Welcoming Refugees and Immigrants? Perhaps Even Disrupting for Them?

The other day I wrote to a Tanzanian friend, a priest working to improve Christian-Muslim relations. I told him I’ve been especially concerned of late with the needs of immigrants and refugees in this country. “I am happy to say,” I wrote, “that many churches are responding to those fearing deportation and others being refused refuge.” That churches are speaking out against the current wave of nativist American “populism” and are trying to help our citizens become more welcoming of the stranger. I concluded “It will be a long battle here. So pray for us as we pray for you and your fellow Tanzanians.”

And that is the gist of this writing: to share my concern about the needs of refugees and immigrants and urge that our response to them is perhaps the most important issue facing us in this country.

Of course we all have lists of “most important issues,” for there are many – health care and taxes and jobs and racism and the continuing decline in public trust, and of course worries about violence and war. Yet my intuition tells me that our response in coming years to the pressing reality of global flight and migration will be the greatest test of our humanity and morality.

That’s why, shortly after Trump’s first order banning immigration from specific Muslim countries, I stood for a week with a sign during the morning rush hour at a street corner by Union Station in downtown Denver.  I had been inspired by a small demonstration the previous weekend in Denver’s Civic Center Park.

My sign read “Refugees Welcome Here” on one side, and “Jesus Was a Refugee” on the other. Both sides had a blown up reproduction of the famous woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg depicting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fleeing Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 3.57.24 PM

Many in the morning crowd smiled at my sign, some gave thumbs up and high fives. A few identified themselves as refugees. Others looked away or just passed by, while a some gave thumbs down.

There was a big demonstration in Denver at the end of my week where the best sign I saw read “No hate, no fear; refugees are welcome here.” I liked both the rhyme and the explicit naming of hate and fear.  Then in late February there was ceremony welcoming refugees at Union Station hosted by Colorado’s Governor and Denver’s Mayor. The event was clearly designed both as an expression of heartfelt welcome and, with its strong positive tone, as a powerful statement of opposition to anti-immigrant policy and sentiment.  So I then decided to stand with my sign for an hour or so whenever I could during Lent.

These and many other actions and events find much support in the words of church leaders like Pope Francis and San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy.  That  good man recently even urged us to “disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need.

I’m no expert on refugee and immigration issues. I feel greater clarity about the need to welcome those fleeing war, violence, and religious persecution than about immigrants seeking to improve their lives. Yet I do believe that many “illegals immigrants” are in fact fleeing violence, both the gun violence of their home countries and the economic violence (of poverty and oppression) in which our corporations and our government are complicit. Virtually everyone knows that our US immigration policies and practices are a mess, inadequate both to the labor realities of this country and to the dignity of new immigrants. Yet we are terribly divided about what policies and practices are needed.


So I turn for guidance above all to informed church leadership. Here I’ll simply comment on the two already-mentioned Catholic leaders. Yet I urge the  reader to do her own online searching since so many churches (both denominations and individual churches) have made important statements, issued serious studies, and developed practical initiatives (from immediate social services like legal aid and job training to support for various forms of sanctuary).  I am especially impressed by continuing actions on the part of my wife’s Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).

Pope Francis recently got into trouble for criticizing the way refugees flooding into Europe are being held in concentration camps. One predictable sector of Jewish leadership objected since they seem to think the horrific Jewish experience of the Holocaust gives them ownership of the term “concentration camp.” Yet during World War II my aunt, a Maryknoll Sister in the Philippines, spent years in a Japanese concentration camp for American citizens. She was luckier than the US soldiers (imprisoned in what were literally death camps) since locals were allowed to bring food to the civilian camp. Francis, to his credit, did not back down. Conditions in too many “retention centers” throughout Europe justify the name “concentration camp.”    Perhaps it  should also be used about the supposedly more benign detention camps  in the US.

Pope Francis has, or course, long been challenging us to welcome refugees and all “forced migrants.” Perhaps most memorable was his 2016 trip to Greece where he and Orthodox leaders visited refugee camps and whence he brought a family from Syria back to Rome.  Here are words from the joint declaration issued by Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens:

“The tragedy of forced migration and displacement affects millions, and is fundamentally a crisis of humanity, calling for a response of solidarity, compassion, generosity and an immediate practical commitment of resources. From Lesbos, we appeal to the international community to respond with courage in facing this massive humanitarian crisis and its underlying causes, through diplomatic, political and charitable initiatives, and through cooperative efforts, both in the Middle East and in Europe.”

Francis has also created a new Vatican department on migrants and refugees which reports directly to him. It’s part of his effort to organize churches throughout the world to respond both to the present crisis and the larger reality of global migration.

For me, an even more stirring Christian call to action came from San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy in a recent speech to a conference of activists and community organizers. His deeply thoughtful and passionate words were widely reported.  Please read the text  since my brief citations below can’t convey its careful analysis.  It stands in remarkable contrast not only to today’s tweets and TV reports, but even to important but far less provocative statements from other church leaders.

What got attention in press reports was the fact that a Catholic Bishop was calling us to “disrupt” things. What got less attention was McElroy’s explanation that he was taking that term from the Trump campaign’s promises to disrupt the present way of doing things. McElroy was responding in kind, but in a very different direction. He called for “disruption” of the larger political-economic system that (as Pope Francis has repeatedly said) “kills people.”

McElroy never mentions Trump, but doesn’t pull punches in speaking about the present:

Well now, we must all become disruptors. We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men, women and children as forces of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.”

Yet his call for disruption was prelude to a larger call to rebuild our systems – to make America great again, if you will, but in a very different way than the banal and brutal tendencies of present politics.

But we, as people of faith, as disciples of Jesus Christ, as children of Abraham, as followers of the Prophet Muhammad, as people of all faiths and no faith, we cannot merely be disruptors, we also have to be rebuilders.

We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person and assert what the American flag behinds us asserts is our heritage: Every man, woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal. We must rebuild a nation in solidarity, what Catholic teaching calls the sense that all of us are the children of the one God, there are no children of a lesser god in our midst. That all of us are called to be cohesive and embrace one another and see ourselves as graced by God. We are called to rebuild our nation which does pay $15 an hour in wages, and provides decent housing, clothing and food for those who are poorest. And we need to rebuild our Earth, which is so much in danger by our own industries.”

Of course it remains to be seen how folks in the pews (Catholic or Presbyterian, Christian or Jewish or Muslim) will respond to such statements by their leaders. For we know that many of them voted for Trump and we may suspect that many are held captive by fear-filled images of the foreigner as a dangerous threat to our way of life.

Yet I stood with my sign knowing that I was in solidarity with many religious and non-religious folk who are today seeking more hopeful directions for our country. I stood with my sign because there are so many people fleeing violence and seeking refuge among us. As did so many Vietnamese after 1975, folks who today are a proud and integral part of Denver and other cities in the US. And because my own Catholic ancestors were refugees, from famine and British brutality in Ireland and from militarism in Germany. And perhaps because I spent the first part of my life in New York City where Lady Liberty has welcomed so many refugees and where generations of immigrants have continually contributed to that city’s great vitality.

I suggest that all of us must find our ways to oppose and disrupt prevailing forms of nativism, but we must seek ways to oppose and disrupt which do not further polarize our country, ways that invite our opponents to join in working towards a more fully human and shared sense of national purpose. I hope it’s possible.

6 thoughts on “Welcoming Refugees and Immigrants? Perhaps Even Disrupting for Them?

  1. John, I appreciated your recent article on refugees and immigrants and positioned it in the context of your earlier blog on the Tanzanians where the “on the ground” approach seems to have found success. It strikes me that in our post-religious society, those existing religious elements have found consensus in their response to refugees and immigrants, whereas the dominant divide of ideology is where the battle is. I often wondered what it was like in Northern Ireland or during the earlier religious wars for ordinary people – I found my answer in today’s ideological wars. Would that we could silence our “rhetorical guns” in order to allow for the existence of workable projects “on the ground” to respond to the immigrant and refugee needs of our time.

    Much continued success with your blog, “With a Cane”.

    Jim DeVito


  2. John, you note:

    ““we must seek ways to oppose and disrupt which do not further polarize our country, ways that invite our opponents to join in working towards a more fully human and shared sense of national purpose.”

    There’s the rub! Fr. Ferree, Marianist authority on social justice, was deeply frustrated towards the end of his life that social justice became equated with social action. In particular he singled out the protest march as a method that could be counter productive precisely because it fosters the “we-they” mindset you refer to. Was the recent walkout of some graduates at VP Pence’s talk at Notre Dame a positive for the immigration cause or a hardening of attitudes? Ferree holds that such methods should only be used under the criteria of “just war principles.”-lst resort, good effects out weighing the bad, etc. Social Justice calls for working with, as your final comment underscores, not working against.

    Despite the context the use of the term “disruptive” is, I think, inflammatory. I presume the liberal and conservative advocates for the refugees both have humanitarian goals but differ on the means. How can progress be made?

    Areas of dialogue: quality of refugee camps-food, medicine, sanitation, etc. ;legal volunteers for the vetting process (No one’s calling for open borders); etc.
    The Good Samaritan was intelligent-He had to have money to pay the inn keeper; he continued on his journey; probably knew the inn keeper since he promised on his return to pay what additional costs were incurred.



    1. Rhett — thanks for the comment, would love source of Ferree comment, and you correctly point to “the rub” — how oppose and disrupt without further polarizing — I stand by what I (and McElroy) said even while agreeing with your suggestions for common ground — it’s both-and, but difficult to realize in practice. John


  3. John, hope there’s enough room. If not Ill send you an attachment. It’s from a group called http://just3rdway.blogspot.com/
    Here’s where I got Ferree’s point:
    Fr. Ferree’s Analysis of
    Community Building Versus Institution Building
    (From Fr. Ferree’s incomplete manuscript of Forty Years After … A Second Call to Battle, currently in the process of editing and completion by Michael D. Greaney, Director of Research, CESJ)

    Without dwelling on this unfortunate failure, it is sufficient here to call attention to the fact that much of Pius XI’s practical thinking on the realization of Social Justice is to be found in what was then known as “Catholic Action.”

    Footnote for Our Day

    We might contrast this vision from the past with what has filled the void since it disappeared from the scene. This filling will have been supplied, of course, by the individualistic mindset which Social Justice was supposed to correct, but didn’t — at least not the first time around.

    The favorite “social technique” of our own time is the “peaceful” demonstration, especially when media coverage is likely or can be arranged. Subsidiary aspects of the demonstration are boycotts, sit-ins, organized lobbying pressures, single-issue “advocacy” and then — crossing an invisible line which is hard to define and harder still to hold — civil disobedience, violent demonstrations, and, ultimately, terrorism!

    Despite the social intent of all such techniques, and their almost universal arrogation to themselves of the terms “Social Justice” or “Justice and Peace,” these techniques are all radically individualistic. There are several criteria which can be applied to test this:

    1) They are directed immediately to some specific solution already determined in the mind of the “activist”; they are never a willingness to dialogue with other and differing opinions on what the problem really is.
    2) They are always intensely concerned with the methodologies of pressure, not with those of competence in the matter in question.
    3) They all require “time out” from the day-to-day social intercourse of life, and raise the question of how many objects one can juggle at any one time without dropping some or all.
    4) Any “demonstration” is by definition a demand on someone else to do something. It takes for granted that whatever is wrong is the personal work of someone else, not the common agony of all; and it always knows exactly who and where the someone is.

    All this can be summed up in the observation that the “social activist” as we have seen them so far, is an earnest amateur by profession.

    This is not to say that such “professional amateurism” is always wrong. It is wrong as a normal methodology. If it obeys the same principles which would permit a just war, or the insurrection against an entrenched tyrant, more power to it! But it is a hopeless and hence unjust substitute for the patient and full-time organization of every aspect of life which we have seen in the necessary implementation of Social Justice and in the now defunct techniques of “Catholic Action.”

    We thought we were finished with this discussion, but again our commentator came back. She claimed she had read Father Ferree’s Introduction to Social Justice . . . but didn’t understand what we meant by “social justice,” nor “equality of status.” This tends to suggest, of course, that she didn’t really read Introduction to Social Justice, at least in the sense that Mortimer Adler meant it in How to Read a Book. Today we’ll address what we mean by social justice, and then finish off by explaining why equality of status is so important in carrying out acts of social justice.

    It’s actually pretty straightforward. Social justice is the virtue directed at the common good, which in this context is the vast network of institutions within which humanity as “political animals” acquire and develop virtue — habits of doing good.

    It is this capacity to acquire and develop virtue that defines us as human beings. Virtue, in fact, signifies “human-ness.” The problem is that in traditional individualistic philosophy, nobody has the power to access the common good directly. It can only be affected indirectly (so traditional philosophers tell us) by people being individually virtuous, thereby setting the general “tone” of society which guides the functioning of institutions and how well they do their jobs. If people are virtuous, society will function properly.

    Except that it doesn’t. Leo XIII realized that if we want to affect our institutions, we must act institutionally, that is, socially. We can’t do it as individuals. We can only affect the common good directly as members of groups. Otherwise, we can all be personally virtuous, but our badly designed or flawed institutions prevent society from working.

    Pius XI’s breakthrough in moral philosophy was to take the techniques of social justice described by Leo XIII and develop a completed doctrine of social justice — the discernment of a particular “act” of social justice by means of which we can access the common good directly. This was to respond to the traditional philosophers who continued to insist that Leo XIII couldn’t possibly have meant what he said, for it was clearly impossible. As Pius XI explained,

    “The redemption of the non-owning workers — this is the goal that Our Predecessor declared must necessarily be sought. And the point is the more emphatically to be asserted and more insistently repeated because the commands of the Pontiff, salutary as they are, have not infrequently been consigned to oblivion either because they were deliberately suppressed by silence or thought impracticable although they both can and ought to be put into effect.” (Quadragesimo Anno, § 59.)


    1. Rhett — once again I see this as a both-and — both the protest/demonstration (whose limitations and frequent missteps the article well suggests) and the slow paced and difficult organizational/institutional change it commends. I do object fiercely to the either-or tone and implications of the end of the following sentence: “Subsidiary aspects of the demonstration are boycotts, sit-ins, organized lobbying pressures, single-issue “advocacy” and then — crossing an invisible line which is hard to define and harder still to hold — civil disobedience, violent demonstrations, and, ultimately, terrorism.” That’s ideology if I ever heard it — the explicit causal link between various forms of non-violent protest, including civil disobedience, to violent demonstrations and terrorism.” In point of historical fact (King and the civil rights movement a key case in point, but far from the only one) it is not the demonstrators who bring violence, but the powers which use police and other forms of violence to stop the demonstrators. Even the supposed terrorism of the Black Panthers was clearly caused (!!!) by the FBI and the Chicago police. Alinsky is a far better guide here — both organizing and when it helps the organizing effort then demonstration. And, to end, I’m still not sure from the passage you sent what is Ferree’s thinking and what the guy interpreting him. Said differently, I have for some time feared the group which has grabbed Ferree and re-issued his writing within the framework of interpretation. Perhaps it’s time for some others to take up Ferree within different frameworks. But thanks for the discussion. John


  4. Sorry I didn’t catch your incisive response earlier, John. You’re right about the unwaranted jump from demonstration to terrorism. I think Alinsky’s comment is important-demonstrations “when helpful”. In the few demonstrations I’ve been involved in, pro life, teacher strikes, I do sense a hardening of attitudes and an unwillingness to give the “others”-pro-choice, or whatever,credit for an iota of good will and intelligence.


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