Our Christian Attitudes towards Migrants
Have you ever wondered where birds fly to during the winter? We imagine the birds flying in formation in search of warmer clime but if you go to Bataan during the bird migration months you need not wonder. In its capital Balanga, Bataan boasts of the unique “Ibong Dayo Festival,” a showcase of different species of migratory birds at the Wetland and Nature Park in Barangay Tortugas. It has now become a tourist attraction of the city. The Association of Tourism Officers of the Philippines handed Balanga the Pearl Award for its friendly locality and well protected aviary sanctuary, the Ibong Dayo Festival. The festival has become a very popular destination spot for tourists and local residents alike.
The Asian Water-bird Census puts at 25,935 the number of birds that flock to the wetlands of Barangay Tortugas. That is a pretty exact number and you must be wondering how the Census arrived at it. I don’t know myself but it just goes to show that there are people keeping count of the birds that fly our skies.
These birds usually come from China or Australia (whose winter months are November to February and June to September, respectively) obviously to avoid the harsh winter and being frozen to death. They stay in tropical waters such as ours, and especially in Balanga with its sunshine, fertile rice paddies and abundant seashells along its shorelines of Manila Bay.
The birds brave strong winds and the tiring flights of thousands of miles to find warm shelter. They are rewarded by the hearty welcome of avid birdwatchers and the hospitable local people who do not catch them, fire at them with stones or slingshots, and shoo them away. In a manner of speaking the birds become members, albeit temporary, of the community, of the barangay.
When you see those birds you will understand the zealousness of the bird-watchers and the bird-lovers, and admire, too, the avians’ unique beauty. They are a portrait of strength, courage and resiliency as they fly from one country to another. They present art with their many vibrant, brilliant hues, and their different sizes. They enthrall with the melodious sounds they produce. The migratory birds can easily integrate themselves in their surroundings and quickly adapt to the social conditions of the place.
One clear and sunny day I found myself at Barangay Tortugas, watching the migratory birds. Seeing them, I couldn’t help but think of our migrants and itinerant people, because like the birds, they fly off to foreign shores in search of better conditions for earning a living. Amidst nature I began composing a reflection on our Christian attitude towards migrants. I thought of three important attitudes we should take on towards migrants:
First, to recognize and not to ridicule
Second, to respect and not to reject
And lastly, to receive and not to discriminate
First. To recognize and not to ridicule
The Book of Genesis tells us that God “created man in his image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27). How wonderful this is! We are different but we are the same because we are all from God, made in His image and likeness. He created us with equal dignity. We are all equal before His eyes and He shares with each one of us all that He has. Thus, no one is above or below; no one has more or less. We have all been given our rightful share.
In His goodness, God gifts us with skills; and through His grace we are blessed with talents. The Book of Genesis concludes that “God saw all that he has had made, and it was very good” (1:31). Thus no one is useless; no one is helpless; and no one is hopeless. There is good and beauty in each of us. It is the beauty and goodness of God
And that is what we have to recognize in everyone. That is what we have to acknowledge in those we meet and encounter along the road of life. But what do we often see?
I think of this poor, bedraggled boy, in dirty and worn-out clothes. Other boys would taunt him for being a Catholic. But he would not repay their taunting and instead kept quiet, remaining loyal to his faith.
A friend asked him, “Does your God love you?” He replied, “Yes, He loves me so much.” The friend egged him further, “If your God loves you, why does He not take good care of you? Why does he not tell people to help you and give you clothes?” The boy answered back, “Oh, but God loves me. He always tells people to help me. He whispers to children not to make fun of me. But most of the time many are not listening to Him; they are deaf to His promptings.”
It is the same with our migrants. Whoever and whatever they are they should not be objects of ridicule and laughing matter because of their speech, their clothes, and their idiosyncrasies. They should not be made fun of or be the butt of jokes because of their physical looks, or even of the way they walk. They should not be shunned and excluded because of their social status and their native customs and practices.
The Christian attitude towards our migrants involves recognizing their individuality, uniqueness, and otherness. Thus we must expand our horizons and not be limited to ourselves and the small circle of people who are like us. We should not be exclusive but inclusive, embracing the humanity of others. Our Church is for all; it is universal, Catholic. She includes all, and excludes no one.
Our Church shows her universality by welcoming, accepting and treating all equally. In her, no one is seen or considered a stranger, a foreigner, since all are her children. There is no hostility, no contempt. Truly in the words of Saint John Paul II, “nella Chiesa nessuno e’ estrainero” (in the Church no one is a stranger).
Second. To respect and not to reject.
In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Jesus tells us “I am a stranger and you welcomed me into your house” (25:36). Yes, we may come from different regions or undergo different formations. Yes, we may have contrary opinions or different tastes. Yes, we may have our own personal likes and dislikes, and may have not undergone the same upbringing; but this does not mean that we are antagonists and that our differences should lead to unnecessary clashes or violent conflicts or offensive commentaries.
We should show respect; we should regard the other person, the migrant or itinerant, as a human person with the dignity proper to a child of God. Thus we must not reject them or avoid their company. Our temperaments will not always align, we are of varying color, culture and creed, but these should never lead us to pre-judgment or to feelings of superiority. We are all equal in the eyes of God.
This is the Christian attitude that is asked of us: to accept and respect others; to trust them; to know them by name, not by numbers; to relate to them happily and harmoniously; and not to label them with demeaning tags, but only as the children of God.
There is a religious priest assigned in a missionary island. Let us say he is an SVD (Society of the Divine Word) missioner. His early morning routine sees him going out of his house to cross the street and he stops at the middle of the street. He looks to the north and sees no one. He turns to the east and sees nobody. Then he moves towards west and again sees no one. Finally he faces the south and finds no one. With a sigh of relief, he looks up to Heaven and prays “thank you O God, I am alone here and there is no SVD.”
Man is social being. We exist for one another. We need each other. In the Church no one is left alone. No one is taken for granted. No one is set aside. Our Church has room for everyone. Her door is open to all. Her reach is far and wide.
The Christian attitude towards our migrants is to respect them and acknowledge their rights. And we should not reject them, nor avoid them or to fear them. We must consider them as one of us, like us with equal dignity and with inherent human rights.
Pope Benedict XVI affirms that migrants are entitled to hear the kerygma, which is to be proposed, not imposed. If they are Christians, they require forms of pastoral care which can enable them to grow in the faith and to become in turn messengers of the Gospel” (Verbum Domini, 105).
Lastly, to receive and not to recriminate.
In the Gospel of Saint Luke Jesus tells us, “Let the children come to me and don’t stop them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (18:16). We look up to good and worthy people. We admire and even imitate them. We follow or obey them because we are always on the move, going forward and going up. Man should not passive but active so as not to remain stagnant. A dynamic person should not be resigned to a miserable situation or condition. He/she should move to a better place where he/she can experience his/her full potential.
There is always the aspiration for growth, even for glory. There is always change or a second chance. We want to improve our lives. We desire to give the best and what is most beneficial to our loved ones. So we search for this better life, even sailing off to distant shores to find it.
Thus we must receive those whom we encounter along the road of life, just as they also must receive us. We walk with them. We walk together. We don’t recriminate them; on the contrary, we should also invite them, “Come and stay with us” (Luke 24:29).
Let us always remember that God will not withdraw or walk away from us. God will not give up on us. He gives to us everything we need so that we can move forward in life, and increase in His grace. In His divine plan God moves people to help and assist us. His will is for us to always experience fresh hope and discover new opportunities so that we can refresh our lives and renew other people’s lives as well.
The Christian attitude towards our migrants is to receive them without reservation and without any condition. This means that we foster healthy interaction and pleasant relationships with one another and with the people of the place. Our Church has shown deep and great interest in the pastoral care, well-being and development of migrants, taking it as her obligation and responsibility by assigning priests and bishops like me to this ministry. The Church calls on all who are affected by and involved with migration her children. The Church, as a mother is impelled by maternal instinct to care and love, to protect and pastor them, to receive them and provide them safety, security and above all, spiritual assistance.
To all our migrants and itinerants we are called to minister to them in the manner that our Lord Jesus Christ told Saint Peter, “Feed, and look after my sheep” (John 21:16).
As I retraced my steps back to my car a group of children came to me and kissed my ring. One of them asked, “Will you be back, bishop?” I joyfully replied, “Yes, of course I will.” They excitedly promised, “We will wait for you, and will welcome you.”
Indeed that became my prayer to conclude my reflection: that somewhere out there are people who would welcome our migrants with child-like joy and innocence, and that upon their return to their native land there would be wide opened arms to embrace them.
Like the migratory birds of Barangay Tortugas they fly to habitats to escape the cold and the harshness of winter, and return again to the sunshine embrace of their kin and to the warmth of their true homes.