“Immersion programs & our Christian response to immigration and the immigrant”, or

“How do we welcome the other in our land when they have so often welcomed us in their lands?”

Jim Petkiewicz

San Jose, CA




Thank you(s)



As we just heard from 4 of Bellarmine’s inspirational student-leaders, the poor have stories to share with us, and lived examples to gift us, of how to persevere with faith, hope, love, tears and laughter in the face of grinding poverty.  Let’s bring to the forefront of our memories some of the El Salvadoran people that the Bell students mentioned:

–      Daniel’s father who chose to stay with his family in Agua Escondida instead of emigrating,

–      Joseph’s grandmother who persists in spite of her husband’s murder by the gangs,

–      David’s little brother, Alex, with the spark in his eye,

–      Arsenia, the amazing teacher,

–      Zulma, with her spunk and rambunctiousness, and

–      Anita Ortiz, and the Martyrs of El Salvador, including the Maryknollers; and since my wife & I, and our 2 sons served with Maryknoll for 8 years this is profoundly personal for me.


In their lives we see that poverty doesn’t narrow the range of the human condition.  Rather, we meet “the poor” as individuals.  Sometimes we have to travel great distances to open ourselves to the possibility of developing these relationships.  We find in their resiliency, their dedication, their creativity, and their open embrace of the Bellarmine reverse-migrants, universal kernels of the wisdom of what it means to welcome the stranger.


In this increasingly globalized world- where supplies and products travel more freely than people- what does it mean to us, in our lives, to welcome the stranger, the poor, the undocumented, the migrant?  How do we recognize the global relationship we share with all people, most importantly, the marginalized?


In Leviticus (19:33-34) we read, “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


Joseph & Mary were strangers in their own land.  They were poor, undocumented and homeless as they searched for a safe place for the birth of Christ.  They were not welcomed by their neighbors.  There was no room for them.  They were pushed to the neglected and forgotten area of their community.  And their child had to be born in a barn.


But that was no mistake.  It was a deliberate choice of our tripartite God to radically manifest God’s love for all, particularly the poor, through Jesus’ birth.  Jesus is the only human in the history of the planet to choose exactly to whom, when, where and how to be born.  God’s choice, as example and lesson.


So, what should our Christian response be to the Josephs and Marys, the Joses y Marias, of today?  We have been lovingly welcomed by the other in their lands; how do we welcome the other in our land?  How have we welcomed the stranger, the poor, the undocumented, the migrants into our lives?  My grandparents were poor, undocumented migrants from Ireland, Poland & Lithuania; so the question is very personal for me.


Well, I would posit that one brilliant example of how we are called by our faith to respond can be found in the way that the people of Agua Escondida welcome the Bell community into their hearts and souls every year.


How different would the cultural and socio-political realities of Silicon Valley be if we lived out the values and the spirit of the Agua Escondida community in our hometowns on a daily basis?


Through the work in Latin America of one of the organizations I have co-founded, Community Links International, I sometimes receive criticism here in the USA that goes something like this, “Why are you dedicating so much effort to those people when we have so many needs in our own country?”


Ephesians (2:11-21) teaches us, “…you are no longer strangers and sojourners but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”


We are all one community, inter-connected in the 21st century, more than ever.  And if the people of El Salvador, or Mexico, or Peru can teach me- through the privilege of my trip to them- what it means to be a Christian neighbor, and I can bring that wisdom back to the place where I live, study and work;

and if they can do the same with our students, our colleagues, our friends and families;

then, getting to know the sacred in the stranger through an immersion program serves, for me, as a vibrant sign of the grace of God actively present in our lives.


As the indigenous of Chiapas demanded of us in 1995 when we took a Peace caravan- EXPOUND WITH DETAILS- from Oaxaca City into the heart of the disputed region between the Zapatistas and the Mexican military, “No nos dejen solos!”  “Don’t leave us alone!  Don’t forget about us!”


The cognitive dissonance catalyzed by an immersive experience- moving from the head to the heart in those psycho-spiritual spaces of stretching, questioning and tension where we create the chance for deep change and growth- can happen anywhere, anytime we move beyond our comfort zone with energy, openness and humility.


It can happen in El Salvador.  It can happen in Watsonville.  Or just as easily in our very own San Jose.  We merely need to act on the example of Jesus’ birth, and the courage of our faith convictions, and place ourselves squarely on the edges of our own, restrictive comfort zones.


The local options for solidarity and collaboration are many.  Just to name a few:

–      the Diocesan Justice for Immigrants network,

–      many active groups in local parishes,

–      the young and vibrant South Bay DREAMers Coalition,

–      Somos Mayfair,

–      SIREN: Service, Immigrants’ Rights & Education Network,

–      Sacred Heart Community Services,

–      the Center for Employment Training, and

–      The Mountain View Dayworker Center,

–      to name barely the tip of the iceberg.


Now, I can’t dictate to you how you should design your own faith responses to the causes and realities of immigration, nor how you should interact with the immigrants in your life.  I don’t have that right; and it’s way too much responsibility for me to bear.  I have enough of that challenge in my own life!


But, I do know that as responsible citizens and people of faith we are called, on a daily basis, to push ourselves to the margins, to recognize the face of God in the stranger, and to stand in solidarity with the poor, even if it makes us uncomfortable.


Indeed, especially if it makes us uncomfortable.



Thanks for your time.  God bless.


And, Fr. Shinney please, “Go Bells!”


About Community Links International

Community Links is an environmental, service-learning, immersion, volunteer, and international educational organization.
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