By Berta Mexidor
JACKSON – Two mothers’ experiences and teachings were at the center of the National Migration Week celebration at St. James Tupelo, on Thursday, Sept. 24. Mrs. Oyafemi taught her little child that when someone asks where you are from? you must answer: ”I am a citizen from heaven.” And 6,375 miles and 25 years away from Nigeria, a mother in Mexico, escaped to the United States from an abusive husband in Mexico with a little girl, hidden from her, for years, her true citizenship situation.
With the moderation of Fran Lavelle, diocesan director of Faith Formation, a panel of different speakers exposed their interactions and experiences as migrants and refugees that included Father Clem Oya, coordinator of Intercultural Ministry, child of the Nigerian mother who made him fall in love with the teachings of the Bible; and Guadalupe Meyer, the little girl who came to the US without a visa, standing today as a DACA recipient, only because her mother’s intuition, and in her desperation, told her “you are a citizen of heaven.”
For at least fifty years the Catholic Church in the United States has been celebrating and recognizing the increasing population of immigrants, victims and survivors of human trafficking and refugees, not only in the country but worldwide to educate Catholics about the reality of people forced by circumstances to abandon their natal countries to start a new life in a new land and culture.
The celebration of National Migration Week (NMW) was the venue for community lectures, parish encounters and national speakers to highlight the struggles and accomplishments of migrants and refugees; as well as, the Catholic programs assisting them during their transition and establishment in the different communities receiving them.
This year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) celebrated NMW from Sept. 20-26 to coincide with the Vatican’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, celebrated each year on the last Sunday of September. This year’s theme for NMW was “Towards an Ever Wider ‘We.’”
In his letter to announce this year’s theme, Pope Francis emphasizes that “this approach calls on us to ensure that “after all this, we no longer think in terms of ‘them’ and ‘those,’ but only of ‘us.’ (Fratelli Tutti, no. 35) And this universal ‘we’ must become a reality, first of all within the church that is called to cultivate communion in diversity.”
During NMW, every year, each diocese creates a different activity that includes prayers, education and actions of solidarity toward immigrants and refugees. The Diocese of Jackson is among them, celebrating the diversity that migrants bring to the Catholic Church in a state where Catholics are a minority religious group; and where Catholic Charities assists not only to Catholics but also, the state’s underserved population, including migrants and refugees, without looking to their religious affiliation.
TUPELO – A light of hope in the north
For the high percentage of Hispanics settled in deanery five, the passionate leadership of Father Tim Murphy at St. James and Danna Johnson, of Catholic Charities in the area, makes a huge difference. For a number of years, they have hosted national and local speakers, and exponents of the hard work of migrants, while promoting a welcoming culture to the foreigners.
This year at St. James, the audience of mainly English speakers had the opportunity to exchange conversation with Father Clem; Guadalupe Meyer, activist for migrants; Josh Blackmon, a young businessman; and attorney Brad Prewitt, vice president of Circadence, a cybersecurity company.
Before the session, Father Tim directed a reading of the prayer to Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God, and promoter of intercultural understanding, who “in times of intolerance and ignorance, I bring wisdom, conscience, unity and charity.”
At the end of the meeting, two folk dances highlighted Hispanic heritage, which the parish celebrated on Sunday, Sept. 19.
VARDAMAN – Sweet potatoes, from their field to your heart
Proud of their land, traditions and hospitality, religious and community leaders gathered on the morning of Sept. 25 at the Vardaman Catholic Charities Center for NMW.
Father Clem spoke to the audience in Vardaman about the Pope’s ideas and declarations about migrants and refugees, and about the struggles of children brought to the country by their parents, without documents. The dreamers, represented by Guadalupe Meyer, explained the dilemma of young people like herself who feel that the US is their own country because they have never known another one, and how it feels like a national-foreigner contradiction.
The board of Catholic Charities Vardaman with the leadership of Danna Johnson has worked to highlight the silent and tenacious work of the migrants, who are responsible for putting sweet potatoes on the table of Mississippians and those nationwide.
Vardaman is attracting migrants in search of jobs and survival. The locals see migrants come and go and make an effort to understand the phenomenon and how some foreigners feel. They both share the same love for the fields and people in Vardaman.
Migration Week – Partnership and Education
The Catholic Charities’ Migrant Support Center in Mississippi has been the main coordinator each year during NMW, offering conferences, free legal clinics, and a space for prayer and understanding. The Support Center, as well as priests, sisters, brothers, parish staff, and community leaders in the diocese work with the mission to receive Jesus in the face of every foreigner they assist in the new land of hope and freedom.
For more information about the USCCB migrants’ programs, visit https://justiceforimmigrants.org/take-action/national-migration-week/.
(Berta Mexidor, originally of Cuba, is a photo-reporter contributor of Mississippi Catholic, and editor of Mississippi Católico for the Diocese of Jackson.)