Accepting Jesus' call to welcome the strangers among us

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Before the violence in Ferguson last summer, the hot-button issue was immigration, though the word "immigration" inadequately describes the human tragedy.

Even declaring the immigration "undocumented" or "illegal" fails to describe the hardships at the United States-Mexico border, where droves of children arrive -- sans parents -- from Central America. Their families send them with strangers on a harrowing, nightmarish journey to escape gangs, violence and possibly death in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Against this backdrop, St. Louis mayor Francis Slay announced plans last summer to do the right thing, the humane thing, by applying to host these children in the Gateway City and helping them with the legal work of immigration. Marygrove and Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry were among Catholic agencies that would supply services.

However, the feedback ... oh, my.

"You would have thought that we were saying we were burning the Constitution," Marie Kenyon said at the latest Faith in Ferguson prayer service May 5 at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Ferguson.

At the time, Kenyon directed the Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, her home for 28 years. After Ferguson, Archbishop Robert J. Carlson appointed her to head the archdiocesan Peace And Justice Commission, which he founded initially to address issues related to Ferguson but then issues -- immigration among them -- elsewhere in the 11-county archdiocese.

A confluence of events prompted Kenyon to tackle immigration in her Faith in Ferguson reflection -- the Mexican celebration Cinco de Mayo, the upcoming beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and, of course, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

So-called "unaccompanied, alien children" numbered 70,000 in fiscal year 2014, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Children range from less than a year old to 17, though most are between 12-15. They and their families have few options. According to Kenyon, to legally immigrate, a child needs an immediate-family sponsor, either a parent or sibling who must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

"But then they wouldn't be in the situation they're in in the first place," Kenyon said, adding that even with a sponsor, "the wait is seven years; that's the backlog."

So, families send children with "coyotes," unsavory strangers who serve as guides for children's trips to the U.S. border.

"The coyotes are bad, bad people," said Kenyon, who told of a 13-year-old girl who stayed awake the entire journey because she "was terrified" about what the coyote might do to her if she fell asleep. "These children feel they have no choice, that this is their only chance of survival. ... We should do what we can to help them."

Kenyon also presented figures to show the Church in America becoming more Hispanic.

"Thirty-nine percent of Catholics are Hispanics ... and most telling is that 54 percent of millennial Catholics, those born since 1982, are Hispanics, more than half our Church," she said. "In the coming years, our Church will look a lot different than it does now."

Further, among 30 million Hispanic Catholics, almost half -- 14 million -- are foreign-born.

"We truly are a Church of immigrants," she said, noting that "Jesus constantly told us in the Bible that we need to welcome strangers among us."

In 2003, bishops in the United States and Mexico addressed immigration reform with a pastoral letter, "Strangers No Longer." Plus, Pope Francis "has challenged us to work tirelessly and speak out on behalf of these poor children and go outside of our comfort zone, like Archbishop Romero did," Kenyon said, adding, "He was an incredibly brave man. He knew they were going to kill him."

Archbishop Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. A few weeks earlier, an assassination attempt failed but friends were killed when a bomb blew up beneath the altar.

"The night before he was assassinated, he got on the radio and asked the people trying to kill him, 'Why are you doing this to your brothers and sisters?'" Kenyon said. "We have to speak out for those who can't speak. We have to pray to him for help in this work, to welcome the stranger in our midst, to help us do courageous work and speak out for all children, not just our own."

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