2022 CIII Statement by Fessahaye Mebrahtu
October 4, 2022
The Long Journey to Integration: A Layman Response to “A Theology of Migration”
Statement by Fessahaye Mebrahtu, Archdiocese of Milwaukee
Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative (CIII) Conference: Marquette University
September 13, 2022
Fr. Groody’s dedicated work to understand and inform the theological dynamics of migration and displacement in an era of globalization is timely. “A Theology of Migration” provides a framework for sound and genuine pastoral practice to work among migrants, refugees and people on the move. Affirming their humanity and dignity created in the image and likeness of God, lays solid foundation for the pastoral framework and practice. In a local settings, a welcoming Catholic parish not only provides spiritual and pastoral services to immigrants and refugees, it becomes an epicenter and catalyst for rebuilding the dismantled and dispersed community. The space provided and trust built help refugee and immigrant community to reconstitute itself, recover its sense of belonging, know its rights, affirm its dignity as critical ingredients to the long journey of healing and integration into the host community.
I would like to express my gratitude to Fr. Daniel Groody’s initiative, developing “A Theology of Migration.”  It is long overdue. My response to his initiative is more an affirmation of the efforts being done than theological critique. I am an immigrant, in a lifelong process of integration. This country has afforded me and my family tremendous opportunities, which I cannot find elsewhere. Yet, I am constantly reminded that I am an outsider. I have learnt to anticipate people’s questions by reading their body language: “Where are you from? Where is your accent from? When did you come? Why did you come here?” Some are innocent and curious questions, taken as teaching moments. I have also encountered xenophobia, including Neo-Nazi stickers put on my store windows, which read, “If you want to fight crime, deport Ni**ers.” If you are a person of color in the US, it is guaranteed that you will be othered regardless of your legal status or place of birth. The legacy of othering people of non-European descent is the sin of racism America has not been able to shake off. Recent immigrants and refugees become easy targets and scapegoats as political pawns, especially during election seasons.
Migration is as old as human beings on the face of the earth. As an African, I can confirm that you all carry my African DNA, regardless of the shades of the color of your skins, the texture of your hairs, or the color of your eyes. Aside from our common divine origin, physically we are brothers and sisters from the same mother, Africa. Every ethnic group or tribe in the world claims to have originated somewhere other than their current habitat or place of residence. For example, ancient Egyptians believed that their ancestors migrated from the hinterland of Africa, following the flow of the Nile River.  We all know the story of Abraham, our ancestor in faith, who migrated from current day Iraq to Palestine (Canaan), then from Egypt back to Palestine.
Our Judeo-Christian values inform us that every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, should be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of where they are from. Fr. Groody’s analysis of the Imago Dei  is on target. However, in the US historical context, some people claim to be better images of God than others. American exceptionalism and “Manifest Destiny” managed to create God in the American image, giving birth to racism based on the shade of one’s skin. Yes, racism is America’s original sin. Yet, God was never silent. God continued to pique the conscience of Americans, saying “Where is your brother?” Even though our response continues to be, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” In our Catholic tradition, we confess that we sinned by commission and/or omission. Not welcoming the stranger is a sin of omission. On the last judgement, Jesus will tell us, “I am the brother or sister you neglected.” Therefore, we cannot abdicate our responsibilities as our brothers/sisters’ keepers, especially those on the margins.
God always is the initiator, who makes the first move to meet us where we are. Through the mystery of Incarnation, He became one of us. He shone light into our darkness.  The Ge’ez Rite Eucharistic Prayer of Our Lady the Mother of God describes God’s movement into human history through poetic imagery saying, “God the Father, from heaven looked to all directions: to the east, to the west, to the north and to the south; he breathed and smelled but found none like you. He admired your essence and loved your beauty and sent his beloved Son unto you.”  The same Eucharistic prayer also reminds us of the reason why the Son of God was incarnated: to save us from our own human folly. In the “Theology of Migration” as Fr. Groody presents it, the push factor that creates the refugee crisis emanates from psychopathic dictators, the likes of King Herod, in response to every potential threat to their power hegemony. King Herod, hearing that a little baby was born who would one day be a king, was disturbed and alarmed, taking action to eliminate the would-be threat to his absolute power. This part of the Eucharistic prayer starts with the word “azekri” – and reminds us:
O Virgin, remind the ever remembering One, never to forget.
Remind Him about his birth from you on a cold night,
When you wrapped Him in swaddling cloth,
Receiving warmth from the breath of animals.
Remind Him about his migration with you,
Wandering from country to country, seeking refuge,
During King Herod’s reign.
Remind Him, the tears flowing from your eyes,
Washing your beloved Son’s cheeks.
Remind Him, the hunger, thirst and all the difficulties
You endured together.
Remind Him of mercy not of condemnation,
Remind Him, he came for sinners not the righteous,
He came to cleanse the defiled, not the pure ones.
The “Theology of Migration” touches on the historical context of racism, which is embedded in our structures and institutions, and is still operative and othering, especially people of color.  Such lingering legacy is not even conscious, it is on autopilot, manifested in the form of entitlement, us vs. them. The treatment of refugees and immigrants is simply an extension of that historical legacy of racism. Eurocentrism as the yardstick, by which every other culture is valued and measured, distorts the creative image of God in each other.
The Church was a willing participant in the sin of racism by commission or omission. The excuse was to obey the law of the land, which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calls “unjust laws.”  Yet the church was not without prophets from within and from without, challenging it to do the right thing. The cry of the suffering, the marginalized and the poor is never left unheeded before God’s eyes. Jesus gives us the example of Lazarus, who waited day and night at the gate of the doorsteps of the rich man. Lazarus would be comforted by dogs, while his fellow person indulged in a luxurious and lavish lifestyle. Lazarus was nobody to the rich man.
The nobodies of Lampedusa were my fellow Eritreans, and it is personal. I am very grateful to Fr. Groody for highlighting this tragedy because more than 90% of those who perished on that fateful night were my fellow Eritreans.  I knew the parents of some who perished, especially one young man who was the son of my grade school classmate. Additionally, at the end of June 2014, two sons of my cousins with almost 200 fellow refugees disappeared without a trace. Until the Syrian civil war erupted, 40% of those who were crossing the Mediterranean Sea came from Eritrea, my country of origin. It was not economic lure that became irresistible as a pull factor for Eritrean youth to take such a dangerous journey through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. It was the unbearable push factor that made them leave their country at any cost, embarking on the dangerous crossing to neighboring countries.
The Eritrean Catholic Church serves as the prophetic voice to the people of Eritrea, who became the nobodies of the world. The pastoral letters of Eritrean Catholic Bishops included: “Where is your brother?,” 2014  and “Peace and Reconciliation,” 2019.  The pastoral letters were widely accepted by all Eritrean people across religious traditions, including Muslims. They gave them a ray of hope that “troubles don’t last always.”
The Eritrean government retaliated against the Catholic Church by confiscating its clinics, hospitals,  and schools,  including technical colleges from 2017-2022.  On September 4, 2022, the Eritrean military raided my home church during Sunday Mass, taking all the youth, boys and girls, including choir members and altar servers, disrupting the Eucharistic Liturgy.  (During these weeks, my brother-in-law in his mid-60s and my cousins in their late 50s were taken to fight a war on the side of the Ethiopian federal government in its civil war.) Push factors led to the desperate flight of Eritrean youth, emptying the future of a nation, the only country in the developing world with a negative birth rate. This is a classic case of political refugee.
Even those considered economic refugees are victims of multinational greed, ecologically devastating mineral and oil extraction to satisfy the consumer appetite of the Northern Hemisphere. Despotic regimes are aided and tolerated for national interest, leaving behind failed states breeding extremism and opening the floodgates of refugees and immigrants. The liberation theologians of Latin America served as a prophetic voice of the voiceless, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion. The Civil Rights movement in the US served as the conscience of world society, but that one is also considered radical and incompatible to the Church’s teaching. I am afraid we continue to persecute and kill the prophets, which Jesus labeled in Jerusalem.
James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology, wrote the Cross and Lynching Tree, linking the suffering of African Americans of the 20th century by the mob-justice of lynching to that of the suffering of Christ on the cross. The Lampedusa carpenter has made the connection, curving out of the shipwreck-wood a Eucharistic table and sacrificial altar where Pope Francis celebrated a Memorial Mass for the victims of the Lampedusa shipwreck. Analogous to the cross as the humiliating means of torture, the lynching victims, and those who perished in the high seas are put as signs and symbols for us to see and make an internal journey of conversion as “our brothers and sisters’ keepers.” God’s redemptive intervention continues to be a reality even in the midst of such ugliness and human tragedy. The African American expression states, “God makes a way out of no way.” It is in this context that refugees and immigrants are resilient because they focus on the Visio Dei, where people of all races and languages aspire to gather. They are the true believers of the “American Dream” and by extension of the eschatological vision of the beloved community, signified in the American diversity.
In spite of its weaknesses and shortcomings, the US symbolizes a place where everyone from around the world realizes his or her full potential. We must also be aware that as countries lose to brain-drain, the US is guilty of brain-wastes. Most of the skills of foreign born and minority professionals are underutilized. Equality and inclusion are not dirty words, they are challenges and opportunities that speak to the God-given right of every person to participate in God’s creative work and to make the world a better place. Due to structural racism, selfish policies were developed to minimize competition in high paying professions. Recently, a former refugee of Asian origin shared her deep pain of her experience with racism and discrimination. She and her husband said that despite their professional qualifications in their country of origin, here in the US they have to start at low-paying jobs, hoping the future of their children would be better. However, their children are undergoing discrimination in spite of high educational and professional attainments. The lady concludes her story in tears, saying, “we thought discrimination would end with us, but it has passed to our children too.” This story speaks to the sin of racism. We have a long way to go before claiming victory in allowing immigrants and refugees to become integral members of host communities, particularly the US. However, Fr. Daniel Groody’s work and that of others like him provide us with tools to embark on sensitive, and inclusive pastoral practice, welcoming everyone to the table of the Lord.
 The response to Fr. Daniel Groody was based on two of his articles: 1. Crossing the Divide: A Theology of Migration and Refugees, Theological Studies, 70 (2009); 2. Cup of Suffering, Chalice of Salvation: Refugees, Lampedusa, and the Eucharist, Theological Studies 78 (2017).
 Linguistically, ancient Egyptians belonged to one of the African family of languages, confirming their claim originating from the hinterland of Africa.
 Genesis 1:27
 John 1: 1-5
 MetseHafe Qedassie – Ge’ez Vatican City Press 1948.
 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from the Birmingham Jail, 1963
September 13, 2022