The 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, that we celebrate on Sunday, September 27, motivated us to take a closer look at the pastoral ministry for the migrants that is done by the Redemptorists in many places around the world. We asked our confreres directly involved to share their testimonies and experiences. In the first part we present the contributions sent us by Fr. Mark Miller C.Ss.R, Fr. Karl Esker C.Ss.R, and Fr. Ruskin Piedra C.Ss.R.
Becoming Neighbours – Toronto, Canada
By Fr. Mark Miller, C.Ss.R., who is one of 11 confreres actively involved in Becoming Neighbours companion program.
About 15 years ago, when Fr. Michael Brehl was the provincial of the Edmonton-Toronto province, a question arose for the many religious orders in Toronto about the most abandoned in our midst, even as the numbers of religious shrank while the average age increased. The focus quickly turned to immigrants, usually refugees, who have arrived in Canada with nothing and were trying to establish a new home.
Originally, 11 Congregations of women and male religious set up and funded a program called “Becoming Neighbours” through which Sisters, Brothers and Priests could support the integration of immigrants into Canadian society and the Canadian economy. Since so many religious were elderly, two forms of support developed. Religious who were young enough and active could assist the immigrants physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This was done by accompaniment – helping them deal with bureaucracies (getting a health care card or bus pass; registering for English classes; learning how to shop even for groceries; dealing with legal claims around refugee status, etc.) and spending time with the individual or family to help them understand Canadian customs and manners. It is amazing how many little things there are to deal with in daily life which the rest of us take for granted.
But the second group consisted of the elderly, often infirm religious who were assigned a person or a family for whom they would pray daily. Sometimes when the immigrants had been in Canada for a while, they would get the opportunity to meet these praying companions—and it was like a meeting of old friends! The immigrants come from many cultures and backgrounds as a result of wars (Congo, Syria, etc.) or persecution (Pakistan, China, etc.) or violence (Latin America) but they all recognize, and feel, the support of God through prayer and those praying. In our two communities of Redemptorists in Toronto there are 11 confreres who are active sponsors and another 6 prayers.
Becoming Neighbours has been supplemented by active sponsoring of some immigrants, mostly by parishes but often with the quiet support of religious. Our Redemptorist parish in Toronto, St. Patrick’s, has actively sponsored an individual and a family from Syria as well as a family of Pakistani Christians that had been hiding in Thailand. This year the Redemptorists sponsored another Pakistani family out of Thailand and the challenges of the covid pandemic have made this especially challenging because it is hard to find work or even education programs to help them update to Canadian credentials. But they know they will not be abandoned.
The best part of this ministry is two-fold: There is the satisfaction of seeing new Canadians take control of their lives in a safe and promising environment while integrating into the mosaic of Canadian life. And then there are the testimonies of the sisters, brothers and priests about how much is learned from the immigrants as well as the friendships that develop. “I get more out of this ministry than I give,” is the common refrain.
Finding the way to a new home – Juan Neumann Center, New York
by Fr. Karl Esker C.Ss.R., Basilica of our Lady of Perpetual Help, Brooklyn, NY, USA
In the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, tucked away on a deck above the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help high school gym you will find the Juan Neumann Center. It is the fruit of a dream begun by Father Ruskin Piedra C.Ss.R., twenty years ago to attend the immigrant population in the spirit of our Saint John Neumann by creating an immigration office to educate and provide affordable immigration services to the local population. Fr. Piedra began with the help of volunteer law students and lawyers. He himself earned a college certificate in immigration law to become an Accredited Representative before the Board of Immigration Appeals. Today he is joined by Fr. Karl Esker, C.Ss.R., who also earned his college certificate in Immigration Law, and a staff of three women.
The Juan Neumann Center attends about fifty clients a month. Among our clients are some Europeans and a few Asians, but most are from Latin America and the Caribbean. For many there is no way to become legal residents, but they know they will find honest answers to their questions, with no attempt to drum them out of their money. Fr. Piedra takes on the most difficult cases, pertaining to asylum and protection from deportation. He is well known in the Roma community. Fr. Esker oversees the other cases of acquiring Legal Residence for clients inside and outside the country, renewing residence cards, Deferred Action, temporary status for victims of crime, much of which is domestic, and acquiring Citizenship. These services are provided at about twenty percent the cost of going to a lawyer’s office, thanks to donations and a grant from the province of Baltimore. The office has applied for New York city grants, but the bureaucratic hurdles have been too steep so far.
The present administration of the US government has made the work continually more difficult. And the Corona Virus hampered our work while Immigration Offices shut down across the US and the Consulates were closed to processing Immigrant Visas. We have kept working, following the norms of the Health Department, as the Immigration offices have opened; and are now back to a full schedule of work. We need more young confreres to show interest in the field. There is a forest of paperwork, but we meet and deal with people at very vulnerable moments in their lives. Saint John Neumann pray for us.
Some press releases on Juan Neumann Center ministry – links to articles and videos provided by Fr. Ruskin Piedra C.Ss.R.
Fr. Ruskin Piedra’s ministry for the immigrants was the theme of article that appeared in “The New York Times” – The Very Busy Life of an Immigrants’ Rights Priest in 2018, by F. Robinet. In January this year P. Feuerherd wrote about him and his ministry in the “St. Anthony Messenger” – ‘I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me’.
Some videos available in Internet (Spanish):
- April 15, 2017 – Interview by NY Times Noticias on Immigration at Juan Neumann Center. On YouTube “Centro de Inmigración Juan Neumann”, Brooklyn, NY
- March 4, 2019 – Interview by Spectrum Noticias New York 1