By Jennifer Mauro | Managing Editor
Wearing a crisp light blue shirt and turquoise tie, Kevin wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, trying to stop his tears.
“It’s hard to see my parents struggle,” the young Catholic high school teen said. “I’m really grateful to them; they’ve sacrificed so much for me and my brothers.”
Photo Gallery: 'Share the Journey'
Kevin, who said his father works diligently in construction and his mother is employed with a catering business, has two younger brothers, ages 6 and 4. Though his brothers were born in America, the youngster from Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park, is one of the 800,000 “Dreamers,” or youth brought illegally to the United States as minors. His parents emigrated from Mexico to America when he was only six.
“I live with fear of losing my parents and everything they’ve worked for the past 10 years,” he said.
Kevin’s story was one of many heard as Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., gathered with more than 60 members of the immigrant community and representatives of the Diocese and its agencies. The event marked the beginning of the Diocese’s participation in “Share the Journey,” a two-year global campaign launched Sept. 27 by Pope Francis.
Sponsored internationally by Caritas Internationalis and in America by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services, “Share the Journey” aims to engage the Church and others who care about migrants and refugees through listening, sharing, education and advocacy. Events held Sept. 27 were the first sponsored globally and locally to provide an opportunity for migrants and members of host communities to meet and share their stories.
“I come today not to preach but to listen,” said Bishop O’Connell, who called for the Diocese of Trenton gathering in St. Anthony Claret Parish, Lakewood.
‘I Am with You’
Matthew Greeley, associate director for the diocesan Office of Communications and coordinator for Spanish-language communications, facilitated the discussion, and with assistance of diocesan staff, ensured all in attendance had translation headsets for the bilingual event.
“Today is about how we can walk together as Church,” he said.
After prayers and song in both Spanish and English, parents, children and young adults took turns sharing their stories of living in the uncertainty of being deported, especially those once temporarily shielded from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was created by President Barack Obama in 2012. To qualify for the program, commonly known as DACA, applicants must have arrived in the United States before 2007 and been younger than 16. As long as applicants don’t have a serious criminal background, DACA recipients can live and work legally in the United States for two years, at which point their applications have the possibility of renewal.
The Trump Administration announced Sept. 5 that the program would be rescinded, though full implementation of the rescission would be delayed six months depending on actions taken by Congress.
Though the majority of those gathered in the parish hall of St. Anthony Claret Church were Latino, Bishop O’Connell cited the many other communities that comprise the Diocese of Trenton – such as African, Haitian, Korean, Polish, Philippine and Portuguese – saying, “I embrace them all with great affection.”
He added that the day would be about “how we as your Church and how I as your Bishop can reach out and help you.”
“I am your Bishop; I am with you,” Bishop O’Connell said.
A Better Life
For two hours, the immigrant community sat side by side at tables formed into a square, which was conducive for the intimate conversation of fear, faith and hope that followed with their friends, faith leaders, Catholic Charities staff and diocesan representatives.
“We pledge allegiance to the flag,” said one young student. “I know more about America than my own country.”
“I was brought here when I was 4. If I was ever to go back, it would be like a new world,” said a woman in her 20s.
“We come here not to take anything from anyone, but to build a better future,” said a mother of three who came to America 12 years ago from Guatemala after her first daughter died due to a lack of medical resources. Her oldest son, now 21, is a university student and DACA recipient. “It’s really sad for us as parents because we want the best for our kids.”
Ashley Rosales, 20, of St. Anthony Claret Parish, can relate. Though born in America, she is the child of undocumented immigrants, as her mother barely missed the cutoff date to be eligible for DACA. Rosales, who has three younger brothers, is the first in her family to attend college – she’s currently enrolled in Georgian Court University, Lakewood.
“I want to finish my education so if worse comes to worse and anything happens to my parents, I could be appointed their guardian,” she said of her brothers. “But I really want my family to stay together.”
“My future is uncertain,” she added. “What if my parents get taken away from me? I live with that fear every single day of my life.”
As a parent herself, Ludy, 41, became emotional as she talked about living in America with her documented status in flux. She traveled from Slovakia when she was 20, and as a young adult had a sponsor family and a work permit. But when the family’s business was sold and the new owners hit economic hardship, her work permit was withdrawn. Twenty-one years after coming to the United States, she continues the battle to have her documents even processed, much less approved.
“I understand all of you, and I feel sorry for your parents because I am the parent,” said Ludy, who has two young children who were born in America.
“It’s a nightmare that is always there,” she said in a separate interview of the back-and-forth paperwork with the government and the fear of uncertainty that comes with it.
“This is my home,” she continued, explaining her reaction to when she hears the lyrics to “God Bless America.” “I cry every time I hear ‘My home sweet home’ because I love this county so much, and I just want it to love me back.”
Ludy read a poem to the Bishop and group that she had written to shed light on the thoughts and feelings of immigrants, regardless their country of origin.
“We are people with no homeland; we are the birds in golden cage hanging on a string, tiredly looking at the hand with the scissors. Are we going to be cut off today? …
“We are the hands pushing the lawnmower in scorching heat; we are the hands that fixed your roof when it leaked; we picked the strawberry you like so much; we wash the last dish in your favorite restaurant.”
Importance of Church
Merli Gonzalez of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, knows about uncertain futures. She and her husband left their native Guatemala with children in tow. When the couple set out, they told their youngsters that they were coming to America for vacation. That was more than 10 years ago.
Since then, the Gonzalez’s have faced many uphill battles. Their extended family in Guatemala feels abandoned by their decision to leave, and in 2012, the Gonzalez home was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy. Through it all, however, has been the Church and its teachings, Gonzalez said.
“We have learned a lot about what the family of Nazareth suffered, and they suffered more than we do today,” she said. “They’re the model not to be afraid.”
Faith in Church is something Msgr. Sean Flynn, pastor in St. Mark Parish, Sea Girt, has witnessed firsthand. His parish has a history of aiding the immigrant community in the DACA process.
“The Church plays a very important role because they’re one of the only ones they [immigrants] trust,” he said. “The Church certainly has to walk with them.”
Divine Word Father Pedro Bou, pastor of St. Anthony Claret Parish, agreed. “The Church becomes a home base … a center of identification. No one leaves their country because they want to. Something big has to force you to migrate.”
Cirenia García of St. Mark Parish came to America almost 20 years ago from Mexico. Since that time, she said, she has worked hard in both her job and the parish.
“We’ve learned to evaluate what we can offer the parish,” she said. “A lot of people look at us as delinquents, but we came here to work hard for our children and fight hard for that dream.”
The parish, she said, has helped her children with DACA paperwork, including her college-aged daughter, who is studying business administration.
“Without DACA, my daughter may not be able to achieve her goals, but I have faith in God,” García said.
Called to Hear & Act
With tales of faith amidst struggle on his mind, an admittedly moved Father Scott Schaffer, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, said, “I’m learning an awful lot more today about where so many of our people are emotionally and economically. I’m realizing now how many more stories need to be told.”
Bishop, too, expressed how much he was moved by the heartfelt stories.
“What struck me today was the realization that DACA and other elements of attempts to reform our immigration policies are not mere abstract items for discussion ... they are things that affect real people, real lives,” he said.
“Many of those who spoke today could not get through their comments without breaking down into tears, so deeply do they feel the fear and heartache of an uncertain future. We cannot turn our backs on them.”
Added diocesan Chancellor Terry Ginther, “I was grateful for the opportunity to honor the stories of families who have immigrated to this country to find a better life. They are mothers and fathers who struggle every day, seeking freedom from fear. They are our brothers and sisters in the human family, our brothers and sister in Christ Jesus. We cannot close our eyes to their suffering. Each of us can, and must, do something to help.”
Action was at the forefront for Alejandra Morales of St. Anthony Claret Parish. Explaining that all present had sacrificed much in fleeing countries where “corruption is the meal of the day,” she expressed hope that the day’s dialogue wouldn’t end with the listening session.
“I hope this doesn’t just stay in this meeting but that everybody here is a part of a journey of perseverance,” she said.
Steadfastness is one of the goals of “Share the Journey,” which aims to affect both personal feelings and opinions as well as public policy, according to the U.S. bishops. It is a call to prayer, reflection and action.
Rayanne Bennett, executive director of Communications and Media for the Diocese, called the listening session in St. Anthony Claret Parish a powerful encounter.
“But it was just the start,” she said. “The example set by Bishop O’Connell today is one that every Catholic in the Diocese is being asked to emulate as part of the two-year global migration campaign that the Holy Father has established. The Pope has asked each one of us to ‘reach out’ to immigrants and refugees in response to the Scripture-based call to ‘welcome the stranger.’
“The campaign seeks to build awareness among Catholics that migrants and refugees are our brothers and sisters and to recognize that no one leaves their homes easily or as a matter of preference,” she said. “The Pope has asked Catholics around the world to love our neighbors and travel with them as they seek the lives of dignity and fulfillment that God intends for us all.”
‘Be Not Afraid’
Morales said she sees the plight of the immigrant parishioner as one that affects the entire Church community.
“When one of us has a problem, we all have a problem,” she said, drawing parallels between parish communicants and a family.
As the session came to a close, all eyes turned to their diocesan father for a closing prayer. Citing the common theme in the Scripture passsages of Jesus calming the storm, an angel visiting the Virgin Mary and the women going to Jesus’ empty tomb, Bishop O’Connell said, “Be not afraid. That is Christ’s message to you in good and difficult times. When you have anxiety and worry, have trust in Jesus.”