Signs of the Time: Building Bridges of Hope, Not Walls of Despair

*Maryknoll delegation to the US - Mexico border sharing a meal at the Columban Mission Center

by Scott Wright
Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

A Gathering of Parents and Children at the US – Mexico Border

I have just returned from the US – Mexico border, on a journey of accompaniment sponsored by Maryknoll and hosted each year by the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, Texas. I have been to the border many times, but this time in particular was especially heart-breaking and painful. There we met immigrant parents and children who had been detained and cruelly separated from each other for two months; there we witnessed their joyful but often painful reunion at a refugee shelter; there we prepared and shared a meal with them at the Columban Mission Center.

At Nazareth Hall, a former nursing home for Catholic nuns converted into a refugee shelter, I spoke with a young Honduran father who had made the journey north with his three-year old son Jose, now lying face-down on the ground, rejecting his father’s attempts to console him. A young teacher in our group who works with pre-school children on an Indian reservation tried unsuccessfully to console him. In the end, as we left the shelter, Jose gave his father a tearful hug, as his father’s eyes filled with tears.

Later that night, at the Columban Mission Center, I sat across from a Guatemalan father, who talked about how he was treated in an immigrant detention center north of El Paso. “We were treated worse than animals,” he told us. “They didn’t even call me by my name, only the number over my bed.” As he spoke, his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine sat silently next to him, only her eyes indicating she was listening attentively to every word. They had not seen each other for more than two months; both had been detained in separate immigration detention centers, with little communication between them.

Today, of the 2,500 children who were forcibly separated from their parents under the “Zero Tolerance” policy of the current administration, only 1,800 have been reunited with their detained parents, who have been released with ankle bracelets to monitor their activity as they pursue their asylum claims. Nearly 700 children remain in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and at least 400 of their parents have already been deported or have opted to depart voluntarily, often with the promise that they would be reunited with their children.

As a nation, and under successive administrations, we have failed miserably to build bridges, not walls.

A Critical Time for Bridge-Building Everywhere

Last week, more than 500 moral theologians from 80 countries around the world gathered in Sarajevo, Bosnia to reflect on the theme: “A Critical Time for Bridge-Building, Catholic Theological Ethics Today.” During the Balkan war in the early 1990s,  entire Muslim villages were “ethnically cleansed,” and the city of Sarajevo – once home to Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox – was besieged for three-and-a-half years by the Serbian military. More than 100,000 people were killed in the conflict, and entire communities that once lived peacefully together were torn apart.


"The Siege of Sarajevo" by Carlos Latuff

Pope Francis sent a greeting to those gathered last week and acknowledged the great symbolic importance of Sarajevo to “the journey of reconciliation and peacemaking after the horrors of a recent war that brought so much suffering to the people of that region”:

“I encourage you to be passionate for such dialogue and networking … to be faithful to the word of God which challenges us in history, and to show solidarity with the world, which you are not called to judge but rather to offer new paths, accompany journeys, bind hurts and shore up weakness.”

He noted that Sarajevo is “a city of bridges,” and called attention to “the need to build bridges, not walls,” and he highlighted the many challenges facing the world today, including the global climate crisis and its impact on the environment, the crisis of migrants and refugees, and the failure of political leaders to respond effectively to these tragic human situations.

What my delegation witnessed last week on the US – Mexico border must be set against a global context in which millions of people are crossing borders every day, sometimes fleeing violent conflicts in their home countries, sometimes fleeing from climate disasters or extreme poverty, and more and more facing rejection rather than welcome at the borders of neighboring countries. In the past twenty years, the numbers of migrants in the world has increased 60%, reaching its current number of 257 million. Many of these migrants, 68 million this year, are forcibly displaced by violent conflict, and of those 68 million, 40 million are internally displaced, 25 million are refugees, and 3 million are asylum-seekers.

Each one of them has a story, like the Honduran father and his 3-year-old son Jose, or the Guatemalan father and his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine. Many of them, perhaps more than half, have a child’s story to tell, and a child’s tears, like Jose’s, or a child’s tears that have dried up from too much pain, like Jasmine’s.

Return to Gospel Nonviolence

What is the message at the heart of the drama of families and children separated at the US – Mexico border, and the survivors of war and ethnic cleansing a generation ago in Sarajevo? In a word, it is to remind us that we are one human family, that we have a special obligation to welcome migrants and refugees fleeing violence as we would welcome Christ in the world; and we have a special obligation to address the root causes of war and violence so that people are not forced to flee in the first place.

Sarajevo is also known as the city that set in motion the greatest war known to the world a century ago. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that took place in Sarajevo in 1914 set the stage for the First World War, a war that convulsed the world and ended one hundred years ago this November. Sixteen million people were killed in that war, and another 20 million injured. The First World War and an imperfect peace gave way to the Second World War, a war in which 60 million were killed and many more injured, and we are still living with the consequences of our failure to live together on this planet in peace.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit Sarajevo with my wife, a third generation Croatian. In that brief visit, we heard stories from Bosnian Muslim survivors, and we visited the museum to commemorate the horrendous killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. We heard also the amazing story of the cellist who played his cello every day for 22 days in a market square in Sarajevo during the war, to mark the place where a Serbian mortar shell killed 22 people waiting in line for bread. It is a story of moral courage and outrage at the destruction of war, but also the power of beauty and culture to remind us of our common humanity, to invite us to build bridges to embrace our differences, not walls to divide and separate us.

Pope Francis chose to take the name “Francis” as the saint who would inspire his witness as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. In the five years since he was elected pope, he has woven together St. Francis’ love for the poor, for creation, and for peace, and encouraged us by his example to care for our common home, and to embrace migrants and refugees as our sisters and brothers.

At the heart of this witness of justice and mercy is Pope Francis’ growing desire to affirm the vision of Gospel nonviolence at the heart of the Church’s witness for peace. That was the theme of his 2017 World Day of Peace message, following a historic gathering convened by Pax Christi International in Rome of peacemakers from nations around the world, including many that had experienced the cruelty and pain of war. They gathered to address the theme “Nonviolence and Just Peace” and to urge the Church to return to the witness of Gospel nonviolence.

In his 2017 message following the gathering, Pope Francis concluded: “When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promoters of nonviolent peacemaking … To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Pope Francis is no stranger to these places of suffering. In 2017 he visited the U.S. – Mexico border, and two years earlier, in 2015, he visited Sarajevo, where he addressed tens of thousands of people during a morning mass in the city’s stadium, acknowledging the pain and suffering of “children, women and the elderly in refugee camps,” and “countless shattered lives.” During that visit to Sarajevo, Pope Francis heard stories from survivors of the war that brought tears to his eyes:

“We see so much cruelty,” he began, and he urged those who had shared their stories with him to “always do the opposite of cruelty. Have attitudes of tenderness, of forgiveness … and be small witnesses of the cross of Jesus … Today, dear brothers and sisters, the cry of God’s people goes up once again from this city, the cry of all men and women of good will: War never again!” he exclaimed.

What unites the U.S. – Mexico border to Sarajevo is a cry that goes up from the victims of violence and war, the cry of the migrant and refugee parents and children, the cry of the victims and survivors of war.

Last week we commemorated the tragic conclusion of another war, that ended in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.


Nagasaki before and after the atomic bombing of August 9, 1945 (U.S. National Archives)

As he did at the U.S. – Mexico border, and as he did in Sarajevo, Pope Francis reminds us that we share a common humanity, and we share a common home. That is both a gift, but also a responsibility: “The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing are a lasting warning to humanity … Nuclear weapons create a false sense of security, and the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is firmly to be condemned.”

We have a choice to make, and each day we are invited to choose life, to embrace peace.

At the conclusion of his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis reminds us that “Jesus himself offers a manual for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount … Blessed are the meek, Jesus tells us, the merciful and the peacemakers, those who are pure in heart, and those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

So we must continue to hope, with eyes wide open, but our hearts firmly planted in our faith. The Gospel invites us to build bridges of hope, not walls of despair.