By Jorge Zetino SVD
Over the past few weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the rhetoric regarding refugees seeking asylum in our country. Images of Middle Eastern men, women and children—stranded at U.S. airports due to the “travel ban” issued by the current administration—are everywhere on social media and in the news.
As a spectator following the news from the comfort and safety of my religious community’s house, I can’t help but be reminded of the story of another Middle Eastern family. Right after the birth to their firstborn son, the father was told to “rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt” (Mt 2:3).
And so as he was told, the father took the newborn child and his mother, in the middle of the night, and departed for another land where their family—especially their child—would be safe from the massacre of the infants that would take place back home. This Middle Eastern family, as the story goes, was told to stay in that foreign land until told otherwise.
It is precisely the story of that little and vulnerable Middle Eastern refugee child—and who he became—that inspired me to follow in his footsteps and to continue his mission. This little boy’s name was Jesus.
However, today I am reminded that before he was known as Jesus the Christ (through his death and resurrection), he was Jesus the Nazarene (See Mt 2:22). Even before he was known as the “Nazarene,” he was—at a young age—a refugee and an asylum-seeker in a neighboring land: Egypt.
So every time I turn on my television or scroll down my Facebook newsfeed, I am appalled by the rhetoric used, not only by our new administration but also by fellow Christians around the country regarding the “travel ban” of citizens from seven Middle Eastern countries who happen to be Muslims.
I acknowledge that we now live in a polarized society as witnessed during the last campaign season. The topic of refugees often becomes a subject for division in conversations with friends and family—yes, even among Catholic circles.
There is nothing wrong for fellow citizens to be concerned with the safety of our country and of our neighborhoods. After all, there is a precedent for such concern, one that is very much alive in the minds and hearts of many—a precedent that we remember every year and have pledged to #neverforget. As an American, I share the concern of fellow Americans. As a Catholic Christian, however, I am concerned by the way we—as a nation—seem to be going about security in our neighborhoods and on our streets. At what cost do we do it?
I think Angelina Jolie articulated it well in her recent New York Times op-ed by writing that “we can manage our security without writing off citizens of entire countries—even babies—as unsafe to visit our country by virtue of geography or religion.”
As a Christian nation, closing the door to those—like Jesus and his parents—who are forced to leave their homelands to seek refuge on more stable and safe grounds is not the compassionate way we are called to live, especially if we are “one nation under God.”
The image of an asylum-seeking Jesus continues to haunt me, especially in light of what is happening in our nation these days. Are we forgetting that Jesus Christ, the Son of God was a refugee? If we are, we only need to turn to the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). If we are indeed Christians, shouldn’t we be doing that? Aren’t we called to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger? Even in the midst of our own fears?
As a Catholic Christian, an immigrant, a Divine Word Missionary who is advocating for the welcoming of strangers—whether they are refugees from the Middle East or from Central America—I view this welcoming of strangers as the American thing to do and the right thing to do. It is also the Christian way.
As a Divine Word Missionary, I am dedicating my life not only to being a “man for others” but also to working every day, in spite of my own weaknesses and limitations, to continue Jesus’ mission on earth because “his mission is our mission.”
As Catholics, we now have a tremendous opportunity to partake in Jesus’ mission, to be “good Samaritans.” Who do we choose to be? Are we the priest walking down the streets of Jericho who—upon seeing the man who had been attacked by robbers—moved to the other side and continued on his way? Are we the Levite who also chose to ignore the man on the street, who passed by him and continued his journey? Or can we be like the Samaritan who saw the man, “took pity on him” and bandaged the man’s wound, poured oil and wine on him, and even took him to an inn where he could be taken care of? (See Lk 10:29-37).
Yes, we live in a polarized society, but I believe that we also live in a society that has the capacity to be compassionate and merciful towards the stranger. We have done it before!
We have welcomed the stranger before. One needs only to look to our nation’s history. We have the opportunity, once again, to “love our neighbor,” to be “good Samaritans” towards those who may not look like us, may not speak our language, or may not have the same religion beliefs as ours. As a nation and as individual Christians, we have the opportunity to welcome Jesus Christ personified as a Middle Eastern refugee—yet once again!