WASHINGTON, D.C. — The theme for the Jan. 8-14, 2017 National Migration Week commemoration for the Catholic Church in the United States – “Creating a Culture of Encounter” – resonates with Ashley Feasley, because such an encounter changed her life and shaped her life’s work.
When she was a fifth grader attending a Catholic school in Florida, she gained a new classmate and a lifelong friend, when a boy whose family had escaped persecution in Lithuania became part of the school community.
“They were welcomed by the church and the school,” she said of his family.
Before that, she had never met anyone who had to flee persecution to find a new home in the United States.
“The welcome we brought him, learning about his past, his excitement about being here, it made me look at the world differently,” she said.
Now Feasley serves as director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, returning this past September to the agency where she had earlier worked for several years before recently working for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.
Her friend graduated from college and now works in the tech field, and she works for MRS, which in 2015 assisted in the resettlement of 22,000 refugees in the United States, more than 25 percent of the refugees who came into the country.
“My transformational encounter was at a Catholic school. The role that parishes and schools play is vital,” she said.
The importance of making that kind of encounter was underscored in a joint statement for this year’s National Migration Week issued on Jan. 6 by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the USCCB vice president, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles.
Those two bishops noted that, “This year, we are invited to create a culture of encounter where citizens old and new, alongside immigrants recent and longstanding, can share with one another their hopes for a better life.
“Migration is, more than anything, an act of great hope,” they added, noting that many of today’s migrants are fleeing war, persecution and poverty, risking everything for an opportunity to live in peace in a new country.
“As Catholics in the United States, most of us can find stories in our own families of parents, grandparents or great-grandparents leaving the old country for the promise of America. Take time this Migration Week to seek out those stories. Let us remind ourselves of the moments when our loved ones were forced to seek the mercy of others in a new land,” the two bishops said in their joint statement.
Feasley noted that this year’s theme of encounter for National Migration Week is inspired by the witness of Pope Francis.
“Pope Francis’s words about the importance of recognizing our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters is very important and very timely,” she said.
From the start of his papacy, Pope Francis has emphasized recognizing the plight of migrants and offering them love and support. On his first trip outside Italy as pope in 2013, he went to the island of Lampedusa and celebrated Mass on an altar made of a small boat to highlight the refugees setting out on sometimes fatal voyages in search of a new life.
For this past Christmas season, the Vatican’s nativity scene at St. Peter’s Square included a boat, which Pope Francis said offered a reminder of the plight of refugees setting out across the Mediterranean Sea, and a reminder that Jesus and the Holy Family were themselves once refugees.
Since 2014, more than 500,000 boat migrants have sought safe harbor in Italy, and the International Organization for Migrants reported that last year, 5,000 migrants drowned trying to make that voyage.
When he addressed a joint meeting of Congress during his September 2015 visit to the United States, Pope Francis noted the urgency of the refugee crisis, the most severe since the end of World War II.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that in 2015, there were more than 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 refugees fleeing persecution, war or violence.
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation,” Pope Francis told Congress, reminding the lawmakers that he was the son of immigrants, and that many of them were likewise descended from people who, like today’s immigrants, have come to the United States seeking freedom and a better life for themselves and their families.
Pope Francis continued to demonstrate the importance of personal encounters and prayerful solidarity with migrants throughout 2016. In February, he celebrated Mass at Mexico’s border with the United States, and the next month, he traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos, met and prayed with Syrian refugees there, and then brought 12 of the refugees – all of them Muslim – back to Rome.
Later in the year, he hosted a lunch for those refugees and other newcomers from Syria, offering another spotlight on the plight of the 5 million refugees who had fled that war-torn country the previous year. On Holy Thursday, he visited a center for displaced persons outside Rome and washed the feet of refugees.
Organizers of this year’s National Migration Week hope that the commemoration will offer dioceses, parishes and individual Catholics a chance, not only to seek out personal encounters with immigrants, but to recognize their historic contribution to the United States and the Catholic Church in this country, and their contributions today.
Today’s immigrants and refugees, said Feasley, include “those we worship with in the same church, those who we go to school with, those who we work with,” and those who serve in a variety of jobs in the community.
“One of the things that’s most important for us to keep in mind, in addition to their human dignity, is the unique and rich contribution they give to our society and our communities, their striving for success and working to achieve self-sufficiency,” she said, adding that Americans can empathize with their hard work to be successful in the United States.
“Immigrants, migrants and refugees are just like you and me. They have families, and they want security and success for their families,” she said.
The MRS official said that National Migration Week also offers a chance to highlight the work of the Catholic Church in the United States on behalf of immigrants and refugees, which is a way of carrying out the corporal work of mercy of welcoming the stranger.
“That’s part of the mission of the Church – it’s who we are, it’s what we do,” she said.
Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the largest private refugee resettlement agency in the United States and has helped to resettle more than one million refugees since 1975.
Nearly 80 Catholic Charities agencies across the country are involved in refugee resettlement work, helping refugees with housing, legal services, language proficiency, trauma counseling and employment training.
“We are trying to give them hope,” said Seme Ayane, the program manager for the Refugee Service Center of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington who has worked for that agency for 15 years after arriving from Ethiopia in 2000 as an asylum seeker.
He knows firsthand what it is like to seek the American dream, and his program assists about 300 refugees and people seeking asylum from around the world each year.
The Catholic Church in the United States is also active in opposing human trafficking and offering assistance to people victimized by that modern form of slavery, and in offering legal assistance to unaccompanied children and families who have entered the country after fleeing violence in Central America.
The week after National Migration Week, President-elect Donald Trump will be inaugurated on Jan. 20. As a candidate, Trump had pledged to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and crack down on illegal immigration, especially on undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.
In late November, more than 100 leaders of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities signed statements of support for undocumented immigrant students, an issue of concern for those students and their families after the election.
The USCCB statement on National Migration Week noted that it provided “an opportunity to embrace the important work of continuing to secure the border, to welcome the stranger and serve the most vulnerable – all components of a humane immigration policy.”
Feasley noted that, “The bishops are very hopeful to work with the new administration on immigration policy issues…that are humane, family focused and common-sense on security.”
A fact sheet on National Migration Week noted, “the Catholic bishops and the Church support humane immigration reform. We must reform our broken system that separates families and impedes due process.”
During National Migration Week, several dioceses across the country – including Chicago, Washington, and Omaha, Nebraska – will be hosting interfaith prayer services. The Archdiocese of Seattle will have an encounter event with undocumented students, and the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will have a prayer bus tour for immigrants and refugees.
The week’s organizers also hope that parishes will host events like potluck suppers, to bring together people to share their native cuisines, cultures and stories.
On Jan. 2, nine members of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, gathered at the apartment of a Syrian refugee family being sponsored by the parish and by a synagogue and mosque in the community.
In an article for the Catholic Standard newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, reporter Kelly Seegers noted that the Syrian father, mother and four of their children had fled their country after seeing people shot outside their home during that nation’s civil war. The Muslim family served their guests Syrian food, and the mother, through an interpreter, told them, “You are all welcome in our home.”
Ashley Feasley of MRS, who knows those kind of encounters are life-changing for immigrants and those they get to know, said, “It becomes personal when we understand it’s not a nameless, faceless person. It’s someone I know. I know their story.”