By Berta Mexidor and Maureen Smith
TUPELO – For nearly a half century, the Catholic Church in the United States has celebrated National Migration Week as an opportunity to highlight the presence and situation of immigrants, refugees, victims and survivors of human trafficking. The week serves as a time for both prayer and action in support of immigrants and refugees.
The theme for this year’s January 6-12 celebration – “Building Communities of Welcome” – emphasized the responsibility and opportunity for Catholics to engage and welcome newcomers on their arrival and help to ease their transition into a new life here in the United States.
Pastoral leaders in the Diocese of Jackson’s deanery five led by Danna Johnson, the Hispanic ministry coordinator for Pontotoc St. Christopher, partnered with Catholic Charities to organize a week of activities and discussions. Guest speakers included Carlos Horacio Toro, assistant professor at the Southeastern Pastoral Institute (SEPI) as well as Jesuit priests Father Sean Carroll of the Kino Border Initiative and Father Fred Kammer of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans.
Father Carroll spoke Thursday to pastoral leaders in northeast Mississippi about strategies to create welcoming communities. He spoke about successes with students who came to Jesuit schools opposed to or indifferent about immigration. He said offering programs, such as Kino, where the students could meet migrants and refugees and accompany them often changed those students’ lives. He said the initiative then provides the students with tools to take back to their communities to talk to others about their experience and to advocate for just reform and compassion. He considers this work to be about more than just exposure to political or social issues. He sees it as part of the Christian process of conversion.
Father Carroll also led a spirited discussion about challenges and potential solutions for pastoral leaders here who are leading parishes where the Hispanic population is growing. “I want present to people this sense that we all have this opportunity to be renewed in the work that we are doing in the sense of engaging in this ongoing process of conversion and stay rooted in the experience of the people we are serving and really see in deeper ways their reality and through our encounter with Christ to continue on this path of service,” he said.
Sister Pat Hinton, OSF Aston, said gatherings like this give her energy to continue to minister. “If you keep feeding yourself you are better able to come forth and maybe a word or two you say will help someone else. You never know when you are going to say something – what I call coming in the back door. We have a long way to go in Mississippi in terms of education and awareness (of this issue),” she said.
The program continued on Friday, January 11, with a Mass for young people, celebrated by Bishop Kopacz followed by a conversation with Father Kammer.
Confirmation candidates and their parents, from different parishes of the Deanery Five participated. Bishop Kopacz, in his bilingual homily, explained to the youth the biblical foundation of welcoming the foreigner. Bishop compared the Holy Family with today’s immigrants.
At the conference, Father Kammer explained that, for Christians, the issue of migration should be analyzed based on the scriptures.
In modern times “we should not forget biblical concepts that are the foundation of faith: anawin, jubilee, pilgrimage” Kammer said.
Anawin is from the old testament describing the “poor ones” who remain faithful in troubled time because their only possession is God. These are people who need compassion and protection.
The concept of jubilee reflects the right to restoration of the dignity of the individual through forgiveness, amnesty and the common good. In this biblical concept, people work to build societies with respect, social welfare and peace that include the right of nations to control their borders as well as the right to migrate to protect and support families.
Pilgrimage is in the Bible on multiple occasions. In this sense, Father Kammer explained millions of human beings migrate today inside and outside their own country, for many reasons. That is why the word “they” loses meaning. When talking about migration, Father Kammer said “we are all brothers in Christ.”
Paco Aguilar, Danelly Blanco and Ulises López are cousins and Mexican descendants. They joined Bristy Whitenton, Morgan Floyd and Lillian Briston, all originally from Tupelo, in agreeing with the priest’s explanation of “them” and “we.” The six young people affirmed being impacted by these terms, saying the use of “them” separates and “us” suggests the understanding of the suffering of others.
On Saturday, January 12, the celebration concluded.
The closing remarks came from Toro, assistant professor of SEPI. His lecture, “Celebrating the Culture of the Encounter,” summarized Pope Francis’ idea that the culture of the encounter must be nurtured so that it can become a moral value in the individual and therefore in society.