October 2, 2012
Devotional: Understanding the Immigrant Experience
By Mary Harvan Gorgette
“For I was … a stranger and you welcomed me.” – Matthew 25:35
I never imagined being an immigrant, until I woke up one day having to navigate that journey myself.
I learned some things about immigrant life from my family. I grew up hearing my Mom’s parents speak in Slovak and my Dad’s mother sing Slovenian hymns in her Cleveland parish. My great-grandparents had sailed from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Newly arrived in the United States, they worked on farms and in coal mines. They raised American children. They talked little with younger generations about the homes they left behind.
About 100 years later, I flew across the Atlantic toward Paris, newly married to Frédéric, my French husband. Technology has transformed the immigrant experience. We use a webcam to Skype with our family in the United States. Cell phones allow instant contact across continents. Unlike my ancestors, I left without fully cutting ties.
As immigrants, my great-grandparents suffered because they lacked material wealth. They landed in a country of strangers, weathered ethnic discrimination and struggled to rise out of poverty. My husband and his family smoothed my arrival in France. I had a marketable skill that soon contributed to our comfortable lifestyle.
Today my heart and my history unite in my job as a lay minister working with immigrants in France. Most have pressing material concerns: finding housing, getting healthcare, feeding and educating their children. Some have fled persecution or dire economic conditions in their home countries.
Even though I have better financial resources, I have had to make similar cultural and psychological adjustments as my migrant friends. Coping in a foreign language, learning new codes of behavior and struggling to integrate them into our identity create a fraternity among immigrants.
Another tie binds us, too, no matter our origins and our reasons for moving: Immigrants inhabit an in-between space, the closest thing we have to “home.” In France, I’m l’américaine. In America, I’m the Frenchie. I don’t fully belong anywhere. African immigrants are called “European” when they go back to visit and are expected to support family in their home countries. They are perceived as rich, living in France — where they often face discrimination and struggle as my great-grandparents did.
It’s enriching to move between two cultures. It’s also lonely. Other migrants understand that.
So, I think, must Jesus. Fully human, fully divine, he had an unrivaled experience of duality. Mary and Joseph fled with him to Egypt. Did they tell him stories about becoming refugees to save his life? When Jesus came back to Nazareth after starting his ministry, the people who had watched him grow up famously rejected him. Jesus knew what it was to be a stranger in his native land.
Matthew 25 counts those who welcomed strangers among the saved. I’ve met so many heralds of the “reign of God.” Véronique, who helped me translate documents for job applications. Odile, who invited us for Thanksgiving, which the French don’t typically celebrate. Eilath, who first included me in a migrants’ group.
Jesus names immigrants among “the least of my brothers.” He says serving them is serving him. I try to embrace the lonely part of immigrant life as a way of humility, as a path to union with Christ. I also try to welcome immigrants as I have been welcomed.
Mary Harvan Gorgette lives near Paris with her husband, Frédéric, and their three sons. She is a member of Our Lady of the Round Table, a Marianist small faith community that meets regularly via the Internet.