We Are All Refugees…Some of Us Just Don’t Know It


My wife and I are one month away from being homeless…at least we thought we might be until yesterday. We are currently in the process of buying a house, and everything was moving along smoothly until the inspector discovered an abandoned oil tank under the driveway. If it turned out that the tank had leaks, it would require extensive cleanup that could take months, even a year or more. That would be a big problem since our landlord has already rented our apartment to a new tenant starting April 1. Fortunately for us, it turned out that the tank had no leaks, so our family’s brush with temporary homelessness will materialize into nothing more than that.

A momentary scare like this one tends to make one very grateful for the roof over one’s head. Even more significantly, Margaret and I are very much aware that we will soon have the privilege of moving into a home of our own at the very moment that we are witnessing a worldwide migrant crisis. Millions of people have been displaced not only from their homes but also their homelands by violent conflict, religious persecution, and economic hardship. This is a heart-wrenching backdrop to a joyful moment in our lives. How is a socially conscious, soon-to-be-homeowner Catholic to feel about all this?

A big reason that we are excited about finally having a home to call our own is that this means having a home to share with others. Margaret and I love to host. For me a dinner party with good friends is an image and foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, an analogy that Jesus himself drew frequently (see Mt 22:1-14; 25:5-15; Lk 12:31-41). From the time of our engagement, we have talked talked about our hopes that our home would be a place where neighbors would congregate, where our kids’ friends would stick around for dinner, where people would know they always have a place to stay. We have hoped that when we had a house one day, we would be able to open our doors to those in need as our parents have done.

Perhaps it is because all things house-related are consuming my thoughts these days that I was so impacted by a line I recently read in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book How to Love. The Zen Master writes, “As you practice building a home in yourself, you become more and more beautiful.” This idea of building a home, not just around oneself, but within oneself strikes me as profoundly important, especially given the current state of world affairs. My wife and I will soon have a new home that we can open up to others. However, a brick-and-mortar house is not a prerequisite for hospitality. Each of us is a home unto ourselves, or at least we can be if we commit to the necessary interior work. (How much time most of us spend selecting wallpaper and manicuring the lawn and how little time getting our spiritual house in order!) All that we need to feel at home and to make others feel the same—namely, love—is with us wherever we go. Even for those who have been driven from their dwelling places, a kind word or a cup of tea extended in friendship can be all they need to feel a sense of home again.

In this sense hospitality is not the sole prerogative of the well-to-do or even average homeowners; it is a mandate of faith for all Christians. Few commands are repeated more often throughout the pages of the Bible than that of caring for strangers or aliens. (See a sampling here.) Jesus affirms this key tenet of faith by identifying with the homeless and the stranger: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Mt 8:15-25). Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus lay out the criteria for entering God’s kingdom more explicitly than in Matthew 25 where he says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:34-35). Scripture leaves no room for excuses on this score. We are all bound to care for the strangers in our midst. Here Jesus does not require something we cannot give. We may not all own houses, but we all have hearts. Therefore, we all have the capacity to welcome others into that inner space that constitutes a home in the deepest sense of the word. Read More


Burritos, Microwaves, and Walls—Lessons in Adulting from High Schoolers

President Donald Trump recently announced that refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries would be denied entry into the United States. As a white, American-born school teacher in a Midwest Catholic school, I didn’t anticipate that this would change my day-to-day life very much. Then a student’s prayer stopped me in my tracks.

In my theology classroom, our daily devotion is a prayer of thanksgiving called “Gratitude Journals.” Every day, the students write five things about which they are grateful, and they’re told to never repeat a past entry. It’s hard. You really have to take notice of the little things, and you have to be creative. So anything goes. And I mean anything. I’ve gotten everything from “creamy garlic mashed potatoes” to “Harambe” to “the way my mom laughs when she’s not stressed” and everything in between. My students come from all sorts of cultural, political, and socioeconomic backgrounds so almost nothing surprises me. I usually just smile and call on the next student. But this week I heard one that stopped me in my tracks:

“What are we grateful for today, people?” I asked.
“Trump’s ban.”
“What was that?” I had heard, but I needed to make sure.
“Trump’s ban.”

These students are fourteen and fifteen years old. They don’t yet understand political rhetoric, extreme nationalism, or norms that sustain the  delicate balance of democracy.

Their parents do.

The same day I heard this distressing gratitude journal entry, I received a note from the office to give to another student. As I glanced at it and passed it on, I had to fight to hold in my laughter. It read in all caps:

“DON’T MICROWAVE YOUR BURRITO IN THE FOIL…Love, Mom.”

These students are still figuring out how to warm up their own lunches, how to write a three paragraph essay, how to wear deodorant and look cool walking down the hallway with textbooks in their arms. Most things they know about life and the real world they learned from the adults they live with. That’s what was so concerning to me about the gratitude journal.

As a teacher, I strive to keep my political views to myself. During election time, Clinton supporters, Trump supporters, and third party supporters had equal rights in my classroom. My faith does not make me part of a political party, and neither should it impact my students’ choice of political affiliation.

But, when it comes to President Trump’s recent ban of refugees coming into the United States from certain countries, the faith is clear: Jesus says welcome the stranger. All strangers.

Fr. James Martin put it well: “Jesus doesn’t say help the stranger only if there’s no risk to you. Or help the stranger only if it’s convenient. Or help the stranger only if he or she is the same religion you are.” He just says help.

When parents baptize their children into the Christian faith they promise to teach their children what it is that Jesus taught. The rite goes like this:

“You have asked to have your child baptized. In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training him (her) in the practice of the faith. It will be your duty to bring him (her) up to keep God’s commandments as Christ taught us, by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?”

I always wonder if parents know what they have undertaken.

Love God, love your neighbor.

Pope Francis has a message for parents who think they are handing on the faith while handing on the idea that it’s okay to ban refugees: “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty.”

I realize that, at this age, my students’ “beliefs” are still really a reflection of their families’ beliefs. I don’t hold my freshman students responsible for thinking it can be congruent with a Christian faith to turn away refugees or for thinking it’s okay to put metal in the microwave. I do hold their parents responsible.

Don’t let our students nuke their burritos and burn down the cafeteria. And please, don’t let our students believe that the message of Christ is anything but a message of justice, compassion, and welcome to all, especially the refugee.

Allison Walter is a theology teacher and track coach. She was formerly press secretary with Faith in Public Life and policy education associate with NETWORK Lobby Organization in Washington, DC. She has also written for the National Catholic Reporter, Patheos, and Busted Halo.


Pope Francis Challenges Profit-Obsessed Capitalism and Our Complacency

As a certain group of right-wing American Catholics continues to promote free market fundamentalism—sometimes very amiably with rhetorical commitments to a (diminished) social  safety net and maybe even with a nod to an increase in the earned income tax credit—Pope Francis has once again affirmed the Church’s fundamental opposition to this ideology (however cleverly marketed) and the idolatry that often drives it.

While right-wing defenders of libertarian economics should be deeply challenged by the pope’s call for an economy of communion (along with over a century and a quarter of formal Catholic teaching), those of us who actually value Church teaching and orthodoxy should also reflect upon our own biases and assumptions. A market mentality permeates much of American culture, including the thinking of many in the center and even on the left. I sincerely doubt that, given my American background, I am immune from certain biases that pull me from identifying the best path to integral human development, global economic justice, and the common good.

It is easy to cast stones at Catholics who (against Church teaching) believe that access to food or healthcare is a privilege to be earned, rather than a right. It is easy to cast stones at those who delude themselves into believing that the economic growth under China’s state capitalism shows the efficacy of free enterprise and small government, or that the Great Depression and Great Recession were caused primarily by excessive government intervention in otherwise virtuous markets, or any other delusions that ideologues cook up while promoting policies that create the throwaway culture. It is much harder to check one’s own assumptions and ensure that we too are not complicit in this culture or guilty of being capitalists first and Christians second.

Here are some highlights of Francis’ speech on Saturday that should challenge all Americans to reflect on what we are doing (or not doing) to build a more just socio-economic system that serves all:

  1. We cannot understand the new Kingdom offered by Jesus if we do not free ourselves of idols, of which money is one of the most powerful.
  2. When capitalism makes the seeking of profit its only purpose, it runs the risk of becoming an idolatrous framework, a form of worship.
  3. Tax avoidance and evasion which, before being illegal acts, are acts which deny the basic law of life: mutual care.
  4. The principal ethical dilemma of this capitalism is the creation of discarded people, then trying to hide them or make sure they are no longer seen.
  5. The economy of communion, if it wants to be faithful to its charism, must not only care for the victims, but build a system where there are ever fewer victims, where, possibly, there may no longer be any. As long as the economy still produces one victim and there is still a single discarded person, communion has not yet been realized; the celebration of universal fraternity is not full.
  6. We must work toward changing the rules of the game of the socio-economic system.
  7. May the ‘no’ to an economy that kills become a ‘yes’ to an economy that lets live, because it shares, includes the poor, uses profits to create communion.

A Politics of Memory and Hope: The Catholic Political Ethos of In the Heights

During the last presidential election, it was not unusual for commentators to reference Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton as a counter-narrative to the rise of Donald Trump. The story of an immigrant, who was integrally involved in the American experiment, who was concerned about the dangers of populist politics in particular, resonated with many across the political spectrum. It functioned as an anti-narrative to Trump’s faux-populist, anti-immigrant political platform.

Yet, perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda’s political masterpiece is not the thoroughly re-imagined life of Alexander Hamilton but his first musical, In the Heights. In this musical about the gentrification of a once Dominican-American (and before that Irish) neighborhood in Washington Heights in New York City, Miranda artistically describes a culture that attends to both the importance of memory and the hopes of a future. It is precisely these two dispositions that must become the heart of a Catholic political culture in the age of an ideological and divisive politics in which human dignity is often forgotten by those who profess the credos of their respective parties.

A Politics of Memory

The act of remembering is a constant throughout In the Heights. There is the memory of immigrants, who have left behind their homeland, to discover in the United States something akin to a “new home.” There is the remembering of the neighborhood itself, which is undergoing significant changes because of the gentrification caused by hipsters (ironically now flocking to Hamilton but that’s a story for another time). Although Miranda does not himself say it, artisanal cheese shops are replacing neighborhood bodegas and hair salons where stories (and thus) human relationships are being forgotten. As Nina and Benny walk the neighborhood, they remember a world that is disappearing before their eyes.

The heart of this remembering is Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood’s grandmother who keeps alive the stories of each family. Her death is a moment in which each character encounters the dissolution of time and thus of place. Their stories, like many stories of that neighborhood before, will be forgotten.

This emphasis upon memory in the musical is the heart of the political vision of In the Heights. Memory is not a form of traditionalism whereby one simply refers back to some idealized past. After all, this comes to be the great foible of Usnavi in In the Heights—he imagines that he can return to the Dominican Republic as his home, all the while forgetting that his home is now where he was raised, where he has established particular relationships with others.

Memory is not traditionalism but a constant referring back to those narratives by which we must make sense of the present. And these memories are tied to particular places, not simply ideas. As Paul Connerton writes in his classic, How Societies Remember:

Groups provide individuals with frameworks within which their memories are localized and memories are localized by a kind of mapping. We situate what we recollect within the mental spaces provided by the group….It is our social spaces—those which we occupy, which we frequently retrace with our steps, where we always have access, which at each moment we are capable of mentally reconstructing—that we must turn our attention, if our memories are to reappear. Our memories are located within the mental and material spaces of the group. (37)

Thus, the restoration of a political culture must take place through attending to the public spaces that we share in common. A Catholic political philosophy is not fundamentally about ideas, about the creation of a utopia apart from particularity. It is always about the particularities of place, of time, of the spaces that we call home.

The danger of the present American political arena is that it forgets about the particularities of place, where political culture is actually lived in concrete human communities. Politics cannot simply be about regulations, laws, and elections. It is not an on-going drama whereby a certain elite class of citizens in Washington DC entertains the American citizenship whose eyes are glued to the carnival of excess. It is not the exercise of raw power for its own sake. Politics is about the ordering of local life toward the common good. As Pope Francis notes about the establishment of this local ecology: “Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlook the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes…need to be based in the local culture itself” (Laudato ‘Si, no. 144).

Both Democrats and Republicans seem to get this wrong. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike fail because they too often seek to create a global citizen (or financier), who is not attached to any local culture. They look with derision on those who choose to live in spaces outside of the city, committing themselves to a particular narrative that is often radically distinct from the one told by cultural elites. These are not backwards people, who need to get with the times. They may disagree with progressive and conservative politicians alike on social issues, on how to best take care of finances for the nation-state, even about what public education should include.

The Church has an important function here in holding up particular memories in these local communities. We read old texts, because what is passed on to us is a privileged source even now for present wisdom. We hold onto old buildings, because the stones themselves are steeped in memories of redemption both ancient and new. We acknowledge and foster the memories and cultures of local peoples, precisely because everything that is human may become a source of redemption—an image of divine love for us to contemplate. It is not enough for the Church to form consciences for faithful citizens every four years. Instead, like Abuela Claudia in In the Heights, we must become custodians of memory for a society that seeks increasingly to forget.

A Politics of Hope

It is because of this politics of memory that we dare to hope. In the Heights often concerns itself with the hopes of its residents. Vanessa wants to move uptown, away from the barrio, to the heart of uptown Manhattan. Usnavi wants to leave behind his bodega, opening a bar on a beach in the Dominican Republic. Kevin Rosario wants his daughter, Nina, to have possibilities for success that he couldn’t by obtaining her degree from Stanford. Dreaming is such a large part of In the Heights that much of its action revolves around the hope of winning the lottery.

There is a subtle critique throughout In the Heights relative to the rather limited “hopes” that many of the characters have. They want to win the lotto so that they can pay an entry fee to a business school and thus become a multi-millionaire engaged in business dealings on the golf course (with ironically now President Donald Trump as a caddy). They want to use the money to leave Washington Heights behind, fulfilling the American dream of “making it.” But the social conscience of In the Heights, Sonny, opens up alternative possibilities for what fulfillment of the American dream might look like:

Yo!

With ninety-six thousand, I’d finally fix housin’

Give the barrio computers with wireless web browsin’

Your kids are livin’ without a good edjumication

Change the station, teach ‘em about gentrification

The rent is escalatin’…

The rich are penetratin’…

We pay our corporations but we should be demonstratin’…

What about immigration?…

Politicians be hatin’…

Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant…

I’ll call my ticket and picket, invest in protest

Never lose my focus ‘til the city takes notice

And you know this man! I’ll never sleep

Because the ghetto has a million promises for me to keep! (“96,000”)

Sonny’s desire is to transform the particular place that he calls home. It is not to leave behind the place for the sake of his own individual success. He wants to bring the community of Washington Heights along.

It takes a long time for Usnavi to come to the same conclusion. Only after encountering the hopeful depiction of a graffiti artist’s series commemorating the death of Abuela Claudio does Usnavi realize what his dream must be:

I illuminate the stories of the people in the street

Some have happy endings

Some are bittersweet

But I know them all and that’s what makes my life complete

And if not me, who keeps our legacies?

Who’s gonna keep the coffee sweet with secret recipes?

Abuela, rest in peace, you live in my memories

But Sonny’s gotta eat, and this corner is my destiny (“Finale”).

Usnavi assumes his vocation as the one who remembers the people of Washington Heights, who undertakes responsibilities for the hopes expressed by Sonny. From memory comes hope.

Once again, the present political situation is short on hope. Political parties flourish (or at least politicians believe they will) through the inducement of fear. “Elect me or else the worst will occur” was the theme of the last presidential election. Yet, human beings can change the world precisely because human beings can dare to hope. This hope is not a memoryless hope that bypasses the particularity of local communities, of the wisdom passed on by our forebears. For it is a hope that sees the possibility of a present world that conforms itself more fully to the gift of love at the heart of existence itself. As Benedict XVI writes:

…every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed…every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom (Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, no. 25).

The Church most of all has a responsibility to perform this politics of hope. We dare to hope for a world in which the unborn, the immigrant, African-American men and women, the man sentenced to death row, every human being created in the image and likeness of God is treated as a person worthy of love.

This is not our present world. And sometimes, this world can be rather dark. But, through the witness of love, we hope that a new world conformed to divine love can take shape in local communities. This work of hope is at the heart of the Church’s effort of evangelization. We do not spurn the world, opting for some escape from the present age, but we take the world along with us toward the fullness of redemption. Because God first loved us, we can love the world.

In this way, In the Heights can function as a parable for the Church’s present mission of politics in this age. We pass on a memory of what authentic human flourishing can look like at the local level. Narrating this memory through our very lives, we learn to hope that human dignity can become not a political football between conservative and progressive Catholics or politicians but a form of life lived concretely in South Bend, in Washington DC, and in Charleston, SC.

It’s time for the Church to cease simply thinking about how we should vote. Instead, our work is to rebuild a political ethos outside the sphere of ideological politics that have poisoned the political well. We do so not as naïve millennials but as those who have attended to the memories of hope that manifest themselves in the Tradition that has given shape to our identity in late modern society.

Who knows? Perhaps, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s next musical will be about us.

Timothy P. O’Malley is director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.


Millennial’s Interview with Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego

At last month’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies conference on erroneous autonomy, Bishop Robert McElroy warned of “the growing imperialism of market mechanisms,” the technocratic paradigm, and populist nationalism. Bishop McElroy took a few minutes away from the conference to answer some questions from Millennial writer Daniel Petri on his speech and his analysis of contemporary American politics:


A Letter to My Younger Disillusioned Self, In a Time of Similar Upheaval

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The world you inhabit has suddenly become dark. You are seeing things you had, until this point, only read about in books. The brand of Christianity that you adhered to–that you wanted to lay it on the line for–has started to unravel under the weight of injustice. You will begin to shed layer after layer of piety.

In what becomes an act of bravado, you start to go to coffee shops on Sunday mornings instead of looking for a “Bible believing church” in your new city. When folks back home ask if you checked out their cousin’s fellowship, you smarmily reply that it is in the suburbs, a land of white privilege that doesn’t warrant your time or effort. When you do visit an urban church that seems promising (on a Sunday night–practically subversive), they happen to sing a chorus from your youth and you abruptly depart.

A family in the neighborhood where you are serving as a year-long volunteer dies in a fire that could have been prevented. Except that not everyone perished. The infant son is pushed up and out and over the iron bars on the windows that hemmed in the rest of the family as flames enveloped the house. Hesurvives. The poverty that led them to use the gas oven for heat persists all around. The stench of burnt vinyl siding lingers in the air for a few days afterward. You walk by the stoop daily and see a growing pile of fruit and candles, offerings for the deceased to take to the other side of life.

Soon, you will stop going to church altogether. No God you want to know would be alright with what you have seen in a few short months. The effects of addiction. The crippling poverty. The nightly sounds of battery and pop of gun shots. The alarm and confusion turns to anger and then to cynicism. A couple of teens from your after school program get picked up in a “sweep,” a common practice of rounding up young black men who “fit the description” of petty thieves and drug dealers. They remind you that it doesn’t pay to play by the rules because they will be targeted anyway, simply for the color of their skin and where they live.

By the time Mo gets shot, you are drinking your way through cynicism a few nights a week. You’ve stopped answering phone calls from some friends and family. You feel that you are too busy doing important work. Your only spare time is spent with the other full-time volunteers in your program. They are the only ones who “get it.” All the pain. All the brokenness. They’ve had the same conversations you’ve had with the dope-sick prostitutes on the avenue as you open the community center in the early morning. A friendly hello. A wave to the pimp nearby as you lock up late at night. This is normal now. Even welcome. No one back home would understand, so why try to explain or even describe it? Read More


Why We are Resisting

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We witnessed to the right to life of children in the womb on Friday, and we witnessed to the right to life of refugees yesterday.

I have been reflecting on the simple truth behind both actions.

Every single person is created with intrinsic dignity.

Every single person is a reflection of eternity, a little glimpse of all the beauty that is. Every single person is a microcosm of the wholeness and goodness of existence, created with the ability to leave his or her own selfishness behind for a profoundly greater reality. This is true even when it is costly, despite suffering, despite everything the world does to the contrary, and even despite the very real things you and I do that are complicit in evil.

Again, the basic human right to life does not depend on whether you are American or not, whether you have an identification card or not, whether you are in the womb or not, whether you are elderly or not, whether you can produce anything for society or not, whether you have this political belief or that religion, or whether anyone on this earth wants you. Every human being has a right to continue to live, which is the foundation of so many other rights.

Therefore, it is evil to make a “living” killing children in the womb. It is evil to abandon their mothers or whisper to them, “Wouldn’t it be easier if….” It is evil to say to those who are kicked to the edge of the world, “Our lives are easier without you.” It is evil to turn away the refugee fleeing lethal violence. It is evil to make war for the sake of self-interest. It is evil to distract ourselves from the broken person at our door. It is evil to destroy the environment on which we all depend, especially the poorest and future generations.

This is the time when fluffy ideas about tolerance break down. Every right implies responsibility on the part of others. We need more than tolerance if tolerance means “do whatever you want but leave me alone.” We need a clear vision of what is good, and we need to challenge each other to be good. Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

Let us admire and imitate the greatness of those who live on the side of the most vulnerable—not just vote that way, whatever on earth that would mean, but live their lives there. We are all broken in some way. I am broken, you are broken. Everyone who styles himself or herself as “winning” or “on the side of progress” is broken, too. So if we are all broken, yet capable of greatness, all the more must we care for those who are unimaginably desperate to the point of risking their own lives and/or the lives of their family members. We all need a family, a community, a society and culture that says, “You are good, you are valued, and—where the rubber hits the road—we will make sacrifices so that you and your children can have a dignified life.” That is our responsibility.

I’m sharing a vision here, one I wish I knew exactly how to make real. The specifics are up for debate. But there’s no other way than together. Let us strive for a world where all are welcome, supported, cared for, and forgiven, but first of all the most vulnerable. Let us grieve, let us beg forgiveness, and let us take the next step together, resisting evil, resisting complacency, and resisting the use of language to obscure the truth, whether on the right or the left.

The Lord gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.
The Lord lifts up the downtrodden, he casts the wicked to the ground.
(Ps 147)