It’s not just about migrants, but about all of us
Recently I saw a news report that several churches in the Los Angeles area have declared themselves sanctuaries for migrant families. As anti-immigrant government policies have increased, they have accepted the challenge of the message of Christ and are welcoming refugees and migrants with open arms. As we commemorate refugees and migrants on 29 September 2019 – the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees – it is a good time for the Church in Southern Africa to ponder. Do we, like Christians in Los Angeles, welcome, accompany and assist immigrants and refugees who seek shelter and safety in South Africa?
Pope Francis, in his message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, observed that fear of “the unknown, the other, the marginalized, the foreigner” is causing host nations to reject “migrants and refugees knocking” on their “doors in search of protection, security, and a better future.” This, he said, is a legitimate fear because host nations are unprepared for such mass influxes. The problem, he noted, is that our “doubts and fears” seem to “condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps even – without realizing it – racist.”
Archbishop Buti Tlhagale OMI chairs the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference migration desk. He has been calling for collaboration in addressing the root causes of global migration and the crisis in Johannesburg. He has appealed to the Church community to welcome and protect those who flee from dangerous or difficult situations in their home countries.
Interacting with some Johannesburg communities on this issue, I have observed how negative discourse has fuelled discrimination. There seems to be very little counter-narrative to balance it. What is missing are deep healthy conversations and fruitful, sincere dialogue about fear of the ‘other’.
Addressing our fears would begin our journey to conversion, to a Christ-like approach to immigrants and compassion for them and all in our society. Sometimes a change of heart begins by listening without prejudice to the stories of refugees and migrants in Johannesburg and all South Africa. My experience of listening to the stories of migrant women and men has been emotionally draining, but it has presented me with an opportunity for growth and has challenged me to change.
History teaches us that we avoid honest conversations about problems. We do not want to face the shame and the conflict that might arise from such openness. But we need to pass through these experiences to bring about a true transformation in our Church and society. Acknowledging discrimination and our lack of hospitability is a good start for dialogue and transformation.
Is the issue of migrants and refugees not part of our Christian calling to show charity to strangers and to empathise with human suffering? Let us build a “city of God” that welcomes, protects and integrates those seeking refuge and a better life.
Are you willing to reach out and just listen to the story of a refugee or migrant?