by Fr. Richard Bayuk, C.PP.S., Kansas City Vice-Provincial Director
There are millions of people on this planet who must walk. They walk to search for food and water and firewood, to find work, to make their way across borders looking for hope and a future, to escape in terror from the violence of war and the fury of nature. Many are children; all are children of God.
Fifteen year-old Gilberto Ramos walked a mile each day through rocky and rugged canyons to get to school. He quit after third grade so he could work. Eventually he wanted to leave his mountain village in Guatemala for the United States to earn money to help his mother who has epilepsy. She begged him not to go, and when he wouldn’t change his mind, she put a rosary around his neck for safe passage. A month later, his body was found in the Texas desert where he had been abandoned by the “coyote” who collected $5,400 from the family to bring him to the U.S. He died walking. He was still wearing the rosary his mother had given him.
For many years, teenage boys from Central America seeking work to escape poverty and gang violence have been a significant percentage of the undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. on the southern border.
But in recent years—and particularly in recent months—the number of minor children (sometimes with their mothers) crossing the border to escape poverty and violence (most often at terrible risk) has been rapidly increasing, becoming a full-blown humanitarian crisis—and for some a political football, or a flashpoint for renewed racism and xenophobia. One commentator compared the recent ugly scene in Murrieta, California, where an angry mob turned back buses of women and children refugees heading for a federal processing center to the iconic photograph from 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, showing fire hoses and vicious police dogs being used to counteract African-Americans protesting racial segregation.
It was the mayor of Murrieta who urged the locals to protest. Contrast his “leadership” with that of the faith communities of Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, whose members are responding compassionately, under the leadership of Catholic Charities and Bishop Daniel Flores (and many other faith communities and leaders from there to El Paso to Tucson).
Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote recently in National Catholic Reporter: “Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, spoke before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in late June. He called the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border ‘a test of the moral character’ of our nation. ‘We must not fail this test,’ he said. Right now, the welcoming community of Brownsville and surrounding communities are acing the test. In Murrieta, the mayor and the citizens who drove back the buses need to study more. President Obama looks for ways to return the children to their perilous homeland. The U.S. Congress sits on its hands. To prepare for the test of moral character, protesters in Murrieta, the president and the Congress, might hit the books, especially the New Testament. A place to start is Matthew 25, where Jesus states: ‘Whatever you do for these, the least of my brethren, you do also for me.’”
In my work with Unbound (formerly Christian Foundation for Children and Aging) the past 18 years, I often describe sponsorship as an invitation to “walk with the poor.” To walk with those who must walk each day just to survive. This suggests relationship rather than mere charity—or perhaps “hand up” rather than “hand out.” It is about finding the path that leads one out of desperate poverty into a hope-filled future, rather than feeling (or being) compelled to take the even more desperate path that leads to death in the desert. Today, there are over 275,000 sponsors and 310,ooo families (many in these troubled countries south of our border) who are on this walk of hope. At Unbound, we believe people can overcome the challenges they face when we all work together.
I am saddened and angered that politicians and lawmakers and leaders cannot (or will not) find a way to move past their polarized positions and bring justice to the reality of immigrants and refugees in this country. I am grateful and hopeful that there are far more individuals and groups working together and advocating and responding with compassion than there are mobs filled with anger and fear. The walk continues.