Migrant Families and Our Lady of Guadalupe in a Season of Advent

image: mural at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, TX of Our Lady of Guadalupe offering relief to migrants

by Scott Wright

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! See, I am coming to dwell among you. (Zechariah 2: 14-17)

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God … And Mary said: My Soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. (Luke 1:26-28, 39-47)

Advent, A Season of Hope: Welcoming the Stranger, the Widow and the Orphan

As missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, the Missionary Society of St. Columban is committed to welcoming and providing sanctuary for migrants and refugees, especially in the face of the increasing deportations of immigrants and refugees fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States, and the growing problem of their inhumane treatment in detention centers.

2016 Columban statement on Sanctuary for Migrants and Refugees, U.S. Region

Advent is a season of waiting, a season of hope. In a special way, Advent is a season of migration, a season that reminds us of the journey of Maria and Jose on their way to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus, the journey of the three kings from the East to pay homage to the Christ child, and the journey and flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, as King Herod sought the child to slay him.

Especially in this season of Advent, the drama on the US-Mexico border lends itself very well to the Advent and Christmas story: pregnant mothers, journeying through Mexico and giving birth to children in manger-like conditions of poverty and refuge from violence; government authorities along their route, and especially in the United States, persecuting them and tear-gassing those who approach the border wall; Catholics and Jews, nuns and priests, people of good will travelling near and far to offer gifts of service, hospitality, and solidarity.

I recently returned from the US-Mexico border, where migrant families fleeing from violence and terror in Central America journeyed through Mexico on their way to seek protection and asylum in the United States. Every day in El Paso, TX, more than three hundred migrants and children are held in detention two, four, sometimes eight days before being released to a network of churches who welcome them, provide temporary hospitality, assist them in contacting their relatives, and send them on their journey to pursue protection and asylum.

In the past several weeks, the Diocese of El Paso, in an unprecedented response to the humanitarian crisis on the border, opened its seminary and many other church buildings and parishes to provide shelter. There the works of mercy were put into practice: the strangers and recently detained were welcomed, the hungry were fed and given drink, the naked clothed and their wounds healed, and the miracle of encountering Christ in the poor migrant and refugee revealed in acts of hospitality and solidarity.

Advent, A Season of Peace: Preparing the Way for Migrants and Refugees

Pope Francis has called on Catholics to welcome migrants and refugees and bear witness to God’s mercy and compassion: “The tragedy of forced migration and displacement affects millions, and is fundamentally a crisis of humanity, calling for a response of solidarity, compassion, generosity and an immediate practical commitment of resources.”

- 2016 Columban statement on Sanctuary for Migrants and Refugees, U.S. Region

On this Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas, we remember in a special way those who cross the border from Mexico to the United States and the desperate situations they face in their home countries. We know that migrants throughout the world leave their homes for many reasons. The countries of the Northern Triangle in Central America – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – are some of the most dangerous places in the hemisphere due to drug cartel and gang violence, police repression, extreme poverty and inequality, and climate disasters. Mexico too is ravaged by violence: in ten years more than 250,000 people have been killed, and 38,000 disappeared.

This is not only a regional phenomenon - it is part of a global exodus of migrants and refugees crossing borders in search of refuge, as many as 68 million each year. Some are migrants, fleeing from situations of desperate poverty and climate change in search of opportunities to provide for their families. Many others are forcibly displaced by violence and war, refugees seeking protection in order to survive. What the news media has characterized as a caravan of migrants is in reality an exodus of refugees, seeking protection and asylum from their neighbors.

Most of the migrant and refugee families I met in the shelters on the border were either fathers and small children, or mothers and small children. They came because their children have been threatened by gangs if they don’t join, and parents have been threatened if they don’t provide a “tax” to pay for protection. They came principally from Honduras and Guatemala, but also from El Salvador and Mexico. They come principally to seek protection and asylum, but also to work and provide for their children, and sometimes to reunite with spouses or children or relatives.

Advent, a Season of Joy: The Miracle of Hospitality and Solidarity

During this season of Advent and Christmas, we anticipate with joy and hope the birth of Jesus Christ into the world, and prepare our hearts to welcome those in whom He promised to be present: the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the prisoner and the sick (Mt 25:31-46). Today’s celebration recalls how Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, reached out to a poor, indigenous member of Mexico’s society in his own language, and offered him the sanctuary of her protection and support at the hill of Tepeyac.

- 2016 Columban statement on Sanctuary for Migrants and Refugees, U.S. Region

In El Paso, where the Columban Mission Center is located, I joined many volunteers, many from the local area and some from across the U.S. to assist migrants and their children in a network of shelters providing hospitality for these exhausted families, after spending weeks in flight and days in detention, traumatized by their journey but resilient in their faith. What we encountered there was the miracle of hospitality, an entire community in El Paso opening their doors and their arms in gratitude and compassion to receive these migrant and refugee families.

From their founding a century ago, Columbans have been faithful to serving migrants and refugees throughout the world. For people of faith, providing welcome to the stranger in our midst is not an issue to be debated, but a Gospel imperative at the heart of our human drama throughout history. We pride ourselves as a nation of immigrants, and remember that “we were once strangers in a strange land.” Welcoming immigrants is not simply a duty we undertake, it’s who we are as a people. As people of faith, we count among our many ancestors Abraham and Sarah who left their ancient home, Moses and the children of Israel in search of the Promised Land, and the Holy Family in flight to Egypt in search of protection and refuge.

On the last night I spent in the shelter with the migrant and refugee families, something beautiful happened. A migrant mother of two small children returned from a local hospital with a new-born babe, two days old, to join with her children and the family of migrants and refugees that had just been released from detention that very evening. There we surrounded the mother holding her new-born child, like shepherds and wise men around that manger two thousand years ago, admiring the miracle of life in places of poverty and in times of violence.

Advent, a Season of Love: Welcoming the Christ Child on the Border

Inspired by Pope Francis, the Missionary Society of St. Columban affirms its commitment to the biblical witness of sanctuary as a matter of religious freedom, and pledges to provide protection for vulnerable populations whose human rights are violated and whose lives are in danger.

- 2016 Columban statement on Sanctuary for Migrants and Refugees, U.S. Region

Two years ago, on this Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, TX and the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach in Washington DC, issued this joint statement on sanctuary. It is a message that especially speaks to the dramatic situation on the US-Mexico border today, and one that invites us to celebrate, in the spirit of this Advent and Christmas season, the miracle of the Christ child born in a manger, and taken by his parents Maria and Jose in their flight into Egypt. It is a story for our times: welcoming the Christ child in every migrant and refugee who crosses the border in search of refuge.

We pray for those who encounter hospitality along the way, like the migrant and refugee families and children who are welcomed each day in shelters across the length of the US/Mexico border. We pray that they may find hope, peace, joy and love in their journey, and that we as a nation and as people of faith may continue to open our hearts and extend a welcome embrace to those who seek refuge in our country. We pray especially that migrants and refugees everywhere may receive the justice and mercy promised to them by our Christian faith.