As far as the different categories of people on the move are concerned, their integration into the Synodal process is deemed not just desirable but urgent. The following reasons serve as a compelling motivation why they feel so strong about participating in the Synodal process.
South Africa serves as an adequate example. In South Africa people on the move, especially migrants and refugees, have experienced nothing but rejection, harsh treatment and being named “foreigners” with negative connotations. They have been called “outsiders”, the “unwanted” even though some of them have been here since the dawn of the South African democracy, 27 years ago. They have been falsely accused of “stealing” jobs that should be given to local people. When there are “service delivery” protests, that is, violent complaints about the provision of water, electricity, housing, roads etc. people on the move become the victims. They bear the brunt of the anger of local people. Their stores are at times looted and even set alight. They are accused of selling drugs and are said to be involved in human trafficking. These are extremely harmful generalisations that tarnish the image of the migrants. At times migrants and refugees are attacked physically. People on the move have been thoroughly victimised and turned into scapegoats for the short-comings of the socio-economic system of South Africa. They are spoken of disparagingly. Anecdotally, the hospitality industry has virtually employed migrants to the exclusion of locals. This has not gone unnoticed. Industries that uphold this practice drive a wedge between migrants and locals. On the whole, people on the move strongly feel that their own human rights are trampled underfoot and their own human dignity disrespected. They have this deep desire to confront their fellow-Christians about the many negative experiences that pain them. Their on-going pain and rejection is their strong motivation to desire a common platform where they could be heard.
The theme of synodality introduced by Pope Francis on the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops has been like a breath of fresh air to the people on the move, especially migrants and refugees. The Pope notes that the synodal gatherings or journeys, should not just be inspirational sharing of ideas or useful discussions, but should actually generate commitment to programmes that yield practical useful outcomes. Syndodal gatherings should also be a natural setting for evangelisation and conversion.
The word ‘synod’ is generally described as deriving from two Greek words: syn i.e. ‘with’ and odos, i.e. ‘path’. Synod therefore means the path on which God’s people travel together. Synods are church assemblies where entire communities of the local church are fully represented. They take place at diocesan, provincial, regional and continental levels. People on the move do not wish to be seen gaining access to synodal gatherings surreptitiously. They wish the church should consider them as a necessary constituency of the church. There should therefore be a formal acknowledgement of their existence and an open willingness to include them in the various church structures that represent the laity. Inclusion should be the key motivating force that seeks to bring to an end years of excluding migrants and refugees based on a narrow nationalistic ideology of keeping the South African borders impenetrable. The irony is that the South African borders are simply porous.
Synodal assemblies are appropriate official structures at which Christians come together in order to discern, discuss and reflect together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, matters of faith, and pastoral concerns. It is at these platforms that people on the move seek to stake their claims as fellow Catholics. They wish to speak directly for themselves without interpreters or go-betweens.
It is critical that their representatives be granted an official status as bona fide elected delegates of migrants and refugees communities. Members of these communities, once accepted as genuine representatives, wish to stake the following claims and hope to get some clarity on a number of the dilemmas they face in society.
First, they would like to be allowed to make a contribution towards the agenda of these assemblies. There is a fear that an imposed agenda might address only some of their serious concerns. Members wish to make it clear that their entitlement to participate and speak out derives from the sacrament of baptism from the seal of holy chrism that set them apart and incorporated them into the body of Christ. They maintain they are Catholics. They too say “Amen” after receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. They affirm the real presence of Christ. They wish to understand, if the Church is “an instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity” (Vatican II. Constitution on the Church, no.1). Why then are migrants and refugees excluded from this unity and continuously made to feel like intruders with criminal intent.
Migrants and refugees are steadfast in their belief that they too have been made in in the image of God and therefore claim the fatherhood of God. They claim that they too cry Abba, that they are not outsiders, that they are insiders. They belong. They are not half-brothers or half-sisters. They wish to engage their fellow-Catholics on these matters during the synodal gatherings. They are extremely preoccupied with the public rejection they face. They wish to interrogate the silence of local Catholics in the face of what really amounts to a second round of open persecution after the initial harrowing experiences in their countries of origin.
The synodal platforms, in promoting dialogue, should also shed some light on biblical sayings which do not appear to be applicable in situations where Christian migrants and refugees are involved. The following are a few examples:
- Matthew 25: “For when I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, etc., you took care of me. When you do these things to the least of my brothers/sisters, you do them to me”. Migrants and refugees see themselves as the least of the brothers and sisters. Many crossed the borders empty-handed. They are puzzled, disappointed and genuinely confused that the warm words of the Gospel in South Africa do not appear to apply to their situation of extreme need.
- Luke 10: Migrants have also learnt from their adult catechesis that Christ has given the word “neighbour” in the parable of the Good Samaritan, a new meaning. The answer to the question: Who is my neighbour?
My neighbour is the person who needs my help. Migrants and refugees are clearly the people who are in need because of their precarious circumstance.
- Galatians 5: Migrants hear the reading on the Fruits of the Spirit: “Joy, peace, love, kindness, compassion, honesty, integrity” etc. but they are yet to experience the full power and weight of these virtues. They appear to be excluded from the freely given grace of the Holy Spirit.
Solidarity. Many migrants and refugees point out that South Africans in general have an extremely poor sense of solidarity with the rest of the entire African continent. South Africans fail to realise that they have a common destiny with the African continent to which they belong. African leaders forge ahead with talks about building a common market for all the African countries while in South Africa, citizens of other African countries are treated like lepers. A vision of economic interdependence among African countries is regrettably still at a rudimentary stage. This myopia accounts for the unnecessary resentment experienced by people on the move.
Pope John Paul II points out that solidarity “is a duty of all towards all”. Furthermore, solidarity “entails a sense of moral responsibility that helps us to see the other person as our neighbour” who needs our help (Pope John Paul II, On Social Concern, no.39.5). Genuine solidarity opens people’s hearts towards migrants and refugees. Solidarity broadens the circle of inclusivity. Synodal gatherings where laity and church leaders are assembled, render themselves ideal platforms for the removal of obstacles to the promotion of life-giving solidarity and justice.
Church as expert in humanity
Another item of interest to the migrant community is the strong belief that the church is an “expert in humanity”. (John Paul II, On Social Concern, no. 41.2). Human relations between migrants and local South Africans are at a low ebb. Tension and violence are hidden just below the surface. The expertise of church leaders and the wisdom of the lay people would alleviate the precarious situation. The synodal platforms are the ideal location where the church as “expert in humanity” is in a position to listen to the plight ofvmigrants and to mobilise campaigns essentially aimed at restoring and enhancing the dignity of people on the move.
Option for the poor
People on the move are also anxious to raise the teaching of Pope John Paul II on the question of “the option or love of preference for the poor” (John Paul II, On Social Concern, no. 42.2). They wish to know why they do not qualify for such a preference in view of their abject poverty. Many young refugee men sleep in the open, on pavements, under bus shelters, under bridges or in derelict buildings. They are constantly harassed by the police. Some do not have proper identity documents. They live like wild animals. Their sub-human status and lifestyle have severely compromised their moral standing as human beings. They live “a gutter-life” on the margins of society. Instead of being given help as “neighbours” and as human beings, they are simply ignored or harassed. They are physically present, but invisible to all passer-bys. It is this dire situation that seeks to question the relevance of John Paul’s teaching on the radical option of the poor. Migrants and refugees have become the deprived, the needy, the marginalised and the poor. They seek to ask the synodal gatherings why they do not qualify for Christian charity and for preferential care.
Scramble for jobs
The scourge of unemployment and the struggle over limited resources are at the heart of the conflict between economic migrants and unemployed South Africans. Under normal circumstances, work is supposed to unite all the workers so that they may bargain together for better benefits, (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 20.3). In the South African context, work has become a divisive wedge between economic migrants and local South African workers. People on the move are extremely hopeful that the promise made by the synodal gatherings will not dissipate but rather offer answers to the dilemmas that face migrants and refugees.
The fierce competition or battle over employment is at times a matter of life or death. At the core of this ruthless competition is the basic fact that men or women’s life is work. Work is a man’s or woman’s vocation. Men and women gain a living by the sweat of their brow (Gen.3.19, (Laborem Exercens, no. 1.2). Work “serves man to realise his humanity”, it enables him to fulfill his calling as a person (ibid, 6.3). This is a fundamental teaching of the Catholic Church. How then can South Africans seek to prevent migrants from fulfilling their vocation as persons and from realising their humanity? Migrant workers also have moral obligations to fend for their families. These are the vexing questions to be tackled by the synodal panel discussions.
It would be wrong to give an impression that nobody cares about the harsh “living conditions” of migrants and refugees. There is a plethora of non-governmental organisations, faith-based groups and human rights lawyers who work tirelessly to relieve the migrant communities of their perennial oppressive living conditions. Such significant gestures of charity have not gone unnoticed. They help to sustain migrants in the hope of a more humane world. “If you do good to those who do good to you, what thanks can you expect? For even sinners do that much” (Lk.6.33).
The mark of Cain
Mention must be made that South African black people are increasingly becoming desperate and frustrated because of the absence of employment and the consequent ravages of poverty and insecurity. Unemployment is said to be at 42%. Joblessness in the main, affects masses of young people. Migrants and refugees reluctantly predict that given the fast deteriorating economic situation, able bodied South Africans will also be compelled to seek greener pastures in other countries. This time round, they will not be warmly welcomed as they were in the past when they fled from the apartheid monster. Migrants warn that when “the ground (of South Africa) will no longer yield its strength”, South Africans will become “fugitives and wanderers”. Besides, they will bear the mark of Cain on their foreheads because they rose up against their fellow-Africans from other countries and did incalculable harm to their dignity (Gen.4.9-16). Some countries might wish to return a favour to South Africans.
The relationship between migrants and refugees and local South Africans is more than just bad blood. The tensions between the two has intermittently broken into public violence. The palpable tension between the two communities can easily point to the reality of a divided church. The truth of the matter is that there are no incidents of visible tensions or violence within he church communities themselves. But it would be a folly to assume that church people are not involved in the attacks directed at foreign nationals.
Divisions between migrant communities and local communities affect by and large the African people only. This is largely because of residential segregation. These divisions nevertheless, point to a crisis of faith and of Christian-living. The arrival of large numbers of migrants from Catholic countries in Africa has actually increased the number of Catholics. But this is also the case in the Protestant churches. Migration has also led to the significant growth of the “prosperity” churches.
There appears to be a broad challenge in South Africa with regard to evangelisation. The South African Church is barely a hundred and fifty years
old. It is a young church. Whether it is completely out of the realm of mission ad gentes or not, is a matter of debate. What is publicly known is that Christians move from one church to another with great ease. They claim that “Churches are the same. They pray to the same God”. As far as evangelisation is concerned, South Africa still needs a deepening of faith, of church doctrine, of the meaning of its rich liturgy and of Christian charity.
The new mission territory
Focus on the plight of migrants and refugees has become like a new mission territory. It is a new mission territory because it is global in its outreach. People on the move have revealed the shocking living conditions of nations around the world. Rich nations are desperately trying to seal the borders of their countries so as to prevent the poor of the world from entering. The poor migrants are driven out of their countries by poverty, hunger, persecution, violence and war. The challenge is so great that it deserves full attention. Hence the need for a new evangelisation, a new orientation, a new reading of the gospel that will bridge the chasm between “us” and “them”. This new mission will also require an increased sense of Christian charity, of hospitality, of welcoming others and of an increased awareness that resources, though limited, are to be shared. Hopefully these ideas and the gospel mandate will form part of the dialogue at synodal gatherings of the baptised disciples of Christ.
Synodality implies a journeying together. Migrants and refugees sincerely hope to have their representatives participating fully on all levels of the synod.
They also pray that there be a genuine sharing of gifts between themselves and local South Africans. They look forward to reaching commonly desired outcomes, to removing stumbling blocks amicably and to finding lasting solutions to sticky recurrent problems. This synodal journey of Christians is a journey of a different kind. They anticipate certain experiences. Like the followers of Jesus who journeyed with him to Emmaus, they wish that their eyes could be opened so that they might recognise him. They wish that they too could have a burning sensation within their hearts as they listen to each other (Lk.24). For some, this remarkable way of being Church, of openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, might even lead to a Damascus experience for all concerned. People create problems. But through the power of the Gospel, they may also resolve those problems.
+Buti Tlhagale, O.M.I.
Liaison Bishop for Migrants and Refugees