Maryknoll Lay Missioner Heidi Cerneka reflects on the Gospel call to respond to our neighbors in need.
Written in 2019
What parent among us will give our child a snake when she asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg?
We are called today by these scripture readings, by the Gospel, by Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, and by our own communities to wake up in the night, get out of our comfortable beds and give our neighbor the bread she asks for.
We are called to hear the knock at our door and respond.
It is not an easy call. Sometimes we do not know if we have enough bread for tomorrow, for our home and family but we are also reminded in the Gospel that we turn to God to trust that we will have our daily bread. Jesus says clearly, “ask and you shall receive. Knock and it will be opened to you.”
Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month old daughter Valeria knocked at the door and asked for asylum. They were turned back to Mexico in a dangerous U.S. policy that is allowing the government to reject asylum seekers and leave them homeless and penniless in Juarez, Mexico, for months if not years, waiting to act upon their legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.
When the U.S. government refused them and returned them to Mexico, they likely faced threats, violence, hunger and despair. And so, denied the right to ask for asylum at a legal port of entry, they crossed the Rio Grande to reach U.S. soil and ask for asylum.
On June 24, 2019, the father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande as they were crossing from Mexico into Texas near Brownsville. The photo of their bodies in the river went viral.
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso is keenly aware of this reality and actively supports the ministry with migrants in his diocese. Three days after the deaths in the river, he went to Juarez, Mexico, to pray with migrants and accompany a family seeking asylum at the border. His action was one of solidarity and a call to greater justice.
In his statement that day, Bishop Seitz said, “In the America of today, is there no more Golden Rule? Have we forgotten the lessons of Scripture? Have we forgotten the commandment to love? Have we forgotten God? But here on the border, he knocks.”
Living in El Paso, at a crossroads of the United States and Mexico, is excruciating.
I hear, see and feel the suffering of people who flee for their lives, who flee to protect their children’s lives, and have a door slammed shut in their faces. As an immigration attorney, I meet people who pour out stories of torture, police violence, government threats and extortion, and people who talk about the dangers of waiting in Juarez to present their cases. My heart breaks again and again each time I hear that a government authority decided that they are not in danger, they do not “deserve” asylum, they are not our problem.
Humanity is resilient, though, and people continue to hope against all odds. Solidarity and faith-based actions for justice inspire people to protect God among us by putting water in the desert and sheltering the homeless. Thousands of volunteers give time and compassion, countless others pray for justice and love, and only God knows how many contribute money to support organizations that shelter and feed the migrants and fight for justice.
We don’t give up. Our job is to open the door, to welcome the stranger, to give our child a fish and not a snake. We believe in hope and in justice.
God hears the clamor of injustice and turns to Sodom and Gomorrah. At the same time, God listens to Abraham’s question, and agrees that 10 people acting justly can save the 1000. It does not mean we can sit back as part of the 990 and trust that ten people are worthy of saving, or that we can assume we are one of the 10. But it gives us hope that when the cries of sin and evil are overwhelming, that hope is not lost.
We are people of faith. We must do what is right for our sisters and brothers, for our neighbors, and not just protect our own households. We must trust in the God that guides us. We must trust that God will give us each day our daily bread, that if we knock, God will be there to open a way. We must be the hands of God that give bread, open the door even when it is in the middle of the night and we are warm in our beds, and that seek justice for every one of God’s beloved people.
Maryknoll Lay Missioner Heidi Cerneka served as a pro bono immigration attorney in El Paso, Texas from 2019-2022.
Photo: Heidi Cerneka at Las Americas Legal Clinic, El Paso, Texas, 2020. Photo courtesy of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.