Offering assistance to immigrants, refugees and other newcomers is an important tenet of Catholic social teaching. The command to “welcome the stranger” comes no less than from Christ himself.
This simple command, however, raises not-so-simple questions and challenges for a modern, global society in which large numbers of people are on the move because of poverty, violence and other affronts to human dignity. Vigorous debates are inevitable regarding how governments and churches should best respond. These conversations should happen in a context of respect, charity and true concern for the common good.
Too often, however, they don’t.
Too often, talk about immigrants and refugees is rooted in fear instead of facts and, sadly, outright prejudice.
Case in point: a billboard that was set up recently between Waite Park and St. Joseph with the message: “Catholic Charities resettles Islamists: Evil or Insanity?” Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud quickly convinced the billboard company to take it down because the message was inaccurate. While some Catholic Charities agencies around the country resettle refugees, our local one does not, although it serves people of all faiths and backgrounds.
But there’s a bigger problem with a billboard like this — just as there is with the license plate reportedly spotted in St. Cloud (which the state subsequently said it would revoke)that read “FMUSLMS.” Both messages exemplify a hardness of heart, an inability to see the dignity God instilled in every human person, and a rejection of a key theme upon which we Catholics have been asked to especially reflect on this year: Mercy.
In his recent pastoral letter, “Be Merciful, Just as Your Father is Merciful,” Bishop Donald Kettler reiterates Pope Francis’ call to extend mercy to those beyond the confines of the church: “We need to find ways to practice such mercy in the Diocese of St. Cloud, particularly to our Muslim neighbors. I encourage each of you, individually and in whatever groups you may be part of, to think of what you can do to contribute to that practice of mercy.”
How can we practice mercy toward people of other faiths and other cultures that we might not know much about?
The answer is both simple yet challenging: Get to know them on a personal level.
What can you do — individually, as a family or as part of a larger group — in this Year of Mercy to get to know better a Muslim neighbor, co-worker or family? Could your parish sponsor an evening of encounter, hospitality and education to get things started?
By getting to know one another, we are better equipped to dispel fears and stereotypes, build trust, and begin to ask honest questions in a compassionate and respectful manner. If we build strong person-to-person relationships, we might even establish real friendships and discover opportunities to work together on issues of common concern.
Of course, such relationship building requires an openness and sincere effort on both sides. Oftentimes, it can be challenging. But like the Good Samaritan, sometimes we are called to reach out and take the first courageous step.
We are witnesses to mercy and “welcome the stranger” when we build bridges of dialogue and friendship, and not walls made of billboards and license plates.