Deacon who ministers to immigrants receives award from St. Norbert College

By Sean Schultz | For The Compass | September 10, 2014

At lecture, Deacon Barajas discusses immigration from faith perspective

DE PERE — An Albuquerque deacon working for the good of immigrants to the United States took home the 2014 Ambassador of Peace Award from St. Norbert College Sept. 4. Deacon Juan Barajas, himself an immigrant from Talpa, Jalisco, Mexico, has made it his life’s work to remind others of the value that immigrants bring to this nation.

Deacon Juan Barajas of the Archdiocese of Albuquerque, N.M., delivers the Ambassador’s Lecture at St. Norbert College Sept. 4. Deacon Barajas received the Ambassador of Peace Award for his ministry to Mexican immigrants. (Photo courtesy St. Norbert College)
Deacon Juan Barajas of the Archdiocese of Albuquerque, N.M., delivers the Ambassador’s Lecture at St. Norbert College Sept. 4. Deacon Barajas received the Ambassador of Peace Award for his ministry to Mexican immigrants. (Photo courtesy St. Norbert College)

The award, given by the college’s Norman Miller Center for Peace, Justice and Public Understanding, recognized Deacon Barajas’ ministry to and advocacy for Mexican immigrants to New Mexico over the past 30 years. He has trained more than 500 lay leaders and created Spanish education programs at more than a dozen parishes.

St. Norbert College was founded by the Norbertine religious order and Deacon Barajas noted that in the past 25 years, the Norbertines have opened a priory and an abbey in his community.

His award comes at a time when immigration is a divisive political issue in the U.S., Deacon Barajas noted. When he spoke to the crowd at the award ceremony, he said his message would be on immigration from a faith perspective, not a political one.

“We need to take a look at how immigrants and strangers are treated in the Old Testament. It tells us ‘to offer hospitality and love to one another as we do to Jesus,’” he said.

Deacon Barajas became a U.S. citizen in 1985, he said, after studying in the U.S. and marrying here. That process “was an awesome learning experience for me,” he noted. “You learn not only a language, but you cannot learn a language if you do not know the people that speak that language.”

He learned the history of the U.S. “and the great pride of the people of this country. I embraced them and said ‘I want to become one of them.’” That’s key to success for those who immigrate, he suggested.

However, “immigration has become so politicized that we fail to see the human needs. …The president sent a million or a billion dollars to take care of the situation of (unaccompanied) children at the border, to be used to send them back,” he noted. That approach to an issue “is not based on human need. … With that much money, they could find a place to stay and get through college.”

He considered the growing concern over “the unaccompanied child,” those who show up at our borders without parents, family or a place to go. While many condemn the parents that would send their children away, Deacon Barajas understands why it happens. “As a father and a grandfather, for me to risk sending my children, not knowing if the child is going to survive, the need must be so extreme for the parents to take that risk.”

Deacon Barajas has concluded that “the danger of the place they came from is greater than the risk.” It comes down to this for the parents: “If I see I will lose my life, I will say ‘You go and I will die.’ The parents see their children have no future due to the dangers and the turmoil and economy where they are. They see themselves as losing their lives and they don’t want that for their children.”

Deacon Barajas said adoption of such children is one consideration. “If they advertised these children up for adoption, I myself would take one or two,” he said.

As the U.S. was set to mark the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Deacon Barajas said that continues to impact the immigrant population in his nation. “We suffer the blame for it and are considered terrorists and criminals” in some people’s minds, he said.

Estimates suggest there are 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants here. Rather than view them as a drain on the nation’s economy, tax rolls and Social Security system, Deacon Barajas said they should be viewed for the value and skills they bring.

People who condemn the immigrant for financial reasons fail to notice that those workers are paying taxes toward a Social Security and retirement income they won’t enjoy. “Trillions of dollars are being paid in Social Security and income tax that will never be claimed,” he said.

Thinking must change “so that we see the value (immigrants) bring to this country. What if we realize that immigrants are more than their needs?” He said that “illegals are here because there is no way to become legal as the process is so difficult now.”

The situation is different than it was when he moved to the U.S. “There was no limit of people allowed. It was not as difficult or as expensive as it is now.

“People say ‘Why don’t they line up like our parents did?’” To that he asked, “Where is the line? Can you show it to me?”

Deacon Barajas has heard those in parishes with a large immigrant population complain that “they are taking over our church.” He deplores that suggestion. “We belong to the church, it isn’t our church,” he said. He has taught the parishes he served that those already in place at a parish should avoid becoming “territorial and possessive.”

Catholic bishops who embrace immigration reform “are not asking for the borders to be removed, but that we lower the borders in our hearts.”

Deacon Barajas’ title is director of evangelization and Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. His work has included helping open Masses in Spanish for nearly two dozen parishes and creating Spanish religious education programs in more than 15 of them.

He is interested in radical hospitality, which is more than simply giving food, water and shelter to strangers. “The Bible says hospitality is an attitude, a disposition of the heart,” he said. “Extending hospitality to strangers is fundamental to human life. It is Jesus Christ himself.”

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