photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

A Place at the Table

I recently had the great privilege to follow in the footsteps of our Lord during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Seeing the hill of Calvary, praying in Bethlehem, and walking along the same seashore as Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago filled me with a sense of wonder.

That land, while a source of great spiritual connection and inspiration, sits at the center of significant turmoil and discord in the modern age. During my travels, I visited a refugee camp run by Caritas Jordan in the city of Amman that provided food and shelter for those fleeing from the war torn country of Syria. Etched on the faces of the mothers, fathers, and children was the overwhelming heartache caused by forced departure from the only home they’ve ever known. Though language barriers prevented us from communicating freely, I could see in their eyes deep longing for a place to find respite from conflict; a place to feel welcome and safe from harm. My heart went out to them.

Returning to the United States, I can’t help but reflect on the millions of immigrants and refugees who come to our own shores, driven by economic hardship, political unrest, or merely the promise of a better life. Estimates indicate roughly 11 million undocumented individuals are living in the U.S. in pursuit of building their own American dream.

As the future of this vulnerable population is debated in the coming months, it will be easy for us to treat them as an abstraction or to argue potential solutions strictly in economic terms. Our challenge as moral stewards of God and the voice for justice for all those living at the margins of society is to see in the immigrant and refugee our own longing for a safe place to call home and promise of a brighter tomorrow.  In their pastoral paper “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us that immigrants remind us of “our ancestral heritage as descendants of immigrants and to our baptismal heritage as members of the body of Christ.

This sentiment is found throughout the Scriptures, and is encapsulated perfectly in a well-known hymn of which I am very fond:

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star over head.

…And God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy.

Catholic Charities agencies across the country have been providing services to immigrants for over 100 years.  Through our work with this vulnerable population, we are familiar with the economic and political forces that cause people to seek a better life in the United States and have witnessed firsthand the harmful impact of our nation’s immigration policies.

As Catholics we are called to seek justice for newcomers, and as a network, we provided over 400,000 immigrants with services last year, ranging from legalization assistance to language instruction to citizenship classes. These efforts are vital, but they are a response to a fragmented system; attempts to patch together the gaps left by previous, incomplete efforts to welcome the stranger in our midst.

I carry in my heart the faces of the refugees seeking a safe space in the Middle East and share with them the universal aspiration for a place to call home. As a nation we must work towards comprehensive immigration reform that ensures all of our brothers and sister have a place at the table, shelter and a safe place for growing. By working towards that goal, we will truly be creators of justice, and God will indeed delight.