Thousands of immigrants—mostly from Latin America—and their families gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in late 2016 to participate in the annual Walk with Mary celebration. In his homily, the Most Reverend Mario E. Dorsonville, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington, echoed the palpable feeling of uncertainty that weighted heavily in the hearts of those in attendance following a vitriolic election season that left many immigrants fearful about their futures. With this in the background, we gathered to place ourselves under the protective mantle of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
A year later, on December 9, 2017, thousands of immigrants—this time including a significant number of non-Hispanics—at once braved the freezing weather and Walked with Mary. In a celebration that included the recitation of the rosary using seven languages, a special Chinese song dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the recitation of the Universal Prayers in multiple languages, Bishop Dorsonville once again shed light on the plight of immigrants today. Together, close to three thousand immigrants left the Basilica feeling the closeness of God and knowing that their Church stood with them.
To say that 2017 was a difficult year for immigrants would be an understatement. The travel ban, the rescinding of the DACA program, the changing deportation priorities, ending the TPS programs, and the troubling rhetoric that dominated immigration negotiations, all increased the anxiety among immigrants in the United States. Many of our immigrant brothers and sisters in our pews felt some consolation learning that bishops across the country lifted their voices to defend and protect them. But what made the protection of Mary’s mantle truly visible was the pastoral work undertaken at the local level.
In the Archdiocese of Washington, our first response to initial indications of distress in the immigrant community was combating fear with knowledge. Catholic Charities and its partners provided legal clinics in various parishes to teach people about their rights and to explore paths to normalizing their legal status. We also jumped into the V Encuentro process, which sent thousands of Catholics to reach out to our brothers and sisters on the peripheries. It was through these early interactions that we saw distress and anxiety overwhelming immigrant communities. Then, in September, young people became the target of the anti-immigrant sentiment. Yet, instead of taking a step back, young people stepped up and began to organize and galvanize support for their cause.
To express our closeness with young people, the Archdiocese of Washington hosted a retreat for young dreamers. Titled “Your Dream is God’s Dream,” the retreat provided young people with an opportunity to share their stories and to pray and support each other. It also demonstrated the Church’s desire to accompany them. Through tears and smiles, our young people realized that they are not alone. They felt the consolation that Mary offered Juan Diego: “Am I not here, who is your mother? Are you not under my protection?” But above all, they committed themselves to accompany each other and seek out those who have yet to experience the consolation of Christ.
Walking with the immigrant community is an experience of kinship. While we might not be able to solve all their problems, we can certainly love them unconditionally, the same way that God loves each one of us. By walking with them in the midst of uncertain times, we express our closeness to God who has a special predilection for those on the margins, and it is by walking with them that our brothers and sister can experience the closeness of God.
Javier Bustamante serves as Executive Director of the Office of Cultural Diversity and Outreach in the Archdiocese of Washington.