Archbishop hears immigrant, refugee stories of hardship, gratitude
Sandra came, as did Manuela, Maria, Jairo, Jose and Juan.
More than 20 people all told, immigrants seeking a better life or refugees fleeing danger and oppression, from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, South Sudan and other countries.
They came to tell their stories – some in English, most with an interpreter – Sept. 27 at Catholic Charities’ Juan Diego Center in Omaha.
And Archbishop George J. Lucas came. To listen.
"I thought it would help me to be a better bishop, to have an opportunity to listen to your experiences," the archbishop said. "I hope that during our time together, you will share your experiences of coming to this country," he said, as well as the blessings and challenges since arriving and hopes for the future.
Similar listening sessions and outreach by Catholics to migrants and refugees took place across the globe as Pope Francis opened a two-year initiative titled Share the Journey.
The goal: accompany and better understand people who are part of the largest worldwide migration since World War II – more than 65 million people forced out of their homes.
For more than an hour in Omaha, people shared. They told the archbishop about fleeing violence, about wanting a job, about arriving with the proper documents and without, about fear and gratitude, suffering and opportunity.
Speaking in English, Jairo Rodriguez talked about fleeing Colombia as a refugee, and in a later interview said he was targeted by the rebel group known as FARC as he warned people in rural areas about getting involved with the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party.
Arriving as a refugee in the United States in 2000 with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Martha Montanez, Rodriguez eventually found work as a mental health counselor and received help in Omaha from Catholic Charities’ microbusiness training program to found his own company, cleaning construction sites.
"It was hard leaving my family," he told the archbishop. "In the United States, I started with zero … It was hard beginning to learn a new language and getting to meet people."
"I hope to continue to have a good life in the United States," he said. "We all struggle. I hope (for) all of us to be well with our families, and stay connected with the families we have left behind."
Others spoke of the desire to better their lives, but also of the fear of living in this country without the proper documents. Some talked about immigrants facing discrimination in the United States, including unequal wages and inadequate housing.
And several talked about the current political climate, with anti-immigration rhetoric and concerns about their future.
"The political rhetoric doesn’t help anyone," the archbishop said. "It can bring fear into people."
Still others talked about the help they had received from people and organizations, including Catholic Charities and others in the church.
"I give thanks to God and the microbusiness staff (at Catholic Charities)," said one. "Thanks to people here, many doors were opened," said another.
Archbishop Lucas assured those at the gathering that the church stands beside them. "The Catholic Church loves you," he said. "And you are important to me and to Pope Francis. It’s important that we stay together."
After the meeting, the archbishop said it was just the beginning of a special outreach by the church to migrants and refugees. And that effort to listen and grow in understanding can be extended to heal other divisions, whatever they might be, he said.
"Sometimes we’re living past each other," the archbishop said. "We don’t take time to listen. My hope is we will experience more of being together, of being in the church – together."