Finding God in Migrants and Strangers

Interview With Sister Marilyn Lacey

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By Genevieve Pollock

SANTA CLARA, California, JAN. 7, 2010 ( The fear of migrants is understandable, but overcoming it is essential for Christians who can find God in strangers, says a religious with 30 years of experience ministering to “outsiders.”

Sister Marilyn Lacey is a Sister of Mercy and the director of the nonprofit organization Mercy Beyond Borders, which partners with displaced women and girls in Southern Sudan in ways that alleviate their extreme poverty.

In her book, “This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers” (Ave Maria Press), published last spring, she writes about her work with refugees in the United States, Africa and Asia.

Sister Lacey shared her experience of migrants and refugees with ZENIT on the occasion of the U.S. celebration of National Migration Week, which is under way through Sunday.

ZENIT: Often immigration is described in terms of numbers, but what does the face of the individual immigrant look like? What are his typical hopes and fears, difficulties and needs?

Sister Lacey: It is very natural to think of migrants as “other,” somehow very different from us.

In immigration law, the technical term used for them is “alien,” which literally means “other.”

This reinforces our tendency to fear migrants, since we generally find it hard to trust persons who are perceived to be different from us.

In fact, migrants are human beings with families to nurture, children to protect, dreams to pursue. Their most basic needs are to be welcomed and sheltered, to find work and to make friends. As church we have a serious obligation — which actually is a wonderful invitation — to be that place of welcome.

A few years ago a Catholic refugee, a young man from Eritrea recently resettled in California, expressed great confusion to me, saying, “Sister, here in America the churches are locked at night!” I admitted that they were.

His immediate response was, “But if the churches are locked, where will the travelers sleep?” His question should make us all examine our conscience.

How welcoming are we (as individuals and as Church) to the strangers in our midst?

ZENIT: This year’s national migration week focuses on children. Could you describe the life of the typical migrant child?

Sister Lacey: Most of my ministry has been with refugees. The children in refugee families have not led what you or I would consider normal lives.

They have fled their homes; they have experienced long, difficult journeys. Most have had family members lost or killed.

Many have directly witnessed atrocities; some have themselves been child soldiers forced to engage in violence. They have spent years in the artificial existence of refugee camps where their schooling was spotty (at best) and their nutrition meager.

Their sense of the world is that it is a dangerous place. And yet they are marvelously resilient.

Given a safe place and the presence of loving, supportive adults, they can thrive.

ZENIT: Aren’t most immigrants looking to take something from the country’s citizens? Especially in this time of economic recession, when many citizens are unemployed, isn’t it natural for people to want to protect their own resources? Is there any way to change this defensive stance?

Sister Lacey: Defending one’s family and country against threats is understandable and even honorable.

Unfortunately, we human beings are prone to misidentifying true threats. In my opinion — which I hope is based on a clear reading of the Gospels — the real threats to true life and happiness are not migrants, but rather our own greed, selfishness, and hoarding.

Developed countries seem intent on accumulating more and more of the world’s wealth while at the same time enacting immigration laws designed to keep others away from any share in that bounty.

The Gospel sets before us the Beatitudes (ways of happiness): be poor, share what you have, embrace suffering, work for justice, bear with persecution.

We are even called to love the enemies who want to do us harm. Whereas the world tries to convince us that security lies in killing one’s enemies, or at least keeping them far away, the Gospel shows us that we must grow in forgiveness, inclusion, and a way of life that invites everyone to the table.

Heaven, it is said, is open to anyone who is willing to sit at the table with everyone else!

Personally, I believe that the “immigration problem” cannot be solved by rational debate alone.

We must include the faith dimension that stretches us to understand that our security and well-being and genuine happiness lie in opening our gates to strangers, to persons different from ourselves.

Even if the inclusion of migrants into our societies were to result in lowering our standard of living (which, in fact, is usually not the case, because their presence stimulates economies), it would still be incumbent on Christians to welcome them.

God comes to us in the guise of strangers. That theme runs all through the Scriptures: from Genesis 18 (Abraham being blessed by the three strangers whom he invites into his tent) to Revelations 3:20 (God standing at our door, patiently knocking). For me, this is more than theory — it is my experience over the past 30 years of working with refugees and migrants throughout the world.

ZENIT: What about immigrants who enter the country illegally? Assuming that there are good reasons for the current immigration laws, isn’t it ethical to condemn this illegal behavior?

Sister Lacey: Sometimes people ask me, “Why don’t ‘those’ people come in legally? They’re breaking our laws!”

This is a serious question, one that appeals to our law-abiding, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon DNA. The people who pose the question are usually surprised to learn that there is no way for “those” people to come legally, because the immigration laws offer them no avenue to do so.

Only certain categories of “aliens” can enter legally, and many of them only for limited periods of time.

Nearly half of all the undocumented in the United States, for example, are persons who entered legally but then overstayed their visas and fell “out of status.” The others are those who crossed a border without inspection — usually persons who come seeking work so that they can send money home to support their families.

Current U.S. immigration law, for example, can keep family members waiting over 18 years to immigrate legally. How does this fit with our Christian belief in the sacredness of the family and the importance of the family being together?

Before judging those who break the law, the key question for me is to ask whether the current laws themselves are ethical.

Is it right, in a global economy where goods and information and money transcend borders, to prevent workers from also crossing borders?

Is it right, in a world where some people are born into places where it is nearly impossible to feed your own family, to prevent people from migrating to a place where they can provide for their children?

Is it right, in a shrinking world, for the have’s to shut out the have-not’s?

Is it right to build walls (as the United States has done along its southern border) or to live in gated communities that keep people out, while at the same time we go to Church and pray the Gospel stories of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16)?

ZENIT: Many people may feel compassion for immigrants, but say that they have nothing extra to give to them. What can the average citizen give to the immigrant?

Sister Lacey: It costs nothing (but a little courage) to be warm and welcoming to migrants.

It costs nothing to admit that there is always a little more “room at the inn.”

Whereas it may be risky to open your door to a stranger individually, a group effort make
s it easier to do. Communities of faith can be important starting points for welcoming strangers.

As for having “nothing to spare,” I am quite sure that all of us have much to share, and that real joy will elude us until we begin doing so.

As one of the early saints said, “The extra pair of shoes in your closet belongs to the poor.” When we live with that kind of openness and sharing, blessings abound!

ZENIT: Would you say that emphasizing tolerance of cultural diversity is the answer to making immigrants feel more welcome, or is there something else that you have found helpful in opening hearts to people of different races?

Sister Lacey: Tolerance of diversity is surely a first step, but I hope we can move beyond tolerating our differences to celebrating how they enrich us all.

I have worked with refugees and migrants from over 50 countries and I consider myself one of the happiest people on the planet — to have shared in so many different worldviews, so many different perspectives on God, so many ways of overcoming adversity and tenaciously living life.

I pray that everyone could risk welcoming a stranger and discovering, to their unending surprise, that God waits in turn to welcome them!

— — —

For additional information on welcoming migrants:

Mercy Beyond Borders:

“Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition” by Christine Pohl:
“This Flowing Toward Me: A Story of God Arriving in Strangers” by Sister Lacey:

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