St. Josephine Bakhita: Our “Universal Sister”

bakhita

Icon written by Br. Claude Lane of Mount Angel Abbey

As Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) at USCCB prepares to host its historic Interfaith Prayer Service for Victims of Human Trafficking on February 8, it is fitting to pause for a moment and consider St. Josephine Bakhita, an extraordinary woman whose life the Church celebrates on that day.

When St. John Paul II canonized St. Josephine, he proclaimed her the “Universal Sister.” Considering that Pontiff´s lifelong struggle against tyranny and oppression of all sorts, the logic behind that proclamation is clearly seen. Slavery, an ancient evil that shackles bodies and souls, is cruelly alive and well today, destroying the lives of people around the world, It is a “universal injustice.” St. Josephine´s life reminds us that within the heart of every enslaved person is the divine image yearning to be free, for “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” as St. Irenaeus so forcefully declared.

As human trafficking increases its devastating onslaught worldwide, God shows us an intrepid example of empowerment and dignity in this audacious saint. Born to a virtuous animist family in late 19th century Sudan, at the age of nine Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped by Arab slavers. She endured a succession of brutal “owners” who degraded, tortured, and, in a manner alike many traffickers today, “branded” her with tattoos denoting ownership.  Eventually she became servant a noble Venetian family, who took her to Italy, where she served as the children´s much beloved nanny. Because the family needed to tend to their business interests in Africa, however, St. Josephine was left at the Institute of the Catechumens for a year, in the care of the Canossian Sisters.

For the family who wanted to hold on to their slave, this was a big mistake. For, with the Sisters St. Josephine first heard the most radically liberating message in human history: Christ had died for her, and she was beloved from all eternity by Him, who she recognized as “that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who he was.” When Lady Turina, her former “owner,” came back for her, St. Josephine had already made her choice: “No, I will not leave the house of the Lord.” The next few days were intense, with Turina threatening and harassing Josephine Bakhita and the Sisters. Finally, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice himself came and defended St. Josephine´s freedom, armed with a favorable verdict from the kingdom´s attorney general.

Like many traffickers today, Lady Turina tried to use “love” as a mechanism of control, the love that the saint had for the household´s children. To no avail: “It was the Lord who filled me with such firmness, because he wanted to make me all His.”

In the words of the Archbishop of Khartoum, a pastor in an enslaved land, we entrust the vulnerable to her intercession: “All of you who are refugees, oppressed, exhausted, and without a roof—you are `Bakhita.’ All of you who are victims of injustice and exploitation, victims of discrimination and of persecution—you are `Bakhita.` And God´s love and tenderness embrace you.”

We hope that all readers residing in Washington will join us in person on February 8 to lift up our voices in prayer for the freedom of trafficking victims. If you are not in Washington, you can consider organizing a prayer service or gathering on February 8. Visit our website for more details: http://www.usccb.org/about/anti-trafficking-program/day-of-prayer.cfm and download the Interfaith Prayer Service Invite.

Prayer is spiritual action, as St. Josephine reminded us before departing: “If the Lord allows it, I will send so many graces from paradise for the salvation of souls.” Let´s take her up on that promise.

 

IMG_0068Christopher S. Ljungquist is the National Outreach and Education coordinator for USCCB/MRS Anti-Trafficking Program. If you have any questions about the Interfaith Prayer Service on February 8, contact him at: CLJUNGQUIST@USCCB.ORG

National Migration Week 2016: “A Stranger and You Welcomed Me”

M7-460_NMW PosterIn the Gospel of Matthew (25:35) Jesus tells his disciples, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The call to welcome the stranger plays an important role in the lives of faithful Christians and holds central place for those of us who work in the migration field. The migrant, who moves from one country to another, is truly a stranger in our midst. Often unfamiliar with the local tongue of the new country, not to mention its customs, the migrant needs the support of local communities so that she can better adjust to her new surroundings. National Migration Week 2016 picks up on the theme of welcome and, in doing so, calls on each of us to welcome the stranger among us.

Sadly, every year seems to bring a new migration crisis to the forefront.

In 2014, the United States witnessed a significant influx of unaccompanied migrant children and families fleeing violence in their homelands. Most of these migrants came from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. The Catholic Church has taken seriously the humanitarian and policy oriented aspects of this situation and advocates in support of increased protections for migrant children and their families who are arriving in the United States.

In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis took center stage. Since its outbreak, at least four million Syrians have fled their country as a consequence of the civil war and the rise of ISIS. Most have fled to surrounding countries, especially Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many others have moved on to Europe with the hope of finding a place of peace and safety. Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops have called on the U.S. government and the international community to provide support to both Syrian refugees fleeing violence and to countries that have been at the forefront of this humanitarian effort. In a related statement, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urged:

 … all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.

In both the unaccompanied migrant child and Syrian refugee crises, the Catholic Church’s call to provide protections and support for these vulnerable people has often gone unheeded and has been instead met by demands to implement further restrictions on migration to the United States.

In the case of Syrians, suggestions have been made to ban Muslim migrants from entering the United States altogether. In the case of unaccompanied children, legislative efforts were undertaken to limit their international protections.

The Catholic bishops neither support a policy of open borders nor a process of unregulated migration from one country to another. Rather, they continue to defend the duties of the international community to implement internationally agreed upon protections that are due to vulnerable migrants, and to call upon world leaders to provide a place of welcome, wherever possible, to those who are fleeing an impossible situation.

This position is rooted in the Gospel, and concretely in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB. 


See additional 2016 National Migration Week resources, including a bilingual prayer card.

Humble Listening in The Year of Mercy

Sr. Kathleen McManus Credit: Clarice Keating/Catholic Sentinel

Sr. Kathleen McManus, OP
Credit: Clarice Keating/Catholic Sentinel

She is brilliant and beautiful, and she was my student in an Introductory Theology course. She is Muslim, and she spent the better part of her childhood growing up in Kurdistan.  At semester’s end, I learned of the atrocities she witnessed as a child, including the murder of her grandfather. And I learned that she keeps that part of her story hidden from others, because she wants to be normal; she wants to fit in. She is safe now, but the people she left behind are not.

Victims of poverty, violence, and political turmoil, all of those who are disenfranchised by society, all who dwell on the margins – these are the ones who reveal to us the Reign-of-God-not-yet-come. They reveal it by contrast, precisely through their cries for deliverance from all the ravages of the anti-Reign. How do we train our ears to hear the voice of God in these cries? Moreover, how do we attune ourselves to the silence of the countless voices rendered mute by systems of dominance? From what do we need to empty ourselves in order to encounter the Truth to Whom we claim to belong?

In every global context from which the cries of suffering arise, women bear a unique burden of voicelessness, even as they bear the burden of care for life in its most basic, embodied form. Witness streams of refugees seeking safe haven from violence and torture: Amidst this dire pilgrimage, it is women who struggle to sustain children and the infirm on their perilous journey in the hope of freedom. And, as terror spreads a global shadow, we who are accustomed to dwell secure are startled by the prospect of our own vulnerability.

The attacks on Paris drew an immediate response of solidarity from the Western world, especially the U.S. Why? With the constant violence inflicted upon people in the Middle East, why the dramatic response to this incident? We know why: They are us. And that became all the more evident in the tragic San Bernardino shootings. We are vulnerable, and we Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as vulnerable.

Answers are elusive. Perhaps our call is to a saving question: Might this glimmer of felt vulnerability be our means of solidarity with the truly helpless vulnerable masses? Might it open the ears of our hearts to the voices drawing us into communion with Truth? Might it mark out a path of encounter mediating the healing of relationships, systems, and perceptions that will enable the reign of God’s mercy to come on earth as in heaven?

Pope Francis has inaugurated a Year of Mercy. And now we approach Christmas, when we celebrate God’s Mercy born in human flesh. How might we bear God’s Mercy in our flesh? How might our persecuted and suffering sisters and brothers teach us the vulnerability that issues in mercy? The Year of Mercy is a time for humble listening.

Kathleen McManus, OP is Associate Professor of Theology (Systematics) and Director, Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry Program at the University of Portland

 


Sr. Kathleen McManus will present at the 2016 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering on The Global Suffering of Women as an Ethical Imperative for the Church. See registration information and schedule.

 

On Thanksgiving, let us remember our history as refugees

A family displays a sign they created to welcome a refugee family, as they await their arrival at the airport. (Photo credit: Sarah Williamson in Jacksonville, Florida)

A woman holds a sign her for a family of refugees arriving to the United States. (Photo credit: Sarah Williamson of Jacksonville, Florida)

The foundation of our nation is the fundamental belief that the United States is a land of freedom, opportunity, and compassion. Indeed this week we celebrate Thanksgiving, a uniquely American holiday that enshrines this storied tradition.

That foundation has been challenged in the past couple weeks, since the tragic terrorist attacks in places like Paris, Beirut, and Mali. Many public officials are calling for Syrian refugees to be turned away, fearing that they present a terror threat to Americans.

As Catholics and Americans, we must remember our core values of compassion and justice. Indeed these values are the very reason the U.S. refugee program exists – to help people in need and continue to be a beacon of hope in the world.

The refugee program is thorough in ensuring that the people entering the United States have no ties to terrorist organizations. Refugees go through the most extensive security checks of any people arriving to the United States. That’s why the process that can take up to two years, to make sure that we are resettling the right people. The United States deliberately resettles the most vulnerable people: most are women and children, and only two percent are single men. All are fleeing violence like what the world witnessed in Paris, but on a more frequent basis. Since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, more than 784,000 refugees have been accepted into the United States, with no terrorist attacks occurring in the United States.

The refugee program is an expression of our solidarity with refugees, as well as with our important allies around the world. Since 2011, when the Syrian conflict began, the United States has resettled a little over 2,000 Syrians; this is but a fraction of the four million Syrian refugees who have fled their country in search of safety. Next year, the United States has indicated its willingness to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees to show solidarity with Middle Eastern and European countries who are hosting millions.   By accepting refugees into the United States, we stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies around the world, helping people who have nowhere to go and yet have so many skills and talents to offer our nation.

A young girl waits at the airport to greet an arriving refugee familiy. She is participating with her family in the local POWR program at Catholic Charities in Jacksonville, Fla. (Photo by , Sarah Williamson in Jacksonville, Florida)

A young girl waits at the airport to greet an arriving refugee family. She is participating with her family in the local POWR program at Catholic Charities in Florida. (Photo credit: Sarah Williamson of Jacksonville, Florida)

Migration and Refugee Services at USCCB has been resettling refugees for fifty years. We know how to do this in a way that facilitates their integration into American society. For example, the Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees (POWR) program matches arriving refugees with community and parish volunteers who assist the refugees in navigating their new lives in the United States. This program also offers an opportunity for Americans to live their faith in a concrete way, for the benefit of all in their community.

In his visit to Lampedusa and in his calls to Catholics to help, Pope Francis has defended the rights of all Syrian refugees. In his message to Congress, Pope Francis urged us to treat others as we wish to be treated: “The yardstick by which we measure others is the yardstick by which time will measure us.”  This is the Golden Rule, which applies to all.

The debate on Syrian refugees is a teaching moment for all Americans, and an opportunity for us to call to mind our deepest held values. The Catholic Church not only resettles the largest number of refugees in the United States through the Catholic Charities network nationwide, but does so in accordance with Christ’s teaching of welcoming the stranger, “the least of these.”

Let us remind ourselves and our fellow Americans that we, like generations before us, came to this country to find safety and freedom, just as Syrians and others around the world seek now. Let us not forget what we stand for as a nation and as a people of faith.

As the Holy Father told Congress, “In a word, if we want security, let us give security, if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunity, let us give opportunity.”


Kevin ApplebyKevin Appleby is the Director of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

How to address the Syrian refugee crisis in a humane way

Found lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach, the three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, was another victim of the violence in Syria that had caused his family to flee their home in pursuit of a better life elsewhere. Photos of his drowned, crumpled body quickly went viral, and the scales from people’s eyes seemed ready to fall away as the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it helped produce suddenly became personal. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, his case was not an isolated event. More than four million refugees have fled the region since 2010, with most taking shelter in surrounding countries. Many thousands have died in the process; countless others struggle with the daily ritual of just trying to survive.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia's public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia’s public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

As many as one in three people living in Lebanon today is a refugee from the Syrian crisis. Turkey hosts nearly two million, and Jordan 600,000 more. Syrians have begun to face increasing challenges to find safety and protection in neighboring countries, which, faced with overwhelming refugee numbers, insufficient international support, and security concerns, have taken measures this year to stem the flow of refugees – including restricting access or closer management of borders and introducing complex requirements for refugees to extend their stay.

As a consequence, tens of thousands of refugees have begun the difficult trek west, with the hope of finding a new home in countries throughout Europe. Despite initial efforts to provide a humanitarian response to these refugee populations, signs of strain are clearly beginning to set in as leaders of countries throughout the region have begun to tighten their borders and restrict further access.

Reflecting on this expanding and deepening problem, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, KY and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged “all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.”

Elsewhere Pope Francis has highlighted the moral obligations of the international community toward migrants, emphasized the need to establish institutional structures that can more effectively respond to crises of this sort, and called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take in one refugee family.

Recognizing that inaction will only have dire consequences for the many vulnerable refugees who are seeking a place of safety, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made a number of recommendations related to this problem. These include

  • Ending the conflict in the region and establishing a workable peace is of paramount importance.
  • Building an inclusive and lasting peace to allow Syrian refugees—also including those who are ethnic and religious minorities– to return home, rebuild their communities, and share in the governance of their country.
  • Providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring refugee countries.
  • Providing development aid to refugee host countries near Syria so they are able to properly welcome and care for the refugees.
  • Authorizing the admission and resettlement of 200,000 refugees into the U.S. from refugee countries across the world, including 100,000 resettlement slots designated for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syria conflict.

Please, take a moment to learn what steps you can take to help Syrian and other refugees in their moment of need.

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB.


Take action now! Support for Syrian Refugees is Needed Now More Than Ever – Action alert from Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.

Laudato Si’ and the Environmental Refugee

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Ashley Feasley, USCCB

Pope Francis’s recently released encyclical, Laudato Si’, addresses the environment, climate change, and ecological degradation. An important but often overlooked point that Pope Francis highlights is the connection between migration and environmental instability. Specifically, the Holy Father states his concern for the plight of the environmental refugee. To this point he writes: “There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever” (no. 25).

Pope Francis’s eloquent and accurate assessment in Laudato Si’ about environmental refugees highlights a growing problem in the world and raises the questions of: what exactly is an environmental refugee, what can we do to protect them, and we can prevent more people from becoming environmental refugees in the future?

As Pope Francis stated, legally, the concept of “climate or environmental refugee” does not exist. Although the term “environmental refugee” is in frequent use, climate and environmental issues do not fall within the official definition of refugee that is found in the 1951 Refugee Convention. This is important as the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document that defines who is a refugee, what rights refugees are afforded, and the legal obligations of states towards refugees.

Despite having no formally recognized legal protection, the number of global environmental refugees and environmentally displaced migrants are projected to increase in the future. With the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, climate change is expected to expose millions to largescale displacement and forced migration – most notably affecting the global working poor. Many of the global poor live in areas particularly affected by natural phenomena related to global warming, including flooding, hurricanes and drought, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystem-focused industries such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have limited outside financial activities or resources that can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited.

Today, we can already see these situations of environmental degradation forcibly displacing people and creating environmental refugees. For example, Bangladesh has been declared one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in South Asia, followed closely by India, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. Additionally, the Maldives has been dealing with climate change issues such as rising sea levels and displacement for several years.

Looking toward a solution to this problem, we turn to Pope Francis, who urges us to recognize communities vulnerable to environmental destruction and to take responsibility for our Earth and our displaced brothers and sisters.

To this end, in Laudato Si’ he states: “Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

It is also imperative that we recognize the damage that climate change wreaks upon the environment and the communities that live off the land. We must also accept responsibility for people who have been forced out of their communities due to environmental degradation and work to ensure that we treat them and the Earth with dignity and respect. Previously, in Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urged us to recognize that the earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters (no. 183). This theme is echoed again and again in Laudato Si’. Going forward, we must protect the fragility and majesty of our common home and the dignity of our brothers and sisters who live in it.

Ashley Feasley is a policy advisor for Migration and Refugee Services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Lost in the Shadows

Matt Wilch photoAfter checking in with security, the officer led us through the main gate to his car for the trip to the prison-inside-a-prison. We had driven through much of Athens, Greece—a modern city with large, preserved displays of her ancient, heralded past. We travelled to the outskirts of the city, to this prison at the foot of some rocky, dusty hills. As we drove across the grounds to the inner prison we could see that like the outer perimeter, it had a heavy cyclone fence with razor wire on top. It was not old-fashioned barbed wire with metal thorns spaced out every few inches, but razor wire like the jagged teeth of a wide bladed bandsaw twisted in an endless helix along the top of the entire fence.  Inside the fence were a half dozen or so, small, bread-box shaped module homes like the kind used to house people made homeless by a hurricane.

As we entered the compound we saw a sign on the wall warning that if you applied for asylum you would remain inside for at least one year.

At any given time, Athens has some 250,000 undocumented people from other countries, many of them asylum seekers forced to flee from conflicts in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa.

This prison-inside-a-prison holds forty unaccompanied Afghan boys and youth from ages 12 to 17.   A fellow colleague from USCCB Migration and Refugee Services and I interviewed almost half of them.  Some had recently fled from Afghanistan to escape continuing threat by the Taliban. Others had fled to Greece after unsuccessfully trying to find refuge in Iran or in Turkey.  Despite their grim surroundings and the traumas many of them had already suffered in their countries or during their travels through foreign lands, they were clinging to wide-eyed plans to find their way to Sweden or England or the United States, even though almost none of them had connections of any kind in any of those places. All that they knew was that they could not stay where they were, and they had heard that those places were better.

Most had taken recent harrowing journeys at the mercy of human smugglers and traffickers, travelling across the Aegean Sea from the west coast of Turkey. They had been rescued from the sea near one of twenty or so Greek Islands—only to be transferred to this detention center in Athens. They were often the oldest boy in their respective families.  For one 14-year-old youth, his parents had both died and his efforts and dreams were fueled by the desire to send money back to his four younger brothers and sisters.

These Afghan youth and other unaccompanied refugee children are often remarkable, resilient kids, who are largely out of sight and out of mind in the shadow of the Syrian refugee crisis and other large refugee crises. They do not deserve detention and harsh enforcement. They deserve our advocacy and our help.

One viable option for some of the children is resettlement to a third country, such as the United States, which has a strong program for such youth. For World Refugee Day celebrated June 20, in solidarity with refugees around the world, urge your Senators and Representative to be champions for unaccompanied refugee children like those described above by increasing the funding for the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program of the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services to $137 million. Urge Congress to build up U.S. capacity to help unaccompanied refugee children and also share U.S. expertise and resources for resettlement to other countries around the world.

Matthew Wilch is a Refugee Policy Advisor for the USCCB Office of Migration and Refugee Srevices. See Refuge and Hope in the Time of ISIS for further findings and recommendations concerning unaccompanied children impacted by the Syrian refugee crisis.  See also The United States Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program: Guiding Principles and Promising Practices.