Father Jose Morales is a priest from El Paso, his parish not ten minutes from the border.
“It’s really just one big city separated by a river,” he said, “and of course, a wall.”
We spoke on the phone a few days ago. I was interested to see how he and his people were getting on underneath the shadows of recent executive orders, particularly the two on “Border Security” and “Public Safety in the Interior.” Most of his flock have deep ties to Mexico, so these orders have become, he says, “the daily bread of conversation.”
A perceived increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity, “prioritized removable aliens,” presidential rhetoric (talk of “bad hombres” and a “military operation,”) all of it has given rise to a new and acute fear among his people. Something’s different, they can tell. His parishioners are scared, uncertain.
“How are you doing, Father?” I asked.
“Preaching the gospel of joy and hope is difficult without doing something about it,” he answered. Father Morales spends a lot of his time facilitating resources: informing parishioners about their rights; connecting others to immigration lawyers; simply listening, absorbing anxiety like a sponge.
“Everyone has a story that needs to be heard,” he says. And so that’s what he does.
I asked him for some advice: “Father, what can I say when people ask me, ‘Can’t a country enforce its own laws?’ ‘Are they illegal or aren’t they?’ Serving in a majority Anglo parish, a lot of parishioners ask me this. Good people too, not heartless, not racist. How can I answer these plausible hypotheticals?”
His answer was interesting.
“When we heard of the terrible shootings in Dallas when those officers lost their lives, we hurt, we cried, we prayed. But you hurt more. Why? Because you knew them, their faces and names, their stories. They belonged to you, so you hurt more. For us, these executive orders are about us, our family members, our friends. For us, this hurts more.”
The first question to be asked, he said, isn’t abstract, philosophical or even legal. Rather it’s: Who are these people? “My people,” he said, “have faces and names and stories. It’s when we start there that we ultimately discover that they’re our brothers and sisters. That’s what Christ has been doing all along, reminding us we’re all brothers and sisters.”
It’s very easy to see it all in the abstract, reduce the dilemma down to a misleading either-or. “You can do the same with politicians,” Father Morales said. “But that won’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to get to know them before you can tell the bad from the good. We shouldn’t just talk about ‘politicians’ just as we shouldn’t just talk about ‘immigrants.’ We should stop and hear their stories.” That’s the human way to begin, the Christian way, he said.
For example, he told me about a 10-year-old boy, an unaccompanied minor, he met in a detention center a few years ago. Father Morales asked him why his mother would send him on such a dangerous journey by himself. “I’d rather send you away,” his mother told her boy, “than attend the funeral of my child.”
These are the stories we should stop and hear, these and so many others, he said. These are the faces and names we should discover before arguing policy or drawing conclusions, before asking ourselves abstract questions with easy answers.
Immigration reform, the morality of the humanity involved: it’s not simple, nor the solution, simple. But it will be impossible, not to mention likely immoral and inhuman, if we never really consider the actual people involved, without considering their actual stories, their unique humanity. And that’s what we Christians should be doing, he said, reminding everyone we’re all brothers and sisters, reminding everyone of the humanity at stake.
And especially priests, he said. “We priests may die by the sword of criticism, but this is what we must do. We have no choice. We shouldn’t be afraid.” Reminding our brothers and sisters of the humanity of our brothers and sisters: this is what we should be doing, unafraid.
But of course, we are. Close both to the fear and the anger, we’re afraid.
Caught between loving all.
Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org