Discovering the names, stories and families of the strangers in our midst

So here we are in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. While most parishes have got the spiritual works of mercy well covered, complete with impressive doors of mercy, perhaps we need to look deeper at the corporal works of mercy.

Feb 26, 2016

By Anil Netto
So here we are in the Jubilee Year of Mercy. While most parishes have got the spiritual works of mercy well covered, complete with impressive doors of mercy, perhaps we need to look deeper at the corporal works of mercy.

What do the corporal works encompass. A quick rundown: Feed the poor, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned, bury the dead, give alms to the poor.

We need to balance our spiritual works of mercy with these corporal works. Well, apart from the usual homes for senior citizens and children, where should these works be carried out?

How about right within our parishes?

Much has been said about the move to bring in 1.5m migrant workers from Bangladesh. If they are brought in, they will almost surely change the demographics of the nation. As it is, several million migrants are already in the country.

The motives of the move, now apparently freezed, were questioned. After all, the recruitment and processing of migrant workers is Big Business for not a few parties.

The public reaction has varied, from expressing concern about the move, to xenophobic and even derogatory remarks being passed about “Bangla” this and that.

Most migrants are just looking for greener pastures to improve their quality of life, just like many Malaysians do when they leave the country for work elsewhere. They can’t help it if some people rake in big bucks via recruitment agencies and levies and medical fees and what-have-you.

It seems like we have a love-hate relationship with migrant workers. Malaysians expect them to do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs in our country. But we would rather not socialise with them, thank you very much.

In many of our parishes, the number of foreigners has been rising. But for the most part, they remain strangers in our midst.

Everyone of them has a story to share – of their joys and sorrows and the pain of being away from home and from their loved ones.

While we have our BEC gatherings to share our experiences, perhaps we should reflect on whether the migrants in our church are represented at all levels of our parishes, especially our BECs.

Sure, we may be brothers and sisters in Christ, but what is it that prevents us from reaching out to them, for the most part? Do we have any idea what they are experiencing here, in Malaysia?

Many of us have family members who are overseas. We certainly wouldn't want them to be treated differently from locals in their host nations, whether at work, in church or anywhere else.

Perhaps in this Year of Mercy, we could make it a point to really get to know the migrants in our communities.

They are here to stay, perhaps just like our ancestors, many of whom came to this land from other parts of Asia, or beyond.

They thought they would be here for a few years before returning to their homeland, but millions stayed on.

If we want to practise the corporal works of mercy, perhaps we should start with the strangers in our midst, so that we really get to know them.

Francis, the Bishop of Rome, wants us to treat migrants like our brothers and sisters. He even succeeded in irritating US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, whose anti-immigrant views Francis described as “not Christian”!

The Bishop of Rome made it a special point to reflect on, and pray for, migrants at Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, near the border with the US:

“We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which, in recent years, has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometres through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones. The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today. This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want, instead, to measure with names, stories, families. They are the brothers and sisters of those excluded as a result of poverty and violence, drug trafficking and criminal organisations. Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares, and always destroys, the poorest.

“Not only do they suffers poverty but they must also endure these forms of violence. Injustice is radicalised in the young; they are “cannon fodder”, persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs. Then, there are the many women unjustly robbed of their lives.”

Much of what he said could well apply to the situation of migrants in other parts of the world. Certainly, many of the migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are no strangers to exploitation and trafficking.

But as Francis says, we must find out their names, stories and families. Perhaps this Year of Mercy would be an opportune time to rediscover the strangers in our midst.

Otherwise, they will be destined to remain nameless, even faceless, persons in our parishes, our anonymous brothers and sisters in Christ, to whom we merely nod and exchange a cursory sign of peace during Mass — who then disappear from our lives, even though they are our real, albeit often forgotten and overlooked, neighbours.

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