Fr. James Martin: Why I advocate for refugees

James Martin, S.J., with Cesaire Mukamwiza Kanjoui, a Rwandese refugee, on the porch at the Mikono Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Cesaire was a nurse in Rwanda. Fleeing from violence there, she ended up in Nairobi, where she made beaded necklaces and bracelets, because she could not find a job as a nurse (photo provided by the author)

This essay originally appeared on Father James Martin’s public Facebook page.

Some people have asked me, in person and on social media, why I've been posting so much about migrants and refugees these days, beyond the fact that it is so much in the news. Here are several reasons:

First, because some of the actions of the new administration are so clearly antithetical to Christian values that I cannot stay silent. I'm not a political person, but I am a Christian, and I feel compelled to speak out on this issue. On all life issues, to be sure, but especially on this one, for a reason I'll soon explain.

Second, because the Gospels are so patently, almost absurdly, clear about the Christian requirement to care for the stranger. Jesus could not possibly be any clearer. In the Gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus says that we should treat the stranger as if he were him. "I was a stranger and you did not welcome me," he says to those who are unwilling to do so.

This saying comes when he is speaking about how we will all be judged at the end of time. By the way, the passage is sometimes referred to as the "Judgment of Nations." He's not speaking simply about individuals, but, yes, about nations.

Third, because there is still so much misunderstanding about migrants and refugees. Here are just a few truths that people seem to be forgetting or ignoring: Immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are women and children. The overwhelming majority of refugees who come from "terror prone" countries are doing so because they're fleeing terror, not promoting it. Finally, the Syrian people desperate to escape their country are in imminent danger of death.

Fourth, I want to correct some widespread misunderstandings about the Gospel. Some of the commentary from otherwise thoughtful Christians has been stunning. To me, it's tantamount to saying, "Jesus never said that we should care for all the poor. Just people in our own family, right?"

For example, Jesus doesn't say help the stranger only if there's no risk to you. Or help the stranger only if it's convenient. Or help the stranger only if he or she is the same religion that you are.

Jesus doesn't say help the stranger only if there's no risk to you.

Think of Jesus’s Parable of the Good Samaritan, from the Gospel of Luke.

A Jewish man is lying by the side of the road after having been beaten on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho. Two men—a priest and a Levite—pass him by. That is, two people from his own religious group. They are probably frightened: that road, still in existence today, was notoriously dangerous, with robbers lying in wait for travelers. So they passed by the stranger.

This is a marvelous group of Rwandese women, led by Gaudiosa Ruzage (second from right). Gauddy, with a small grant from JRS, started the "Splendid Tailoring Shop" in a slum called Riruta in Nairobi.

Finally, another man stops, a Samaritan (the opponents of the Jews at the time). At risk to himself, the man stops. He doesn't say, "Oh, it might be dangerous." Or maybe he does—but he helps him anyway. And he not only helps the man, he binds up his wounds and takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay.

That's one of the points of the story: He helps him anyway. Moreover, the Jewish man finds that his salvation came from the one whom he had considered an enemy.

How could Jesus be any clearer about the need to care for the stranger?

But there's a final reason that I feel moved to advocate for refugees: because of my love for them. From 1992 to 1994, I worked with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, during my time with the Jesuit Refugee Service. During those two years, I came to know many refugees, from Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia and many other countries. Our ministry in Kenya was to help the refugees who had settled in Nairobi start small businesses to support themselves. (I speak at length about this in my book This Our Exile.)

They were, without a doubt, the most hardworking, prayerful, hopeful, joyful and honest people I've ever met. And they had seen so much suffering and misery. One woman had seen her entire family killed before her eyes. Another man had to make his way to Nairobi through the bush, with wild animals in pursuit. Another had her house burned down just when she was starting to eke out a living.

They had to deal with things that most of us would find unimaginable: prejudice, starvation, torture, murder, genocide. And yet they were filled with hope. And humor.

I count them, still, as among my friends.

So I feel that I know something about this issue, and when I see how they are being vilified and mistreated, I am, like Jesus often was, moved with pity. There's no way that I could keep silent.

E.Patrick Mosman
1 month 4 weeks ago

Father Martin should have done his research and learned the facts before letting his personal feelings override the factual event.
President Trump ordered the enforcement of an existing law passed by Congress, signed by President Obama who added several Countries to the list of terrorist States. Since when is enforcing an existing Federal law an offense against law abiding American citizens and the moral fiber of the USA?

"We are a nation of immigrants."
A much used canard to justify illegal entry as actually America is a nation of legal immigrants who arrived here through government immigration locations, Ellis Island in New York for one. Immigration police patrolled the streets of New York with authority to ask individuals for their immigration papers and if they could not produce proof of legal entry they were arrested and deported. Most while while holding on to their homeland's customs, became Americans, learned English, voted legally, raised their children as Americans and insisted on a good education and never returned to their country of origin. The Federal government's failure to enforce its own immigration laws and to secure the borders has completely shredded the ideal that the USA is a nation of laws by allowing and funding individuals and religions to aid and abet illegal(immigration) activities.There is no moral obligation or requirement for any individual or State to welcome a potentially dangerous person or persons into their house or State. At no time in history except for a short time in the Obama years has America a operated with an 'all are welcome' open door immigration policy. Where was this hysteria and the faux moral outrage by yourself,the Church hierarchy the Senators Schumer/McCain, the liberal media, the academics others when Barack Obama banned Iraqi refugees for six months, the sound of silence was deafening and silence signified assent? The hypocrisy is overwhelming,attack a Republican President for enforcing American law and stay silent of when democratic president Obama barred Syrian refugees and later ignored the law completely.

Alejandro Stanham
1 month 4 weeks ago

Thanks Fr. Martin. Guess you also have in mind and heart the impetus that former father general Pedro Arrupe gave to this heartfelt issue - whiche led him to found the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Vincent Gaglione
1 month 4 weeks ago

I just heard you, Father Martin, not an hour ago, speak on the Brian Lehrer program on WNYC. Thank you for your simple but eloquent explanations of our Christian moral obligations as citizens vis-à-vis Matthew 25. Thank you also for the clarifications about the Vatican's intensive efforts on behalf of refugees and immigrants.

One critical comment, if I may, why don't we hear these things from our parish pulpits and read them in our church bulletins? Maybe you can write on that topic as well???

Michael Barberi
1 month 4 weeks ago

I agree with Fr. Martin in general about loving our neighbor, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, et al. However, when we are imploring a biblical command it is important to understand the context in ancient times as well as a particular situation we face today. Life is complicated and one has to balance many moral factors in reaching any decision of consequence while also trying to be faithful to the love of God and neighbor as Jesus taught us.

I would like to know what immigration policy Fr. Martin is suggesting the US adopt that would not violate the Lord's commandment to 'welcome the stranger'? Should the US have an open borders policy allowing anyone who is fleeing hardship, poverty and war and is seeking a better life to enter the US legally? Should we welcome all the millions of migrants that are fleeing all war-torn countries? Should there be quotas at all?

Keep in mind that Obama only allowed about 13,000 immigrants from Africa and the Middle East to enter the US last year. Trump will allow about 50,000 immigrants from such countries after an effective vetting process. Trump issued a temporary ban for 90 days while his administration works out a better vetting policy.

If we are not to be concerned about 'risk' of life, limb or acts of terrorism to US citizens by ISIS et al, that we are told will be hiding among the migrants, what kind of effective vetting process would Fr. Marin think would "welcome the stranger"? This question was not addressed by Fr. Martin. .

I do believe the US should allow most immigrant families who are fleeing war-torn countries and who are not terrorists or pose a threat to the US to enter the US " after a reasonable vetting process has been conducted". This is not a violation of the commandment to 'welcome the stranger'.

Thomas Farrelly
1 month 3 weeks ago

Prescinding from the discussion regarding refugees, please do not tell us you are not a political person. The magazine of which you are editor is a highly political magazine, almost invariably in favor of the policies and practices of the Democratic Party. You are now engaged, along with such other left wing magazines as the New Yorker, NY Magazine, and such websites as the Daily Beast and Huffington Post, in opposing every step made by President Trump and construing everything he says or does in the worst possible light. I am myself critical of some of Trump's actions, and did not vote either for him or HRC, but I try to be objective. Your magazine looks highly political to me, and highly biased. Perhaps you should keep a token Republican around, like the NY Times. Think about it.

lurline jennings
1 month 2 weeks ago

Thank you for your concise post that covers what most of those of us who consider ourselves Conservatives think, feel and practice. Just think if all the Conservatives remove their support of the churches, hospitals, schools there would be none of those that would be functioning. We need to take care of our own first. America Magazine is a very good read when it comes to some things. But, it is anything but apolitical. It is so liberal it drips milk and honey goo all over the place.

Dara West
1 month 3 weeks ago

Thank you Father Martin for speaking up. It pains me to read some of these comments. Thank you for speaking the truth.

James MacGregor
1 month 3 weeks ago

I have a problem with the continued use by the media and our politicians of the label "refugee". All immigrants are not "refugees". All refugees may want to become immigrants. Some of the instances of people being unjustly detained who had green cards and visas may have been refugees. But, at least one interviewed on TV was an employee of the US Military, an immigrant, returning home (i.e., to the US).
My father was an immigrant from Scotland. My late wife was an immigrant from Germany. Both came here of their own volition. Neither was a refugee fleeing from anything. According to the UN Refugee Agency refugees are "people FORCIBLY displaced around the world". The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines refugee: "one that flees; especially : a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution" The Cambridge Dictionary defines a refugee as "a person who leaves his or her home or country to find safety, esp. during a war or for political or religious reasons"
Our politicians and our media do not communicate clearly.

Jill Caldwell
1 month 3 weeks ago

Thank you Father Jim. I appreciate your words so much. I tried to discuss this with my pastor, and the discussion went nowhere. At first I left disheartened, but then I realized the disagreement only strengthened my resolve to speak up again and again. We will all have to answer to Jesus.

Henry George
1 month 3 weeks ago

I find Fr. Martin's interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan
a little too self-serving.

I am in favour of helping anyone at anytime and it seems the U.N. should
have gone into Rwanda/Somalia/Iraq/Syria...Cambodia...to prevent the
mass murders - but very little was done and now we have this Refugee
crisis.

I am not sure that we have an absolute moral duty to help everyone in
the world when we have our own homeless, poor, and demented wandering the streets of America.

Perhaps Fr. Martin is willing to invite everyone who is homeless in
New York to live in the spaces that America Magazine occupies, then
I might find his views to be authentic.

michael baland
1 month 3 weeks ago

President Obama's action affected Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqi and Afghan translators, not refugees. Refugees traveling to the US are in a separate status

J Cosgrove
1 month 3 weeks ago

I would think the most compassionate thing to help refugees would be to have them resettle in a culture that is sympathetic and consistent with their basic beliefs. Since most of the refugees are Muslims, it would be better to settle these refugees within societies that are understanding of their beliefs. Their beliefs are not compatible with those of Western Civilization so it would be uncaring and thoughtless to have them come here where they will find a society that in intolerant with their basic beliefs. Christian Syrians could more easily adjust to Western ways of life since Western Civilization is built on Christianity.

Better to find a place in the Mid East for Syrian or any other Muslims that is compatible and understanding with their beliefs till they can safely return home to where they were living. That would be a true advocacy for the betterment of these Muslim refugees.

But there's a final reason that I feel moved to advocate for refugees: because of my love for them. From 1992 to 1994, I worked with East African refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, during my time with the Jesuit Refugee Service. During those two years, I came to know many refugees, from Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia and many other countries. Our ministry in Kenya was to help the refugees who had settled in Nairobi start small businesses to support themselves. (I speak at length about this in my book This Our Exile.)

It seems that Fr. Martin should send a group of Jesuits to Sweden. It seems they could use the expertise from experiences such as those described in Kenya above. Sweden took in a 162,000 refugees last year and less than 500 got jobs. Also Germany is lowering minimum wages for refugees to between $1.13 and $2.80 per hour. Maybe we could try that here with our refugees. See article about Sweden's problems

http://bit.ly/2jYcxVQ

Tim O'Leary
1 month 3 weeks ago

Fr. Martin – President Obama’s administration deported 2.4 million undocumented immigrants between 2009 and 2014, and likely exceeded 3 million when final numbers are in for 2016. Did you object to these policies? (President Bush deported less – about 2 million). Obama had significant limits on immigrants and refugees from Africa and Muslim nations. And he stalled refugee inflow from Iraq for 6 months. Did you object then? Do you support an open door policy for everyone or just for those who are being persecuted? Do you think there should be any vetting of possible immigrants or any concerns about security, assimilation, welfare or employment? You don’t say. You say the vast majority of refugees and immigrants are law-abiding and peaceful. I agree. But, the problem does not end with the first generation, as we know from Orlando, San Bernardino and Boston. The whole issue needs more serious thinking about assimilation and alternatives, welfare and long-term employment.

I know Trump is a target-rich politician and I have hit him many times. But, a pause in immigration from nations thought by the previous Obama administration to be particularly risky is not at all like what is being claimed. Calling it a Muslim ban is just fake news that is not being called out by Trumps opponents (again for political rather than principled reasons). So, I have to wonder if you are really as apolitical as you say. Your article seems calculated to generate an emotional response.

Eileen Malloy
1 month 3 weeks ago

As a Jesuit HS grad, it's the Father Martins of our faith that make me want to look elsewhere when it comes to enrolling my daughter in a Jesuit HS for $20,000 per year. It's not worth the money for that kind of thinking. St. Francis went to convert the Sultan to the WAY, TRUTH, and LIFE and that's what Fr. Martin should try doing too instead of guilt-tripping and using "the Gospel" to spew anti-white racism and Leftism. There are 2 kinds of pastors: the ones who build you up, and the ones who tear/put you down.

lurline jennings
1 month 2 weeks ago

Thank you. I wouldn't place my child in a school run by Jesuits. It is brainwashing at its finest. They don't teach both sides nor do they preach justice for all. That means the wealthy as well as the poor. After all didn't Jesus say the poor you will have with you always. Didn't mention the wealthy conservatives who support these churches. That is one of the reasons so many are fleeing the RC churches and leaving for those who appreciate the educated wealthy persons who can be real pillars of the communities. They are those who sustain churches and church schools who teach reality and practicality and not poverty is all there is.

Eileen Malloy
1 month 3 weeks ago

The Executive Order was carefully crafted: for a Muslim to declare that he accepts the Constitution of the United States as the source of his highest loyalty is an act of apostasy par excellence; and apostasy is punishable by death under the Islamic law. The Sharia, to a Muslim, is not an addition to the Constitution and laws of the United States, with which it coexists; it is the only true code, the only basis of obligation. To be legitimate, all political power must rest exclusively with those who enjoy Allah’s authority on the basis of his revealed will, and America is therefore illegitimate ab initio.

Section 1 effectively demands that a Muslim gives up this key tenet of his faith in order to be eligible for admission. Its drafters knew that a foreigner who becomes naturalized has to declare, on oath, “that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”

It is sacrilegious for a Muslim to swear to this, since it means that he would be prepared to shoot a fellow Muslim, or denounce him to the authorities, in defense of his adopted homeland. A devout Muslim can become an American citizen only if in taking the oath he is practicing taqiyya, the art of dissimulation that was inaugurated by Muhammad to help destabilize and undermine non-Muslim communities. As Robert Spencer has noted, Section 1, without mentioning Islam or Muslims, arrives at the heart of the problem: “Islamic values always lead to intolerance. Islam’s guiding texts are all fundamentally devoted to separating the world between believers and non-believers.”

Eileen Malloy
1 month 3 weeks ago

"he binds up his wounds and takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay."

He did not move the man into his home, and make him equal to his own wife & children and allow the man a vote in his internal affairs.

Ryder Charles
1 month 3 weeks ago

Father Martin,

Do you advocate for refugees fleeing from Cuba? I'm sure you do but you didn't speak up when President Obama recently repealed the "Wet Foot, Dry Foot" policy effectively slamming the door on Cuban refugees. I have yet to hear a word of protest from the American left or from progressive Catholics about this. Ironically, the leftist UK Gaurdian ran a story about Cuban exiles who are stuck in Mexico, Panama and other countries because their flight for freedom was abruptly halted.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/13/cuba-immigration-wet-foot…

Of course, this is reminiscent of Jerry Brown, George McGovern and Joe Biden opposing Vietnamese boat people from coming to the U.S. in 1975. Brown complained about Vietnamese being "dumped" on California by the federal government. He even tried to prevent planes carrying refugees from landing at Travis Air Force base near Sacramento. McGovern said that "Vietnamese are better off in Vietnam." It seems when refugees are fleeing from Communist regimes, the left sings a different tune.

Even Obama instituted a temporary ban on refugees from Muslim countries.

I am with the Bishops that we must welcome strangers and be generous to refugees. I don't necessarily agree with Trump's 90 day ban, but it's not permanent and I do not think it is intrinsically evil to employ a more careful vetting process that is temporary in nature.

Eileen Malloy
1 month 3 weeks ago

The World's Muslim nations should be doing God's work to help the refugees settle. It just goes to show us that Inter-Faith Relations is always a one-way street. It always involves Christian concession to the non-Christian perspective but NEVER vice-versa. We need a Jesuit Trump who doesn't get out-negotiated. We need a Jesuit Trump who can convert people to Christ because Mohammed and Luther took people away from God and His One Holy and Apostolic Church. PF1 does not appear to be this man or leader, and the Church is not growing and souls are being abandoned and even lost.

J Cosgrove
1 month 3 weeks ago

Someone just sent me this video. I assume what the man is saying is true. He lives as a contractor in Iraq. Essentially he said if an American walked down the street in Iraq they would be captured, tortured and killed by ordinary citizens. I assume it would be the same in the rest of the countries since they all failed countries except Iran which is extremely hostile to Americans. The people who are objecting to a temporary ban on these people are being disingenuous at best.

http://bit.ly/2kWnUzf

The Christian compassionate thing to do with these refugees is to settle them in other Muslim nations nearby so they can be returned to their homeland as soon as possible. It is obvious from the responses of some that they do not know the basic tenets of Islam and how inconsistent it is with Western values.

Kevin Murphy
1 month 3 weeks ago

Did Father Martin protest as loud when Muslims were favored over Christians? See https://cruxnow.com/interviews/2017/02/02/iraq-prelate-backs-preference…. In particular, note the following quote:
"From my perspective in Iraq, I wonder why all of these protesters were not protesting in the streets when ISIS came to kill Christians and Yazidis and other minority groups. They were not protesting when the tens of thousands of displaced Christians my archdiocese has cared for since 2014 received no financial assistance from the U.S. government or the U.N. There were no protests when Syrian Christians were only let in at a rate that was 20 times less than the percentage of their population in Syria.
I do not understand why some Americans are now upset that the many minority communities that faced a horrible genocide will finally get a degree of priority in some manner.
I would also say this, all those who cry out that this is a “Muslim Ban” - especially now that it has been clarified that it is not - should understand clearly that when they do this, they are hurting we Christians specifically and putting us at greater risk. The executive order has clearly affected Christians and Yazidis and others as well as Muslims.
Here in Iraq we Christians cannot afford to throw out words carelessly as the media in the West can do. I would ask those in the media who use every issue to stir up division to think about this. For the media these things become an issue of ratings, but for us the danger is real."

Eileen Malloy
1 month 3 weeks ago

Father Martin: Where was your witness and outrage then? See? This is why Jesuits are undermined by SJW-ism. It's a front for politics, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Iraqi Archbishop: Where Were the Protesters ‘When ISIS Came to Kill Christians’?

"The Catholic Archbishop of Erbil has denounced the hypocrisy of those protesting President Trump’s recent executive order on immigration, wondering aloud where all of the demonstrators were when Islamic State fighters were slaughtering Christians and other minorities in the Middle East."

lurline jennings
1 month 2 weeks ago

When you start paying the same level of taxes so the government can pay for all the illegal aliens then you can talk about these persons. Until then let those of us who feel no obligation to them be exempt from their free care, food, housing, medical, education etc. Be exempt from supporting them. There are more than enough Americans in need and we ignore them. Take care of our own first then consider others if you deign to do so. Enough is enough. How about being missionary's in America first?

E.Patrick Mosman
1 month 2 weeks ago

Were any comments deleted from this article? I seem to recall that to one time there were more than 23. Am I wrong?

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