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Joan RosenhauerFebruary 07, 2024
A migrant and her daughter are pictured in a file photo resting outside Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

In the Parable of the Last Judgment, the Gospel of Matthew lays out what will happen when Jesus returns for the final judgment. Humanity will be gathered, and we will be assessed: Did we feed him when he was hungry, give him a drink when he was thirsty, visit him when he was imprisoned? Included in the list of actions against which our lives will be judged is: Did we welcome Jesus when he was a stranger?

As I approach retirement after 35 years of working in Catholic mission-driven organizations, including most recently as president of Jesuit Refugee Service, I am more convinced than ever that the church is a powerful reflection of the message of the Last Judgment when she stands up for and supports those who have been forced to flee their homes around the world. Sadly, centering this commitment in the life of the church, and in the life of our society, is a greater challenge than ever.

J.R.S. is an example of how the church lives this mission through our support for the “strangers” among us—refugees and other displaced people—in over 50 countries, with services including humanitarian assistance, education and mental health and psychosocial support. We seek to accompany displaced people—regardless of their race, ethnicity or religious beliefs—through some of the darkest times of their lives and provide a light of hope for the future.

As those of us who work for faith-based humanitarian organizations often say, we do what we do because of what we believe, not because of what the people we serve believe. This is an affirmation of who Catholics are at our best and an offer of hope in our divided world that we can always see humanity in others, even if they are different from us.

A gut-wrenching choice

June 2023 data from the United Nations refugee agency indicated that 110 million people globally have been driven from their homes; 30.5 million of them are considered refugees. An additional 62 million people are internally displaced, while six million people seek asylum in other countries. The war in Ukraine is nearly two years old, while other conflicts and violence around the world in places such as Israel and Gaza, Myanmar, Sudan and Honduras force people to flee every day.

Imagine what you must be going through to decide your best option is to leave everything you know to trek through strange lands in search of safety. Imagine you are so desperate that this journey is the best choice for you and your family to survive. How can our hearts not go out to people experiencing this life-or-death situation? Our faith tells us we must serve them selflessly and without judgment.

 Included in the list of actions against which our lives will be judged is: Did we welcome Jesus when he was a stranger?

Yet as political rhetoric toward newcomers to the United States and other refugees globally has become increasingly hostile, it is concerning that there is evidence Catholic attitudes mirror those of the broader population. A recent article by David Hollenbach, S.J., for Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, reviews research showing that Catholic attitudes toward newcomers are consistent with those of the general public or are even less accepting. “Indeed,” he notes, “the negative attitudes toward immigrants are higher among white Catholics than in any other religious ethnic group except white evangelicals.” The message seems lost that welcoming the stranger is central to who we are as followers of Christ—and should be central to who we are as Americans, having built our country through the contributions of generations of immigrants.

I wish that others could meet the displaced families I have met during my time with J.R.S. My experience visiting J.R.S. programs around the world has shown me again and again that people who have fled their homes are like all of us and want exactly what any of us would want: a safe, secure and hopeful future for ourselves and our children. As a parent, I see myself in every mother and father who has had to make the gut-wrenching decision to leave everything they know behind in the name of safety.

Investing in the future

As we work to create normalcy for uprooted families around the world, one of J.R.S.’s priorities is to get children back into school. The unfortunate truth is that people are often displaced for more than 10 years, risking the creation of lost generations who are without education and ill-equipped for a productive future. Investing in their success is a vote of confidence that the world believes in these children and recognizes the contributions they can and will make to our global community. J.R.S. prioritizes providing refugee education from preschool through secondary, vocational and higher education.

Ousaama is a 12-year-old Syrian refugee who was driven from his country by civil war at age 5. He now lives with his family in a refugee settlement in Bar Elias in Lebanon, where he attends Telyani School, operated by J.R.S.

“I love coming to school to make friends here and play with them. I love education because it motivates me and strengthens my personality,” Oussama says.

Recognized by his teachers as a bright student, he was given the opportunity to take a computer programming course despite his young age. The skills he learned helped spark a love of invention in Oussama, who uses discarded items in the refugee settlement to construct his machines.

Because of the education he was able to access through J.R.S., Oussama sees a bright future for himself as an inventor and someone who will contribute to his community and society at large.

I have also been inspired by the J.R.S. staff I have met visiting our global programs, including a physical therapist in Kenya who could have had a successful career in the country’s capital city. Instead, he has chosen to live near one of the country’s largest refugee camps to deliver vital care to refugee children born with disabilities who have no other access to the therapy they need to help them sit, stand and walk. Without these services, these children could face a lifetime of mobility difficulties and many would never go to school. My colleagues around the world are living examples of bringing the message of the Last Judgment to life.

Welcoming the stranger

Over the six years that I have worked with J.R.S./U.S.A., the organization has focused on expanding its response to displaced people in the United States who are seeking protection through our asylum and other refugee systems. We see people who have survived unspeakable horrors arriving on our southern border in search of one of our most basic human rights: safety. We help them learn about their human and legal rights, and we provide mental health and psychosocial support so they can cope with the trauma they have experienced as they rebuild their lives.

We also provide an opportunity for people in the United States who want to act on their faith and wonder what they can do to welcome the stranger. J.R.S./U.S.A.’s Migrant Accompaniment Network engages volunteers in helping recent arrivals to become acclimated to their new home. This includes everything from helping enroll children in school to teaching people how to use public transit and open a bank account. These acts of service set up displaced families for their future success as contributing members of our local communities.

In addition to directly serving those who have fled their homes, there is a growing need to build a more welcoming culture and political environment. I have seen an unfortunate decline in public policy support for refugees over the length of my career in Catholic service.

Recent proposed restrictions at the state and federal levels on U.S. asylum and immigration policies, which would undermine our welcome for people who need protection from war, violence, persecution and other threats, do not reflect our values. Especially in a time of low unemployment, there is no reason our country cannot allow people to settle here who only want a job and a chance to rebuild their lives. At the same time, we need to provide additional resources to process asylum claims more effectively and to address the humanitarian needs of those arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. We need to invest in programs that ensure a well-rounded response to asylum seekers and to support U.S. communities as they welcome the newly arrived. We also need to support the countries people are fleeing to create more stable and safe conditions. As the leader of J.R.S./U.S.A., lifting up the moral dimensions of public policies that support people in great need, including displaced people, has been one of the most important parts of my work.

A colleague once commented that through the Parable of the Last Judgment, we all know what is going to be on the ultimate final exam. The question is: Will we pass?

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