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Marked by Encounter

Since the lifting of Title 42 on May 11, United States’ news outlets have bombarded us with conflicting and confusing accounts of its repercussions at the US-Mexico border. The best reports tell stories of adults, youth and families with young children, giving us a glimpse into the challenges faced by those seeking to enter. 

These stories can begin to feel repetitive. Like other situations of injustice and tragedy, we can become numb to the suffering. 

But if we choose to encounter our siblings migrating from other lands — even in ways that are brief or seemingly insignificant — their stories can leave surprising marks that we carry into the future, shaping our experience of the world, compelling our continued work to defend human dignity and create conditions of justice.

Photo by Kevin Keith on Unsplash

About 10 years ago, while applying for graduate schools, I spent a year living with my parents in rural Nebraska. For a time, I worked as a teacher’s aide in an English Language Learners classroom in Schuyler, a town in which the population was made up of about 75% first- and second-generation immigrants. It had been transformed during the wave of immigration in the 1990s when workers were enticed by meat packing companies to move there. 

Our classroom was home to a mix of children who had recently arrived in the U.S. from around the world — Mexico, Guatemala, Ethiopia, China. While we tried to speak mostly English, I managed to add a few Mexican slang words to my vocabulary like “chido” and “guey.” 

I remember a lesson they were working on one day about the weather. They had to talk about their favorite kind of weather and what they like to do on those days. 

One of the students, a girl from China who was about 10 years old, chose to talk about rainy days. I remember the exact intonation she used when she told her story, placing emphasis on the rainy and imbuing the words with energy and joy: “I like a rainy day!” In fact I hear her say that phrase in my head on most rainy days, even now, more than 10 years later. 

Photo by T?na S?ra on Unsplash

Biologically-speaking, it seems I can thank my brain’s amygdala — the part that connects experiences with emotions — for this gift. I also happen to love rainy days, so when our young student was describing her rainy-day activities, my brain was recalling the softness of a comfy chair and the sound of rain pattering on the window.

Spiritually-speaking, I like to think our brain’s attachment to certain memories is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work. Perhaps this comes from my Jesuit formation. I love the way Dr. Kathy Coffey-Guenther reflects on memory in the Ignatian tradition as a way “of using experience and possibility to better understand the movements of God’s Spirit at work within us and beyond us.” Her own memories, she says, help her live with compassion and challenge her to not let go of the experiences or the lessons learned in them. 

When I remember my student from China, I am reminded of the innocence and vulnerability of children entering a new, scary and intimidating place and of their amazing abilities to adapt when they have supportive adults to guide them.

I was struck by this innocence and vulnerability again recently in an encounter with a family seeking refuge from Venezuela. Having been connected to a host family by way of Sister Christa Parra in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, they were passing through Chicago for only a few days. They needed help with food. Sister Julia set up a sort of meal train, and I signed my family up to provide a lunch meal.

It was a warm, sunny spring Saturday. I wondered if the family might want to join us at a nearby park after eating, given that their three kids were all seven and under, like mine.

The day turned out differently than imagined. One of the children had been suffering a nosebleed for a few days. After a few phone calls back and forth with Sister Christa, we all decided that I would drive him and his mother to a nearby urgent care clinic. After he was examined and prescribed an antibiotic ointment, we went to the pharmacy and dropped them off at the hotel. 

As we continue walking with our immigrant siblings, may we resist growing numb to their stories.

During these brief couple of hours that we spent together, I learned a little about their journey.  Two weeks alone in the Venezuelan jungle. Hitchhiking through Central America. Two “rides” on La Bestia. Five attempted border crossings. Five months in a shelter in Ciudad Juárez. 

These images keep replaying in my mind.

I don’t know anything about their lives before beginning this journey almost a year ago, but I’ve learned that more than 6.1 million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela as a result of the political turmoil, socio-economic instability and the ongoing humanitarian crisis

No doubt many of us will continue reading about — or even hearing firsthand — the migration stories of immigrants and refugees seeking safety and opportunity in our communities. They will mark us.

I have yet to learn how this family’s story will mark me and my family. More than a rainy-day reminder, I’ve already spent hours marveling in gratitude at the ease with which this family could receive medical care with the support of a community privileged with the means to could pay upfront. I’ve been imagining a world where this collaborative, intentional, hospitable welcome was the norm for all newcomers to our neighborhoods. Perhaps most of all, I’ve been yearning for these two parents and their three children to feel safety, joy and rest.

As we continue walking with our immigrant siblings, may we resist growing numb to their stories. May the memories we create serve as balm for our individual and collective wounds, fueling greater compassion and compelling us to insist on building a world that more closely resembles God’s kingdom. May we invite the Spirit to move in our encounters and let them mark us profoundly. 


Emily Cortina

Emily Cortina is a mother raising three bilingual, bicultural children alongside her Mexican husband. She is an advocate for transformative and restorative justice and believes strongly in parishes as mostly untapped sources of radical community. She works at Kolbe House Jail Ministry in Chicago, Illinois.

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