By: Rebecca Ruiz, Staff Spotlight
There is something about working with people who have lost everything that makes one incredibly grateful for one’s own blessings. Daily, I meet people who have had to flee their homes without a moment’s notice. They have no time to gather belongings. They count themselves among the fortunate if they get out with their whole family intact.
One might imagine that these people would arrive in America completely dejected. Yet, in my work with refugees over the years, the refrain has almost always been the same: “I thank God for life – mine and my family’s. I thank God that America has allowed us to come here and raise our children in safety and freedom. I thank God for all that you are doing for us.”
I recently met a Catholic refugee family from Iraq. They were so full of gratitude for everything: for standing there alive, for reuniting with their family, for their safe and clean apartment, and for the assistance of a local parish and our diocese.
There was no bitterness in tone. Sadness for their families and countrymen left behind, yes, but no bitterness. In fact, what emanated from them was gratitude – a joyous, peace-filled gratitude. It was a joy that could not be explained given the Calvary they had just endured.
They talked of living in five towns in four years because of threats to their lives due to their faith. They talked about how grateful they are to now have a glass filled with clean, drinkable water. They talked of how grateful they are to be able to finally worship freely without fear.
They talked about Christ present – their strength, the center of their lives, and the source of their joy.
They spoke as people who understood that when nearly everything one knows and holds dear is taken away, one learns what is most important. And, from this knowledge, a gratitude dawns that is unstoppable. Gratitude overflows for each and every gift, each breath, each heartbeat, each smile, and each outstretched hand.
They talked about how we, those welcoming them, were the “hands of Christ.” My thoughts turned to St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer and her call to serve as members of the Body of Christ:
Christ has no body on earth now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks with compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which
Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands
with which Christ blesses the world
In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, elaborates upon the Gospel call to serve:
“When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts. Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and the knowledge of God. If we want to advance in the spiritual life, we must constantly be missionaries. The work of evangelization enriches the mind and the heart; it opens up spiritual horizons, it makes us more and more sensitive to the workings of the Holy Spirit, and it takes us beyond our limited spiritual constructs. A committed missionary knows the joy of being a spring which spills over and refreshes others. Only the person who feels happiness in seeking the good of others, in desiring their happiness, can be a missionary. This openness of the heart is a source of joy, since “it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) (EG 272).
While some might assume that we, the members of the Church going out to welcome these newcomers would be the ones in the role of “missionaries,” or that the refugee family would be the sole beneficiary of the interaction, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. As the Holy Father notes, through this encounter we were each witness to and enriched by God’s love in and through each through other. In fact, “the joy of the spring which spills over and refreshes others” of which the Holy Father speaks, was overflowing upon all present. As much as our assistance and welcome may have refreshed this family, their shining devotion and witness to Christ’s love also refreshed us.
Our own Bishop Paul Loverde echoes the same sentiment as the Holy Father in his Pastoral Letter, Go Forth with Hearts on Fire:
If we look, we will find concrete ways to love those who are needy and without hope. At His Last Supper, Christ showed us a new way to love our neighbor: He washed the disciples’ feet, an act beneath even a servant—a slave’s task. Our Lord and Master stooped to be a slave! That is the kind of sacrificial love we bring to those most downtrodden, and as we do, our self-giving both imitates and reveals the love of Christ’s Heart. Have we tried to love this way? Only when our hearts are in union with Jesus’ Sacred Heart will this love flow freely (GF 27).
That morning, as we approached in welcome, the love of the Sacred Heart, that spring of love flowing over, touched all who were present. And, while we served, the refugee family evangelized us with joy. One could envision that same kind of joy overwhelming their Assyrian ancestors who had been baptized by the Apostle Thomas into one of the first apostolic communities. “Wherever the disciples went, ‘there was great joy (John 8:8); even amid persecution they continued to be ‘filled with joy’” (13:52) (EG 5).
In the Gospel accounts, Christ was unrecognizable after the resurrection to even his own disciples – until He opened their eyes. These were people with eyes wide open. Through our encounter, our eyes too, were opened wider.
As I drove away from their home, I had the distinct feeling that I had just encountered a resurrection people. They were a people filled with gratitude for His gifts, His love, and His presence. And, in encountering them, I, too, was filled with a joyous and infectious gratitude.
Truly, it is “in giving that we receive.”
On November 24, we celebrated the one-year anniversary of the publication of both Bishop Loverde’s pastoral letter, Go Forth with Hearts on Fire, and Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The full text of these documents can be found online, at the Arlington Diocese’s Hearts on Fire website and at the Vatican’s online archives.
Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.
Rebecca Ruiz holds a B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and an M.A. from Tufts University. She serves as Development and Communications Manager at Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services.