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My Preferential Option for the Migrant; Conversion Through Grace and Encounter

Artist: Angel Valdez

        I once read that the most effective reflections on the Gospel are not necessarily those which are pronounced from the pulpit or are shared by a scholar or theologian. Instead, many times it is the Christians who preach with their lives consecrated to the Gospel, who pray and actively work on the construction of the reign of God here on the earth, preaching with the example of charity, with sacrifice, and a non-transactional love for the other, give glory to God with a mercy that has the power to draw in the most cynical person. They are the ones who, without many words, transmit to us the grace that will allow us to be close witnesses of their work. And thus be able to visualize in ourselves this possibility, that of evolving from a mercy of words to a mercy of action—an action that weeps, that grieves, that is concerned about the other–this mercy that we are all called to practice, not only to talk about and contemplate, always remembering that an act of mercy is incomplete and insufficient if it is only conceived as alleviating the physical need. It is also called to provide the fuel of the possible, hope—this hope that has been shared with us in the Gospel of the Good News that we are called to share.

     I am a candidate for the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. My path to conversion, like the path of our brother migrants, has had many involuntary stops.  Sometimes there are setbacks and disillusionments, as when after weeks or months on a journey our brothers or sisters are deported, extorted or robbed by souls that do not know Christ. But also on the journey there are joys and moments of enlightenment  as when a Christian, sometimes anonymous, as Rahner defines it, becomes Christ for the other and in an act of disinterested or non-transactional love, provides a warm meal, a secure place to sleep, takes off his jacket to give it to the migrant who is shaking with cold, or even more powerful, when a person who shares the same poverty from which his brother is fleeing, divides his taco in two and shares it, as he gives him encouragement to continue on his way. This joy, this fraternity that unites us together is within reach if only we give Christ the opportunity to work within us.

It Has Not Always Been This Way

      Twenty-five years ago when I was 23 years old, recently graduated from a prestigious university in the north of Mexico, I was offered my first job as an electrical engineer in a city I did not know, the city of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, across the border from Nogales, Arizona. In retrospect now I understand that upon closing the plant in Horsham, Pennsylvania, this maquiladora (factory) which belonged to the United States, took advantage of the framework of NAFTA to maximize profits and reduce the costs of production, employing qualified workers in Mexico for a fraction of the cost, eliminated dignified work in the United States to create marginal jobs on the Mexican side. This was a clear example of what Father Gustavo Gutierrez calls structural sin, that loses sight of the value of the sanctification of dignified work to give place to monetization and hoarding. It was there that I experienced that powerlessness toward responsibility, where I remained cowardly incapable of responding to injustice and the suffering of the migrant, where I became a little more cynical.

     Having landed in Hermosillo, Sonora, I went to the bus terminal and boarded a van which transported 9-10 persons toward Nogales, Sonora, a trip of about 3 to 4 hours. When we were approximately 21 kilometers from our destination, there was a police checkpoint.

     On this occasion, the federal and migration police asked us all to show our identifications. It was there that I noticed that this family that had traveled silently, that included a father, mother, small son, and an adolescent daughter, possibly were not Mexicans. This was confirmed when the police asked all the family to get down from the van, took the girl into their offices for several minutes and returned with the girl crying. Then the father was taken to the offices and sadly, with hi head down, got onto the van again and embraced his daughter, who was still in tears. The next   15 to 20 minutes were gloomy and seemed eternal. All of us in the van were confused and sad upon contemplating the possibility that various injustices had been committed against this family, but fear prevailed.

     The family did not speak; they were silent with their heads down. Nobody in the van intervened, no one in the van asked anything, as if hoping that the silence would erase everything.

     Upon arriving in the city, the people got off at different stops, quickly, almost sneaking, ignoring the suffering of the family. At approximately the last stop, the driver asked the family, where are you going to get off? With a broken, tearful voice, with a Central American accent, the father answered, “I don’t know… wherever on the bus line.” While he put together some change that his wife looked for in their belongings.

     I could never erase this scene from my mind. Why, when I had some bills, did I not have the generosity to help them on their way and try to alleviate, with a little bit of solidarity, their pain?

     Why, being able to ask them about these actions, did I not do it? Perhaps because I was afraid of corrupt officials, in an area new to me? Why, being able to at least give them encouragement and hope with a word, did I not give it? Perhaps because in so many years I had received an excellent technical education, but not an adequate Christian formation.

     That afternoon I saw Jesus wounded, insulted, robbed, and I did not help Him, I didn’t even ask him, I didn’t recognize him, as I did not relate to him. Why? Because I was afraid, afraid to get involved, afraid of doing the right thing, afraid of having mercy. My inaction still haunts me and still sometimes, I am ashamed. Jesus sometimes asks to disguise himself in us and we ignore him. Why?

God Never Leaves Us As He Found Us

     God always loves us as he finds us, but never leaves us as he found us. How does God show us that salvation from sin is possible? How does Christ, if we allow him to do so, truly help us to be better and not carry out actions that separate us from Him?

     Sometimes when one hears these concepts in the Church, they seem far away. They make us yawn and predispose ourselves to only hear without listening. We perceive them as complicated and even sometime a little bit corny or cliches. If only we took the time to understand, if instead of two hours or a day or more of Youtube, Instagram or Facebook, we would give ourselves this time to know Christ better.

     As Fray Nelson teaches us, the process of salvation from sin takes place in us in stages. The first stage in this process, is having the will, the freedom, and accepting our sin, without justifying our mistakes and blaming others, taking responsibility for our actions.

     This identification of sins can be understood in a simple way if we reduce it to only the Ten Commandments, which definitely one must abide by. But in this modern world we are surrounded and bombarded with what some theologians call the apparent good, something which according to the Gospel separates us from God. Thanks to marketing, the culture of our society, the government, the media sell them to us as acceptable, as correct in the eyes of men and women, even, it seems to us, in the eyes of Christ. As an example, I can mention that when one obeys the Ten Commandments to the letter without much reflection, it could be not so obvious why abortion is so terrible, or excessive consumerism, usury, harm to the environment, sins of omission, especially those pointed out in Matthew 25:35-37.

     The second step is to discover what we should be. This is said to be very easy, but for the same reasons mentioned above, it is confusing, if we do not anchor our understanding in the Gospel. Christ invites us to share in the kingdom of love, mercy, peace, joy, etc.—not imitating or renouncing our personalities and trying to be someone that we are not, but rather, inviting us within our own essence to take the form of Christ, softening our temperaments and spurring us to godly actions, rediscovering our good and holy nucleus and casting off what is bad in us.

     The third is discovering the inability of being able to arrive on our own to the way we must be. This is another great obstacle in our times, especially when in Tik-Tok, Youtube, Facebook, and in self-help books we are constantly bombarded with messages that everything, absolutely everything can be overcome by our own efforts, with discipline, with good habits, with committed friendships, with magic solutions, etc. It is clear that we can always improve something in ourselves, but that we will always be inadequate or fickle if we do not make Christ a part of this change in ourselves.

     It is there, upon discovering this inability, where our will and freedom can lead us in different directions. One is desperation, believing that we are a lost cause, the hopelessness that I was created defective and there is in me or in the other neither goodness nor virtue nor hope. Another attitude that we can adopt is cynicism: that is who I am and that is how people accept me, that’s how I am and even though I know that I am wrong I don’t do anything to improve myself, because I have lost the hope to believe that Christ can work in me and I am satisfied with living in this comfortable prison of indifference, ignoring the possibility of being able to act through the other.

     But also, our will can point us to Grace in Christ, that same grace which is gratuitous and from within ourselves motivates us toward virtue, that same grace that through the Holy Spirit moves within us if we are docile and cultivate our relationship with Christ through prayer and works of mercy and charity. That grace which moved the Apostles after Pentecost and now, Yes… to act, to get involved, to shake off fear and conflict, that same grace that transformed and motivated those same Apostles who weeks before had abandoned Him on the cross, denying Him three times, those who argued and were jealous of each other–to have within themselves the possibility to initiate the process where now, Yes, they risked it for Christ, where now, Yes!  they became involved and did not deny their obligation to love the other. In the end, the majority of them ended giving their lives in martyrdom and sacrifice.

     Jesus can come back to life in us. Yes. We all have written in our hearts, this goodness, this capacity to love the most vulnerable in spite of our imperfections, to clothe and feed the migrant and the poor, to give a chance to drink of a new life to the desperate, to the person who is fleeing insecurity, hunger, injustice, inhumanity. To believe that the United States can also be a part of the promised land, if we shake off cynicism, take courage and trust fully in Christ and His promises. If we do this, the reign of God is within our reach, and not only will it be so in Heaven, but here in our homes, in our city, united in Christ in mercy, all in one.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, April-June 2024.