In an illustration involving the plight of today’s refugees, two speakers at a recent immigration forum posed, from different perspectives, the necessity of the flight into Egypt of Joseph, Mary and the Child Jesus.
“Perhaps the strongest message from Jesus about strangers and refugees and migrants is not what he said, but what he did,” said Father James Martin, S.J., an author and editor at large of the Jesuit weekly magazine America. “After his birth, Mary and Joseph take Jesus from Israel into Egypt. It is called ‘the Flight into Egypt,’ and the angel says, ‘take refuge in Egypt.’
“Mary and Joseph and their son are fleeing persecution and the threat of death at the hands of King Herod,” he said. “Using the contemporary definition, when we think about refugees and migrants and who are welcome, we can say that among all the refugees that the world has seen, among all those people, were three people who really should matter to us, and that we do know: Mary, Joseph and Jesus.”
Father Martin was one of three panelists who participated in “Immigration: A Catholic Perspective,” held April 18 at St. Ignatius Loyola parish in Manhattan. The forum also featured C. Mario Russell, director and senior attorney of Immigrant and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities Community Services of the archdiocese, and Dr. Meghan J. Clark, assistant professor of moral theology at St. John’s University in Queens, who is a faculty expert for the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations coordinated by St. John’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society.
The evening forum, sponsored by the parish’s Ignatian Social Justice Committee, was moderated by Dr. Anna Brown, associate professor and chair of political science at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J.
Ms. Clark, in her remarks, also referred to the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, from the perspective of a political scientist she knows at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.: “The Roman Empire called the entire region, that includes the Holy Land, Syria.
“So,” she continued, “quite literally, when Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt they were Syrian refugees.”
Father Martin, in a thoughtful anecdote about working in the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Africa during his priestly formation, spoke about a lesson he learned the hard way about the importance of not categorizing people.
He worked with urban refugees between 1992 and 1994 in Nairobi, Kenya, which, he situated historically, was in between the crises in Somalia and Rwanda, “a real period of great turmoil.”
“One of the primary lessons that I learned,” he said, “is that people are not categories.”
“When I worked at a hospital with ‘sick people,’ as a novice I thought that I’d be working with ‘sick people,’ and whatever ‘sick people’ were concerned about...”
He soon learned he was working with “individuals” who had individual names and individual problems. The same could be said for working with those who are homeless, he said.
It was the same lesson he learned when asked to do some intake work with refugees. “I had studied a little Swahili and I was ready and I had in my mind perhaps the same kind of images that a lot of Americans, maybe some people in this crowd have, about refugees, migrants, that you see pictures of…”
A faceless mass of people, those who may be dirt farmers or cattle herders, came to mind, he said. “In a sense, in my ignorance, I thought, they’re kind of used to this life, they’re poor and just moving from one place to another.”
A Somali man, raggedly clad in polyester pants, a light blue shirt and flip-flops. changed his mind. “I said to him…‘before we start, what language would you like to speak in? He said, with a little wry smile, ‘We can speak in English…Swahili…French…Italian…Latin, and in Ancient Greek.’”
The refugee was a philosophy professor at the University of Mogadishu in Somalia who had to leave there with his family in the midst of his flourishing career and academic life and livelihood.
“It just shifted everything within me,” Father Martin said. “What I realized was, these are our brothers and sisters in Christ. These are people like all of us: professors, teachers, lawyers, doctors, mothers, fathers, tailors, bakers.”
In the conversation of refugees and migrants and the immigration issue, he learned that “we’re talking about individuals who have the same kinds of hopes and dreams and desires for themselves and for their families that we do, that everyone in this country does.”
“It reminded me,” Father Martin said, “that this is what Jesus does—Jesus does not see categories.”
Russell, in his presentation, approached the topic of categories differently. “Law is about categories. Lawyers who do social justice,” he said, to some extent successfully strive “to place the human and the question of dignity into the intersection of law, policy and politics.”
Father Dennis J. Yesalonia, S.J., pastor of St. Ignatius, in the forum’s concluding remarks, noted the timing of the forum in relation to Easter Sunday, April 16. “Two days ago, whether it was in this church or any church you would have been, we celebrated the most significant event in human history…”
The immigration panel, “each one in her or his own way,” the pastor said, “spoke about suffering, the suffering of those who are neighbors—our sisters and brothers who are struggling now.”
“The question that each one of our panelists presented is, what will we do to help them?
“And as sure as we celebrated Easter Sunday, we will celebrate the victory and rights of every human being,” he continued, “to enjoy the same extraordinary rights of freedom and liberty that we have…
Such a cross, Father Yesalonia concluded, “bears being kept in mind, this day will be overcome, but it needs the support and understanding of each one of us. So God be with us.”