Have We Lost Our Sense Of Hospitality?

Every Benedictine monastery I’ve ever visited prominently displays some form of these famous words from The Rule of St. Benedict: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

The last part of the quote are words that Jesus speaks in the gospel of Matthew. They are the reason monastery guests feel such a warm sense of welcome. It’s as if hospitality is written into the monastic DNA.

Hospitality has been on my mind lately for a few reasons. One is an online retreat I recently attended, guided by author Carl McColeman, on the 3rd and 4th century desert mothers and fathers. These early Christians went into the desert seeking a life of solitude and prayer, but would interrupt their prayer whenever a stranger arrived.

Benedictine monasteries like St. Paul’s in Minnesota make hospitality a priority, It is a value Jesus espoused in the gospels and that the monastic Rule of St. Benedict enshrines. (Photo courtesy of St. Paul’s Monastery, St. Paul, MN)

So important was hospitality that when a traveler apologized to a desert monk for distracting him from his monastic Rule, the monk replied, “My Rule is to give you refreshment and send you on your way.”

I thought about the roots of Benedictine hospitality as I watched a new six-part documentary on Netflix called “Immigration Nation.”

Documentarians Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz received exceptional access to follow Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on raids. The filmmakers and their team let us hear from immigrants confined to detention facilities across the land.

As the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, as a Benedictine lay associate and lifelong Catholic, I came away from watching this documentary heartsick.

U.S. policy has changed over the last four years so that instead of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes, we are now detaining and deporting anyone without documents. This is our government’s so-called zero tolerance policy.

My grandfather Benedict Costanza, an immigrant from Sicily, in his garden in Hampton, NJ, circa 1966.

ICE agents bang on doors shouting “Police! Open Up,” without having to identify themselves as immigration officers. Unless they are freely admitted, agents can’t take their target into custody.

Of course, most people open their doors when they think it’s the police. Wouldn’t you?

If other undocumented family members or friends happen to be present, agents can arrest them as well. Those folks are known in ICE parlance as “collateral.”

In one particular heart-wrenching scene, a mother has to literally pry her child’s arms from around her husband’s legs as ICE agents drag the father off.

Part of the skill of these filmmakers is that they don’t portray agents as thugs, but as ordinary people with families of their own, and sometimes even an immigrant history. You can see, though, how the job, like a hungry wolf, devours any semblance of empathy.

“We don’t make the laws, Congress does,” is a mantra you hear from agents. Or this, “It’s a job. Somebody has to do it.”

The documentary “Immigration Nation” follows ICE agents on a series of raids and allows immigrants to tell their own stories.

Agents gloss over the reasons why people come to this country illegally — the same reasons immigrants like my grandparents have always come — to work, to escape violence, to enjoy American freedoms, and seek a better future for themselves and their family.

And the number one reason people enter illegally: our current system is so dysfunctional that it is virtually impossible for Central American immigrants to emigrate legally. Contrary to popular myth, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants have not committed a serious or violent crime.

The filmmakers introduce us to parents separated from their children; a grandmother whose asylum application is turned down, despite death threats from gangs; a Marine veteran (yes, immigrants can serve in our military) who desperately tries to convince the governor of New Mexico to intervene in his deportation case.

An image that has stayed with me: the ankles of an undocumented construction worker, bloodied and blistered from the scraping of the electronic ankle monitors he wears on the job after his release from ICE custody. Still he keeps working.

The film makes clear that zero tolerance doesn’t apply to employers who hire the undocumented.

Fifty years ago, the great Trappist monk and spirituality writer Thomas Merton wrote that any person who is made to feel as though he or she doesn’t belong, who is marginalized and rejected by power, is indeed another Christ. That is certainly the situation of so many of our immigrants today.

The current policies were meant to deter illegal immigration. They have not. They have succeeded in spreading fear, hearbreak and family separation. Our system needs reform. This should be a matter of concern for every person of faith.

Much to their credit, Catholic sisters are leading the way in demanding change. They hold vigils at detention centers, and imitating the ancient desert fathers and mothers, offer food, medical aid, and most importantly, compassion, to those detained at the border.

They recognize that our broken immigration system is also a “pro-life” issue.

In his reflection in today’s “Give Us This Day,” theologian Christopher Pramuk writes that Jesus gives each of us “our own agency” to work for “the healing of the world.” How are we using that agency to heal the wound of our current immigration policies?

Do we see in the undocumented immigrant the person Thomas Merton calls another Christ? “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Men in leg chains in a holding room at a U.S. immigration facility. (Photo courtesy of theringer.com)




Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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