Temple Achduth Vesholom, Fort Wayne
I wish to begin by thanking Rabbi Javier Cattapan for the kind invitation to speak at this annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. How important and beautiful it is for the diverse religious communities of Fort Wayne to gather in friendship and solidarity. On Thanksgiving, we remember the pilgrims in the Massachusetts colony. Well, we are all pilgrims on this earth – pilgrims of truth and peace, commonly engaged as people of faith conscious of our responsibility for one another, for our world, and for the whole of creation. We must live and work together to assist the poor, the needy and those who suffer as well as to promote justice, reconciliation, and peace.
We are called to respect each others’ noble religious traditions. The genuine patrimony of our religious traditions is the basis of our common efforts to awaken the ethical consciousness of our respective members to generate a much-needed spiritual and moral rebirth in our society.
We gather this evening in mutual respect for one another. Mutual respect is essential for interreligious relations to flourish and grow. “Respect” means “an attitude of kindness towards people for whom we have consideration and esteem. ‘Mutual’ means that this is not a one-way process, but something shared by all” (Pope Francis). We respect each other’s religion, its teachings, its symbols and values. We respect one another’s ethnic and cultural identity. When we respect each other and each other’s religion, we build relationships which can grow into sincere and lasting friendships. Our gathering this evening is a sign of our mutual respect and friendship.
We also gather this evening in solidarity. When we have mutual respect and grow in friendship, this naturally gives rise to a sense of solidarity with others. We realize that, regardless of our religious differences, all of us belong to the one human family. The promotion of a culture of solidarity is an imperative in the world today, especially in the context of a materialism that disregards spiritual and religious values and in the context of an individualism that neglects the common good. In Brazil this past summer, Pope Francis said that in the end, a “culture of solidarity means seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but as brothers and sisters.” A culture of true solidarity requires the effort of us all in service of the common good. Through friendship and solidarity as brothers and sisters, we strengthen our community. Some years ago, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated that “the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole.”
I was asked to speak this evening a bit about our community’s embrace of immigrants. This is part of what I’ve been speaking about in terms of a “culture of solidarity.” I could speak at length about the issue of immigration since the Catholic Church has a large body of teaching on this topic and comprehensive immigration reform is one of the top priorities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But, in the context of our gathering this evening, I will present some thoughts that elucidate the principles I think we share as people of faith. We look at this issue from the perspective of our belief in the intrinsic dignity of every human person and our responsibility to protect the human rights and dignity of our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters.
Here in this Jewish synagogue (temple), I am reminded of the story of the Exodus. Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and, for forty years, they lived as migrants, with no homeland of their own. From this migrant experience, the Israelites learned a deep appreciation for the plight of strangers and aliens, people they believed they were called to welcome and to whom they owed hospitality. Thus we read in the book of Exodus God’s instruction: “You shall not oppress an alien; you will know how it feels to be an alien, since you were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9). In the book of Leviticus, similarly God commands: “You shall treat the stranger who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you. Have the same love for him as for yourself, for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33-34). Care for the stranger and justice for the immigrant are recurring themes in the Bible, reflections of the great commandment to love one’s neighbor. I imagine that similar teachings are found in the various religious traditions represented here this evening.
For Christians, the most direct instruction for us comes from the words of Jesus in the parable of the last judgment: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Christians believe that in welcoming the immigrant, as in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and clothing the naked, in doing these things to the least of our brothers and sisters, we are doing them to Jesus” (Mt 25). In turning them away, we are turning away Jesus and are, in the end, condemned. For me personally, these words of Jesus are the most powerful motivation for my Church’s pastoral concern for migrants and refugees and our responsibility to “welcome the stranger among us.”
What is primary for all of us in relation to how we look upon immigrants in our community is not their national, religious, or ethnic background, or their status as documented or undocumented. First and foremost, we recognize them as our brothers and sisters in the human family, as persons with an intrinsic dignity that must always be respected and safeguarded. For many of us, we believe that the deepest foundation of this dignity is the fact of being created in God’s own image and likeness. We don’t value people according to criteria of efficiency, productivity, social class, nor religious or ethnic background. We don’t look at immigrants and refugees as representing merely a problem to be solved, but as brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected, and loved. Pope Francis has said that “they are an occasion that Providence gives us to help build a more just society, a more perfect democracy, a more united country, and a more fraternal world.” We must work together to eliminate prejudices in the approach to immigration as well as attitudes of fear, indifference, and marginalization. Too often immigrants may encounter mistrust, rejection, and exclusion. Some of these brothers and sisters have even suffered as victims of human trafficking or other exploitation – grave sins that our interreligious community unites in deploring. In the face of these realities, we must stand together with attitudes and actions expressing solidarity, acceptance, and genuine fraternity. We are called to a spirit of profound solidarity and compassion for our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters through our acceptance and hospitality.
Fort Wayne is now the home of many immigrants and refugees. Our Catholic Charities, as you may know, has helped resettle many of these brothers and sisters from Burma and other countries. We have a significant population of Latino immigrants. I wish to thank all of you for your efforts and help, not only materially, but spiritually, in offering hospitality, kindness, and compassion to these our neighbors. I pray we continue to cooperate and collaborate in a spirit of profound solidarity and compassion.
Pope Francis has said to the world that “migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more.” Poverty is one of the main reasons for migration. Persecution is another. These root causes need to be addressed by the international community. But even here in our own community, we must be concerned and active in our promotion of religious freedom and economic justice both at home and abroad.
It is amazing to see the many local organizations and agencies here in Fort Wayne devoted to charity, inspired or run by our various religious communities, opportunities also for our ecumenical and interreligious cooperation and work together. At Thanksgiving, we are all reminded of this call to charity. Charitable service is a wonderful way for us to work together and grow in friendship among our various religious communities.
Before concluding, there is one aspect of the immigration debate in our country that I wish to highlight for us all. It is a great area of concern of us Catholic bishops, a concern I believe we share: family unity. Reform is desperately needed to prevent the break-up of families that has happened to immigrants in our country and also here in Fort Wayne. We share a belief in the dignity and importance of marriage and the family. Immigration reform must include as a priority the reunification of separated families. I pray we will be united in this cause of preserving and protecting the family unity of immigrants and refugees.
Our mutual respect and solidarity this evening as people of faith extends to all in our community, including our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters. May no one in our community feel like a stranger! Every person is a neighbor to be loved without conditions. May we continue to grow in solidarity and friendship, faithful to the moral truths and values that unite us! May God bless you!