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Over recent years in culture, there have been polarizing conversations on immigration, the status of refugees and those who are seeking asylum. I’m not about to open up a political can of worms here, yet I feel deeply that many of these conversations can be condensed into this simple premise.

Consider the early years of the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

At nine months pregnant, Mary traveled over rocky, hilly country with Joseph to be enrolled in the town of his birth. After the delivery of her son and still postpartum, they left in the night as refugees to flee an evil king seeking to murder their baby. Then, they lived in a foreign land — no family support, no longtime friends, a different culture and language — they had no one but each other. 

The Holy Family deeply understood the experience of what it was to be refugees. Whenever we have a conversation related to this topic, let’s begin from this reality.

In his 2023 address for the Church’s 109th celebration the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis pointed out the similarities between many migrants today and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt — both decisions made without freedom. “Conflicts, natural disasters, or simply the impossibility of living a dignified and prosperous life in one’s native land is forcing millions of persons to leave,” he said, “Eliminating these causes and thus putting an end to forced migration calls for shared commitment on the part of all, in accordance with the responsibilities of each. This commitment begins with asking what we can do, but also what we need to stop doing. We need to make every effort to halt the arms race, economic colonialism, the plundering of other people’s resources and the devastation of our common home…efforts must be made to ensure everyone an equal share in the common good, respect for his or her fundamental rights, and access to an integral human development.”

As the Church celebrates the World Day of Migrants and Refugees on September 24 this year, it is helpful for Catholics to understand why this conversation is important — a conversation of human dignity, the right to life and respect.

Before going any further, I find it helpful to define terms so we can all fully understand what is meant by the terms refugee and migrant. The term “refugee” refers to a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. The term “migrant” refers to a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on refugees, migrants and immigration is both deeply rooted in Sacred Scripture and the social doctrine, Catholic Social Teaching.

If you are looking for a robust understanding of the Church’s teachings in these important matters, start with the document, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, written by the US Catholic bishops in 2000.

The USCCB states, “It is a core Catholic teaching that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God and is therefore entitled to human dignity and respect. The Catholic Church views assisting those in need as a fundamental Christian duty that is directly derived from the life of mercy of Christ, who himself was an immigrant and a child of refugees.” In 2011, the US Catholic bishops wrote a letter stating Church teaching on vulnerable migrant populations. It is worth your time to read.

Uniting in both prayer and action are the best ways for Catholics to be both knowledgeable and advocates for those who need our help.

In the local metro Detroit area, there are several organizations you can support and get involved in that support refugees in Detroit.

Refugee Resettlement Program with Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan — This local outreach works in several Metro Detroit counties and helps refugees settle and rebuild new lives in the local area. There are a variety of ways you can get involved and help support these families as they create a better life for themselves and their children.

Southwest Detroit Immigrant and Refugee Center — The largest provider of free and low-cost legal service to Southeast Michigan’s vulnerable communities has clinics in Pontiac and Detroit’s Eastside. This community group is doing the work of justice and advocacy by providing low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees seeking to make a home in the city of Detroit. Even if you’re not a lawyer, there are ways and opportunities for you to get involved and support this work.

May we never forget the needs of our sisters and brothers who struggle and ache for freedom from oppression and dream of a better life as we reflect on these words of Pope Francis:

God, Father Almighty,
grant us the grace to work tirelessly
for justice, solidarity and peace,
so that all your children may enjoy
the freedom to choose whether to migrate or to stay.

Grant us the courage to denounce
all the horrors of our world,
and to combat every injustice
that mars the beauty of your children
and the harmony of our common home.

Sustain us by the power of your Spirit,
so that we can reflect your tender love
to every migrant whom you place in our path,
and to spread in hearts and in every situation
the culture of encounter and of care.