Signs of the Time: Cry of the Children, Cry of Creation

*Photo above: Taken by Custom and Border Protection (CBP) for reporters on tour of a child detention facility in McAllen, Texas. Reporters were not allowed to take their own photos (17 June 2018).

by Scott Wright
Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

“A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they were no more.” (Matthew 2:18)

On a recent visit to a detention camp in Texas, where hundreds of young immigrant children are detained after being separated from their parents, a pediatrician specializing in childhood trauma reported on what she saw. Many of the children were desperately crying for their parents, others sat staring at the floor in silence. The signs of toxic stress and trauma were quite evident to her, and her assessment was sobering: These children will likely suffer prolonged damage to their health and their intellectual and emotional development over a lifetime.

For weeks now in the media, we have heard the cries of the children in detention camps along the U.S. – Mexico border, and the desperation and grief of their mothers and fathers detained hundreds of miles away with no knowledge of what happened to their children. In some cases, parents have already been deported without their children.

The Trump administration has adopted a policy of “Zero Tolerance,” with harsh and cruel measures, separating families, detaining children and criminalizing the asylum process. Children as young as two years old are being separated from their parents after making a perilous journey of weeks north to what they hoped would be a promised land, fleeing violence in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

In just six weeks since May, more than 2,000 children have been ripped from their parents’ arms and detained, in some cases in cage-like facilities. In response to nation-wide concern, President Trump issued a new Executive Order reversing this policy of family separation, without offering an effective plan to reunite the children and families already in detention. Congress refuses to pass immigration reform and the President continues to ask Congress for more money to build a wall, further militarize the border, criminalize migration, and detain and deport families together.

All across the country there has been an outcry against such a cruel policy. Catholic bishops and Catholic congregations, faith leaders and immigrant families, have all protested this inhumane policy. A Federal Court in California has ordered the Trump Administration to reunite all children with their parents within thirty days. How did we ever get to this point in our common journey?

Surely children are not meant to be separated from their parents or detained in cage-like facilities? Surely we cannot afford to be silent without losing something of our humanity? Our faith calls us to “welcome the widow, the orphan and the stranger” with justice and mercy (Deuteronomy 10:18). The Gospel reminds us that each nation will be judged by the way in which it responds to those who are hungry or thirsty, naked or sick, strangers or in prison (Matthew 25:31-46).

Pope Francis believes that politics, if it is to be humane, must be informed by deeper values: “Contemporary man has not been trained to use power well,” and “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” (LS 105). What is required of all of us is nothing less than a radical conversion.

Reverence for Life, Reverence for Creation

“Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love of God has for each of his creatures and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river, and mother earth.” Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (92)

These past few weeks we are commemorating the third anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, which bears the subtitle “On Care for Our Common Home.” As the drama on the US – Mexico border continues to unfold, I am struck by what we may learn about how to respond to that dramatic situation from Pope Francis’ encyclical.

In that letter he says that we need to respond to “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS 49). Everything is related and inter-connected (LS 92). Environmental destruction and social injustice are ultimately due to “the same evil:” moral relativism, and the exclusion of moral and spiritual values from the public realm (LS 6). What we call the “refugee crisis” or the “ecological crisis” has human roots. We have a human responsibility to respond with compassion and care, and a responsibility to address the root causes of a global economy that more and more excludes the poor and destroys creation.

We need political and religious leaders who can reach across the deep divisions in our society and promote values and practices that respond to the desperate cries of migrant families and children with justice and mercy, addressing the root causes of poverty, violence and climate change that force people to flee their homes. But we also need people who can lead us away from a “throw away culture” and a global economy based on fossil fuels to one that is sustainable for future generations, one that protects the rich cultural and biodiversity of the planet, and provides access to clean water, clean air and conserves the land and oceans, putting us on a path to end global warming and all the ravages of climate change.

“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?”

That is the crucial question at the heart of Laudato Si’, and Pope Francis reminds us that “we can no longer speak of sustainable development apart from intergenerational solidarity.” We may not see the fruits of our environmental and social justice labors, but our children will, for better or worse.

‘What is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.’” (LS 160)

The fact is, those who mistreat the poor and close their hearts to the plight of migrants and refugees are often the same ones who ravage the planet and do irreparable harm to creation. We see this in the behavior of many countries in the world today, including our own, who close their borders to immigrants and refugees, but we also see it in the deep divisions within nations, including our own.

More and more it is becoming clear that we are facing a moral and spiritual crisis of immense proportions on a global scale: “a world threatened by global warming and continuing environmental destruction” … “a world where there is a growing gap between rich and poor with particular consequences for women and minorities” … “a world where we witness an unprecedented increase in human migration and an upsurge in numbers of refugees and asylum seekers” … “a world where mutual misunderstanding leads to fear, violence and war, especially between Islam and the West” (Strong and Courageous, 2006).

These are “signs of the times” recognized by the Missionary Society of St. Columban more than a decade ago at their General Assembly, signs that point to a profound moral and spiritual crisis in the world today, but also to the growing presence of “the work of the Spirit” in every generation calling us to prophetic action as we recognize “the voice of Christ in the struggles of diverse peoples,” in both the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. If we listen to these cries, and are open to a radical conversion, “the breath of the Spirit will draw us into a new reverence for life and creation.”