cry of the poor” are especially present, a place where we encounter Christ in the poor who meets us as an immigrant sister or brother, and often as an immigrant child.

Who are the immigrant poor? They are Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing the worst gang-related and drug-related violence in decades. They are Haitians who are fleeing misery in the wake of an earthquake that killed or injured 500,000 people in 2010 and subsequent hurricanes that further devastated the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Immigrants are also fellow citizens, migrating from Puerto Rico in the wake of climate disasters and institutional neglect, leaving hundreds of thousands without potable water or electricity, or a home to live in. Very few of the poor who cross our borders are security risks, and most who do cross are fleeing from violence, extreme poverty and climate disasters.

In the face of such a challenge, Pope Francis appeals to the Holy Spirit to “raise up men and women who have devoted their lives to the service of the poor.” This past week, the Missionary Society of St. Columban began a Centenary Year to commemorate 100 years of missionary life in service to the poor in more than a dozen countries and cultures around the world. For twenty of those years, Columbans have been working on both sides of the border, with the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, Texas and Corpus Christi parish in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. They have been witnesses to both the building of walls – accompanied by the militarization of the border and criminalization of migration – as well as the building of bridges, especially in the bonds of fraternity and solidarity exhibited by border families and the border Church.

During our sojourn at the border, we heard from Ruben Garcia at Annunciation House, which since 1978 has provided hospitality to more than 120,000 immigrants and refugees passing through; we heard from Carlos Marentes at the Farmworker Center, which has struggled for decades to affirm the human dignity of farmworkers and provide a place of hospitality for those who labor in our fields for long hours and receive a pittance in return.

We joined a candlelight vigil, chanting “you are not alone” outside of a private for-profit immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona, which houses 1,800 women and men from Central America and a host of other nations; and we vigiled on both sides of the border in Nogales Arizona and Mexico, protesting a border wall that runs counter to our most cherished values as a nation, proclaimed by the Statue of Liberty: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

The World Day of the Poor’s appeal, however, invites us to a deeper reflection on the root causes of poverty, violence and climate change that force the poor to flee their homes, and challenges us to transform our global economy to one that promotes the human dignity of every person and the common good of our human family:

“We know how hard it is for our contemporary world to see poverty clearly for what it is. Yet in myriad ways poverty challenges us daily, in faces marked by suffering, marginalization, oppression, violence, torture and imprisonment, war, deprivation of freedom and dignity, ignorance and illiteracy, medical emergencies and shortage of work, trafficking and slavery, exile, extreme poverty and forced migration.”

He reminds us that he is talking not only about injustice and evil, but about real people: “Poverty has the face of women, men and children exploited by base interests, crushed by the machinations of power and money. What a bitter and endless list we would have to complete were we to add poverty born of social injustice, moral degeneration, the greed of a chosen few, and generalized indifference!”

Standing at the border before an immense wall that allows people to look through to the other side, but not to pass over, I thought about the Gospel invitation and challenge: “Truly I tell you that, just as you welcomed one of the least of these my sisters and brothers, you welcomed me” (Mt 25:40). From the U.S. side you see the poverty and scarcity of a people afflicted and a land oppressed; from the Mexico side you see the shining city on a hill, a promised land that you may never reach.

Pope Francis presents us with a powerful challenge, but he reminds us that joy and hope are at the heart of the Gospel, and if we truly encounter the poor and respond with justice and mercy, if we truly make “a fundamental option for the poor,” we will not only provide a blessing for them, we too will be the recipients of a blessing: “Blessed are the open hands that embrace the poor and help them; they are hands that bring hope.”

I was reminded of this blessing this past week, and think of Annunciation House, the Columban Mission Center, the Farmworker Center and many parishes across the country where undocumented immigrants are welcomed and invited to share the Eucharist each Sunday. In some of those parishes, the majority of the parishioners are undocumented. What will happen to them if they are deported? What will happen to the 800,000 DACA youth and 300,000 TPS recipients if their permissions are rescinded? What does it mean for us to be a Eucharistic community when not only families but our church and nation may be torn asunder as well?

The World Day of the Poor message and invitation offers us an answer: “If there are poor people where we live who seek protection and assistance, let us draw close to them: it will be a favorable moment to encounter the God we seek. Let us welcome them as honored guests at our table; they can be teachers who help us live the faith more consistently.” St. Columban said something similar: “Someone unlike yourself can be your teacher.” 

There is a cost to discipleship, but if we allow our hearts “to be set on fire” by the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, that cost can be borne with joy and hope. In Pope Francis’ words: “With their trust and readiness to receive help, the poor show us in a quiet and often joyful way, how essential it is to live simply and to abandon ourselves to God’s providence.” 

Friendship with the poor can draw forth from us a desire and a firm commitment to build bridges, not walls; to show mercy and to work for justice; and to find the grace and courage to accept the risks that the Gospel requires. “The poor are not a problem,” Pope Francis concludes, “they are a resource from which to draw as we strive to accept and practice in our lives the essence of the Gospel.”

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Scott Wright is the Director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach.

His monthly column "Signs of the Times," examines national and world events through the lens of Catholic social justice and Columban spirituality.