The following is a rough script of a message I delivered for a Maryville College Chapel Service on Tuesday, September 22, 2015.

There are two mass movements of people underway today.

One is the mass movement of Syrians, fleeing a country torn by violence and brutality, unsafe in pursuit of day-to-day livelihood for its citizens. Since 2011, some 12 million Syrians have fled to unknown territories as refugees – half of the population. As the white house blog analogizes, “It is as if every student in the 45 largest U.S. school districts — including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — had been uprooted by violence, hunger, or disease all at once.” Syrians are on the move.

A second is the mass movement of Catholics into Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia, in anticipation of the Pope’s visit. It is Pope Francis’ first – perhaps only – visit to the United States. Today – at 4pm – he will arrive from Cuba at Joint Base Andrews in Washington, D.C. tomorrow he will address a joint session of Congress, pray with the U.S. Bishops, then preside at Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The advice I’ve heard dispensed to the million plus expected sojourners is to pack a good pair of walking shoes. With roads closed, major congestion, and monumental crowds, patience will surely be required to catch a glimpse of His Holiness. Catholics are on the move.

These two movements are grand in scale, emotional in their realization, and highly contextualized by interconnected global realities. The rationale behind their migration, however, looks quite different. Scholars of migration often look to the countervailing equation of PUSH and PULL factors in explaining people’s movement. What drives people to LEAVE – what PUSHES them out of their former homes? And on the other side, what draws people IN – what PULLS them into a new locale?

The former – Syrian refugees – can be characterized especially though this understanding of PUSH factors. They are quite literally being PUSHED out, a choice not entirely of their own. Imagine being suddenly unable to recognize your own home, or feel safe there – your community bombed and family terrorized. Any desire to stay is nullified by the compulsion to flea for safety.

The latter – Catholics descending upon the planned trail of Pope Francis – are motivated by PULL factors. From near and far, they are drawn in to see the leader of the Catholic Church speak on issues regarding immigration, families, income inequality, and environmental justice. The Pope acts as a magnet. People are pulled without compulsion or requirement. They choose to come.

As a sociologist, I study Catholics. And one of the areas of Catholicism I have studied is Catholics on the move. Indeed – The story of Catholicism in America is largely an immigrant story. As social historian Jay Dolan observes of early Church history in America, “the church’s task was to conserve the old order and to strengthen the self-identity of Catholics in a predominantly Protestant culture” (169). Today’s Catholic Church likewise exhibits great diversity born of historic and contemporary waves of migration. Catholics are more racially diverse than the U.S. population overall.

Movement – Migration – driven by both PUSH and PULL factors – can be both freeing and constraining. We may depart for new opportunities, while being wholly shaped by the contexts from which we’ve come.

Over the course of the past year, I conducted a study commissioned by the USCCB to examine American Catholics who are Asian or Pacific Islander by ethnicity and ancestry. API Catholics constitute a growing number in the U.S. and in the Church; their rate of migration now outpaces that of Latinos. They number nearly three million, and represent a huge diversity of native countries, languages, and migration histories.

Three-quarters of API Catholics are first generation. Though many of been here for decades – including many Vietnamese Catholics, for example, some of whom arrived as “boat people” decades ago – others, such as the Burmese Catholics I spoke to in Chicago, arrived mere months ago. Immigration scholars note that the U.S. has a “pro-Christian” migration pull – Christians are often found in higher proportions among migrants to the U.S. than they are among the overall population of the sending country. Religion also becomes ever more salient upon arrival, as a resource, a refuge, and source of respect.

What does it mean to migrate? To leave one’s birth home, to venture to places unknown for greater opportunity – or safety – or religious and political freedom – or a chance at educational and economic success?

One thing that stands out among narratives from thousands of API Catholics I surveyed, interviewed, or conducted focus groups with, is the emotional depth of the migration journey and arrival to a new home.

We hear, for example, the PUSH factors that led to migration, along with the pain that accompanies new residency in a new place where racial justice and equality has yet to be fully realized. One man recalls:

I was one of the boat people. So, I experienced the hardship out there. I left, we went without water, fuel, medicine, so we just like went to die. Someone came and rescued us. So, for me I appreciate what I have now. We merged into the American society, because we don’t want to be laughed at or stand out as an ethnic group. I think we try to mingle in as much as possible to become American. Somehow we are losing our roots. I know that our kids, they don’t speak Vietnamese much anymore. Even in their own family. They speak English, not Vietnamese. They want to be accepted.

The challenges do not stop with the journey and immediate reception. They continue. Another API Catholic recounts the stressful, emotional work of being a first generation immigrant:

They sometimes feel like they don’t belong here because of the immigrant reality. Now it has changed a lot because many of them are settled, you know. But the immigrants go through a lot more. There’s a stress level. They have to work harder to achieve certain things. They had to give up a lot. So, that creates a lot of issues; family issues, marriage issues, parents, children, relationship, communication issues. So, those are challenges we have. Also, you have to do everything in bilingual all the time. So it’s kind of double work.

Wait.   = this is liberating? This is what it means to be move to greater freedom? To experience the harshness of the journey, To arrive in a place unfamiliar, a place whose welcome may be less-than-genuinely welcome? To change one’s language, one’s customs, one’s most familiar routines?

The narratives and experiences of API Catholics reveal, nonetheless, the liberating role of religion in migration and of migration in religion. One Filipina Catholic shares, for example:

In terms of Filipino Catholicism, us in the diaspora, we bring with us both our culture and our faith. And how it’s being practiced there …The culture that I brought with me or I lived in that culture, Catholicism is really kind of entrenched in the sense that it’s something that I was brought up with. And being from a country where it might have been like 85% Catholic … it was something foreign for me to be here and to see people of other faiths and maybe people of no faith and try to understand that. And that there are people who worship differently from me, not in the sacramental ways that I have understood it and lived it and grown up with it at least what I see in the Philippines. … In a new land where it’s so diverse, it kind of forces somebody …to see the different realities and the underpinnings of all these realities. So retaining the Catholicity is important, at least for me, and making adjustments.

Another speaks similarly of this adaptation:

Faith is embedded in the culture of Asians. It’s so hard to separate our faith and cultural identity. I think it’s intertwined, faith and culture, and that’s why the Asians bring their faith traditions into the cultural context of where they live in as much as possible. It’s a difficult transition on their part … One of the challenges is language. Some are immigrants and do not have the capacity yet to speak English. So we have to cater to their needs of celebrating liturgy and events in their own language. But that is changing, and it’s changing in the sense that there are second and third generations who have adopted into the mainstream culture.

The trajectory is not a smooth one of assimilation, a rather outdated model of understanding the ignores the increasingly transnational immigrant experience. Some API Catholics reject what is “American,” clinging to a culture more known and familiar, seeking safe space among others who understand the pain that comes with being perceived as different. But the history of the Catholic Church tells us that newly arrived Catholics will change. And that the Church will change because of newly arrived Catholics.

We are all moving. We are all moved. Part of the question we can ask ourselves, then, is whether we are moving because we are being pushed, or because we are being pulled…or perhaps both. And what movement is born of our movement? In the journey, our faith, culture, communities, and own selves may be moved as well.

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