I'll never forget that moment on the street corner in Chile. I was 19, and I'd arrived in Santiago a few days prior with a University of Dayton study abroad group. For five weeks, we would stay with a Chilean host family and attend intensive language and culture courses at a downtown university. This morning was my first day of classes. My Chilean host mother, after dropping three of her four children at their bus stops, took me to catch the metro. Her brown, beat-up hatchback lurched to a stop on an indistinct residential corner, and she motioned for me to get out. Taking in my surroundings, I could see what looked like a metro stop a few blocks away.
Then, Mamá uttered a few sentences that seemed to be important, according to her raised eyebrows and deliberate tone. Unfortunately, her message was lost on me. I had a solid grasp on classroom Spanish, but it was a different thing altogether with native speakers. What's more, out of all six of my host family members, her manner of speaking was most difficult for me to understand. I swallowed.
"¿Qué?" I asked, as I had almost every time she spoke to me over the last three days.
She repeated herself with the same speed and inflection as the first time.
"Darnit," I thought to myself. Knowing I'd probably never get it no matter how many times she tried, I smiled weakly and nodded. "Gracias!" I waved, and she waved back.
As I watched her drive away, I hoped to God that she had been telling me she would pick me up in the same spot in the afternoon.
I stood there for a moment, alone on the street corner in enormous Santiago de Chile. How strange to be so far from home, with no sense of my whereabouts and only a little Spanish. I walked briskly to the station and boarded the overcrowded metro. Crammed shoulder to shoulder with silent people on their morning routines, I knew I stuck out like a sore thumb. My hair felt like it was on fire, so much blonder than anyone's around me. My clothes were different, and my nervous glances gave away that I was not from around here.
I had a lot of "hoping to God" moments that day. I sure hoped I got on the metro heading the correct way, toward downtown. I hoped I would know how to get to the university once I emerged from the underground transportation system. I hoped Chileans would understand my broken Spanish and point me in the right direction if I lost my way. I hoped I would find my corner and see the little brown car waiting for me at the end of the day.
Thankfully, I made it through with the kindness of strangers, and my host mom showed up just on time at the designated corner. That night, after a family dinner where I caught maybe 10 percent of the conversation, I excused myself, shut the door to my little bedroom, and let out a frustrated sigh. I couldn't handle any more newness, and I didn't want to hear even one more word of Spanish.
Being the "stranger" is exhausting.
Even so, something deep inside compelled me to stick it out. My five weeks in Chile transformed me and opened my heart to further experiences in faraway places: a study abroad semester in Spain, immersion experiences in Honduras and Peru, and eventually two years volunteering in Ecuador and three years at the U.S. Mexico border.
During this National Migration Week, I've been reflecting on these opportunities I've had to "migrate" out of my comfort zone and to be welcomed as "stranger" in other lands. I reverence those crucial parts of my life. They have made me a better Christian. In each place, I got a taste of the beautiful diversity of the people of God. Our world is much bigger than I could have imagined growing up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, where most people looked, talked and thought like me. Over plates of arroz con pollo in sweltering little houses, the "poor" of Latin America catechized me. In building cross-cultural relationships, I've witnessed and felt the splendor of a mutual exchange of cultural goodness. My mind has been opened through honest conversations about the shadow side of cultures, including, and especially, my own. Perhaps most significantly, my experiences of being the "stranger" have made me a more compassionate "welcomer."
Before I go on, it is imperative to emphasize that my experiences of being the "other" are starkly different than those of the refugees and migrants in our midst. My opportunities are born out of privilege; international possibilities galore were at my fingertips because of my family's financial stability and access to quality education. Sure, I had to opt for them, but I had free choice. I acquired all the appropriate visas with a simple application and signed check; the families we hold up this week have almost no path to legal migration. They have made involuntary journeys from violent, impoverished countries, escaping destitution and danger. I controlled my international exits and entries; they end up being, in the words of Pope Francis, "pawns on the chessboard of humanity." I missed my home and loved ones for a time, but these sisters and brothers of ours may go the rest of their lives without seeing their families and homelands. Can you grasp the pain of that separation and powerlessness?
In addition, although I've been a "stranger" or a "minority" in certain senses of the words, my privilege has followed me wherever I've gone. Through no merit of my own, I was born as a citizen of the United States of America. I am white. I speak English. These three things create a power dynamic that never disappears. I may have felt uneasiness when I was the only blonde riding the rickety buses through my neighborhood in Ecuador, but I could never comprehend the anxiety of being an undocumented Latino navigating life in a Cincinnati neighborhood. No matter how different I felt, I was a white, English-speaking U.S. American.
Even with the power dynamics, frankly, in my favor, being a "stranger" was hard. To be uprooted in an unknown land with an unknown culture, to be at the mercy of people we don't know and don't speak our language, to be far from those we love — these are deeply-felt human struggles. With the power dynamics working against our refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants, they are some of the world's most vulnerable populations.
The theme of this National Migration Week comes from Pope Francis' words: Creating a Culture of Encounter. As shared on the USCCB's landing page for the week, Pope Francis continues to emphasize the importance of encounter in the Christian faith. He says, "For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others."
To me, encounter is the perfect word, because it takes us even farther than "welcoming the stranger." In that sort of welcome, one party can stay put and simply receive someone into their world as it is. This is a noble act, and it is better than rejecting the stranger, of course. But encounter — ah! Encounter invites us to come outside of ourselves. It encourages us to meet one another as equals and sisters and brothers. It is not standing on one side of the river bank, waiting while the other party builds a bridge clear from the distant shore. No, it is gathering our tools and hammering away as well, as best we know how, to hopefully meet in a graced space on a bridge we build together.
In this time of division, as Pope Francis recognizes in his wisdom and the USCCB echoes, encounter has the power to transform.
Last week, I was in Houston with 12 other younger, newer women religious from different congregations to collaborate on a forthcoming book about religious life. Through our prayer and reflection together, we named that this movement toward encounter is urgent even within religious life today. As congregations attract groups of younger members of varying cultures, countries, languages, and backgrounds, we must work hard to encounter and build bridges instead of just welcoming into the status quo. Being the "stranger" in a congregation is hard work; we must match that commitment to border-crossing. In addition, women religious continue to self-divide into two different "categories" that keep us separate even as we, perhaps ironically, try to bring about unity in the world. Christ beckons us to encounter one another and build bridges so as to model that which we preach.
This call to encounter is universally vital. As we celebrate National Migration Week, let us commit to being migrants ourselves.
If we have the chance, we should travel, not with the goal of collecting experiences or skimming through touristy places, but of truly encountering new people and cultures and letting them touch our hearts. I assure you, coming out of ourselves and assuming a posture of "student" will enrich our lives. In our own cities, we should be intentional about leaving our comfort zones and getting to know people who aren't like us. We will never know the profound vulnerability that our migrants and refugees live each day, but if we have the chance, we should put ourselves in situations where, somehow, we are in the minority. Being "stranger," even for a while, is a humbling thing that would make us all a little kinder. And, as people of faith who treasure the dignity of all, we should make an extra effort to reach out to the migrants and refugees among us — to welcome them, to encounter them, and to help construct a bridge on which we can stand together.
This National Migration Week, how is God calling you to move?
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]