As we Columbans enter into our second century of mission to the world, I would not have imagined myself returning to the United States to do home mission. When I was ordained in the year 2000, I envisioned myself serving in the foreign missions for my entire life eventually dying "with my boots on." However, at the close of our first century I found myself returning home after 17 years in Chile, South America. It was hard to leave a land and people that I came to consider as my own. Yet, a sense of urgency came over me as I entered into my home mission.
I was confronted by a nation that had completely changed since I left it in 2000. The social and political climates have become very polarized. And one of the central issues of the polarization is immigration. I found myself looking to the past and finding guidance from my deceased grandfather, Augustine Ramirez, as I mission forward in the next 100 years.
My grandfather Auggie, as many called him, was born in Leon de Mexico and came to the United States illegally when he was an adolescent. He was a migrant worker for many years. Eventually, he settled in Topeka, Kansas, where he became a city bus driver. There he married my grandmother Maria de Jesus (Jesse) and began a family. In time, he began his own janitorial business and worked the business until the age of 92. He passed away in January 2011 at the age of 96.
At his funeral an elderly gentleman, Billy Gomez, came forward to tell me a story about riding my grandfather's bus route to and from school as a young boy. One day Billy was very sick and on the way home he lost consciousness. When he had awakened, Billy was at the front door of his house. My grandfather, breaking city regulations and risking being fired, had driven off his bus route and drove several blocks on the side streets to deliver Billy into the arms of his mother. It was similar to Jesus healing the crippled man on the Sabbath (Matthew 12: 10-15) violating the Sabbath laws. Like Jesus, my grandfather believed compassion was not limited by law.
Today, my grandfather's experience would describe the reality of the many DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) dreamers living in the U.S. Although blessed with a long and healthy life, for many years my grandfather lived in fear of being deported. He had come to consider the United States his home. He was an avid Kansas State Wildcat football fan and wore the purple and grey (K State's colors) with pride. He paid taxes and social security for decades knowing that without citizenship he would never receive those benefits. But, what terrified him most was the possibility of being separated from his family.
Therefore, after being in the country for more than 60 years and finally having a comfortable economic condition to pay for the naturalization process, my grandfather took the first steps to become a U.S. citizen. Finally, in 1994 at the age of 80, he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Given my grandfather's legacy, and the Biblical imperative to welcome the stranger and foreigner (Exodus 22: 21; Deuteronomy 10: 19; Matthew 25: 31-46), I felt compelled to direct my pastoral efforts in my home mission to accompany our brothers and sisters from other lands. Currently, I visit Hispanics in a local jail who have been detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for illegal entry into the U.S. Many had escaped violent and difficult economic situations, looking for a better life for themselves and their families. One such example is Juan from Guatemala. Juan had witnessed his grandmother murdered by gangs as a young adolescent. Afterwards, the gangs tried to recruit him. "Join or Die" was the motto. Having no family left in Guatemala and no security, Juan left his home country to join his family in the U.S. Arriving here, Juan found work in restaurants and construction. He committed no crime except arriving illegally. One day, while driving, Juan had a flat tire which caused him to have a minor car accident. The police asked for documentation, and not having any, Juan was detained. Juan pleaded for asylum but, unfortunately, was deported back to Guatemala.
I don't know what happened to Juan, but I always pray for his safety. Juan's story is like many others I have visited and talked to. I can't ignore their plight. In Juan, I see my legacy, I see my grandfather. Bringing compassion to a difficult situation is my grandfather's legacy, and a Columban priority for the next 100 years.
Columban Fr. Chris Saenz lives and works in Bellevue, Nebraska.