Jesus was a Migrant
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Immigrant family gives Pope Francis copy of Orbis book


[googlefont font=“Cormorant Infant” fontsize=”20″]By Deirdre Cornell[/googlefont]

One frigid December morning six years ago, my husband and I were awakened by a phone call. With panic in her voice, a friend from our parish told us that an immigration raid had just occurred at a local workplace. Her relatives had been taken into detention. The families were left shaken, wondering what to do.

Over the next weeks and months, I got to know many of the workers involved, including Francisco Duque and his wife, Silvia Gonzalez. While Francisco faced possible deportation, Silvia cared for their four daughters, Celeste, Fatima, Vanessa and Aurora. At the time, Silvia did not work outside the home. Aurora was a toddler, and Vanessa was in pre-school. While her father was detained, Celeste, then 13, was diagnosed with diabetes.
Yet, with faith and hard work—and the generous legal services of Catholic Charities—the Duque family persevered. “Our faith,” says Francisco, “and the support of the community keep us going.” While Francisco’s deportation proceedings were dropped, his case is still unfolding in court, with favorable results so far.

The family has settled in the Catskills and earned the esteem of the people in the small town where they live. Francisco, who works as a handyman, and Silvia are active in their parish and help organize the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. When a flood devastated the area, Francisco volunteered tirelessly in cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Aurora has happily joined Vanessa in elementary school. Celeste faces ongoing health issues, but attends community college and works part-time. Fatima recently celebrated her quinceañera (15th birthday), and my husband and I were proud to be her padrinos (godparents) for the occasion.

When Pope Francis came to the United States in September of 2015, the Duque family was invited by Catholic Charities to meet him. Fatima wrote a letter to the pontiff, asking him to speak for the millions of undocumented immigrants who—like her family—live in the shadows. As a “dreamer” who hopes to continue studying, she expresses her goal: “I saw all that my father suffered, and how he helps people. I remember what my family went through. It has inspired me to become either a teacher or a lawyer so I can help people who can’t help themselves.”

Maryknoll Lay Missioners in Mexico

Deirdre Cornell and husband Kenney Gould served as Maryknoll lay missioners in Mexico (Courtesy of D. Cornell)

On the morning of the pope’s visit, Francisco told me, “Our family was invited, but many, many people have told us that they are going with us in spirit. So many families have been in the same situation—or worse. We represent them, too.” With Silvia and the girls dressed in embroidered blouses and Francisco looking sharp in a suit, they felt nervous but excited for the big trip to New York City.

When the moment finally arrived, Francisco spoke up with his baritone voice. He gave Pope Francis a copy of my book Jesus Was a Migrant. Handing it to the Holy Father, Francisco said, “We give this to you because our stories are told here.” Upon seeing its cover, the pope smiled! Surely it was a smile of recognition, seeing the face of Christ behind a barbed wire fence.

Jesus was a Migrant, by Deirdre Cornell available at OrbisBooks.comOn his trip to the U.S.-Mexican border in February, Pope Francis said, “The human tragedy that forced migration represents is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories and families.” Jesus Was a Migrant attempts to do just that. A collection of essays written over 12 years, its stories tell of injustices and suffering, but also of the solidarity and deep faith that characterize Latin American immigrants.

Pope Francis’ visit resonates with the text of St. Luke’s Gospel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to give new sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and to announce the Lord’s year of mercy” (4:14–21). The pope’s message is for all of us, without exception. However, the brokenhearted—like Francisco and Silvia—receive a special grace. The powerful are invited to cast aside blindness to the plight of the poor.

In his message to Congress, Pope Francis included this phrase: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.” On many occasions, as the son of immigrants, the Holy Father has said, “I know what immigration is like.” Who, then, could better voice the good news to the poor of the most powerful country on earth? His message reaches the broken-hearted in the streets, on farms and in detention. It reaches even the most marginalized—among them, the undocumented.

Francisco, Silvia and their daughters will never forget their visit with the pope of migrants and immigrants.

Deirdre Cornell, of Highland, N.Y., is a former Maryknoll lay missioner who served in Mexico. She is the author of three Orbis books, including Jesus Was a Migrant, which is available at Orbis Books.

Featured Image: The Duque Gonzalez family, from left to right, Francisco, Vanessa, Silvia, Fatima, Celeste and Aurora in front. (A. Kenny/Catholic Charities NY)



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About the author

Deirdre Cornell

Deirdre Cornell served as a Maryknoll lay missioner in Mexico. She is author of three Orbis Books, including Jesus Was a Migrant and American Madonna: Crossing Borders with the Virgin Mary, and currently works on the staff of Maryknoll Magazine.