Nancy Gavilanes and Elmida Kulovic

Welcoming the stranger

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Over the past few months, Catholic Charities has been reflecting on the following quote from celebrated theologian and prolific writer Father Henri Nouwen: “Community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another.”

Nouwen’s sentiments aptly reflect the culture and mission that give life to Catholic Charities’ work in the Archdiocese of Chicago. We have a wholehearted commitment to serving others that is rooted in the Gospel call to love one another.

We also embrace the idea that “community” implies reciprocal relationships. A community is not made up of those who give and those who receive, but instead is formed by two-way exchanges where both parties are giving and receiving. For example, volunteers know that they often receive more from their interactions than they give.

The importance of community takes on special significance in Catholic Charities’ work with immigrants and refugees, who are entering a strange land whose language they don’t yet speak, whose culture can seem confusing. With an urgent need for safety or a better life for themselves and their families, these courageous newcomers have fled poverty, hunger, violence, religious and political oppression and often face dangerous conditions on their journey to the United States. They desperately want stability, freedom and a chance to contribute to American life.

Witnessing Christ’s presence in each human life, Catholic Charities has been “welcoming the stranger” since we were founded more than 100 years ago. Back then, we were helping European immigrants find jobs, assimilate into neighborhoods and meet needs for food, clothing and shelter.

We provided all the help we could with the support of local communities and parishes, and then watched the newcomers thrive — contributing to our economy with their knowledge, skills and hard work; and enriching our communities with their traditions, music and food. The newcomers received welcome and then gave back tenfold, becoming a true part of the community.

Over the years, Catholic Charities’ programs for newcomers have become much more formalized. Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program works directly with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and has resettled more than 10,000 refugees since 1975; our Immigration Program was accredited by the Department of Justice in 1979 to help families process the legal paperwork needed to obtain legal permanent residence, citizenship, employment authorization, and reunite with spouses, children and other family members; and, most recently, we have become a part of the archdiocese’s task force to assist asylum seekers fleeing perilous conditions in some South American countries.

Although our efforts to assist immigrants have necessarily taken a more formalized approach, we still rely on local neighborhoods, parishes, partner organizations and the generosity of individuals to welcome newcomers into the community.

Most important, this relationship between newcomers and the community remains reciprocal: Newcomers from all over the world are becoming a part of and contributing to American life — and as they do, both the communities they become part of and the newcomers themselves are mutually enriched.

We are grateful to be a part of Catholic Charities and our tremendous community that deeply cares for one another. It is an honor to help our new neighbors begin lives in America that are worthy of their essential human dignity and that enrich the fabric of our nation.



  • refugees
  • immigration