Recently the bishops of the United States gathered in Indianapolis for our Spring Assembly. One of the topics of conversation was immigration, and since that time, I’ve been thinking about my grandparents.
My paternal grandparents were immigrants. William Rieken (later Ricken) migrated from Northern Germany in 1911 and his brother Heinrich “crossed the pond” in 1913. Heinrich was accompanied by others from Germany including a young woman named Christina Hanekamp who married William, my grandfather.
They suffered greatly when they first arrived. Grandpa was the eldest of 18 children in the old country; Grandma was an orphan and had a very difficult childhood. They came without money, having no English language skills, but an eager desire to make a life for themselves and a great dependence on the gift of their faith.
As I visit with immigrant families around our diocese, I see the faces of my grandparents and that generation. I also see the face of my Dad who suffered as the first descendants of German immigrants, forced to leave school after the eighth grade to help his parents make a living for his nine siblings. Though the faces and names have changed, the immigrants I meet come to this country with similar hopes and dreams. They also experience some of these same challenges that my family faced.
Unfortunately, in the past 100 years, it seems that we still struggle to welcome immigrants into our communities. Today, there is an abundance of hateful rhetoric, rooted in fear of immigrants.
Fear that they are infiltrating our country to do us harm. Fear that they are taking jobs from Americans. Fear that they come here to live off the government. These fears can cloud our vision to the point that we no longer see immigrants as people, but rather as faceless creatures. When we do this, we rob immigrants of their human dignity.
As disciples of Christ, we are called to place our trust in God and not be overcome by fear. Specifically, the Scriptures demand that we welcome strangers, not as faceless creatures, but as human beings. In the Old Testament, God commanded Moses and the Israelites to welcome the foreigners, remembering how they, too, were once foreigners (Dt 10: 19). Likewise, in the Gospel, Jesus says that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him (Mt 25: 31-46).
These are challenging words, but trusting in God, we can find the courage to respond. To do so, we must remember that immigration has a face, in fact many faces. Behind those faces are stories, just like the story of my grandparents who risked their lives in search of greater opportunities for themselves and their children. When we encounter the faces, when we learn these stories, we stop seeing immigrants as something to be feared and start seeing them as the people they are, people created in God’s image. Or as Jesus said, when we look closely at these faces, we see him!
To help us see these faces and learn their stories, I offer a few suggestions:
- Visit the Estamos Aquí exhibit at the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay. This bilingual exhibit, which will continue into 2018, celebrates Latino identity in northeast Wisconsin. While there, you can also learn the stories of other immigrants who have come to this region since the 17th century.
- Attend a bilingual Mass at one of our diocesan parishes and introduce yourself to someone after Mass.
- Find a program in your parish or community that assists immigrants in getting settled here. If you can’t find one, consider starting one.
These are just a few suggestions. I invite each of us to consider prayerfully how Christ is calling us to see him in the faces of immigrants in our community. As we do, I am confident that we will no longer see these people as faceless strangers, but as fellow disciples on the way.
En espanol: Caras de inmigracion