Sister Sharon Costello: On immigrants, hateful rhetoric must stop
Inside a converted former nightclub steps away from the bus station in the border town of McAllen, Texas, Sister Janice Vanderneck touches the scarred, small hand of a 6-year-old Guatemalan boy who explains he was with his father that frightening day when someone burned down the family’s store.
She listens as a single mother painfully recounts a thousand-mile-long journey to the United States, leaving her young children and grandmother behind in hopes of finding work and earning enough money to send them to school.
Sisters Jeanette Bussen and Patti Rossi stand over sinks, stretching to clean the bathroom mirror as a young migrant woman enters, asking “Puedo ayudar?” Can I help? They are humbled to be in the presence of the children, who, despite the trauma they’ve endured, are so bright, so kind, so eager to learn and play.
The children’s colorful crafts paper the walls inside the Humanitarian Respite Center, established by Catholic Charities in 2014 to offer compassionate aid to migrants fleeing hunger, poverty and violence in their Central American homes. Until recently, the center had been receiving hundreds of people a day after their release from border patrol detention facilities run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A change in policy now denies migrants the safety of seeking asylum from inside our border, forcing them to wait in a far more dangerous area of Mexico until their claims are heard.
We reflect with gratitude on the profound experiences our sisters had at the border, privileged to spend time meeting and caring for our migrant neighbors, learning their names, hearing their stories, bearing witness both to their suffering and to their humanity. It is painful to contrast the reality of the migrants’ lives — the self-sacrificing love they have for their children, the strength they have to cross the desert in search of a promised land — with the language we have seen political leaders use to describe them.
As Sisters of St. Joseph, our calling in Christ is expressed by the Gospel of Luke, 10:27, when Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to “love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” We come to know God through each other; for each of us — no matter our race, creed, or color — shares our being in him.
This is why we seek, humbly and with awareness of our shortcomings, to reconcile all with all, and all with God. Recognizing the depth of our interconnectedness in Christ, we pray for the strength to transform structures that promote violence, fracture relationships and diminish human dignity and to promote healing in hearts and communities broken by hate.
These structures may be physical, like the U.S.-run detention facilities at the border plagued by overcrowding, outbreaks of disease and unsanitary conditions, where six migrant children have died in the past year, or rhetorical, like language used by political leaders that appeals not to our Gospel values, but to our basest instincts, seeking to sow division and spread fear. Both draw us away from the community of love in Christ and weaken the soul of our nation.
So it is with a zeal for that profound love of God and neighbor that we raise our voices in solidarity with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to call on President Trump and political leaders to stop using language that disrespects, dehumanizes or demonizes others and to use their moral authority, as we endeavor to use ours, in service of the common good, recognizing our shared humanity.
The letter, sent on behalf of 35,000 Catholic sisters across the country, recalls Pope Francis’ plea to congressional leaders in 2015 to “defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good,” and reminds us that we have a choice in how we respond to conflict and crises.
Where there is darkness, with God’s grace, we can choose to bring light. Where fear of the other threatens our union with God and each other, we can choose to open our hearts and welcome the chance to learn about those who are different from us. Where there is hate, with God’s mercy, we can respond with love.
The work of healing and reconciliation must begin anew and can begin in each of us, when we seek to love our neighbors — migrant or citizen, black or white, liberal or conservative — as we love ourselves.