March 31, 2017


Welcoming strangers in a time of fear and anger

“When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lv 19:33-34).

The word of God could not be clearer. We are to love our neighbors, including aliens, as we love ourselves. Knowing this simple truth and carrying it out in our personal lives—and as a matter of public policy—is a different matter.

We human beings are naturally suspicious and fearful of strangers. We know our own kind—for better or worse—and we can anticipate what family members, friends and neighbors, and members of our own community or nation will say or do in most situations. Strangers are foreign to us by definition. They speak different languages, have different beliefs and customs, and they do things differently. We are hesitant around strangers precisely because they are strange to us.

It normally takes some time, and more than a little effort, to acclimate ourselves to the presence of others. This is normal. But the situation is made much worse and more complicated when the atmosphere we live in is supercharged with emotions of fear and anger. When the society we live in is afraid of strangers, or burdened by angry rhetoric about those who are not like us, all kinds of bad things can happen to individuals, families and communities. Nazi Germany is a powerful reminder of this truth.

Please God, the United States of America is nowhere near the situation of Nazi Germany, but we are at a crossroads. We are at a place where we must choose between welcoming strangers, or turning our backs on those who come to us for a better life. The word of God is clear about what our choice should be, but translating this all-important moral principle into public policy is not easy.

For many years now, the U.S. bishops have been saying that our nation’s immigration and refugee systems are broken. On the one hand, we are confronted with the heartbreaking stories of individuals and families who struggled to make their way to America in search of a better life. This is the story of most Catholics in the United States regardless of our racial, ethnic or social backgrounds. We are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants, and we ought to be sensitive to what it means to leave your homeland and travel to an unknown land in search of freedom and prosperity.

On the other hand, for many years now we have lived with broken systems that have allowed all kinds of chaos and uncertainty to develop within immigrant and refugee communities. Families have been abused by confusing and unfair immigration policies and by erratic enforcement of laws. Undocumented individuals who have committed crimes have been deported and then returned to commit more egregious crimes. This situation helps no one. It enflames anger (and nativism), and it threatens the safety and security of everyone.

Something must be done. The broken systems must be fixed. But at what price?

Ask any pastor or parish leader about the situation in our parishes. People are angry and afraid. They are confused about what is the right thing to do: Secure our borders? Enforce our laws? Build more walls? Reach out to strangers? Form welcoming communities of reassurance and hope for all?

Strong leadership is needed to sort through the conflicting emotions and divisive rhetoric. That’s why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Administrative Committee recently issued this statement:

“Let us not lose sight of the fact that behind every policy is the story of a person in search of a better life. They may be an immigrant or refugee family sacrificing so that their children might have a brighter future. As shepherds of a pilgrim Church, we will not tire in saying to families who have the courage to set out from their despair onto the road of hope: ‘We are with you.’ They may also be a family seeking security from an increased threat of extremist violence. It is necessary to safeguard the United States in a manner that does not cause us to lose our humanity.”

Let’s work together as “one nation under God” to find ways to welcome the strangers among us as our fathers and mothers in the faith were once welcomed here. Let’s develop policies that are fair, humane and welcoming. Let’s enforce our laws in ways that safeguard the peace and prosperity that all of us—including strangers—are seeking in this great land!

—Daniel Conway

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