Newcomers, welcome to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — The United States is a nation of immigrants. The Catholic Church is an immigrant church, and Jesus Christ, his mother and foster-father were refugees in Egypt. So why is immigration a contentious subject?

Currently, most immigrants arrive in this country from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Many are fleeing gang-and drug-related violence, poverty and lack of opportunities. They hope to build a better life for themselves and their families.

In the past year, an aggressive deportation policy and restrictions on refugee entry to the U.S. was initiated, one the administration says is critical to national security. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, enacted in 2012, provided temporary deportation protections for 800,000 young people brought here illegally as children or whose families overstayed visas, is being phased out. Congress has until March 2018 to come up with a new policy.

In the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the offices of Hispanic Ministry, Human Rights and Respect Life, working under the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guidelines, advocate for immigrants and refugees, provide assistance in accessing support programs, provide referrals to immigration attorneys and connect new arrivals with parishes and social service agencies. The VIA  diocesan program, in partnership with the Hispanic Ministry Office, provides pastoral care, education, public policy advocacy and prayer support on immigration and refugee issues.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the USCCB, in a recent address linked the church’s advocacy for immigrants with the Catholic teaching against abortion, saying respect for others begins in the womb. The KCSJ Respect Life Office, under the direction of Bill Francis, advocates respect for life and human dignity from conception to natural death.

Miguel Salazar, Director of Hispanic Ministry and a member of the VIA Immigration and Refugee Task Force, coordinated by Bill Francis, said this diocese is home to about 90,000 Latinos, both immigrants and children of immigrants. Many are now U.S. citizens, bilingual and bicultural. “We should remember that we are all immigrants in one way or another. Historically, all of our ancestors migrated from someplace else.”

Today’s immigrants have different motivations for leaving their homeland, but share a few things in common, he continued. “We all have dignity as children of God and search for a better life. The Church has constantly reaffirmed our natural, God-given right to stay in our homeland and, when forced by hardship, also the right to move to greener pastures. At the same time, it has affirmed the right of sovereign nations to regulate their borders with special consideration for the common good. So, the Church’s position is the same for all immigrants and refugees. God likes variety; that’s why he made so many different peoples and languages.”

Cardinal DiNardo recently decried what he called “the forces of division” in the U.S., as he called for immigration policies that keep families together and a “humane” approach to border policing.

He affirmed the government’s authority to protect national security, but said recent policies and attitudes have often been rooted in anxiety about people who “look, talk and even think differently,” a fear present inside and outside the church.

In an address to the Bishops’ fall meeting in Baltimore, he said, “The forces of division prey on our fear of the unfamiliar, the different … They tempt us to see a threat in the stranger.”

Cardinal DiNardo said a “pro-life immigration policy is one that does not tear families apart.” He also expressed support for young immigrants brought here as children, the Dreamers. For “those who have only known the United States as their home, we make Pope Francis’ words our own: keep on dreaming.”

Salazar said new arrivals are looking for community and the Church is often one of the first places sought. “In our Diocese, we currently have nine parishes with Mass regularly celebrated in Spanish, as well as the other sacraments, catechesis and ministries.”

Every parish and county in the 27-county Diocese has a Latino community, he said, small or large. Often, he added, the Church offers immigrants a place to call home and put down roots.

Immigrants comprise a large share of the 68 million U.S. Catholics, including a growing number of Latinos, both newcomers and U.S.-born. Pope Francis has made aid for immigrants and refugees of all nationalities a priority of his pontificate.

Trinidad Molina, program coordinator for immigrant and refugee ministry in the Human Rights Office, is intimately familiar with different cultures and languages. His father was a child immigrant from Mexico, and his mother immigrated at age 12 from Bangladesh. As a VIA Task Force member, he sees it working to establish better emergency communications between parishes, accessing more accurate information, hence, providing better pastoral care.

Awareness of local refugee crises must be spread across the diocese, right now, Molina said. “We are called by the Church to welcome the stranger. Immigrants have unique concerns, including legal status. We can’t give into fear tactics. Parishes are becoming more mixed. It is a responsibility of the Church to help people not feel abandoned.”

St. Mark Parish’s Mission Director, Hilda Beck, another member of the Human Rights Office’s VIA Immigration and Refugee Task Force, said her parish community is comprised of both legal residents and illegal migrants, but no questions of legality are asked. “I would say 40 percent of our congregants are bilingual. Many of the families that I know personally have lived here for many years and have been waiting for their chance to apply for a Visa. Some have applied but are waiting for a response. At least one parishioner recently became a U.S. citizen.

“St. Mark’s has an open-door policy, where everyone is welcomed, Beck said. … At St. Mark’s, it took a few years for our parish to accept the Hispanic community because there wasn’t one for 45 years. Parishioners weren’t hostile or hateful but curious about who these people were and why they had come here. As a Church, we need that constant ‘talk’ about ‘welcoming the stranger,’ through Scripture, prayer, spiritual circles, and especially through Parish Schools of Religion. Children are far more accepting of others, so it behooves us to emphasize the importance of “Welcoming” to our children.

There are refugee crises all over the world, and people should be aware of them, Molina said. Local Knights of Columbus councils are working to raise awareness and support for those affected by the Middle East crisis. The Rohingya crisis in Burma, and the ethnic cleansing of Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, is a Catholic Relief Services project, he added.

Just weeks ago, a candle light prayer vigil for solidarity with immigrants and refugees was held at St. John Francis Regis Parish in Kansas City, attended by Catholics, other Christians and individuals (Catholic Key Oct. 13).

Father Andres Moreno, pastor of St. Anthony Parish, was the principal celebrant at the Mass. In his homily, Fr. Moreno, originally from Colombia, reminded the assembly that “… we gather together… to pray and reflect on … immigration, and our brothers and sisters who suffer in this grave issue … a source of great division and polarization in this country. Since we are Christians, we have a serious obligation, … more … a vocation … to be concerned about justice, charity and mercy. We’re not just Americans, we are Catholic …”

Salazar said when newcomers arrive in the area, they often seek out a Catholic church to find a sense of community and stability. “The Church offers an oasis of familiarity, friendship, non-competitiveness, and most importantly, celebration in joy.”

Through parish evangelization, Salazar explained, the immigrant encounters Christ in the pueblo, Spanish for small town. “Inviting the newcomer into the life of the Church transforms the stranger into a friend in Christ. From there, families can enroll their children in sacramental preparation and learn more about their faith.”

Kansas City and St. Joseph have century-long histories of Latino communities, and now welcome the gifts of faith and culture brought by new Latino immigrants.

Both Salazar and Molina are eager to launch a new immigrant-to-immigrant ministry training program, Pastoral Migratoria, in 2018, that was developed by the Chicago Archdiocese. Applications are being accepted for the first class. Salazar said the program “represents a comprehensive approach to welcoming, serving … evangelizing immigrants, that empowers pastoral agents and connects us in a support network.” Connects us. That is the goal.

Contact your parish or www.kcsjcatholic.org, Human Rights Office, for more information.

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Monday
December 18, 2017
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph