US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Walking to justice with immigrants

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By guest blogger Nick Mele, a parishioner of the Church of the Assumption in Bellingham, Washington who blogged about a pilgrimage for comprehensive immigration reform that he took last summer. Like other "Catholic workers" featured in the February issue of U.S. Catholic, Mele found a creative way to address an issue that he is passionate about. Also in the February issue, read why Joshua Hoyt says Catholics should "Get off the fence" when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform. Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

As the grandchild and child of immigrants, I have always been pro-immigrant. Until recently, however, my support amounted to a handful of letters to Congressional officials. 

Here's what got me more involved:  A small group of parishioners at my church decided by consensus to spend a year working on immigration justice. We studied the issue, got to know immigrants in our parish, and arranged for a legal expert to advise immigrants on their rights. These steps gave me firsthand knowledge of the fear and anger directed at immigrants, and acquainted me with others--immigrants and native-born people--who were committed to change.

In February 2009, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raid detained a number of parishioners and our community responded with love, money, and time to the plight of the detainees and their families. Many people were eager to help their neighbors but could not get past the buzzwords and stereotypes; as one said, "Don't make this a political issue!" Church teaching is clear on this, but I wondered how to get past the barriers of fear and anger?

My wife proposed a walking pilgrimage to the regional ICE detention center in Tacoma, Washington, a distance of about 140 miles. This struck both of us as a prayerful, creative response to the polarization, anger and fear surrounding immigration reform, so my wife and I began planning our route.

With a small group of fellow JustFaith graduates, we organized and walked the distance, relying on Catholic parishes along our route for food and lodging. At every stop, we conversed with people on both sides of the immigration reform debate. All in all, more than 500 people engaged with us, walking, talking, praying, bringing food and much more. Some began as skeptics but were intrigued enough by our pilgrimage to speak freely and listen with open minds. 

All of us pilgrims were changed by their experiences. For me, a profound series of encounters with saints and with Christ in the poor, the marginalized, the undocumented immigrants deepened my commitment to immigration reform and my relationship with God. As I wrote on the blog we kept during the pilgrimage, I became convinced that Jesus walked so much all over Palestine to meet and get to know the people he had come to save. 

As we walked, people told me their stories, usually moving tales of struggle. Their faces, gaits, and gestures stick with me, and in my mind's eye I see and hear them walking down the road. Certainly the immigrants I encountered, documented or not, impressed me with their courage, work ethic, and determination. Their stories inspire me now to keep spreading the word about justice for immigrants. 

It's easy to turn away from an illegal or undocumented alien, but very difficult to turn away from my companions on the road.