Walking with the Migrants

The famous phrase of the Second Vatican Council was “reading the signs of the time.” The Church can be relevant and meaningful only if she undertakes to examine the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel. This offers the possible ways of responding adequately to the eternal questions about this life and the life “to come and about the social relations” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 4).

On the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 2006, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “One of the recognizable signs of the times today is undoubtedly migration, a phenomenon which during the century just ended can be said to have taken on structural characteristics, becoming an important factor of the labor market worldwide.” Economic interests, political and cultural considerations tend to view migration solely as an economic process, where migrants are just factors of production.

The challenge for the Church is to present a different perspective where migration becomes a component of dialogue among cultures and societies and migrants are viewed as human persons. The Church must question a model of development that ignores the inequalities and disparities that uproot people from their environment and heritage. The efforts of migrants are the real engine of growth in several sectors, providing a cheap and flexible labor source. Yet, they remain without an identity and are unable to claim state resources for education, health care, water and sanitation. Women and children suffer the most from this kind of existence.

Formation of the Faithful

There is an urgent need to train our priests, our religious and the laity in our parishes. Many people are not aware of the problems of migrants. It is mainly due to lack of formation and information. We need to establish an attitude of hospitality in our communities, a deep awareness of the plight of the migrants. Welcoming them to a community could be the first step (as Pope Francis did earlier this year in bringing migrants to Rome).

Initiatives to create an atmosphere of welcome and participation are necessary in the community. In addition, the Church should overcome its paternalistic attitude in responding to the “signs of the times.” We need to evolve a form of involvement and participation that requires parish communities to absorb migrants and motivate them to look ahead with hope and take responsibility for their own welfare.

Acceptance of those who feel unwanted will turn into involvement to work for justice, truth and freedom. Today, this is the missionary calling of the Church, and we cannot escape this missionary dimension of her existence.

The Migrant God

In order to see and understand the perspective of migrants, it is essential to be with them and experience what they feel and how they live. In living with them, we understand their plight of life. Solidarity with them is a call to follow the migrant God together with the migrant people. It is a call for a journey of hope.

This journey calls for fidelity to the migrant God and readiness to leave our security behind and start the journey again whenever God calls us to do so. It is to be willing to walk humbly with our God. Openness to migrants’ realities challenges our cultural and religious prejudices and our often untested convictions.

Solidarity with migrants is a call to form them into groups where they can assert themselves and work toward their rights and dignity. This helps them earn bargaining power to assert their role in the society and to receive their rights from the state.

The Non-Christians

In this context, it is significant to stress that the Church needs to focus attention even on those migrants who are of other faiths instead of limiting our activity to only Christian migrants. Hospitality is an important expression of recognition and respect for those who are despised or overlooked by the larger community.

As Christians, as disciples of Christ and as sons and daughters of the Church, we offer a powerful example to the world when we show hospitality, when we eat and drink together, when we share with persons who are significantly different from ourselves.

However, we should not be blind to the tensions rising from such a shared life. While being attentive to breaking down barriers of caste, race and ethnicity, we need to cultivate a distinct identity. We do not welcome people into neutral space when we welcome them into the Church or the Christian community.

We welcome them into a community with expectations, demands and a value system that enables us to welcome strangers. This is the distinctive difference that marks biblical tradition’s view of hospitality from the other notions of welcome.

Marginalized Groups

Mostly, migrants come from marginalized groups: the poor, the tribal, the nomads and the backward. Indeed their cultural traditions give them life, but in destination areas, maintaining those traditions and customs becomes difficult, and their immediate concerns are to fulfill their basic needs. Certainly these groups try to keep their vital traditions that are followed at important life passages.

How much of these are integrated by the Church or how the life of the local Church takes care to preserve these cultures are pertinent questions. In urban areas, where we come across a plurality of cultures, the process of interculturation has to be done with care, concern and sensitivity.

The local Church is to incarnate itself into the conditions of the migrants with a personal witness. At the same time, migrants are called to integrate into the life of the local Church, thus intercultural communities evolve, and tolerance and acceptance of each other develops.

As members of the People of God, the Church can regard no one as excluded from its motherly care. In this situation, the Church can build a community where the migrants will feel one with each other in relating and sharing their lives.

Today, meeting Jesus Christ includes welcoming these strangers. Therefore, fidelity to the values of the Gospel and genuineness to the commitment to continue the mission of Jesus should call us to live in words and deeds that migrants are no longer strangers among us but rather one with us as brothers and sisters.

FATHER SINGARAYAR, S.V.D., has written articles for international and national journals including The Priest. He is also the author of the book Wellspring of Love. Presently, he is working on a master’s degree in anthropology.