WASHINGTON, D.C. — Migration, legal and otherwise, is in the DNA of the Catholic Church, and teachings that call on believers to aid “the stranger” are meant to guide followers of Christ toward a path of communion, said a priest from the University of Notre Dame who studies migration.
“Migration is really in our genes. It’s in our biological genes, it’s also in our spiritual genes and as we look at the Scriptures, we can see that this was something that goes through the Scriptures from beginning to end,” said Father Daniel Groody, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, presenting his book “The Theology of Migration: The Bodies of Refugees and the Body of Christ” at the Keough School of Global Affairs Washington Office Oct. 27.
Groody, who has been a consultant on migration matters for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that to look at the history of the early church is to see the foundations of the church “as fundamentally migrant.”
“Migration is in our genes. It’s also in our political histories, as we know, and it’s just part of the … story of what it means to be a human being,” he said.
But it’s also something that brings controversy, conflict and tension between “sovereign rights and human rights, civil law and natural law, between national security and human security, and ultimately between citizenship and discipleship,” he said.
In talking with migrants and listening to their stories in different parts of the world, Father Groody said that he began to think: “What’s the deeper narrative? And it became clear to me that what’s needed it’s not so much more information, but a new narrative about migration.”
He sees a new narrative based on theology and the church’s roots in the phenomenon of migration, which is increasing as wars, famine, persecution and climate change force people to leave their home countries.
“Just to lay out the reality of migration today, there are more migrants than ever before in history,” he said, offering statistics that reveal that 1 in 28 people in the world is a migrant and that there are 100 million forcibly displaced people in the world, according to the United Nations.
“Behind these numbers are people, human faces,” he said, and “how do we think about that from a faith perspective?”
The way he sees it, from a Christian point of view is: “Our ancestors in faith were always migrating.”
That movement helped Christianity spread beyond the Holy Land, where the faith began, as disciples migrated over the years to other parts of the world and took the word of God with them. But even before then, we find a God who migrated from the divine to our world in a strange way, Groody said.
Jesus came to live among us through Mary, a Jewish woman found pregnant “outside of the law” since Joseph, her betrothed, was not the father, and that subjected her to the risk of capital punishment by stoning, Groody said. That also means that Jesus, “in many ways was an illegal alien,” he added.
“I mean he was illegal because … he is breaking the law in his conception,” and “he was an alien because he really was from another world, so you really have to ask: why would God choose to save the world through an illegal alien?”
Christ opened up a place of hope for all who were considered “outside of the law,” Groody said.
“God tried to save all those who are alien by somebody who was an illegal alien,” he said, adding that “we, all in this world, are aliens and migrants trying to all find our way back home” with God.
The event also invited other religious leaders to share their faith tradition’s views on migration.
“The takeaway from the book is I’m encouraged to perhaps look deeper into my own religion to have similar supporting ideas,” said panelist Elobaid A. Elobaid, senior adviser for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has studied the relationship between human rights and cultural diversity in Muslim Africa.
In their Abrahamic roots, Christianity, Judaism and Islam share the precept of caring for the stranger in some form.
Panelist Rabbi Sarah Bassin, director of clergy and congregations for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a U.S.-based Jewish group that helps refugees, said that in Judaism’s sacred texts, the precept to care for the stranger or to not oppress the stranger, is lifted up more than any other commandment.
With the persecution of Jews throughout the decades, migration is central to the faith and the survival of Jewish people, she said. Caring for the stranger is a central imperative and migration is a constant presence in Judaism’s customs and practices.
“Every single holiday, you’re slapped in the face with this memory” of forced migration, she said.
In placing migration in that spiritual lens, religious texts and ideas can useful and used for good, said Elobaid, but the opposite can also be true as some co-opt religious beliefs to justify acts of hate toward migrants.
“When I was reading the book I kept asking myself: Which Christianity are we talking about?” he said. “You cannot help (but) develop the impression that Christianity has been used to justify some rather heinous things such as white supremacy or straight hateful messaging or treatment of migrants.”
Some of that messaging includes Islamophobia, Elobaid said.
Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville of Washington, who was present for the event, said “migration-related challenges we face together are immense and complex” and “political divisions in this country continue to hinder comprehensive immigration reform.”
But Groody said true Christianity is about hospitality and moving toward unity among all people.
“It’s not about us and them. It’s moving from otherness to oneness … a migration toward communion,” he said. “We’re all migrants in this world. Then in the end, I think the fundamental challenge is (toward) solidarity.”
Bassin compared religion to a hammer, which can be used to murder someone or to build a house.
“You can impose onto it good or bad,” she said.