Standing up to persecution

By Joe Boland | Catholic Extension
Wednesday, August 21, 2019

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer looks on after executing search warrants and making arrests Aug. 7, at an agricultural processing facility in Canton, Miss. (CNS photo/Immigration and Customs Enforcement handout via Reuters )

CANTON, Miss.  — After Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of peaceful demonstrators were tear-gassed by police in June of 1966 in Canton, Mississippi, the pastor of the local Catholic church, Holy Child Jesus, sheltered the marchers. 

Many church groups in the Deep South at the time were reluctant to shelter the civil rights icon and his followers because of apparent fear of potential Ku Klux Klan bombings. Nonetheless, love and compassion won that day in Canton, thanks to a hospitable pastor and his parishioners.

Fast forward to Aug. 7, 2019, when the Catholic community in Canton showed that same kind of love and compassion to another group of people under siege. Many parishioners and residents there were arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at food processing plants where they worked, marking the largest statewide immigration raid in history.

While some view these undocumented workers as lawbreakers, the church sees human beings, just trying to make ends meet by doing jobs that few others want. Many of those arrested originate from Guatemala, living quiet lives in trailer homes outside of town, attending church while their U.S. citizen children are enrolled in local schools. 

Because so many parents were arrested without notice, the Catholic parish in Canton is arranging for childcare services for the jobless or detained parents. They are also offering counseling services after Sunday Mass and providing emergency support to households without income. They are doing all they can to meet the needs of families being ripped apart before their eyes.

In doing so they, like the Canton parishioners of the 1960s, are showing that love does not always correspond to what is politically expedient, popular or easy. Rather, in the words of St. Paul, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:7-8).

Similarly, in El Paso following a recent hate-inspired shooting that left 22 dead and more than two dozen wounded, we saw the power of love at work in the aftermath of this terrible bloodshed. Father Fabian Marquez, pastor of a poor mission church in El Paso that has long been supported by Catholic Extension, left his parish to grieve with 17 families as they received news that their loved ones were among the slain. The pastor of Buen Pastor vowed to attend all of the memorials and funerals of these families — an emotional and psychological test to say the least. 

In a New York Times interview, Fabian acknowledged that love and compassion are the best way to fight back against this invasion of evil into the El Paso community, saying, “This was a tragedy that came to break us and separate us, but God is inviting us to spread the love that only comes from him, and only with that are we going to be able to overcome this tragedy and sadness.” 

The loving responses we are witnessing in places like El Paso and Canton echo the vision of a person who has made it her life’s work to bring hope to some of history’s greatest tragedies, Franciscan Missionary of Charity Sister Marie-Paule Willem. She is an 86-year-old sister who was born in Belgium, where she has early memories of World War II and the Nazi invasion, fleeing with her family as the bombs fell around them.

Later, she ministered in South America in the 1960s and 1970s, serving the “disappeared” people sent to death camps, where she too narrowly escaped with her life. Today, she works in Las Cruces, New Mexico, advocating for women in detention centers. In spite of all the pain she has lived through and witnessed, she knows that love is still a greater force than all the hate and fear she has ever encountered. 

As Catholic Extension’s 2019 Lumen Christi Award recipient, she offered remarks earlier this year at an the award presentation, where she prophetically stated, “There is nothing love cannot face. We can always expand our hearts.”

She views human misery as a consequence of what happens when we reject love. Yet, she believes that we are not helpless actors in history.

“It is paramount to discover that God’s grace is in us and in our lives and that we have a mission to accomplish at this time in history and in this part of the world,” she said. This mission requires us to “look at life as God sees it, look at this world and our society with Christ’s eyes and learn how to tell my brothers and sisters that they are important and that together we can overcome struggle and difficulties.” 

These aspirational words are especially challenging as we look back at the events of the past couple of weeks. But the love and compassion expressed by faith leaders in El Paso and Canton lead us to believe that Sister Marie-Paule’s assertion is correct — love can conquer all. 


  • immigration
  • gun violence
  • catholic extension

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