Wednesday, October 10, 2018

This column first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Comboni Missions
Aliens: The Truth Is Out There

Recently someone asked me to write something from a “personal, missionary perspective” to explain the increasing opposition to “aliens” in our country. Actually, the fact that the word alien is used gives you a good idea of the prejudice behind the question. Since this is personal, I will limit my thoughts to mid-America, which is where we live. It is the America I know best. And because the perspective is missionary, it may shake you up.

Our past
Let me start with a quote:

“When the hordes of other lands are permitted to come here, as is the case daily; when ignorance, poverty, crime is allowed to land upon our shores and be transformed, hardly without ceremony, and with no time to learn the nature of our institutions, into what is called the American citizens-when these things are done, it is time that good men lifted their arms and sounded their voices against the abomination.” (The Know-Nothing: and American Crusader, July 15, 1854)

The “hordes of other lands” were the German and Irish Catholic immigrants. It echoes the feelings of John Jay, first chief justice of the Supreme Court, warning against “Catholic alien invaders:” “We should build a wall of brass around the country.” A wall, imagine that!
By 1924, a quota system was invented to keep Italians and other undesirables from coming to damage the WASP system. Change German and Irish into Latinos, Syrians, Muslim, and you have the 2018 version of the American xenophobic, racist streak. It’s in the genes!

Why is America such an easy prey for xenophobia? Mine is not a scholarly answer. It comes from being a foreign-born WWII survivor with sixty years of experience in mid-America and an entire missionary life spent covering the globe. 

Lack of Information
Courtesy UN photo
First of all, the average American’s ignorance about the world is staggering. For a large portion of mid-America, the world is divided into two parts. One is the “over here,” where we live. The other is the “down there,” where the rest of humanity lives. It’s Us over here and Them down there. Given a world map, too many of Us can’t find the countries belonging to Them. 
 These countries have a history that explains why they are who they are, just like us. Some, like Syria and Iran (Persia), go back thousands of years. Others, like Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Saudi Arabia are the results of world wars and oil wars. Some of these countries do not like us because we have negatively meddled in their own affairs, Iran being a case in point. 

Others among Them insist on wanting to come north. Nowadays, many are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. There must be a reason, right? They are fleeing the results of local corruption and of our own military and economic oppression that has included and often still include, genocide, death squads, gangs, and land-grabbing. We reap what we sow. If you think I am making this up, Google some of this stuff. Just to get you started, look up Rios Montt, convicted of genocide, and his love affair with Ronald Reagan and Pat Robertson, and see what comes up. 

More could be said, but I am just trying to whet your appetite. 

Lack of Personal Experience
By the time I was nine, I had already seen and survived more action than some of our people in uniform will ever see: air raids, crossing bombed railway bridges, Panzers rolling into town, Nazi occupation, Resistance underground activity, and hunger. In third grade, posters in my classroom did not teach us how to cross the street. They had pictures of hand grenades, mines, booby traps, and other deadly devices we were taught to avoid. Perhaps that’s why I strongly sympathize with Syrian refugees and the survivors of Guatemala’s genocide and Salvadoran death squads. 

Courtesy UNHCR
By the grace of God, mid-America lacks this experience because when we fight a war, we prefer to go and blow up someone else’s country, either personally or by proxy. Your neighborhood was never bombed while your kids were in school and you were at work, nor did you have to risk being blown to bits as you ventured across town to go scavenging for food. You and your children never stood against a wall with submachine guns pointed at you. You never had to walk downtown to see the rubble of what was left of it.

The refugee families knocking at our door have seen it all and worse. You need to learn how to practice sympathy and solidarity.

The Triumph of the Irrational
Ignorance begets fear and fear begets hatred. If we do not know Them, we are likely to be afraid of them. That’s when a demagogue can play on our fears and turn them into hatred. In our case, the last few years have exposed the smelly underbelly of White society’s xenophobia and given it a voice. In today’s America, people who are not white and comfortable feel the danger and the uneasiness.

What Now?
Is there a solution? We need an enlightened social system that will build bridges of understanding, so that we may realize that Them and Us belong to the same family. 

As Catholics, we need to move away from a model of Church that’s run as a mostly male, mostly white management corporation. We need a prophetic Church that will stand up for all life and speak up for those “alien” minorities such as Muslims, migrants, and any other endangered group. 

And what about our very own “not so white” brothers and sisters? When it comes to immigrants from the South who settle in our parishes, do we love them as equals or do we simply tolerate them? Faced with our shrinking, greying congregations, and the youth we have surrendered to megachurches, does the thought cross our leaders’ mind that the American Church of the future is knocking at our doors and it will not be White? Embrace it or shrivel. ■


  1. In the 'What Now?' category: We have to create safe spaces for sharing. Immigrants and Americans. The former bring their fears and prejudices same as we. None of this demands less than total courage.

  2. After weeks of reading and preparation, I introduced students in my Public Policy in Urban Settings course to my friend Professor Paul Ortiz, author of one of the texts I use in the course. Paul's book is titled An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Paul's expansive view of the links connecting the liberatory struggles of peoples of color throughout the Americas against enslavement, racial capitalism, forced labor, Jim Crow/Juan Crow second-class citizenship, mass incarceration and massacre. Paul grew up in South Central L.A. with an Irish step-father. He knows conflict. He left home to fight as a Special Forces soldier in South America. Not your average historian. The students listened in reverence and awe as he answered their questions about revolutionary struggles, and pointed out contradiction after contradiction in addressing American exceptionalism and the American "innocence" narrative, reminding them of our country's bloody history of aggression in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Texas, California, Honduras, and other areas beyond our southern border. For most of my students, today marked a special step on their journey towards conscientization. In the words of Paolo Freire, conscientization is an ongoing process by which a learner moves toward critical consciousness. This process is the heart of liberatory education. It differs from "consciousness raising" in that the latter may involve transmission of preselected knowledge. Our lesson of the day: Learn about the true history of the affected areas. TALK & LISTEN to those who are fleeing for their lives from the situations our government has worked to produce. Get in positions to change the way we treat our brothers and sisters. Get beyond the hype about barbarians at the borders, and demand a change to economic policies that make living in the homelands of the peoples fleeing South and Central America so desperate.