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A story of immigration: What's in your wallet?

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Deacon Kevin P. Martin,

I walk up to the register to make a purchase like I've done countless times before. Only this time it's different. When I reach for my wallet, there is nothing there. Did I leave it at home? Is it in my car? Was it stolen? There is nothing scarier than a lost wallet or purse. It contains so much of who we are -- a key to our wealth and identity.

Now, imagine for a moment, if you were an undocumented worker...imagine if you were an undocumented family! Imagine if you were living here illegally! Like that Capital One commercial, "What's in your wallet?"

You probably don't have a license. You probably don't have an ATM card. You probably don't have any credit cards. You likely don't have a health insurance card. You don't have a social security card. Mostly every transaction is handled in cash or through some sort of barter arrangement.

Let me share with you the story of Liam and his wife. Liam is a contractor in Boston. He works 65 hours a week. He takes no vacations. The family struggles daily with isolation from some of their peers. They fear detention and deportation, and they are anxious about possible separation from family and loved ones. And though not the case in his home, alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide are more commonplace than anyone would like to acknowledge.

And how about their beautiful daughters? Research has shown that children of illegal immigrants often experience withdrawal, anger, anxiety and depression. And over time, these matters can lead to more severe concerns like poor identity formation, difficulty forming relationships, feelings of persecution, distrust of authority figures and troubles in school.

So now that we have moved into the season of the presidential debate, immigration is again at the forefront of the news. And it's a subject that Pope Francis will likely be addressing when he visits Cuba and the United States in a few weeks. It's a complicated topic... there are current laws and rules on the books -- there's a list of statutes and decrees -- and the really big debate seems to be around what a comprehensive reform package might look like.

For hundreds of centuries before Christ, religious leaders had answered the question, "What is the right way?" by presenting followers with their own list of rights and wrongs.

The Jews during the time of Christ were a good example of that way of thinking. They had developed a very rigorous body of law and there were plenty of good reasons for most of the laws...simple sanitation being just one. But the people had gone far beyond that and had attached such a degree of importance to those laws that salvation seemingly depended on them.

But for Christians, there was a new standard that was making its way around town. It was a standard that was lodged in the heart, a standard based on our individual humanity, a standard based on what was in our own spiritual wallets. Most simply, it was a standard based on grace -- purifying and changing and renewing us... from within.

In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus does not criticize the laws and traditions because he himself kept many of them. Yet, he believed that the laws had become more important than acts of justice, love, forgiveness, mercy and hospitality. What the Lord criticizes are laws and traditions that are cut off from the faith that gives life to them.

In our own very human tendency, we often live by the rule of law rather than by the way of love.

The Pharisees, instead of listening to Jesus' life-changing words, could only react with disapproval that his disciples did not follow the proper legal procedures of washing. It's easy to get caught up in habits, customs and regulations and not have to think for oneself or by routinely attending mass on Sunday, saying certain prayers and wearing religious articles. These things are indeed part of our Catholic identity, part of our Catholic wallet and that's a good thing but we sometimes think that these things alone will somehow save our souls. The sign of God's love is in the extent to which God dwells in our hearts -- confronting us, challenging us and enabling us to overcome...ourselves.

To love Jesus, to live in him, is a call to love others...all others. And only by extending God's love to others can we become channels of Christ. Law must never be simply tradition. Law must never be simply an unthinking reflex. Law must never oppress. Rather, faith and works must become one in love.

The Son of God Himself was an immigrant from Heaven who came to live among us and reforming our nation's immigration system is a matter of fundamental, loving social justice. Current immigration laws and policies do not adequately uphold the human dignity and rights of immigrants.

So what is the right way? Have you come to worship the Lord with your lips or with your hearts? Christ is always there for us but his kingdom only comes fully alive in our communities when we admit that we are poor, when we want to be set free, when we want to see how the world actually is, when we set aside our indifference to others, when we seek to end our own oppression, when we face up to the ways in which we oppress others...when we truly open up our hearts.

As we grasp at these last moments of our summer -- as we reflect on our own personal and family traditions, maybe even on our country's immigration laws -- we discern whether our own habits and customs have, in any way, underscored the faith that gives life to them. We pray for all immigrant families as we consider the plight of the undocumented and the right to emigrate for just reasons. We are one family, one nation, under God, indivisible, and we must make sure that our laws and decrees don't become more important than acts of justice, love, forgiveness, mercy and hospitality.

God has showered his Love on each of us not because we did this or that but because he sees in each of us a unique reflection of his image. Our wallets are one of the keys to our wealth and our identity. And so is our membership card in the Body of Christ, called to advocate for immigration policies and enforcement practices that are humane, just and serve the common good.


Deacon Kevin P. Martin Jr. is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Boston and is assigned to St. Mary of the Hillís Parish in Milton. He is currently chair of the board of the Irish International Immigrant Center in Boston.

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