Love Must Win Out

Bethany Welch

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D.

For nearly a year now, I have had the distinct privilege of accompanying two asylum seeking families from the Horn of Africa. When I look back at the appeal letter that I wrote to garner support for their arrival in South Philadelphia, I am both humbled by what has transpired since and embarrassed by how naive I was when the journey began.

I believe in the power of advocacy. I work on systems change. I go to protests to shine a light on injustice and I have made a career of helping urban neighborhoods build capacity to fight the effects of poverty.

What I have not done is let love prevail. Until this year. Which is why, now, I believe firmly that love sits at the intersection of mercy and justice. Not the love of paper valentines and heart shaped boxes of candy, but a radical, transforming love manifest to us in the Incarnation.

My part of the story begins in late August of 2015 when, in response to the call of Pope Francis to give shelter to migrants and refugees, St. Thomas Aquinas parish and the adjacent social justice center, which I direct, began to consider providing material support for specific families. This would be above and beyond the work that we already do as a community of immigrants and refugees around education, advocacy, leadership development, legal outreach, streetscape revitalization, and more.

As I wrote to donors then, the story of the two families that we did receive is a universal tale of struggle to find safety and a chance at a better life. They escaped torture and assault. They made their way from one country in Africa to the next, up on through South America and eventually to the Texas border. When these two single mothers and their young children landed in a detention facility in Pennsylvania instead of the wide open streets of a democratic America, it was compassionate pro-bono legal counsel who contacted me to discuss the prospect of finding a welcoming community to support them. It turns out that, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not allow them individual freedoms while awaiting an asylum hearing, they could be “signed for” by a U.S. citizen with a valid address and be released to his or her care.

Fighting for justice, motivated by righteous anger, does not sustain you when the system is this broken. The flame burns you up and out. I have seen this happen to dear colleagues and I’ve suffered from it myself. The difference this time was that I took on the system in the context of a loving community of believers who proclaimed hope in the face of despair and I did so without a political agenda. There is a valiant and important movement to close the detention center where these families were held, but this round, that wasn’t where my efforts were focused.

Instead, I was asked to enter into the suffering of strangers by staying present with them, every day, rain or shine, for fun errands like shopping for Christmas dresses and in the profoundly raw moments of listening to a proud, beautiful 25 year old woman sob with the indignity of having to explain why she needed to find a long skirt that would cover the lacerations caused by the ICE issued ankle monitor bracelet, a condition of her release from the detention facility.

In 1977, a few years before he was murdered in the act of celebrating Mass, Blessed Oscar Romero said, “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.” This kind of love is what these two women and their children have demonstrated to me during our time together.

Love says goodbye to your parents and siblings in the hope that you can make more of a difference in their lives by leaving than by staying.

Love is months on the road, at the hands of smugglers, in order to extract your four year old from what will be a life of famine or military conscription by a corrupt government.

Love is not giving up on humanity when you ask for asylum from the nation held up as a model of a free and fair society and instead, authorities place you in a prison.

Love maintains a persistent, echoing cry for medical care when that four year old son is plagued by gastrointestinal viruses that rip through the close quarters of the detention facility in the same way cholera and dysentery take hold in a refugee camp in a developing country.

Love hopes all things, even when your court date for a preliminary hearing is postponed yet again.

For one of these families, love did win out. The first pair were granted asylum in late May, which situated them to receive refugee style benefits and we were able to match them with an affluent suburban parish to accompany them for the next year of life in America. For the second, the finish line keeps getting moved, even as they become more and more invested in the life of our parish and take on a larger part of my heart. While I continue to see my calling as one of fighting injustice through advocacy and innovative community building projects, I have learned that the work must be rooted in love, for this is the only force that will overcome the world.

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founder of the Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and recipient of the 2014 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award granted by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Nominations for the 2016 awards are being accepted through July 31, 2016.

Living Joy and Hope as a Global Church

Welch_RomeIt was the writings of great Church thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman who first introduced me to the intellectual heritage of the Roman Catholic faith. At that time, I was a young student on the campus of what was then a conservative Protestant Christian college. Reading these thoughtfully deliberative texts seemed like a provocative act. When I moved on to the papal encyclicals, I was fascinated by the way in which the Church outlined principles for how people of faith might relate to the world, particularly with regard to social issues and issues of justice that affect those on the margins.

Fast forward many years to early November 2015 and I found myself standing in the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the heart of the City of Seven Hills. I had entered the basilica from a side door and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust from the bright light of the Mediterranean sun to the soft interior glow of the sacred space. I heard a dull roar to the right and looked over to see myself dozens of yards from a rope line that separated me from a throng of tourists. This was my third visit to the Vatican, but my first as a Catholic and certainly my first time on that side of the rope.

Mass at St. Peter’s that day was the highlight of a special celebration of the 50th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, which is considered a landmark document of the Second Vatican Council that promoted interfaith dialogue and reinvigorated the Church’s approach to social justice. The Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace coordinated the Young Generations at the Service of Mankind that assembled members of the council, heads of institutes for social doctrine, representatives from international youth movements based in Rome, and a handful of selected young adults to represent the future of the Catholic faith across the continents. I was incredibly honored to be selected by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of USCCB, who had been invited by Cardinal Peter K. A. Turkson to send one young person from the United States.

During two days of intensive conference presentations and panel discussions facilitated by leading Catholic scholars, I became more familiar with the substantive message of Gaudium et Spes, which challenges Catholics and all people of good will to be responsive to what is happening in the world. Economists, political scientists, theologians, historians, and other experts spoke about pressing global concerns related to family, immigration, economics, technology, and good governance. Each of the young adult representatives was asked by Cardinal Turkson to present synthesizing remarks at the conclusion of the sessions. In this way, the council sought to create a “dialogue among generations.”

GaudiumetSpes_DocsThe group also gathered at the New Synod Hall in Vatican City for a ceremonial handing over of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. The six young representatives received a parchment and, in keeping with the future-oriented theme, a flash drive containing the social doctrine. These were handed out by individuals who had been part of the 1962-1965 Vatican II council. I was particularly moved, as a layperson, to receive my materials from Alain DeLauney who was a lay expert on financial matters at the Council.

Being part of the Gaudium et Spes conference and celebration reinforced my initial pull to a faith tradition that creates space for thoughtful dialogue. The robust discussion and interactions with young people from around the world also reminded me that today’s young adults desire to practice a real, engaged faith. They are eager for a global voice—a prophetic voice—that can speak boldly and exhort world leaders and structures. Pope Francis is offering us that opportunity, to root ourselves in Scripture and Church teaching, that we might go forth to practice mercy, sustained by the Eucharist, and emboldened by joy and hope.


Bethany Welch 2014Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founder of the Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and recipient of the 2014 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award granted by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.



Learn more about Catholic Social Teaching in our new CST 101 videos, a collaborative video series between Catholic Relief Services and the USCCB that explores the 7 themes of Catholic Social Teaching.


We are Witnesses

Dr. Bethany Welch

Dr. Bethany Welch

Easter Sunday’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, is a reminder of the power of bearing witness.

Peter, speaking of Christ’s life on earth, says, “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.” He goes on to describe how the disciples saw the crucifixion with their own eyes. He challenges those listening to understand the weight of their responsibility to act on what they had seen.

We are an experiential people, created to smell and touch, to taste, to hear, to see. Our capacity to witness is a precious gift. We can experience beauty, pleasure and love through our senses. We wade into great mysteries that can only be known through direct experience. I think of the first time I stood in front of Niagara Falls. No description of the mighty tumult of water could have prepared me for the booming sound or the stinging spray.

We encounter others though our senses. Walking in Philadelphia’s central business district in February, a group of high school youth from an affluent suburban parish saw a man curled up over a subway grate, steam rising around his sleeping form. Questions were asked about homelessness. A few weeks later, I accompanied a different group to a church-sponsored meal program that reaches hundreds of homeless men and women each week. The scent of unwashed bodies, comingled with burned coffee and bleach, soon gave way to sounds of laughter as guests sang along to the lively tunes playing over the sound system. Where dignity was diminished on the street, it was paramount in the dining room.

But it is not enough to bear witness. We must also respond, knowing full well there could be risks. We risk being drawn deeper into the conflict or even being misunderstood. To offer the homeless man food is to engage with his pain and to acknowledge that something is not right with the world, that there something you cannot fix with a meal. To refuse to dismiss the loud, taunting remarks of a young teen lashing out when you think a deeper wound is causing her outburst is to be drawn into a dark story of neglect. It puts you face to face with anger and defensiveness.

Easter’s Gospel reading gives courage to those who, like Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, travel through darkness to understand and to know. Where is the body? Why is the tomb empty? This mystery, this miracle, is rooted in brokenness and uncertainty. It brings us directly into relationship with those on the margins.

When dawn breaks on Easter morning, our desire for wholeness and restoration is united with all those who need grace, compassion and love. This longing is fulfilled in the resurrected body of Christ. May we bear witness to the Psalmist’s words, that the Lord is good and his mercy endures forever. May we go forth with resolve to show mercy through action.

Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founding director of Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s 2014 Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award Winner.